ebbf’s annual conference this May #ebbfmilan, we interviewed her about not only consultation but beyond that on the transformational leadership experience that she went through at Rio Tinto in Mongolia. Q – Tell us about your personal journey that lead you to explore leadership development
I was invited to work for Rio Tinto in Mongolia, at a time when Mongolia was undergoing a period of very rapid change; it seemed like a a wonderful opportunity to practically test, and learn from the implementation of transformational leadership programs. My task was to first understand current leadership models, then leapfrogging western concepts of development, introduce a new concept of leadership that is the best of both worlds, combining world class professional standards and the best of leadership that Mongolian culture has to offer.
My first step was to do a survey on Mongolian and expat leaders from different sectors of government, civil society, business and leadership of Rio Tinto itself and trying to understand these people’s understanding of what makes a good leader.
What I found is that whilst conceptual ideas about leadership in the West are shifting from vertical to more horizontal, a more flexible and egalitarian style of leadership, in Mongolia and in much of Asia the model is still quite traditional – more a “Gengis Khan” style of the tough guy with all the answers, who holds onto information and dispenses it to subordinates only when and if he considers it useful to the situation.
So my challenge was the considerable one of bringing the two styles of leadership together applying latest thinking whilst being sensitive to local culture. The leadership training that was the outcome of this effort has ben going on for over three years and is now trickling down to more junior parts of the company.
Q – What were some of the reactions of participants to this leadership training experience?
The majority of participants, who came from over 50 different countries were very happy with it and pleasantly surprised as it exceeded their expectations. It was clear how those who were more open to explore and learn and gain something, were the ones who benefitted more from the experience.
Some of their highlights included their new awareness of each other’s specific leadership traits, how it connected to their cultural background. Most stricking was a a fundamental transformation in the way these leaders started to see each other; for the first time, instead of seeing people as functions or stereotypes they started to see the human being that was behind a position such as CFO or Sales Director, seeing more deeply and multidimensionally.
One example of the path of transformation that took place was that of a Mongolian head of a department, who six months after the exercise received feedback from his team of how much he had listened to their feedback and improved his management style. He returned becoming more aware of his shortcomings and committed to improving, and then allowed the team to adapt to new levels of interaction and regular team consultation based on reciprocal respect. This really transformed the way the team now functions and the staff morale and job satisfaction.
Q – How did you balance the unique analytical and soul elements of this transformational process?
Two key principles underpinned the training
1 – Setting very high principles, the model is called inspirational leadership development to highlight that it is driven by values to be of inspiration as a leader. The practices that we train people in include 1) modeling the way, 2) inspiring the shared vision, 3) challenging the process, 4) enabling others to act, and 5) encouraging the heart, unpacking HBR’s extensive research over 30 years of 1.3 million people all over the world found these five areas to be most important for good leadership.
2 – In addition we introduced a meditation and mindfulness training component, learning how to communicate with oneself and one’s own soul. For those with a belief system it encouraged a connection to God and for non believers they connected with something that was beyond their concept of ego.
Q – what did you learn from this experience?
That no matter how divided or prejudiced, when people see each other’s humanity their attitudes and behaviours can and will change for the better.
Q – What other things motivate leader to change and evolve?
A big component was the 360 assessment that was part of the program where people collected feedback from their colleagues before the training. The biggest opportunities for meaningful change happened for those whose own assessments diverged greatly from that of others. We noticed that when they went beyond the initial denial and defensive attittude they made huge strides forward.
Q – What other elements allow a more mindful Organization to emerge?
Creating opportunities for people to see each other’s humanity I found to be a pillar of transformative processes that ensures not just a one-off change but a state of continuous improvement.
For example, we have a component called fireside and if fire regulations allow, a real fire or candles are set up in the middle of a circle where “conversation between souls” occur. When the appropriate atmosphere of trust and lack of judgement was created, people opened up in a suprisingly powerful and candid way. Letting go of masks and allowing a new authentic person to emerge.
The fireside was not initiated by asking a question, instead modelling sincere sharing of his or her experience. For example it could be something they were moved by during the day or something they realized they needed to work on. Many people became very emotional and shared experiences from difficult times in their lives and how those impacted how they are as a leader today, how they see authority figures and how they think they are expected to behave in that position.
Those “circles around fire” created a sense of oneness that cut across artificial divisions of ethnicity, gender & hierarchy.
Q – You mentioned how people lead as they thought they were expected to, so what is your example of good leadership, one that is more coherent with the soul style of leadership?
Let me talk about a leader I admire and then about my grandfather.
When I was doing that initial leadership study, I came across a woman that I greatly respected. The head of the Soros Foundation who continuously empowered her team, someone who was not insecure and instead always looked to employ people who were more competent than her in different areas. She let them fly in areas of their expertise while leading her team.
She used a combination of gentleness , empowerment, personal power and resilience; and that organization has been doing well.
My inspiration closer to home is my Grandfather.
He was in a senior leadership role and to this day I meet people who have worked with him or under him and they all share how he never lost his temper, never said a negative word, made them feel respected, whilst always demanding high level of excellence and leading by example and encouragement.
Q – You have lived and worked in different countries, what makes people different and similar in different cultures? How can we use the full blend of diversity?
I’d say that we are fundamentally all one but that we are not the same, we are all interconnected spiritual beings, each one precious for who we are and we each can offer something unique to the world like only we can each do.
Q – what other aspects do you feel are important to elevate leadership?
The importance of giving people not only helpful ideas or concepts but taking them through these actual experiences that result in personal “aha” moments.
Just talking about the importance of unity in the team is not as helpful as having them live that situation and facilitating them through a process of learning and understanding . Giving them the opportunity to remove the mask we usually wear at work, and treat each other from a place of authenticity.
Q – what is the role of spirituality in today and tomorrow’s leaders and organizations?
Spirituality gives leaders and organizations inspiration and higher perspective infusing their work with higher purpose. It also allows to tap into an unlimited source of power, love and wisdom. It enables people to see each other’s humanity and sense their oneness fostering mutual trust. Spirituality is the key ingredient needed in today’s and tomorrow’s leaders and organizations if we are to solve global problems and survive and evolve as a humanity in this interdependent world.
Q – What will you be offering at the ebbf event ?
I’d love an opportunity to share inspiration, knowledge and ideas with people who have many common values to mine and committed to implementing them.
Whatever I am inspired to offer … meditation and mindfulness training. I hope that my learnshop will give people an experiential feeling of unity in diversity and will create a sense of oneness allowing them to appreciating each other’s unique differences. I am a big believer in keeping the connection between lofty principles, spirituality, mindfulness and being very practical, having concrete action points and actual impact.
In my session the intention is to have people walk away having found ideas and partners for collaborative projects.