Leadership in the Jungle

“These high-ROI innovations mean the program pays for itself many times over. The elegance of its design means that strong financial returns, talent development and the creation of social value coexist. The mutual reinforcement and harmony between these goals is precisely the bank’s ambition — for frequently these are seen as tradeoffs: do-good or make money, drive efficiency or develop people.” (Stephen Green, Chairman HSBC Bank)

The jeep rumbles over the rough road between villages. In this part of India, there are more holes than road and our group has been thrown from side-to-side for several hours.

This is day three, so the group is travelling to a local temple for a half-day reflection and meditation to make sense of the immense economic development challenges they have met in their encounters with villagers.

During the last decade India has been a technological and economic miracle often achieving double-digit growth.

But like the threadbare garments seen everywhere, that growth fails to conceal a harsher reality, one of continued mass poverty. One Mumbai slum, with stacks of corrugated and cardboard huts, brought vividly to life in Slumdog Millionaire, ‘houses’ an estimated 750,000 people living in squalor.

In Bangalore one sees billboards for 3G telephony and high-definition television astride urban garbage heaps and satellite dishes atop corrugated huts with three-foot ceilings and dirt floors.

Sadly, the high-tech boom from Bangalore has not yet reached rural Southeast India, where our group has met with people who, on a good day, earn one dollar.

Technology may one day rescue India from poverty, but in places it seems more of an adornment than a solution.

Strangely, the group on the bus are neither aid workers, nor NGO staff or tourists. They are Western high-flying bankers on a Leadership Development program for the bank’s most promising managers.

Their challenge during their ten days in India is to make sense of these pressing development issues and to hone their leadership and commercial skills while making a difference where it is much needed.

These bankers work for a bank ranked number one by the Financial Times for its leadership programs, and one that, despite the financial crisis, prospers and continues to invest in talent development.

Before travelling to Southeast rural India, my group spent three days in the Intercontinental Mumbai. The Intercontinental has 14 foot walls and armed guards to separate it from the slum that it abuts.

During these three days, the group received intensive training in intercultural leadership to prepare them for the encounters ahead.

The 80 participants represent 40 different countries, and their ‘clients’ for the upcoming days will be villagers and NGOs whose world-view could not be farther from their own. Furthermore the bank’s CEO has articulated a vision which calls for seamless team-working across its 86 countries.

In Mumbai, the bankers are also introduced to the leadership framework they will use during their work: the ‘U process’ – an innovation, leadership and change framework developed by Otto Scharmer of MIT. The ‘U’ is designed to circumvent a natural human cognitive process which is to see a problem only through a single frame of reference.

An economist sees a problem as economic and applies economic fixes she has used elsewhere, a marketing executive sees a marketing problem, a banker sees a lending opportunity, and so on. As the old saw goes, ‘if you are good with a hammer, you tend to see a lot of nails’.

So the ‘U’ starts with a sensing phase where the object is to see the world through ones filter’s, but also to reflect on the filters.

In a complex social system, such as our Indian development challenge, multiple stakeholders are engaged, but the challenge is to see the problem through their eyes so that the solution found solves the problems as they appear to the afflicted, not just as they appear to Western bankers.

This reflects a business problem faced by every executive team: inventing and aligning strategies which that reflect the complexity and multi-dimensional nature of the solution.

This group’s particular challenge is to work with CCD, an NGO who helps villagers form Self-Help Groups: micro-economic structures designed to help lift them out of poverty.

In this case, the villagers gather ayurvedic herbs. The success or failure of this means medicine or no medicine for village children, and a dollar a day or nothing for those who earn their living this way. The herbs eventually find their way into Walgreen’s as remedies, but the villagers see little of that value chain.

A sole gatherer might walk 10 miles to market and be at the mercy of local traders who wait until day’s end (when she must return to her family) before offering a knock-down price.

The women who do this could combine their harvests and trade more effectively as a result, but this would require capital (for example, to buy a truck). If the village could do more processing, sorting, and transporting locally, those parts of the value-chain would remain local and help alleviate local economic blight.

However, this type of commercial and strategic analysis is foreign to these communities which affords the bankers a chance to deploy their skills where they are in short supply and for the sake of making a potentially great difference to a struggling community.

The first days are sixteen hours long with the group visiting the tents and huts of villagers, and then meeting exporters, traders, retailers, pharmaceutical engineers and retailers. Swamped with data, the half day in the temple for reflection – the bottom of the ‘U’ – was desperately needed.

Indeed one of the participants’ life altering insights is the need for formal space for reflection. In the pacey business world their challenges are complex, but often tackled in habitual ways learned when the world was simpler. Reflection or slowing down (however briefly) is seen as a threat rather than as a tool.

Following the individual reflection time, the group found a space in the temple, away from the elephants and tourists, to share their reflections. For many the depth of this exchange exceeded any previous connection with business colleagues: they were not just thinking together, but feeling together.

This shared emotional context gave meaning and impetus to the analytical challenges that they faced. They felt a deep sense of shared purpose which they were now ready to harness in service of their project.

However, from this deep reflective phase, the group derived great insight, ideas, motivation and clarity: through the fog of complexity, solutions began to coalesce and take shape.

Their combined insights began to take the form of a plan and recommendations for the villagers. They began to prototype, involve and test their ideas with their ‘clients’.

On the final day, at the final meeting with the ‘client’, one villager said ‘we are as moved and grateful today as you were during your trip to our temple’. Because of the deep engagement with stakeholders, the suggestions were rapidly taken up.

Five hundred dollars was found to buy a truck and set up a storage facility so that herbs could be sold in bulk at higher prices. The village had taken a few baby steps toward greater economic viability and sustainability.

However, this was more than management consulting in the third world.

These Western bankers were greeted as dignitaries, therefore the days knitting together the different stakeholders raised awareness of the struggles of the villagers, and began to make connections and forge the backbone of a new economic structure around this community.

The team gathers back in the Intercontinental with five others like it who have been on similar projects. There is a sense of exhaustion and also of elation and achievement.

The goal now is to make sense of how they have developed as leaders and to plan the next phase of the project which is to develop a high-ROI innovation which they will present to the Chairman in six months.

What they do not yet know is how much these next six months will test their leadership skills. Working virtually in a complex organization on a high-value strategic initiative stretches these high-flyers in ways they could not have predicted.

Why do world-class organizations invest in leadership programs such as the one described? Why now?

Cari Caldwell, Director of Future Considerations in London, explains it thus: “The best-run global companies are trying to embed an understanding of leading global virtual teams across cultural rifts, corporate responsibility (how can leaders navigate the threats and opportunities that this presents), and driving innovation (how leaders create the conditions for rapid market innovation).

do this they need to generate a new cadre of leaders alive and skilled to deal with the challenges of globalization and who can manage complex change in rapidly changing circumstances.”

Six months later, when they will gather in New York for a Board-level review, they will pass with flying colors and deliver some outstanding results. Many of the projects are in early stage implementation: a new hedge fund strategy for the Investment Bank, a new 3G strategy for mobile phone banking.

These innovations mean the program pays for itself many times over. Unlike many leadership programs, this is not measured just in intangibles such as branding, skills development, global networking, talent retention, and CSR, but also in financial terms.

The elegance of its design means that strong financial returns, talent development and creating social value coexist. The mutual reinforcement and harmony between these goals is precisely the bank’s ambition – for frequently these are seen as tradeoffs: do-good or make money, drive efficiency or develop people.

Programs such as this attempt to prepare today’s leaders for the different, more complex challenges that they face in today’s climate.

In obscure settings, India, Brazil, Botswana, Tajikistan and Mexico, participants find themselves thrown in the deep end – far out of their comfort zone and open to learning in a way few leadership educators routinely encounter. Faced with these challenges, they discover new depths in themselves – which translate into hard results back at work.

Increasingly, European multi-nationals with an eye on globalization, sustainability, winning the war for talent, and rapid market innovation are considering programs such as this to develop their most senior or highest potential talent.

The world’s largest professional services firm, second largest FMCG company, biggest bank and most prestigious investment bank, and largest mining company are looking at how ‘big D’ (Sustainable Development) and ‘little D’ (executive development) can be integrated through these means.

Participants who have graduated also tell a more personal story. One said, “I’ve come to believe in a company that I thought I would never believe in.” Another said, “This program has provided me with more than the lifetime of leadership education I’ve undertaken previously.”

Their leadership experience in the jungle makes the urban and corporate jungles all that much easier to navigate.

Paul Gibbons, paul@paulgibbons.net, is a European leadership expert, founder of Future Considerations, business school lecturer, and writer who lives in the US.

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