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FROM BOOM TO BUST
Most of us remember the Lehman Brothers’ staff leaving their Wall St office with carton boxes in their hands, on September 15 2008. I remember it too; I worked as an executive assistant for one of the Executive Committee members of an industry leader. My boss was in charge of Eastern Europe, Russia and Azerbaijan. I joined his team when the economy, in particular in our area, was flourishing and austerity was a word I had never heard of. My career path thus far was mainly characterised by personal growth and development. Although I started my professional career right after the burst of the Dot-Com Bubble which led to the stock market crash in 2001 in the same year of the infamous terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, I had never experienced a global crisis during my career until 2008.
By Ben Stansall / AFP
Nevertheless, with the image of the fired employees carrying their boxes out of the office, the symbolic start of the Global Financial Crisis, I knew what was going to happen to our business. The financial system collapsed, American companies announced massive lay-offs, and the first ripples started to land on the European shores. During the collapse of the financial system in the US, my boss and I worked on investment appraisals with valuations up to 500 million USD aiming to expand through production capacity increases, greenfield plants and acquisitions. The impact of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse and its subsequent domino effect did not hit the world immediately. However, in early 2009, Germany announced its negative outlook on its economy, after years of growth.
Aware that Germany’s imports from Eastern Europe amounted to 60% of Eastern Europe’s export, my boss and I anticipated that the investment appraisals would not receive approval from the Executive Committee and the Board. In fact, we had to shift from an expansion mindset towards an austerity mindset. Budgets cuts were needed, production lines had to close, and unfortunately, people had to leave the company. Command and control was not the leadership style of my boss, so he wanted buy-in from all principal decision-makers in his area. Two Area Managers reported to him; one for Eastern Europe, one for the CIS/Caspian region as we called it, who both managed the Country CEOs in their respective areas. After months of meetings, discussions, presentations, economic and financial projections, we had them all on board, and we could proceed with the restructuring plans to prevent the company from facing an even darker future.
In 2009, I was 32 years of age. Relatively young for the position and responsibilities that I received and not at all experienced in crisis management. With not much leadership experience in my pocket, I praised myself fortunate to have very been close to the ultimate leadership in the company, before, during and after the Global Financial Crisis. No roller-coaster in the world ascends and descends as steeply and as fast as a proper global crisis. And no executive leadership program prepares you for the entire spectrum between growth and austerity.
FROM COMFORT TO UNCERTAINTY
A lot has happened between 2009 and 2020. I was promoted three times and headhunted once. With every promotion, I received more responsibility and exposure to C-suite leadership, which allowed me to observe, practice and shape my leadership style. The complexity of my duties and assignments increased significantly, but with every step up, the air became thinner and corporate politics filled the meeting room more and more. Whereas I enjoyed the complexity of my work and the growing span-of-control, I started to feel tense and uncomfortable with the political games. As a result, in 2016, I left the corporate world, and four years ago, I set up my own consulting and coaching business, which was risky as it meant that I would face a lot of uncertainty.
It is safe to say that the period between 2008 and 2016 has had an enormous impact on my leadership attitude and behaviour. Although I did participate in several executive leadership programs, it is also safe to say, that my leadership values and behaviour predominantly stem from my personality, my experience and what I thought was right, and not so much from what I have been taught on these programs.
FROM UNCERTAINTY TO REFLECTION
In the Summer of 2018, I decided to apply for a full Master’s Program teaching leadership, organisational design, people dynamics and behaviour. In November 2018, I enrolled in the Coaching and Consulting for Change (CCC) Master at HEC Paris and Said/Oxford University. My objective was to understand leadership and transformation in detail, also to support my executive coaching business. Moreover, I perceived the curriculum to support my personal growth and development. It has been a beautiful learning experience, providing more than enough space for self-reflection, as well as the experiential discovery of one’s own values and attitudes towards life and leadership. More than often, my thoughts went back to my corporate career, and I used the teachings to obtain a better understanding of the leadership context and the leaders during my career, but also organisational designs and people dynamics. Most of my thoughts go back to the more extreme situations, such as the situation we faced during the Global Financial Crisis, and how little I understood of the relationship between individual leadership behaviour and the situational context. But also to the period when I said goodbye to the safety of a fixed income and explored what else life has to offer.
The program contained seven modules, all tackling a specific leadership or organisational change topic. We enjoyed lectures by excellent professors from around the world and a teaching method which had a strong experiential touch; the program directors wanted to let us experience the theory and the frameworks to achieve internationalisation. On top of the lectures and the copious amounts of scientific literature we had to read, we needed to write an essay after each module, which reflected the lessons learnt. Eventually, the Master’s Program is completed by the submission of a dissertation and defence. For many of my essays and also my thesis, my reflections on my past professional experiences formed the main source of inspiration.
I have completed all but one essay, which is the one you are reading now; the program directors have asked us to write about our learning journey during the Master’s Program.
REFLECTING ON THE PAST WHILE HISTORY OVERTAKES US
At the time of writing this essay, I am in between handing in my dissertation, March 6, and the defence of my work, April 21. And right now, the world faces another global crisis, the Corona Crisis, uncertain of the dimensions yet, but in terms of the leadership that is required, of similar proportions: all countries are affected, all people feel the consequences, and decisions with uncertain outcomes need to be made fast to avoid a very dark future.
One of my professors, Keith Grint, would classify this as a wicked problem (Grint, 2005); the wicked problems we face are either novel or recalcitrant, complex rather than complicated, cannot be solved in isolation, sits outside single hierarchy and across systems – ‘solution’ creates another problem, there is no stopping rule – thus no definition of success, and sometimes the solution precedes the problem analysis, they may be intransigent problems that we have to learn to live with, there are symptoms of deep divisions, contradictory certitudes, there are no right or wrong solutions but better or worse developments, uncertainty and ambiguity is inevitable, and cannot be deleted through correct analysis. The Corona Crisis is a wicked problem, so was the Global Financial Crisis. History has overtaken us, so it seems.
I have always used the philosophy, believing that history may seem to overtake us, but it cannot repeat itself as experiences and progressive insight lays the foundation for a new future, synthesised out of the thesis and antithesis, into a new mindset. Even when we are faced with a new wicked problem, the Corona Crisis, we can rely on our experience and insights we gained during and after its predecessor and deal with it with a different mindset now than we used before.
My philosophy is based on the Hegelian Dialectic. The Hegelian Dialectic (Chalybäus, 1837) is usually presented in a threefold manner as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved using a synthesis. According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectically synthetic model of nature and history, the synthesis becomes the new thesis. An economic boom could be considered as the thesis, the bust as the antithesis, and the mindset we take with us, I perceive as the synthesis.
MY FUTURE SYNTHESIS IS SELF-LEADERSHIP
Whereas I could build on and learn from the leaders around me, before, during and after the Global Financial Crisis, which I classify as the thesis stage and antithesis stage, I had to rely on myself as soon as I decided to start my own company. Although I do not have a team and people working for me. I have to lead myself in a situation of uncertainty: self-leadership. Self-leadership includes self-awareness, setting goals for self, honouring self, actively rejecting pessimism, and being the change you want to see in the world (Browning, 2018).
The uncertainty of running my own business has been amplified by this new global crisis; a wicked problem in which leadership is required, rather than management when faced with a tame problem or when the problem is critical and commanders are needed (Grint, 2005). The time is now to rely on myself and my self-leadership. To my surprise, I am facing this new crisis with a lot of positivism. I was not aware of how much had I developed my self-leadership. And much of it can be attributed to the last seventeen months in which I participated in the Coaching and Consulting for Change Master’s Program. Reflecting on my learning journey, the topic of this essay, I have synthesised my personality, experiences, values and attitudes into my value system for self-leadership.
SELF-LEADERSHIP: THE SYNTHESIS OF VALUE SYSTEM
Not everything has been all glorious and positive. Also, professional and private hardship has played a big role in forcing me to come to shape my value system and determining what is important for me in life. Together with my experiences in life, the Coaching and Consulting for Change Master’s Program’s professors, courses, literature and experience have provided me with a charter for life and self-leadership. My charter includes ten values I live by.
The first value is that I want to demonstrate authentic humaneness through tenderness, compassion and sympathy, inspired by the late Petruska Clarkson (2003). In particular, compassion plays an important role for me as it allows people to express themselves freely, get the best out of people and reduces stress. The impact stress has on the sympathetic nervous system, neural circuitry and cortisol production, eventually leads to fear, disgust, feeling depressed or anxious, and the feeling of an unpleasant engagement with the environment. The antidote for stress is to lead and coach with compassion, which reverses these symptoms (Boyatzis, Smith and Blaize, 2006).
Secondly, I want to be aware and mindful about myself and my impact on others. This value is inspired by Gemmill & Elms’ work (1993), which introduced me to the concept of mirror, mask and shadow in group dynamics. The shadow is what you project on others, in particular all that you negate in yourself. The mask is an exaggerated view of your self in only positive terms. Mirroring is an instrument to reflect the actual image of someone’s mask and shadow. The framework is mostly used to resolve conflicts in intergroup relations, but the key value to me is that open communication and an inquisitive approach reduces bias, leading to a more constructive and positive relationship.
Thirdly, I want to establish relatedness and involvement concerning job activities. This value is strongly inspired by Self Determination Theory, which is centred on the belief that human nature shows persistent positive features, with people repeatedly showing effort, agency and commitment in their lives that the theory calls “inherent growth tendencies“. People also have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration. The theory supports three basic psychological needs that must be satisfied to foster well-being and health; these needs can be universally applied. The first need is competence, which means to seek to control the outcome and experience mastery. The second need is relatedness, which is the will to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for others. And the third need is autonomy, which is the desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self (Tesón, 2016).
The fourth value is to communicate constructively, both active and passive. This value is inspired by Professor Ilona Boniwell, who introduced us to the impact of positive psychology, a framework developed by Martin Seligman (Seligman, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Seligman points to five factors as leading to well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment. The experiments we did, provided powerful insight into how positive psychology impacts the collective well-being of a group.
The fifth value is to drive intrinsic motivation and internalised behaviour. I have never been a person who is too much motivated by extrinsic motivation, which refers to behaviour driven by external rewards such as money or fame. Intrinsic motivation plays a more important role in my life, which is connected to the third value, inspired by Self Determination Theory. The changes that I made in my professional career, but also in my private life, such as living in seven different countries, are very much intrinsically motivated and I consider it as part of my midset. For a change in general but in particular for changing the mindset, a prerequisite is that people are motivated to change, to make the change or the changed mindset part of the individual’s nature: internalisation. When individuals internalise a behaviour regulation, they accept the behaviour as having some personal importance and value. When individuals integrate a value or regulation, they transform and assimilate it to their self-concept (Harakas, 2013). The study of Harakas has strengthened my belief that command-and-control leadership is not the way forward; if people are not intrinsically motivated, they will not internalise behaviour and change their mindset.
The sixth value is to work with shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. The inspiration for this value comes from my antipathy for corporate politics, which eventually led to a significant change in my professional life. Corporate politics obstruct innovation and progress and lead to demotivated employees. In our knowledge economy, there is no place for not sharing goals and knowledge and lack of respect towards each other (Von Krogh, Nonaka and Rechsteiner, 2012).
In conjunction with the previous value, the seventh value is to build trust-based high-quality relationships. According to Carmeli & Gittell (2009), high-quality relationships are demonstrated by respectful interaction and respectful engagement. These values increase information processing capacity by connecting employees who play distinct yet interdependent roles in the organisation. When employees who work together have competing goals, a lack of understanding of each other’s roles and a lack of respect for each other’s roles, they are more likely to blame each other for failures. The impact of high-quality relationships and psychological safety at work on learning from failures is significant. Psychological safety mediates the link between high-quality relationships and learning from failures in organisations (Edmondson, 1999).
Therefore, my eighth value is to secure a feeling of psychological safety. Looking back at the leaders I worked for and the experiences I had, I can only confirm that psychological safety plays a very important role in organisations to drive performance and improves the well-being of employees. I dedicated my dissertation to this topic and named it the Chief Empathy Officer and researched how CEOs perceive their responsibility for establishing psychological safety in the management teams.
The ninth value is to stimulate learning from failures and build resilience. Resilience has always been my core strength and I know that I can rely on it whenever I try something new. I may succeed and I may fail. But when I fail, I know that I have learned something, which motivates me to try again. This value is important to me and I believe that without failure it is hardly possible to build resilience. My belief has been amplified by the third module of the Program, which was centred around failure, resilience and adaptive leadership. The experiment led by Irwin Turbitt, in which the class was its own case study, provided me with insight into how members of different generations are impacted or bounce back from setbacks. Reflecting on the behaviour of other generations, I found inspiration to write an essay on millennials (Schigt, 2019), The increasing narcissistic behaviour and sense of entitlement of millennials, which has been well-received and downloaded more than five hundred times.
The final value I live my life by is to focus on changing the mindset and avoid correcting actions. Treating the symptoms, or correcting the actions, is not a method I believe in if you pursue internalised structural change. Changing the mindset by working on the causes is more powerful and will lead to lasting sustainable change. The module taught by Professor Robert Putman on Action Science demonstrated how a method of inquiry, with underlying values such as valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment, can change the mindset. Action Science identifies whether the actions are corrected to obtain a different outcome, Model I, or the underlying mindset can be changed to prevent certain unwanted actions from happening at all, Model II (Putman, 1991).
A VALUE SYSTEM FOR ANY PROBLEM
My learning journey did not start when I enrolled in the Coaching and Consulting for Change Master’s Program. It started much earlier and in terms of self-leadership and the development of my value system, the experiences of the last twenty years contributed greatly to my overall learning journey so far. And surely this is not the end of it. However, the Master’s Program has provided me with the instruments and tools to reflect, such as science and experiential case studies, to structure and fine-tune for what I stand for.
Who knows how the Corona Crisis will unfold and what it will bring. Who knows what the new thesis or reality will be. I know that I am well-equipped with my value system as it does not depend on growth or austerity to bring me further or limit me in life. Change is the only constant in life, is a quote attributed to Heraclitus who lived from c. 535 BC to 475 BC. I believe that my value system remains constant too, in time of hardship and fortune when a thesis turns into the antithesis, which leads to a new synthesis. Self-leadership keeps me on my path, wherever it leads to and no problem will be wicked enough.
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