SML – how it all began

Posted on August 23, 2011


Brian Bacon reflects on organizational change and recalls the genesis of the Self Managing Leadership Program

“If you want to truly understand something – try to change it” ~ Kurt Lewis

Most senior management make a similar assumption when initiating major changes in their organizational strategy, structure and culture: the assumption that the attitudes and behaviours of their employees will automatically fall in line with the newly stated ‘core values’ and ‘guiding principles’ defined and printed in the freshly printed corporate plan. They assume that you can change mind sets and mentalities in the same way as you change the company logo.

Popular management literature says that to change your organization, you need to change its culture: define and clarify the vision and destiny of your organization, state your values, communicate them to your employees and with a little bit of training, they will become customer focused, quality conscious, empowered risk takers and open, two-way communicators.

Anyone who has been involved with implementing change in an organization knows that reality is somewhat different. Although the theory is simple and obvious, doing it is a bit more complicated than it sounds.

After reading his company’s new statement of “core values” one long term employee recently remarked, “So now we are all going to have open and two-way communication. We will be respected as individuals and we are all going to enjoy enduring, trusting relationships as partners in our business! This will be interesting to see. I don’t know anyone here that would be like that even within their own family,” he then tossed the laminated ‘corporate values’ card into the rubbish bin.

However clear and simple is the theory, changing the culture of an organization or even making adjustments to its values is an extremely complex and challenging task that defies those rusty tools of business leaders: logic, planning, control and reason.

The problem is that corporate change strategy is fundamentally a rational and logical process that has to be implemented by people who are rarely either rational or logical, especially when exposed to the turbulence, stress, and anxiety organizational transformation generates.

A few years ago, the partners in our firm addressed this problem, known as “implementation paralysis”, in ways that took us far from our traditional line of business (strategy consulting to large corporations) and introduced us to a subject that was far away from traditional organizational change management: I am referring to the subject known as “self management” – the management of your own thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. And this is what makes a decisive difference in organizational culture change. We wanted to find practical solutions to the process of dealing with change on this deeper human level. After extensive research, we started developing the training course known as “Self Managing Leadership – a course based on our own experiences in organizational change, management and the principles of the ancient Raja Yoga of India.

The basic principle of the training course is that in order to provide credible leadership to others in an environment of turbulence, challenges, competition, cynicism and negativity, it was essential to learn how to manage yourself – that is, your own thoughts, attitudes, emotions and behaviour.

Self Managing Leadership also grew from the frustration that we and our clients were experiencing with the superficiality and ineffectiveness of the conventional “skill training” for managers when it comes to changing values and behaviour.

This frustration was well expressed by the CEO of one of Australia’s largest electricity utilities, with whom we had been working for some years in corporate and strategic business planning. The organization had been through a major change management process which had resulted in a 24% cut in its workforce and a reduction of its levels of management from 12 to five. This had necessitated a radical change in management style and behaviour. The old ‘control and command’ method of management needed to be replaced by a “self managing teams” form of organization that gives work teams greater authority and responsibility for how they get things done.

The CEO’s problem was that his senior management team had been with the organization for an average of 15 years. They had grown with the organization and risen through the ranks, and they were very pleased to be now at or near the top. They achieved their position because of their technical competence and their tough, competitive managerial skills. They were comfortable about how they managed themselves, their people and their business. The only problem now was that those skills that had got them to the top were now belonging to a past era. Today was a new story, a new environment, new methods, and a new organization had to emerge from the old. They all knew that. Many of them were even among the most eloquent speakers in talking about the emergence of the “new paradigm”[read more…]