The Australian leadership void: More perspiration required


A six-foot tall poster highlights the entrance of Terminal 3’s bookstore. Promoting a must-read inspirational, called the Naked CEO. Its caption shouts out “DREAM BIG, PURSUE YOUR PASSIONS AND BE INSPIRED”.

Perhaps unfairly, I’m not going to give this book even a glimmer for finding its way onto my reading list.

It’s just that every time I pick up an “airport” business book I’m left astounded by how authors reliably stretch one or two key ideas into a whole volume. Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim & Mauborgne is a good example of clever curation and relabelling of old ideas. There’s not a lot of new material in there, and what is presented is spread sparingly through pages of stories and anecdotes designed to convince the reader that their concept works. Sadly, many of these overextended pamphlets offer little, if any, evidence that what they are promoting in fact works.

Thoughtful critics would argue that much of the so-called business wisdom that is being consumed today is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Or in more scientific terms; correlation does not prove causality.

Instead of undertaking proof many inspirationally-oriented authors make liberal use case studies (which one could argue are simply stories based on revisionist history) that highlight the conquests of corporate heroes. Their stories are invariably woven around carefully arranged cycles and pyramids.

There’s no shortage of authors and speakers holding out inspiring achievements as evidence for their theories, but as compelling as it might look, we still need to assess the relevance of their experience for our own circumstances.

A case in point. Several months ago, I attended a breakfast gathering sponsored by the Victorian Chamber of Business. The Crown Casino’s Palladium was crammed with hundreds of bleary eyed middle management types who swarmed in for an early morning helping of inspiration with their five-star cooked breakfast. The main attraction was Victoria Cross and Medal of Gallantry recipient Ben Roberts-Smith. It looked as though a thousand people had turned up. Robert-Smith’s presentation was well rehearsed and flawlessly delivered. He took us on a vivid tour of the Battle of Tizik and highlighted key principles of military leadership and planning along the way.

It was a remarkable performance, but I now wonder, of the hundreds of people who were clearly touched by Roberts-Smith’s story that day, how many used what they learnt to implement a lasting and valuable change? How many, today, could recall the lessons of his magnificent presentation if confronted with a major decision or challenge?

Now, this is not a critique of Ben Roberts-Smith or his message. But I am using this example to highlight how our collective binging on inspiration diverts attention away from the things that truly count when it comes to leadership. When Roberts-Smith gave his talk, he didn’t once mention a great hero or inspiring figure, and he certainly didn’t try to make himself out to be one either; instead, he talked passionately about his mates and the importance of rigorous training in proven tactics, as well as a handful of principles that he came to rely on for making tough decisions on the go.

While examining the outcomes of rare and extreme circumstances can be instructive, how much do these explorations help when dealing with everyday challenges? I’m not sure that they do. Roberts-Smith did not suddenly find his inspiration and became a hero, his efforts and his ultimate success on that day in Tizik were a lifetime in the making.

A major problem with inspiration is that it has a very short half-life. So instead of binging on inspiration, I’m arguing that we pursue a proper education on topics of leadership and people. There’s no shortage of scientific knowledge in the field. Social scientists and psychologists have made incredible progress over the years. (By the way, I’m still hearing senior leaders refer to Maslow in their planning sessions. Sometimes I just don’t have the heart to let them know that the Hierarchy of Needs has long been debunked as a motivational theory – so please get up-to-date if you feel you need to.)  My key point here is that the ability to make a lasting change, in anything, requires significant persistence and effort – so much more than the initial flash that got it going in the first place.

So, it stands to reason that to be effective leaders and agents of change, we must be able observe and measure the results of our actions. We also need to have good support plans in place to stay on track. Perhaps, having the awareness to put such things into action is what true leadership is all about. In other words, effective leadership requires much more perspiration than inspiration.

About the author: Mark Schroffel is a Partner in the Melbourne-based strategy consulting firm Schroffel, Renwick & Beeson. As a lifelong student of strategy and organisational change, Mark coordinates discussion groups and seminars on contemporary approaches to organisational leadership and strategy planning. Mark’s qualifications include an MBA, a Graduate Certificate in Change Management, and a Bachelor of Science is Psychology. He is also a graduate of the Royal Military College (Duntroon). Mark is currently enrolled in the Stanford University’s selective eight-course Professional Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.


Leadership and Power: Getting to the heart of Change Management

By Mark Schroffel

Change Managers have been getting it wrong for years now. Since change management first became popular a decade or so ago, the (so called) change experts have been proclaiming the virtues of pain reduction and bringing people along the …wait for it… j o u r n e y.

Having been a founding partner of an org change consultancy, I can tell you that my personal view has evolved considerably since those early days of just providing glorified communication and administrative service for program managers and GMs.

While I agree that there is a place for the folks who conduct readiness assessments, chart the network of influencers, and meticulously track impacts; I say that this stuff is administration not management – and it’s definitely not leadership.

Change Management is really about seizing the opportunity to do something special and taking deliberate action to disrupt the status quo for the long-term good. Not only does this require leadership, it also requires a power-base for taking action.

Leadership and power are at the heart making lasting and meaningful change.

The importance of business representation for project success

By Mark Schroffel

Something is wBusiness Engagement 2rong out there in project land. As someone who does a lot of PIRs and change planning, I’m finding that too many projects have inadequate business representation.

A lack of capacity in the business is a common excuse. But this doesn’t wash with me.

Surely it stands that projects exist to enhance or transform the business. They are by definition an investment in capability for the overall benefit of the business. It follows that the business should expect to be involved and there really is no way to escape the responsibilities of ownership.

The good news is that there is so much to gain from business representation – especially if you can get them involved early.

Bringing business folk into projects is the only way I know of for laying the foundations for change and to ensure long-term success. Not only this, they also have a crucial role in quality assurance, process development and just providing a sound and pragmatic operational perspective.

Yeah, there are a lot of reasons why finding suitable business representatives will be difficult; however, what’s the logic in doing a project that the business is unable or unwilling to support in the first place?

So make business representation one of your Critical Success Factors and don’t accept excuses.

Trust: A platform for leading change

Today’s article in the AFR tells the story of how the people get tired from political spin. The same lesson applies for business: No matter how clever the spin, people need a reason to believe you.

Trusts can only be created over time, and it’s no wonder politicians, on all sides, have trouble hanging on to it as they compromise their way through the realities of government.

The message here is simple.

Trust building is the key to peoples perceptions of clear and believable communications, and in turn, quality engagement. So if you anticipate the need for engaging people in change, you better start thinking about what you should be doing to build trust.

Honesty is a good place to start.

A practical guide to Change Management

If you are an executive or a project manager, your goal is to get through the change as a quickly as possible and to get results from what you have done. Probably one of the best things you can do is to keep your approach to change management fairly simple and pragmatic. There’s no denying it, things tend go more smoothly if everyone understands the process and your approach.

With that in mind, here’s a simple two-step methodology for managing planned change:

Step 1 is doing things that help people get ready for change, and

Step 2 is doing things that help people cope with change.

The infographic below outlines my approach to change management.

What approaches to change do you use, and what is the most important thing to deal with when managing change?

Change Management in a Nutshell

Culture surveys: Influencing leadership, or masking responsibility?

I’m not sure about culture surveys. On one hand there is some good in putting organisational culture on public agenda, on the other there’s some contention about whether they actually measure what they say they do. It’s a great idea to get some indicators on a chart that show an organisations tendency towards certain behaviours, as long as the behaviours are valid indicators of culture and performance.

The validity and reliability of the survey is important because there is a heavy reliance on the results to guide action planning. But what if the chosen model of culture, upon which the survey is based, doesn’t adequately address the issues of the organisation?  One possible outcome is the treatment of the proverbial symptom; another is using organisational culture (a collective thing) as a cover-up for poor top level leadership.

Consider the case of an organisation where CEO and direct reports are completely dysfunctional in their engagement with their people. In desperation some middle manager or OD person arranges a cultural survey as a roundabout way of addressing the leadership issue.  Would it work? I have my doubts.

I’m sure, if used correctly, cultural surveys can deliver great benefits; however to be successful, I reckon they need to be driven from the top – not the middle.

Do you agree, or can organisational leadership be successfully influenced from within?

Coping with change

Mark Twain once remarked “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles but most of them never happened.”

A little bit of anxiety about the future can be part of a healthy and balanced outlook. It means that we are paying attention to the future, anticipating problems and making plans. But in times of change, there can be so many more problems to think about, so much more to deal with, and (yes I’m going to say it) so little time. This is then some people’s behaviour can become less than helpful, and any feeling of wellbeing can melt away by a poorly timed moment of dread.

Anxiety is one of the reasons why change is said to be painful. Even mild cases of anxiety can lead to reduced performance and mental capacity at a time when you probably need these resources most. If you are a leader, signs of your anxiety and emotional outbursts can have a devastating effect on the people who are looking to you for guidance and help.

Feeling anxious about change? Here are some things you can do:

  1. Get organised: Take the time to organise your problems and thoughts by writing them down. Basic prioritisation and brainstorming can help to break counterproductive thought cycles such as catastrophising (an unrealistic estimation that the worst things will happen), repetitive thinking, and self-doubt. Getting things off your mind and onto paper can be used as a practical first step in dealing with change.
  2. Manage fear: When stressed, people have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood and consequences of bad things happening. Recognising your reactions and challenging your initial judgments can help you again perspective. Having a rational conversation about your concerns is a great way to gain perspective and manage fear.
  3. Find a good listener: Talking things out is process where you can clarify your own thoughts and needs. A good listener is someone who lets you do the talking and asks questions that help you to clarify the situation and provide perspective. Someone who likes to solve your problems for you may not be that useful, especially if they boss you around and overload you with their opinions. If you start hearing too much of “what you need to do is”, consider finding someone else for the job.
  4. Challenge yourself to adapt and grow. The way you see yourself and how you want others to see you might need to shift. Perhaps some thoughts or ideals you have about yourself are unrealistic or overly demanding for you to live up to. Use the change as an opportunity to evaluate what’s really important to you and as an opportunity for personal growth – perhaps in a new direction.
  5. Take care of yourself: It’s obvious, but warrants a mention. Do some exercise, eat well, socialise, laugh and get a proper amount of sleep. Also, be on guard against using overindulgence as a way of getting through.

What advice would you offer to help people deal with change and to manage anxiety? Also, is there anything organisation can do to make things easier? 

Are industry accreditations worthwhile, or just a fast track to mediocrity?

Brady Bunch Wheeler DealerCaveat Emptor

Caveat emptor” (buyer beware) was the advice offered by Mike Brady to Greg in the Brady Bunch episode where Greg purchased a much desired  yet unsuitable car from his pal Swift Eddie.  Greg got his money back, but the trouble he had along the way cost him so much more, especially when trying to impress the girls at school.

Caveat emptor is also good advice for anyone looking at industry accreditations as a way or boosting their career.  My concern with accreditations, especially in the field of Change Management, is that everyone involved in the accreditation game seem to have a commercial interest at heart. I’m not saying that assessments are rigged, or the training is poor quality, but I am asking if industry accreditations really provide the assurances that they are supposed to? I’m inclined to think that they don’t.

So, What’s the Problem?

Professional associations which provide certification, more often than not, have a vested interest in ensuring that their members are advantaged in the service market place. Ways they achieve this are through the establishment of accreditation and membership grading systems, creating the perception that the associations themselves (and their members) adhere to strict professional standards and should be seen as authoritative barriers of entry to the profession.

Consumers of accredited services (i.e., organisations seeking expert help) are typically unaware of what those standards are and are  usually happy to know they’re dealing with someone who is a recognised, bona-fide professional. What goes unnoticed is that it is often the case that these “professionals” need something to lean on to confirm their worth as a practitioner. In short, rather than cultivating their own professional standing and excellence they have paid an association to bestow it upon them.

Where the Trouble Begins

Professional associations are often mistakenly viewed as the source of excellence in a given field. In reality, their objective is to create an air of expertise. They do this while funding their self-promotion from their members and delivering what I think are services of questionable value to them and the end consumer.

Case in point: If after paying hundreds of dollars for membership alone you were “rewarded” with a $10 discount on a $50 workshop would you be excited? I certainly wouldn’t.

This is where it becomes clear to me that the value offered by professional associations is the public recognition and endorsement of one’s capabilities.

Professional Recognition For Sale

Given the current state of Australia’s professional services market, there’s some advantage in distinguishing yourself from the pack. Yet, “stand out from the pack” rhetoric is often used to cajole consultants into believing they must become accredited and earn the right to wear industry-endorsed labels – by paying for them: Labels which are usually accompanied by post-nominals, the right to brandish a related logo and the opportunity to post a profile on a website that industry clients never visit.

The real question is: “Does accreditation provide any real assurance that a consultant is any good?” Perhaps, more importantly, we should ask: “Are they any better qualified to serve your organisation and cater to its unique set of requirements?” My bet is that what you can actually be assured of is that their accreditation is at best only a small part of the capability required to truly meet your needs.

Let Experience Speak for Itself

When recruiting or engaging consultants, I think it’s crucial to understand their level of experience and get a sense of their working reputation. While seeking out a candidate with industry accreditation is not in and of itself detrimental, but you must consider what the individual’s ulterior motives are if they promote themselves solely on the basis of a professional designation. The best consultants out there don’t bother with accreditation; they know they’re good at what they do and their clients know it, too.

I’m quite cynical and immediately suspicious of accreditation-toting consultants; I’d prefer to engage a consultant based on less tangible yet far more important criteria. Take one short cut in this process and the only thing you can be confident about is the fact that you’ve identified a consultant who has a rote understanding of change management and had the means to purchase a “seal” to prove it.

Finding Out What’s on Offer

A consultant’s ability to meet situations head on, demonstrate versatility and exercise flexibility can be difficult to test upfront – but, not impossible. Request a list of references and follow-up on each one. Industry accreditation for consultants should be the last thing you turn to when hiring a true professional, as it provides little assurance that a consultant will provide a good return on your investment.

After all, much like what our project management colleagues have witnessed, industry-wide accreditation has become commoditised. It’s a competitive business which, more often than not, serves only the people who head those organisations that churn out cookie-cutter consultants with rubber stamps on their letterheads. There’s nothing at all reassuring about that.