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Transformational Leadership with Dr. Andrew White

George Grombacher March 12, 2022

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Transformational Leadership with Dr. Andrew White

LifeBlood: We talked about transformational leadership, the challenges facing leaders today, why it’s so difficult to make big changes, the important questions to be asking, and how to get started, with Dr. Andrew White, Senior Fellow in Management Practice and Leadership at the University of Oxford.  

Listen to learn a simple practice for increasing clarity and understanding!

You can learn more about Andrew at SBS.OX.AC.UK, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Dr. Andrew White

Episode Transcript

Come on

george grombacher 0:12
one level, this is George G. And the time is right. welcome today’s guest strong and powerful. Dr. Andrew white. Andrew, are you ready to do this? I am. It’s great to be here with you today. George, I’m excited to have you on Dr. Andrew is a Senior Fellow of management practice and leadership at Sayyid business school at the University of Oxford. He’s the host of the leadership 2050 podcast, he is a coach, excited to have you on Andrew, tell us a little about your personal life’s more about your work and why you do what you do. So thank you for the opportunity. So I think if I start by introducing my work, and then I’ll get on a bit about my personal life as well. So my work really is focused on helping leaders find and transcend their strategic and development edges. Now, that might sound like a bit of a mouthful, what does that really mean? I sit down with leaders, and I figure out what’s going on in their world? Where are they? Where are they stuck? Where are their biggest opportunities.

Andrew White 1:11
And that’s from an organizational point of view, it can also be from a personal leadership point of view. So on the one hand, it might be we have to double our turnover, it might be we have to transform our products, because, you know, we know, we were in oil and gas, we now want to be in sustainable energy. From a personal point of view, it could be I’m in the wrong job, or, you know, I need to create a different culture of leadership in my organization. So it’s all these types of questions. So that’s really what my work is about. And I want to be at that cutting edge of where leaders are at and where the world’s at, and really helping business be a positive contribution to the world.

A bit about me. I love sailing. And I don’t think I’m ever really happier than when I’m out on my sailboat with my family. You know, I love the point when the engine switches off and the sails fill with the wind. You know, the dolphins come and play around the boat. You know, a nice glass of wine. I think that’s, you know, that’s me in my element. And yeah, so hopefully that gives you a bit of a flavor about me and my work. Yeah, I love it. Well, I love all of it. I especially like the part about the engine turn off and the sails filling with air and family and dolphins and wine. So yeah.

Unknown Speaker 2:27
That sounds like a pretty good deal. All right, so you talk about the leadership edges, what do you mean by edges. So I think I don’t know, a leader in today’s world whose organization isn’t going through or facing some kind of disruption.

Andrew White 2:45
And that’s coming for me from really three different perspectives. Firstly, you know, everything that’s going on with regard to climate change, and the environment, I think, you know, many of the businesses that are running today were created for the 21st century, and they were great. They did great things they, you know, delivered great products and services for people, returns to shareholders, but the world’s changed. And we’re now talking about the circular economy, we’re talking about green energy. And these aren’t just things that environmentalists, you know, are concerned about the things that our consumers are concerned about regulators are concerned about, and, frankly, where there’s great business opportunity.

So whether you’re in a consumer goods company, a oil and gas company, you know, whether you’re a consultancy, this is driving huge amounts of change and disruption to existing ways of working. So that was one, I think the second is tech. And I think, you know, the world is at an edge, it’s tapped into service and be good for society, or is taken to be a problem. And we see that with all the challenges that social media course, causes. I mean, social media has been a great tool for society, in so many ways, but it’s also caused a lot of harm in many ways. It’s amplified, the bad and it’s amplified, the good.

And I think for leaders, it’s they are now increasingly responsible for how that tech is developed and utilized. And that tech is only getting more powerful in terms of AI. How do we ensure that there’s Tech for Good, and then the third is the whole what I would call the diversity being clusion belonging leading to human potential. When I look back on my own career, I’m acutely aware of how important organizations have been to me, I’m sitting today with a wonderful Oxford background and part of an amazing university. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without that organisation. I would that brand gives me an amazing platform. And I’m aware historically, that has been, you know, focused on certain parts of society. We as white men have, you know, had a lot of that benefit. And I think that power that organizations brings that organizations bring, you know, that enable people

Unknown Speaker 5:00
To find and develop that potential is being questioned isn’t going to the right people is it and that’s to me is so important. It’s not just important from a societal point of view. But it’s also important from an individual point of view. It’s also important from a human potential that leads to high performance in organizations. We know diverse organizations deliver high levels of performance. So, you know, when you ask about edges, they are the big three edges that I see leaders facing today. Well, those are pretty big ones. Yes.

Unknown Speaker 5:36

Unknown Speaker 5:38
lots of lots of really important stuff, it strikes me that that those are really hard things to grapple with, it’s hard for an individual to to grapple with my personal past, where I’m at where I want to go, it’s hard for a huge company, like we’re talking about a huge petroleum company, to look, well, what got us here isn’t going to get a store want to go and everything else. So I don’t know what the what the conversation is, I wrote down in advance time horizon, because I have obligations of stockholders, shareholders and stakeholders and worrying about the Earth and worrying about the impact that I’ve had, or that the people that came before me had. So how do you help people sort of grapple with that?

Unknown Speaker 6:26
So from a time point of view, I think, you know, it can be as immediate as new story breaking in the press, or a change in regulation in a particular market that you’re operating.

Unknown Speaker 6:41
And then it starts to come into what are the timescales within your industry? I mean, some industries are working on 510 Year 20 year horizons, because that’s the

Unknown Speaker 6:51
period over which returns a recruit with other industries, it’s much shorter. So I think for me, the real question is, are there different leadership skills that are needed today that have been needed, needed in the past, and if I can paint a picture for you, to help you understand this, and listeners understand this a bit better, I think, to get to the top, let’s say, you know, historically, you needed to be good at delivery, you need to be good at execution, you needed to be good at sales,

Unknown Speaker 7:21
you were largely operating in the status quo, except for those more entrepreneurial businesses. But essentially, you had to be a great operational person, at projects at sales at these types of things.

Unknown Speaker 7:35
The problem is, you get to the top of an organization, and you have to be good at all those things. And we’ll call that your dominant hand, the hand that you’re really good at. But now you’re being asked to develop the skills of your non dominant hand. And that’s really, really hard. So I want to just paint a picture for a moment that that dominant hand is tied behind your back. And what that dominant hand looks after, is things like you have direct reports, you have IT systems at your disposal, you have, you know, finance people, you have all the normal capabilities of a company, but that hands tied behind your back. And now you still have to get stuff done. And you’ve got your non dominant hand. And the only things that you really have at your disposal are listening,

Unknown Speaker 8:23

Unknown Speaker 8:25
and the purpose of the organization and what your employees really care about, empathy, compassion, and you have to persuade people to go with you. But you’ve got none of the tools of the dominant hand. So this is about putting humans at the center, and people at the center. And I would say this is the antidote or the counter to the great resignation. You have to listen to people, what do they care about? Why are they in this company?

Unknown Speaker 8:54
What do they care about in terms of the contributions that they make? What are their values, and the job of leadership is really to take those, let’s call them those micro purposes of the individuals and to weave them into a more collective activity.

Unknown Speaker 9:11
And, you know, how do you roll that out? Over 100,000 people in a big company? Or how do you roll that over 30 people in a small company, but I think this is so important, and this is what so many employees are looking for, they’re looking to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves, but where they have a role, and it’s more than just a transactional job, so to speak.

Unknown Speaker 9:32
And, you know, as I said, I think the great resignation is the is the counter to this.

Unknown Speaker 9:38
And that’s the critical skill that I’m seeing leaders are having to develop.

Unknown Speaker 9:44
Not certainly doesn’t make sense. You know, I learned a long time ago that people support what they helped to create. And so feeling like they are

Unknown Speaker 9:54
stakeholders, and that the organization is listening.

Unknown Speaker 9:59
That that certainly doesn’t mean

Unknown Speaker 10:00

Unknown Speaker 10:02
Are you seeing leaders being able to make this shift? Or do they just need to recognize that it’s necessary? And then reskill? How does that? How does that change usually happen? So what I’ve noticed in the research that I’m involved in his, and I’m gonna use this phrase, an intentional disconnection from the status quo, that the status quo has now got such an intensity about it. It’s so fast paced, if you just think particularly with the whole work from home thing we’ve all gone through, you go from Zoom meeting to teams meeting, to zoom meeting to zoom meetings, to team meetings. And so it’s transactional, its operational, it’s bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. And for senior leaders, this doesn’t usually stop at five or six o’clock in the evening, it goes on well into the evening, it starts very early. And so they become consumed by the status quo. And what the research evidence tells us is then becomes difficult to see the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is the thing that as a senior leader, you have to understand.

Unknown Speaker 11:06
So what I’ve noticed is successful leaders of transformation, they disconnect from the status quo. So what do I mean by that? They go and visit companies that are really innovating in sectors, which at the moment are adjacent to them, but could become competitive to them. They put themselves on courses where they’re forced to stop and reflect and learn. They bring in speakers to their executive teams who are not talking about things that are in the status quo, but that are about the context in which they’re having to operate now and in the future, and the things which will determine their success in the future. So they’re slowing down, in order to go faster. They’re listening to weaker voices.

Unknown Speaker 11:57
They are disconnecting from the status quo, not permanently, because they’re still responsible for it. But they’re finding that place to really listen to what’s going on, from which we know they can make better decisions.

Unknown Speaker 12:15
I think that that makes sense. Need to sort of get out of the Get off the hamster wheel or whatever was whatever metaphor we’re interested in using Expo expose ourselves to.

Unknown Speaker 12:28
I don’t want to call it discomfort, but potentially discomfort certainly do, I think is.

Unknown Speaker 12:34
Yeah, I think it can be very uncomfortable. I think, you know, I would use that word. You know, I think I’m particularly minded have one executive I spoke to who’d been in an industry for 30 or 40 years, knew how to run things in a certain way. And actually put themselves in a very uncomfortable position of having to learn, again, of having the humility to ask people who were much younger than them to teach them because they didn’t know, the digital world that was

Unknown Speaker 13:05
developing. And I think that can be uncomfortable. And and I would say if you’re not having uncomfortable situations, maybe you’re not learning.

Unknown Speaker 13:13
So there’s something about having the confidence and the humility to recognize that you are, in a sense, you’re an expert with that dominant hand. But there’s another part of you where you’re not an expert.

Unknown Speaker 13:30

Unknown Speaker 13:33
is the ability to the ability to do that is also probably going to be predicated on on my ability as CEO to to to get my board and other important players and stockholders to understand that. Yeah, so how do you how do you reconcile that? Um, so I think the world is definitely changing. I did an article on LinkedIn. Last year,

Unknown Speaker 14:01
it was about four different or three or four different oil and gas companies, where shareholders were saying that basically, their climate adjustment plans were not moving fast enough. Exxon, Chevron, shell, all had either court cases or shareholder action that was pushing for quicker change that resulted in board members having to change. So I think what we’re seeing now is a shift. It used to be possible to blame stockholders for, you know, holding the company back from not going fast enough. I think that started we’re starting to see a lot of movement there. Let’s go to boards.

Unknown Speaker 14:41
You know, boards can get stuck in the status quo as well, particularly with the number of regulations that they have to address. I wrote a paper in Harvard Business Review called 10 proactive questions that every board member should ask.

Unknown Speaker 14:56
And I really looked at a number of corporate failures that had happened

Unknown Speaker 15:01
And where were those boards? Why weren’t they asking uncomfortable questions. And I think all too often the agenda can become, I don’t want to say automated, but it can have so many things in it that are filled up by the executive that are filled up by the regulations that the board stop asking tough questions of management. And the board stop asking the question, what do we want on the agenda?

Unknown Speaker 15:29
And so there’s a real shift there that I see that boards need to make from the reactive to the proactive if they’re to be successful. So to your question, the job of the CEO is really to get on the front foot. And in that paper, I have come up with 10 questions.

Unknown Speaker 15:43
Not all of them are necessary. If the question is, which ones are going to have real resonance I’m going to bring about the shift in the conversation that the company needs to needs to have.

Unknown Speaker 15:55
First fascinating is just putting myself in the shoes of a of a CEO who’s who is wanting to do the things that you’ve been describing. And they’re there, they they believe in it, they they know it to be the way forward, they recognize that their company is is is in a position where they probably should be need to be doing these things. And there’s fear and there’s anxiety. And again, there’s going to be discomfort from new learning.

Unknown Speaker 16:24
And it’s a function of need to be mindful of the things you talked about right away, which are breaking news, which are business cycles, which are all these things. So when you’re working with an organization, is there, for lack of a better term, a framework or checklist certain things that you take people through? Yeah. So there is.

Unknown Speaker 16:49
So often what I will do is,

Unknown Speaker 16:54
I think, let me step back. This is there is an emotional journey that leaders have to go on, and companies have to go on, which is as important as the project management journey.

Unknown Speaker 17:06
And to recognize that that emotional journey needs to be understood, it can’t be predicted.

Unknown Speaker 17:16
So if you really want to go in this direction, it’s not going to happen overnight.

Unknown Speaker 17:21
We’re talking about 612, month, 24 month programs of transition.

Unknown Speaker 17:28
And I have four questions that I use really to open up this type of conversation.

Unknown Speaker 17:34
The first question is, what are you not talking about that you need to talk about? And when I pose that to an executive team, I can guarantee you George, half the room will typically look at the floor.

Unknown Speaker 17:47
They’re uncomfortable. They all know this things that they need to talk about. But it’s difficult, and they can be internal things, or they can be external things. And that question can lead to three or four hours of conversation alone? The second question is, what are you always discussing, but you never resolve. And at that point, probably two thirds of the of the room will smile, because they all know the certain things that they go round and round talking about, but they haven’t found a way to resolve. The third question is, in a sense, what spaces do you need to create to have these conversations? Now all of these companies are full of risk committees, HR committees, audit committees. So why is it you can’t have the conversation within those spaces? To what spaces do you need to create?

Unknown Speaker 18:37
And then finally, if those those conversations, if what you talked about in answer to those previous three questions lead to good outcomes, what would that look like in three years in five years.

Unknown Speaker 18:50
So that really starts to open up the uncomfortable conversations that need to happen, which for me are the starting point, it’s just getting it on the table. In some ways. It’s not unlike the Buddhist approach of simply being aware. I’m also a meditation teacher. And we can’t change what we feel, but we can become aware of it, we can notice it, we can become mindful to it. And so I think that first process is just simply

Unknown Speaker 19:18
getting over that difficult place of speak, talking about things with a greater degree of comfort. And that’s not dissimilar to what we see in things like alcohol addiction, and when people really start to turn the corner, and the processes that organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous have, have developed.

Unknown Speaker 19:37
So let’s say that I’m working with a company and we’re, you know, we have we’ve begun that process. We get to the end of day one, we have a nice dinner day two, we start to work out that actually things have got to change. And so this event can become a period in our history and important period in history. So we’re going to go on a journey and we’re going to take go on

Unknown Speaker 20:00
journey of transformation. So the key question is there, what do we want to take with us on that journey? So what from the current organization, the current way of doing things, the current culture, the technology we have, do we feel is going to be really, really important in this next phase, because we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or to use another metaphor. Second question is, what do we want to leave behind? What do we recognize isn’t just no longer relevant, it’s no longer important.

Unknown Speaker 20:31
And that could be products, it could be technologies, it could be aspects of our culture.

Unknown Speaker 20:37
It could be behaviors, dominant behaviors amongst the leadership group or amongst the employee base more broadly. So what do we want to leave behind? The third question is, what do we need to transform? And by that, I mean, what kind of current operations? Do we have the need to go through through a transformed state in terms of quality in terms of cost reduction, in terms of focus? And thirdly, what do we want to create?

Unknown Speaker 21:06
And, you know, if I give you an example of a company I worked with, they went through this whole process, they realized that they were too dependent on an industry sector that was in decline. So they divested a big chunk of their operation sold that off, they made acquisitions into where they thought the future of the world was going. And so this was very concrete, business activities, what do we want to leave behind? And what do we want to create? What do we want to go into? And so, you know, just those eight points, the first set of questions, the second set of questions begin to frame a really important conversation. And that’s typically a two day process that I will take executives through.

Unknown Speaker 21:54
And then there’s the coaching of CEOs, because it’s a very difficult place for them to be when they are leading this type of transformation. Yeah, now, there’s no doubt these are, these are extremely powerful questions. I just love a good question. And you’ve given us like eight or nine of them. So I appreciate that. And I imagine, just just like you said, just from those first couple, you could be in a room with a group of people for at least a day. So yeah, love it.

Unknown Speaker 22:25
Well, Andrew, those were solid, but the people are ready for your difference making tip, what do you have for them.

Unknown Speaker 22:31

Unknown Speaker 22:33
I think for my different making tip.

Unknown Speaker 22:40
It would be go for a walk.

Unknown Speaker 22:44
Preferably somewhere in nature.

Unknown Speaker 22:48
If you can leave your phone behind.

Unknown Speaker 22:54
And think about your work.

Unknown Speaker 22:57
Think about the short time you have on this earth.

Unknown Speaker 23:03
Think about what you’re doing when you’ve had a really, really, really good day,

Unknown Speaker 23:09
full of energy full of life.

Unknown Speaker 23:13
And what does that say about who you are as a person? What does that say about your purpose about your contribution, how you want to serve others the impact you want to have.

Unknown Speaker 23:27
And nature is a wonderful teacher. And I think if you if we think about the places we love to be, and I’ve always wonder why people stare at the ocean, why people stare at a sunset. There’s something in us, which loves these things. And they’re great teachers. And they’re great places to learn. And I think there is a yearning to get back to some of that, not to give up the wonderful civilizations that we built. But to get back to that. So that would be my tip.

Unknown Speaker 24:00
In some ways, very simple, and yet can lead to very profound outcomes.

Unknown Speaker 24:07
Well, I think that that is great stuff that definitely gets a Come on. Like that’s excellent. The, the more we can do what you just described, the better. And another simple yet wildly profound question to ask yourself. So definitely encourage people to do that. Why don’t you thank you so much for coming on? Where can people learn more about you? How can they engage with you? So the first thing to do is you can follow me on LinkedIn.

Unknown Speaker 24:34
I have a regular newsletter called Leadership 2050. So if you just drop that into Google and my name, that’s probably the best way I’m also on Twitter.

Unknown Speaker 24:46
Dr. Andrew white, and I have a podcast series that goes by the name of leadership 2050 as well. And there’s lots of signposts in there, George and that probably keeps it simple enough.

Unknown Speaker 25:00
for people to find out more about me, perfect. Well, if you enjoyed this as much as I did show Andrew your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas. Follow Andrew on LinkedIn, you could find him under Dr. Andrew white and the leadership 2050 newsletter blog. Find him on Twitter, Dr. Andrew white, and then check out the leadership 2050 podcast as well. We’ll link all those in the notes. Thanks again, Andrew. That’s wonderful. Thanks for having me, George. And until next time, keep fighting the good fight. We’re all in this together.

Transcribed by

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