Can engagement survive in a process-obsessed world run by the risk-averse? 

Each month a member of the Thought & Action Steering Group writes a short thought-provoking piece for the Newsletter. This month Nigel Girling asks…

Can engagement survive in a process-obsessed world run by the risk-averse?

Alongside my membership of the Steering Group of Engage for Success, I work in a professional institution which mentors many hundreds of leaders in more than a hundred organisations, including many major and multi-national names. Our candidates can be chairs, CEOs, senior leaders, operational managers or just starting out. Many trends are apparent but I want to raise one in particular:

In the younger, fresher less experienced managers and leaders I often see an enormous appetite for change, a desire to make a difference and a willingness to try new things, embrace new ideas and bring people together. They see opportunities everywhere and very few barriers to making things happen.

It is noticeable that this mindset is largely absent from the more senior leaders I meet, who are far more likely to be concerned about the consequences of change, organizational politics, the risks of failure and the implications of the new and untested.  No surprise there, you may think.

But it raises a big question and it is this: Did they start out like the younger leaders and lose their ambition through years of corporate conditioning, or are the younger leaders simply cut from a different cloth? Is it perhaps evidence of a changing mindset and the impact of a very different life experience on attitude, approach and expectations?

If it is the former then the implications are possibly rather depressing, suggesting that these new brooms may well lose their bristles before too long, just as so many leadership generations have done before.

Oh, but if it is the latter, think of the possibilities.

We have been led by the risk-averse for so long, operated under the constraints of accountants, regulators, auditors, governance and process for so many decades that our entire operations are often designed primarily to achieve consistency and remove risk. In that quest, we have also removed virtually all prospect of innovation and much of the potential for engagement. It’s pretty hard to get passionate about something controlled and designed entirely by someone else, especially someone else with whom you have no relationship or emotional connection.

I often watch with wry amusement as organisation after organisation and CEO after CEO makes pronouncements about their organisation’s culture of innovation and plans for their re-invention, usually while presiding over a structure, hierarchy and systems that are designed specifically to regulate, constrain or better still prevent all innovation and significant deviation.

I’ve even known an organisation to have an ‘innovation team’ who meet on alternate Thursday afternoons. Because, as everyone knows, that’s when people are at their most creative, obviously. In that same organization a manager told me that one of his team had come up with a great idea, but he didn’t now know what to do with it, as neither of them were members of the innovation team. So, imagine if a new generation of senior leaders had a totally different mindset. What if they were open to ideas from everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, orientation or, whisper it, rank? What if they were comfortable with technology, with collaboration, with sharing the glory, with real diversity & equality?

Yes please. Free at last, free at last.

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