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Alan Webber asks “what’s the point?”

In a post On Your Marks interview, Alan Webber reflects on what leaders need to navigate change, shines a light on the dark side of digital disruption, and gently suggests what to do and not do on Monday morning.

Looking back at the last two and a half days, well it was enormously enjoyable. There were great speakers, the setting is unparalleled with really wonderful food and servers, a fun stage setting with wonderful guides but all of that begs the question, what’s the point of the exercise and are we clear on why we came and what we do when we go home?

It seems to me the point of the exercise is self-evident at this juncture in business and history. It’s a cliché to say everything is changing. The world is changing, technology is driving change, demographics is driving change, society is impinging more on business and demanding more, business is changing society and we are all super busy. Yet it turns out that when the world is changing the thing you need to work on is yourself. A subtext of the event was that all change starts from within. And yet when we think about the amount of time we give to doing inner work it is really small. The work we do is either about observing the drivers of change externally or the demands put on us by our jobs and lives: this is the chance to begin a process of doing some reflection and self-examination.

A friend of mine talks about ‘busy sickness’ as a disease of our time. Having been away for a couple of days there may be a temptation on Monday morning to say I have to make up for lost time. So one question is how do you hit the pause button having just having hit the pause button because the real value of the experience comes if there’s a chance to sit with it and not just reread all your notes and make a to do list. Let the experience settle on you and see what resonates and try the practice of introspection, of meditation on the stimulation. If you took notes you should type them up. In the practice of transferring them you’ll throw some stuff out you’ll keep some stuff. It’s a winnowing process. Take the time to go back through it while it’s fresh and transfer the things that stick away from the things that don’t.

There was a through-line to this gathering and it had a lot to do with the notion and value of purpose. That’s not an accident. One of the things that makes a huge amount of difference when you’re making sense out of change is to have some sort of compass. I have a mental compass of practices for which north on my compass is purpose, the eastern cardinal direction is respect, the southern is proportion and the west is gratitude. People are meaning-makers. If you don’t know why you’re doing something it’s very hard to keep doing something except for bad reasons, increasingly spiralling down into cynicism or doubt or boredom or disaffection or a lack of connectivity. If people wanted to give themselves a homework assignment it might be to say what compass am I going to use to lead myself first, because you can’t lead others until you lead yourself, what compass points would I use to lead through this uncharted territory?

What happened with the Wall Street melt down was incredibly cynical and if you walk through my compass points you would say the people in charge of capitalism showed an utter disrespect for capitalism, they had no idea when enough was enough, they had no gratitude for the incredible opportunities they had to make a difference in the world, and their sense of purpose was completely perverted into self interest and self aggrandisement. People know that in everyday life the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, that business is increasingly disconnected from positive outcomes in people’s lives, that the institutions that are supposed to be creating more opportunities for more people have in fact been jiggered so that they serve the people who run the institutions. That’s heavy! But we have the obligation to ask the question not what comes next for us in our work lives but what comes next for business and society? That’s a hard conversation to have and yet if you don’t ever have it we’re all just walking around whistling by the graveyard.

I think the subject that is easier, that is enthralling and intoxicating is the way change opens up new doors and creates fascinating opportunities. We had brilliant speakers who make that clear. And it’s really cool but it also, again, needs to have the tyres kicked. Disruption is disturbing because there will be winners and there will be losers. It’s easy to worship at the altar of disruption but how do you get underneath the surface level fascination of bright shiny objects falling from the sky? If we are at the heart of the most massive disruption of business and society and politics in our lifetime, if we study other disruptions at other times there are huge consequences. It’s fascinating to see Tesla and hear about Elon Musk and laugh about General Motors being only a little bit higher market value than a company that only sells a few cars. It’s a good joke in a bar but it’s not so funny in Detroit in the home of a GM line worker who is watching his life disappear. One of the things we need to think about is who is not in the room? The people who come to this program are chosen because they are smart, they have all the skills of leadership and they just need to assemble them and practice them and polish them. There’s a law of systems thinking that says everything is connected to everything else – the things we don’t talk about and don’t have in the room may have the last laugh, if we don’t represent their interests.

I think the experience is a very rich one but what about the people who weren’t privileged to come, what about the people who stayed home? Don’t immediately go in like a fire hose with a 20 point check list of things we’re now going to do to fix our company and our division and make ourselves world-class but actually just sit with your colleagues for a little bit and ask them what went on in their lives while you were at this incredibly privileged event. Take some notes. What looks different on Monday morning because you were here for two and a half days? What did you notice that you’d never noticed? Listen and observe for a while. Slow down to go fast.

I’m a huge Jim Collins fan. He wrote Good to Great, from which Baroness Sue Campbell borrowed her title. In Good to Great Jim talks about how most leaders are proud of having their To Do list but that the really good leaders have their Stop Doing lists. Since the greatest thing we have the least of is time, one fresh thing to do as a Monday morning practice is to make a list of the things that you would stop doing because they are not relevant. They are habitual, they maintain the status quo, they maybe get you a nice pat on the back but in terms of dealing with the fact that at least at an intellectual level we’ve just agreed that the world is on fire, and we need to do something about it. So keeping the status quo is probably not what you need to be spending the vast amount of your time on!

I said at OYM that a good question beats a good answer and I do believe that – it’s not only clever it’s actually right! One of the problems with the way we aren’t dealing with change at a fundamental level is we are not even asking the right questions. It’s a truism in the world of doing public opinion surveys if you ask the wrong question you’ll get the wrong answer. Another bit of reflection would be to allow yourself to ask the really burning questions for you as a result of this experience, the questions you don’t know the answer to. When I asked David Pemsel, CEO of the Guardian Media Group, ‘What business are you in?’ he said, ‘Great question I don’t know’. That’s good he thinks it’s a great question and even better he admitted he doesn’t know the answer but he’s going to keep that question open in his mind and he’s probably got six months to come up with at least a tentative answer but he should never stop asking the question, it’s a moving target.

Everybody’s life is an experiment of one and nobody has to go it alone and at it’s best that’s what the experience we just went through should have said. The people we admired on stage were the people who had figured that out. David from the Guardian is very comfortable in his own skin. He’s comfortable in the ambiguity of what he’s doing. He’s not casual about it he has an enormous sense of urgency. That comfort in his own skin is what makes him the kind of person you would follow to the ends of the earth. I think Aravind [Srinivasan, Aravind Eye Care System] has that. He is quiet, deep, organically originally himself and enormously compelling as a person. When Peter [Todbjerg Hanson, Grundfos Lifelink] got angry you could see the fire in his belly for what he’s doing. He could come across as a formal Danish business guy but that’s not who he is at all he’s a man on fire to make a difference in the world, he is quietly intensely aware of what matters to him and why it matters to him. You can march through the line up and the people we respect are those that say, well my life is an experiment of one I’m gonna learn, I’m an open system, I’m scanning the environment but also doing core drills in to my heart and soul to see whether I still am who I said I was and doing what I said I care about. You know it when you see it. It takes different forms, the Baroness [Sue Campbell] is one form and Faisel [Rahman, Fair Finance] is another but what they share is that at some point in their lives they came to terms with who they are and they realised that life is a team sport it’s not a solo act.

One last thing to do on Monday morning. Disabuse yourself of the thought you are in control! What is it you are actually in control of? You’re not in control of the economy, you’re not in control of whether Donald Trump gets elected, you’re not in control of whether the government cuts your funding, you’re not in control of the digital transformation but you are in control of you. If you can do that well, that’s enough.


Five things to do Monday Morning:

  1. Take time to go inside – check in with yourself, what landed for you?

  2. Take time to listen to the folks who didn’t come.

  3. Ask the questions that went unasked – write them down and keep them.

  4. Write a Stop Doing list.

  5. Ask yourself ‘what’s the point of the exercise’ and keep asking yourself this.


Alan Webber is an award-winning, nationally-recognised editor, author and columnist.


If you were interested in this you may also be interested in…

Reading something written by Alan like Rules of Thumb: 52 Rules for winning at business without losing yourself, published 2009.

Or recommended by Alan like Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t, written by James Collins and published in 2001.

Watching The Big Short, an award winning, Oscar and BAFTA nominated movie based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction account of the housing and credit bubble to dramatise the incredible true story of the men who made a killing by wagering against the US economy.

Learning more about Lars Kolind a great friend of Wavelength’s and co-author of Unboss a book that sets out to challenges the basic assumptions of what business is for and how leadership works.


Speakers: Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of the Wavelength Speakers Bureau. To view full biographies and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:

Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair, UK Sport Trust Faisel Rahman, Founder & MD, Fair Finance


On Your Marks is the first event of Connect – our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90-100 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other. Want to know more? Click here

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