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On Your Marks?

Three days with 120 people on an organic farm in Berkshire.

Three packed days hearing from: British, American and Danish serial entrepreneurs; an eye surgeon from India; a Baroness who earned her title through service to sport; UK MD of a global furniture retailer whose most popular product is named Billy; evangelists from an airline that’s been profitable for a straight 43 years and from a luxury hotel chain with “Ladies and Gentlemen” not employees; the Co-Founder of the first funky business magazine, Fast Company, and former talent champion of the number one business oriented social networking site LinkedIn; and from the sustainability and partnership lead in a company innovating to reduce cows’ flatulence (among other planet-positive things).

Three days that we left clutching moleskines stacked with quotes and notes, heads spinning.

While we will all make of this smorgasbord of inspiration what’s useful for us, there were themes that jumped out from across conversations. Here are seven.

1. Emotion

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Anjelou.

Sue Stephenson of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company kicked off this theme showing a chart with “emotional engagement” written at its centre. Sue described how service at The Ritz-Carlton is about creating emotions because emotions create memories and memories make the Ladies and Gentlemen who are The Ritz-Carlton’s customers return. Hot on Sue’s heels Dave Ridley told us that “It’s emotions that drive change” and talked about the importance of “LUV” in Southwest Airlines’ much lauded cultural ethos. On day two Dr Aravind picked up on this theme challenging us to “nurture the emotional infrastructure” in our organisations and look for “the joy in doing something beautiful”.

But emotions can be dangerous!

Do not fall in love with your digital device and forget those around you, nor with your business model, as Kodak did, failing to spot that the world has moved on.

2. People

“Good coaches coach sport – great coaches coach people” Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair Youth Sport Trust.

We were repeatedly reminded that people are business and that if leaders don’t get their people strategy right, don’t value everyone including those not on our payroll (e.g. cleaners, security guards, drivers, etc.) and don’t trust their instincts making people decisions, organisations won’t deliver great service.

But relationships are changing, not least due to the disruptive possibilities of digital. Steve Cadigan told us how social media makes employees part our PR department and brand team, and that a new generation of digital natives expect to have a voice and to build culture not join it. Lisa Gansky also asked us to consider that the best people to solve problems may not work for us – and indeed may never work for us – and to embrace the possibilities of opening up innovation beyond traditional organisational boundaries.

3. Choice

“It’s a privilege to be a leader.” Dave Ridley, Advisor to CEO, Southwest Airlines.

A number of our speakers and provocateurs encouraged us to reflect on what it means to be a leader, on the responsibility of leadership and on the impact of the choices we make.

Dr Aravind urged us to choose the stones we throw with an eye on the ripples we want to create now and in the future, even beyond our own tenure. Sue Campbell told us we must choose if we want to be managers or leaders, and what type of leader we want to be, and in doing so pursue what’s right not what’s expedient. Lars Kolind,Chair, Jacob Jensen Holding, asked us if we want to be Caretakers or Leaders – prompting one member to reflect during day three’s Café that while it’s enough in her organisation to Caretake it was not enough for her.

Another strand to this theme of choice was our on-line identities because if we don’t choose and build them for ourselves they will still be built but by others.

4. Questions

“What kind of culture do you want Steve?” Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder Linked In.

“Where does the problem start?” Dr Aravind Srinivasan, Director, Aravind talking about blindness in India

“What do I do? What could I do? What’s stopping me?” Baroness Sue Campbell.

The notion of leaders needing to have all the answers was challenged at On Your Marks – is effective leadership more about having the right questions?

5. Great?

“Is 10th good enough?” Baroness Sue Campbell’s question to her employees on the UK’s Olympic ranking in 2004.

Baroness Sue Campbell and Dr Aravind brought home the importance of looking beyond your organisation and even your sector, to find examples of greatness, examples which inspire innovation and excellence.

For UK Sport the benchmark for what great looks like was Michael Schumacher’s Formula One team, where shaving 0.001 of a second off a tyre change, taking six seconds to make a race-critical decision and being able to eat your food off the floor of the pit stop all contributed to being world class. Dr Aravind shared how the eye care company’s founder ‘Dr V.’ looked to the “mundane” – McDonalds and Burger King – to work out how to deliver eye care to India’s poor majority in a way that’s standardised, predictable and replicable.

We have to inspire both ourselves and others with what great looks, feels, tastes and smells like if we want to inspire greatness in what we do.

6. Opportunity

“Regulation is often an excuse to innovate.” Lisa Gansky entrepreneur, investor and author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing.

None of our speakers were asked to talk directly about innovation. However we saw that choosing the less trodden path and facing into the complexity of the world, can help make innovation an imperative.

From Jen Hyatt’s determination to find a business model to give those of us dealing with mental health problems “somewhere to go to talk”, when 50% of us won’t go to GPs and when we do and are diagnosed 90% of us won’t tell our employers to the creation of Wayra by Telefonica, as a response to Latin America’s ‘brain drain’. From UK Sport recruiting tall people off the street because they didn’t have enough Olympic level rowing talent to Royal DSM finding “complimentary competencies” with organisations like Greenpeace in order to create solutions that work for all.

But it’s not easy particularly if like Royal DSM and IKEA you choose to take on some of the biggest issues facing the world. You open yourself up to criticism. You have to deal with the naysayers including internally – Baroness Sue Campbell’s “Ah Buts”. You have to get it wrong and start over many many times. And as Lisa and Simon told us: you need relentless optimism and a belief that things can be better not least because “no creativity works under the context of fear”.

7. Act

“Dream big. What could you do? Take one step in the right direction. Find one thing you can do now, to give you and your co-workers belief.” Lars Kolind, entrepreneur, business advisor, professor and author of Unboss.

Across the three days speakers and provocateurs called on us to be ambitious for ourselves, to consider our purpose as leaders and, above all, to do something now, however small. Baroness Sue Campbell insisted we all have power as individuals, we are not paralysed by the systems we sit within, there is always something we can do particularly if we tap into the collective power of those around us.

But if we accept Sue’s challenge to chase perfection in the hope that we may catch excellence, we must also accept Alan Webber’s truism, put to us in the final session that, as leaders, “it’s never over”.


Written by Helen Trevaskis, Connect Programme Design & Facilitation, Wavelength

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

Dave Ridley, Advisor to CEO, Southwest Airlines

Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair, Youth Sport Trust

Steve Cadigan, Silicon Valley based thought leader, advisor and coach

Lisa Gansky, Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, Angel Investor and Instigator

Lars Kolind,Chair, Jacob Jensen Holding

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