- Managing Me
- Big Ideas
- Managing People
If there’s a large Australian organisation with a reputation for a command-and-control management style, it’s the armed forces.
That’s why the navy’s cultural reinvention program is so fascinating.
Since 2008, the navy has embarked on a cultural change program prompted by the need to retain staff, as well as to train them up for the growing demands and capabilities of the organisation. It’s not like the navy has given up issuing commands, but its leadership is looking seriously at the impact of the way they communicate and interact with their underlings.
“We’ve been really good at achieving missions,” says Commander Grant Dale. “We do operational things really well. Sometimes too well, in the sense that we’ve achieved them at the expense of our people. What we wanted was to address the balance... between achieving tasks and looking after our people.”
Dale is the director of leadership and ethics at the Australian Navy, which means he’s in charge of implementing its leadership development program. He describes how in the last few years, there’s been a profound shift in how the navy approaches leadership: away from an operations focus and towards a more self-aware, “connected” style.
This was done initially by mentoring new leaders. Originally, the navy offered coaching and leadership development as a perk – a way to keep the first level of leadership ranks, the junior officers, from leaving. “Junior officers have six to eight years of service,” Dale explains. “Losing them is an expensive proposition for us.”
Over time, however, the focus changed. As the program showed results – the junior officers were staying on – it was extended to people in higher ranks. It became more about coaching and less about mentoring. And when the navy embarked on a wide-scale cultural change program from 2009, it was extended again across and up the ranks.
Today, Dale leads a team of 11 permanent leadership coaches and 25 navy reservists who do part-time work. Together, they put over 800 people through leadership workshops each year, and offer further coaching to all of them to help them develop their leadership skills.
“We do it on a shoestring,” Dale laughs.
But they’re getting results, and there’s the research to prove it.
Dale says he knew he’d eventually be asked to show a solid return on investment. So in 2011, the group began testing. “We looked at people who had done the early programs... We looked at what had changed for them, through structured interviews.”
The research tested the leaders’ improvement using the Life Style Inventory, a psychological assessment tool developed by Human Synergistics that judges how effective a leader is.
“What our research showed us is that in all cases, people had achieved a positive shift in their thinking and behavioural styles. With those who had undertaken ongoing coaching, the improvement was even more pronounced.”
Dale credits this, at least in part, to the wider use of 360-degree reviews for navy staff – where both underlings and bosses are asked to rate someone’s performance as a leader.
“From 2010, we opened up our program. Everyone going through the leadership development program, even if they just were senior sailors, got 360-degree feedback with a coaching session around that.
“Before we started this, only commodores – our equivalent of senior executives – got 360-degree feedback. I went to my bosses and asked them, when you were promoted and got 360-degree feedback, did you find it useful? They would say they had, so then I’d ask them whether they would have liked it 10 years ago. Invariably the answer was yes. That’s how we got it started.
“This is quite new and challenging for the navy… But if we’re serious about leadership development, the key is self-development and self-awareness. We need to get people focused on themselves and the impact their leadership has on other people.”
Two weeks ago, the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership (IECL) released a white paper that argued leadership development that didn’t focus on the needs of followers was outdated and wasteful.
“Leadership development is big business,” the paper begins. “[But] organisations are not producing effective leaders … While leadership development practices have changed little in the last 30 years, the context and situation of leadership has changed dramatically.”
The leadership of the future, the paper argues, will rest on “connected intelligence” – the ability to create and foster collaborative and networked organisational cultures.
Having read the paper, Dale says he was glad to see the navy was on the right track.
“It really resonated with me, in everything we’re currently doing. We weren’t driven by the white paper, but in terms of our thinking, we’re very aligned to it.”
Dr Hilary Armstrong, the author of the IECL’s paper, says it’s high time other organisations paid credence to the importance connected intelligence. She condemns organisations that are sticking to old-school leadership styles.
“I am greatly concerned at this continual recycling of ‘leadership’ as a learned skill – a set of taught operational competencies combined with supposedly natural ‘heroic’ tendencies that help a leader single-handedly solve problems,” she says. “That old science of management. It’s had its day. It’s stale. Technology has changed everything.”
The approach Armstrong favours builds on a concept of servant-leadership, popularised by Robert Greenleaf, which has been around since the 1960s, and is another way of describing connected intelligence.
But recent years have made Greenleaf’s ideas essential, as knowledge becomes democratised.
“One can’t rest on their laurels knowing they’re an expert,” Armstrong says. “Everyone has access to knowledge now.” This means the idea of leaders as experts solving every problem is being slowly undermined.
The IECL works with many leaders who recognise this, although Armstrong notes there are still some “dinosaurs” around.
But even when leaders express an interest in drawing out the best from their followers, it’s easier said than done. “Unfortunately, I’m becoming increasingly aware that most people in leadership have no idea how to communicate in this way,” she says. “Most of the leaders I coach still do not know how to draw out the opinions, to allow them to exist and interact, without having the final say and controlling them. There’s a real role for leadership as connector.
“We know the best decisions come from a variety of different opinions. We need different forms of learning. I think we need people to have a voice, to converse, across different boundaries.”
This is especially important for corporate leaders, who often have to lead across geographical distances. Armstrong gives an example of a client she has who does it well.
“I can think of one leader I’ve been coaching in one of the big financial institutions,” Armstrong says. “She leads a team of 1,500 scattered across the world. She sees her leadership role as connecting with all these people at their very different levels.
“She intensively works with the people right around her, then the next level of people, and then gradually with her team of 1500. She travels and talks to them at least once a quarter. In doing that, she sees her role as leader as being about keeping them up to date, and also create the space where they have shared meaning and purpose for what they do. She’s doing that by a series of conversations.
“She knows she can’t just give orders from far away.”
Back at the navy, Dale acknowledges there was a bit of natural resistance to the focus on how people perceived and reacted to leadership, especially at the beginning of the program. Thankfully, the very top of the navy leadership remained supportive, a fact Dale credits to his success.
“We’re targeting people at senior levels,” he says. “Many thought they’d been doing this for a long time, and were sceptical. They asked, ‘what can you tell me about leadership’.
“Invariably, they left as card-carrying converts. People say they’ve never had better leadership impact, that it’s exactly what they needed. Some people say it’s saved their marriage. Now, when people come along, they start by saying they have very high expectations of the program. Our reputation has really grown.
“We’re changing the navy. One person at a time.”