By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera
What is the current health status of your organisation?
Naturally, the answer to that question is dependent on how we define “health”. As I shall discuss later, there is a big difference between a healthy organisation and one that is simply performing well. That is not to say that performance is not somewhat based on the health of the organisation, but from an organisational health perspective, what’s more important is the efficiency of how organisations achieve that performance, and the cost or toll to the organisational system itself.
What we have observed with our own clients, which is confirmed by much of the literature, is that there are some trends which are of concern in terms of the long-term viability of organisations and the sustainability of the people that lead them. The three key things we are noticing are firstly, the survival rate of organisations themselves; secondly, the increasing demands and expectations of leadership; and finally, but by no means least, the rising incidence of burnout, stress disorders and mental health issues amongst executives.
Organisational Survival Rates
In 1996, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote an iconic business book, Built to Last. In this book, they studied 18 of America’s most iconic and successful companies. They attempted to break down and decipher a code or the key elements which make those businesses highly successful and consistently outperform their competitors over a period of time.
In 2006, just 10 years after the book was written, and two years before the GFC of 2008, 20% of those beacons of the corporate landscape no longer existed, 46% were struggling and no longer outperforming their competitors, and only 34% were able to maintain their success and competitive advantage.
So, it appears that having a robust recipe for performance, even in comparison to one’s competitors, gives an organisation no guarantee that it will continue to be in existence, let alone successful, into the future.
The Demands on Leadership
These days, when we ask managers and leaders how they are doing, the answer almost invariably comes back as some version of “we are ridiculously busy.” I am often curious if I asked a similar cross-section of managers that same question 10 years ago, would the answer they came back with be any different? It certainly does appear and feel like the pace of business is accelerating at a rapid rate and, as a result, managers feel there are more demands being placed on the limited time that they have to perform effectively in their role.
A survey conducted by McKinsey and Company on Leading in the 21st Century, had similar findings to what we are observing with our clients. They summarised their findings as follows:
When we meet with the men and women who run the world’s largest organizations, what we hear with increasing frequency is how different everything feels from just a decade ago. Leaders tell us they are operating in a bewildering new environment in which little is certain, the tempo is quicker, and the dynamics are more complex. They worry that it is impossible for chief executives to stay on top of all the things they need to know to do their job. Some admit they feel overwhelmed.
Executive Burnout and Well-being
The incidence of executive stress, burnout and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety is at an all-time high. And what is even more frightening is that the incidence is actually rising at an alarming rate.
A 2006 study, conducted by The Australian Safety and Compensation Council and sponsored by the Australian Government, found that, in 2002, mental stress claims comprised 5% of all workers’ compensation claims in Australia. This mechanism of injury/disease recorded the highest median claims cost ($9,700) and the second highest average cost ($16,400) as a result of the very high median and average time lost for this mechanism. Almost two-thirds (64%) of adults were classified to low levels of psychological distress, 23% to moderate levels, 9% to high levels and 3.6% to very high levels. In other words, 99% of people within the workplace experience some level of psychological distress, with 35% experiencing moderate to very high levels. This costs the Australian economy an estimated $20 billion a year.
What is Organisational Health?
I believe the solution to these challenges is a focus on organisational health.
An organisational health approach means that the need for short-term performance and long-term sustainability don’t need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, in our experience, including an organisational health approach to business in conjunction with traditional performance-based initiatives delivers both short-term performance as well as long-term viability.
Organisational health is the ability for organisations to outperform their competitors in short- to medium-term performance based metrics whilst not impacting on the long term viability of the organisation. In short, organisational health is all about performing at a high level, but also in a manner that is so adaptive, efficient and aligned that it enhances the longevity of an organisation rather than detracting from it.
The fundamental differentiator of healthy organisations in contrast to their less healthy counterparts is their philosophical approach to business. Healthy organisations have a systemic and holistic approach to organisational development, change and challenges. This means that healthy organisations have developed the thinking and behavioural capabilities to examine the challenges they encounter through a multi-focal and long-term approach. In other words, they appreciate that inefficiencies within the organisation rarely have one simple cause; they are usually multi-factorial. Hence, their thinking allows them to achieve operational excellence by addressing multiple causative factors within the various levels of the organisational system.
At True North Learning, we have found that when you distil organisational challenges down to the bare bones, and start to examine the underlying dynamics and behavioural processes which gave rise to the original problem, the vast majority are symptomatic of a lack of capacity and effectiveness in one or (usually) more of eight key elements within the organisational system. We have observed the substantial impact of the lack of aptitude in these eight key elements and how they adversely affect the performance and sustainability of organisations across various sectors of business, and also throughout different types of organisations, e.g. private and public sector, non-profit and social enterprise.
What we are effectively saying is that even though there is a range and complexity to the various types of challenges that organisations are confronted with, there are only a finite number of fundamental elements that give rise to those problems. This is simply because if you take those eight key capabilities and arrange them; there is an almost infinite amount of permutations and combinations of them, each of which contributes to manifesting as a particular set of symptoms within the organisational system.
The beauty and power of working to build capacity in these eight elements is that it addresses the underlying dynamics which give rise to organisational problems, rather than simply providing symptomatic relief. This means that building capacity in these “eight pillars” of organisational health actually supports short-term performance as well as the long-term viability of an organisation. This is organisational health.
Over the following months I shall discuss and explore, one at a time, each of the key elements that we consider to be “The Eight Pillars of Organisational Health”.
So please stay tuned and enjoy …
 Cranier, S. and Dearlove, D. Excellence Revisited Business Strategy Review, March 2002, updated to 2006
 Barton, D., Grant, A., Horn, M. Leading in the 21st Century, McKinsey Quarterly, June 2012
 Work-related Mental Disorders in Australia, The Australian Safety and Compensation Council, April 2006
 Based on definition of “Adaptive” according to Heifetz, R. et al The Practice of Adaptive Leadership Harvard Business Press 2009,BostonMA
By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera
In challenging economic times, it is imperative that organisations increase the effectiveness of how they train their people. Hence, organisations need to ensure that they get a significant return on the resources – time, money and staff – that they invest in training and development initiatives. We have found that organisations can increase the effectiveness of these programs by asking one key question, but more about that later.
From an organisational context, we see the purpose of training and development is to bridge performance gaps. Performance gaps (hereafter simply referred to as “gaps”) are the gaps between the current levels of performance (both team and individual) and the ideal or desired levels of performance.
One of the keys in designing and delivering effective organisational development programs is knowing which kind of gap the program intends to bridge. From our experience, there are two kinds of gaps. The first gap is a “technical gap”. This a gap created by the lack of skills or knowledge required to do the technical aspects of their role to the desired level of performance. These skills and knowledge are usually specific to the roles and are generally not transferrable to other roles where a different specialised skill set is required.
The second kind of gap is a “behavioural gap”. This is the gap between the way individuals and teams actually behave and the ideal set of behaviours. By “behave”, we are referring to what some may call the “soft skills” of business – it’s how people communicate, take responsibility and ownership of outcomes, how they build trust, have difficult conversations, collaborate, resolve conflict, etc. It’s all the aspects that go into making the culture of a high performance workplace. Behavioural skills are generally transferrable to a different role, even if the technical skills required are no longer applicable.
The key differentiator is how we train people in technical skills versus behavioural skills. Technical skills are generally better developed by what we would call traditional or didactic learning. This means attending lectures, reading, writing, research, and having knowledge imparted to you. Behavioural skills, on the other hand, are not effectively developed via didactic learning. This is because knowledge alone does not make a significant and sustainable change in behaviours. If knowledge alone was sufficient to change behaviours, people would not smoke, be overweight, drive too fast or end up bankrupt. Most people know that they shouldn’t do these behaviours and most know strategies on how to avoid them.
The most effective way to change behaviours is for people to have the opportunity to reflect on these behaviours. Via reflection, individuals can better understand why they behave the way they do, they can see the impact of those behaviours and also gain an awareness of the situations and triggers which elicit those behaviours. In short, the ability and opportunity to reflect on these behaviours is what builds people’s awareness of them. And it is only via awareness that behaviours can be modified or improved in a sustainable way.
Hence, the most effective way of bridging behavioural gaps is Experiential Learning. Experiential Learning usually starts with an activity designed to recreate the desired learning context. Then, via a facilitated debrief, participants are able to reflect on and therefore gain insight and awareness of their behaviours during the activity. Finally, participants make learning links between their behaviours with the activity and how they behave back in the office. They can ask, “How can I take what I learned during the activity and debrief and apply it back to my role within the organisation?”
Therefore, the key question to ask to ensure that training and development programs have the desired outcome is: “Is the performance gap this training is intending to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”
As an example, I was recently working with a team of project managers. One of the challenges that they faced was their tendency to, as a group, rush through vital decision making processes because they wanted to quickly get to the outcome they wanted. Unsurprisingly, the rushed decision making process led to poor decisions and as a result, they spend more resources “cleaning up their mess” than they spent making the actual decision.
In designing their previous training, the assumption was made that the gap was a technical one and therefore the training consisted of the technical aspects of project management. This, however, did not change the dynamic within the team.
As we observed them through a series of Experiential Learning activities and debriefed their behaviours after the activity, what became clear was that under pressure, their trust in each other diminished and therefore their ability to sit in the tension of the unknown without a clear direction was compromised. As a result, they rushed through those parts of the decision making process, simply to escape the discomfort of the unknown and subsequent lack of trust and cohesion. This highlighted their behavioural gap and therefore changed the question we as trainers asked. The question was no longer how do we provide more training on their project management skills, but how do we built a culture that is more robust and functions at a higher level in the face of pressure and an unknown outcome?
This example highlights the tendency of managers to assume the gap they are trying to bridge is a technical one. Sometimes it may well be, but if the assumption is wrong, it will lead to a training and development program that fails to meet its objectives.
So before training programs are designed and implemented, ask the question: ““Is the performance gap this training is intended to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”
By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera
As we kick start the New Year, there is a tendency for people to make resolutions. While I like the idea of some time for reflection and goal setting, my approach is slightly different. My question is where are my/our thinking and behavioural patterns outdated and therefore no longer in service of our purpose and the outcomes we want to achieve?
In my opinion, one of the key paradigm shifts that will improve our outcomes is developing our capacity to collaborate. Whether we’re talking about national or international politics, companies within the same or similar sectors, or individuals as part of the couple, it appears that humans, as a species, are often challenged around our ability to collaborate. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are hard wired to be highly competitive and defend vigorously what we perceive to be ours, but appear less inclined to be collaborative or to even entertain the idea of collaboration.
Here are my 5 keys to building a mindset that is more open, and has a greater capacity, to be collaborative.
1. Build skills at Facilitative Leadership
Whilst many people see that there is a value in being more collaborative, many also see collaboration as being time consuming and ineffective. And, in most cases, they are right. Collaborative decision making can be highly ineffective. For the collaborative decision making process to be effective, it needs to be well led and well facilitated. In this case, the facilitative leadership skills may support a more effective outcome. In fact, the facilitative leader in these situations might act more like a moderator. They control the flow of the conversation, keep people on topic and ensure the quieter and more introverted members are not drowned out by those more extroverted personalities. They also support members to clarify what they are saying. In doing this, the members themselves often gain more clarity as well as deepen their own thoughts and perspectives.
2. Hold the tension of difference (don’t collapse diversity too quickly)
Inevitably, when teams are being more collaborative, a greater diversity of viewpoints and ideas are able to be expressed and heard. Leaders and managers can sometimes have an ‘or’ mindset, which assumes that it must be plan A or plan B that is the most appropriate. A collaborative mindset looks for the ‘and’ solution. In other words, it assumes that there is some wisdom or ‘rightness’ in both plan A and plan B. By clarifying and deepening each viewpoint, it aims to find hidden treasure or wisdom in each of them and therefore develop an even better plan C. This, however, is not an easy thing to do. It means managers and teams have to sit in the tension of the unknown and have faith that at some point in time a ‘plan C’ will emerge from within the tension between the original opposing viewpoints. However, all too often, the tension gets unbearable and teams jump to either A or B simply to relieve the strain of the unknown, but in doing so, we leap to an outcome before plan C has had the chance to emerge organically.
3. Be Deeply Democratic
Deep Democracy is a concept developed by Arnold Mindell. He is a Jungian analyst and the founder of process oriented psychology or Process Work. Deep Democracy involves helping the various parts of a group to come forward and interact with each other, including those parts that have been silenced or seen as disturbing. Compared with conventional democracy, where the majority ‘wins’, Deep Democracy allows the voices of those within the minority to also be heard and valued. In this way, even if an individual’s own idea or suggestion is not the one implemented, they still feel that they have been heard and valued and that any wisdom or innovation contained within their idea is extracted and used.
4. Manage unhealthy competition or Territorialism
For organisations to be successful, it is essential that they foster and develop a strong competitive nature. This allows them to compete successfully in the marketplace and carve out their niche of market share. However, when this competitive culture is not channelled in the right direction or turns in on itself and becomes ‘cannibalistic’, it can reduce the organisation’s ability to be collaborative.
Another way to look at competition is to support it and also find ways to maximise its usefulness. Rather than compete against each other, if individuals and teams compete against their own limitations in how they think, behave and relate to each other, it will create better outcomes. Furthermore, the underlying (subconscious) function of competition is often to experience or reach some level of mastery or excellence. In other words, when individuals and teams are not supported and provided a context within which they can strive towards mastery and excellence in a particular endeavour, that need or drive can morph into behaviours of ‘unhealthy’ competition.
5. Demonstrate trust over time
What can often impair one’s ability or desire to collaborate is a lack of trust or a general skepticism about the good intentions of others. Collaboration is our ability to work together towards a common outcome or goal; it requires individuals to have a win-win approach to the relationship and intent to act in a way that not only serves their own best interests but also the best interests of others.
Building trust requires two things. Firstly, it requires disclosure. This means that you reveal your real intentions and make known the outcomes and what you are thinking in terms of the collaborative relationship. Secondly, trust requires contract. This is simply doing what you say you are going to do and keeping the agreements that you have made. This is true whether those agreements pertain to small or large matters. At the end of the day, trust is earned and built by making and keeping small agreements. If trust is not present in smaller agreements, it means that having trust in more important matters is much less likely. By acting in a trustworthy manner (disclosure and contract) over a period of time, it starts to demonstrate that you are safe to collaborate with. This slow and steady building of trust is important. This is because the process of breaking down those barriers that people have about collaboration, and changing the thinking patterns, belief systems and assumptions that they have about collaboration, can be slow as well.
 Mindell, A. 1995, Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation through Diversity and Conflict. Lao Tse Press,Portland,OR,USA
 Diamond, J. and Jones L.S. 2004, A Path Made by Walking, Process Work in Practice Lao Tse Press,Portland,OR,USA
By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera
Great leaders: are they born or made? It’s a question that has been vigorously debated since the dawn of time, well, at least since the dawn of capitalism.
But before we can answer that question, we first need to define what leadership is.
At True North Learning we see leadership as having 2 functions. The first function of leadership is to capture the hearts and minds of those they lead and then align them toward the goals, vision and purpose of the organisation. The second function of leadership is to manage the team they lead, the individuals within that team, and finally the task at hand.
However, the role of leadership that we are noticing in many organisations looks very different to the above. We are noticing that individuals are getting promoted into leadership roles based predominantly on their technical expertise. In other words, if they are a talented engineer or IT consultant or teacher, there is an assumption that they will also be capable of leading a team of engineers, IT consultants or teachers respectively. This thinking fails to recognise that the skill set required to be an engineer is very different to the skill set required to lead a team of engineers. It’s like saying because I am good at cricket, I am also good at football because they are both ball sports. As a result we see and work with many leaders who feel over whelmed, stressed-out and under skilled in their roles, primarily because they have been placed in roles that they may not be suited to or have the necessary skill set to be effective in.
Often we find the more skilled and specialised someone is at the technical aspects of their role, the harder they find it to make the transition into a leadership role. This is because the method of developing technical skills compared to leadership skills is vastly different. Technical skills are usually acquired through traditional education ie reading, taking notes, classes, university courses, apprenticeships etc. Also, they are generally specific to that role or job and cannot be transferred to another role.
Leadership skills on the other hand, whilst somewhat based on theory, are primarily a behavioural skills set. Leadership skills can be transferred to a different role ie if you can lead a team of engineers, in theory you should be able to lead a team of teachers. But the key difference is in how leadership skills are acquired. Because they are behavioural, leadership skills cannot be developed by knowledge alone. It is well documented that knowledge alone does not change behaviours.
Behavioural skills such as leadership skills are developed by “doing”. “Doing” is a 3 step process. Firstly you need to do an activity or task which places you in a leadership role. Second, is the opportunity to reflect on how you performed during that activity. In reflecting you can see where you were effective and find ways to maximise or leverage that. You can also explore where you were not so effective, and find ways to manage or develop those aspects. And then thirdly, as athletes do, practice, practice, practice until those desired behaviours become second nature. This is where Experiential Learning is a powerful and outcome-driven methodology for supporting effective behaviours and building individual and team capacity.
Therefore when organisations fill roles, especially leadership roles, with the intention of creating a high performance workplace or team, it is essential to have a clear understanding of whether the performance gap (between current function and optimal function) is of a technical nature or of a leadership/behavioural nature. This then allows organisations to screen/ seek the most appropriate people for the role and/or put in place the most suitable training and development strategy ie not pursue technical training for a behavioural issue.
So back to our original question-are great leaders born or made? If we see the 2 functions of leadership as firstly capturing the hearts and minds of those they lead and secondly to manage team, individual and task, then the answer to the question is BOTH. In other words, great leaders are both born and made.
This is because development of a leaders’ ability to manage team, individual and task is very teachable. This developmental process is optimised when the training methodology used focuses on the behavioural aspects of leadership (as opposed to being purely knowledge based).
However, we believe that there is an aspect of the ability to win hearts and minds that is not teachable. This is because this capability comes from a certain charisma and capacity to motivate people. It’s an ability to relate to, deeply understand, build rapport with, and inspire people from a diversity of backgrounds. This ability can be developed to an extent, but if its not a strong part of your intrinsic make up, then training and development can only go so far (no matter how hard, or how much I train, I am never going to run like Usain Bolt)
This does not, however, mean that leaders should not focus on their own development in the 2 elements of effective leadership. We believe that an openness and commitment to their own personal and professional growth is one of the ethical responsibilities of leadership. And besides, even though we all can’t be the Usain Bolt of the leadership world, there is something very noble and profound in the quest.
Let us know what you think: Are great leaders born or made?
By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Craig Wallace
Story of The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful metaphor for experiential learning. It shows how each character shared an experience yet received a different learning or meaning from it. In experiential learning programs each person is exposed to the same experience but may take away a different learning based on their perceptions, desired outcomes and their learning styles.
Carl Rogers (1994) wrote that learning is facilitated when: ‘(1) the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction, (2) it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems, and (3) self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.’
Experiential learning is one type of instructive strategy for learning. It isn’t an alternative approach, but possibly the most traditional and fundamental method of human learning. Ironically, the current perception of experiential education as (a fringe modality) different is possibly due to the normalisation of didactic teaching as the mainstream educational model.
Traditional, unidirectional, didactic learning paradigms have dominated Western learning for centuries. Traditionally an instructor might prepare content and spend most of the time on delivering that content. Whereas an experiential facilitator may have a few key concepts and a framework for delivery, but not limit themselves to that content alone. In true experiential learning the facilitator provides opportunities for interaction, feedback and making choices so that learning is active and individualised.
So is experiential learning for everybody? Here are some key concepts that may help you decide.
Firstly, conventional, didactic training is for you if you prefer:
In contrast Experiential Learning (EL) is for you if…
You believe the learner is central
You are ready, willing and able to become personally involved in the process. You are prepared to actively engage in both the activity / challenge and the reflective process, determine your meaning / context to the messages and then apply the learning back to your team or organisational context. In the Wizard of Oz each of the characters engaged fully in the journey yet, had their own personal learning by the end.
You’re able to hold back your pre-judgement to learning experiences
Because the human element is involved, we all take slightly different meanings from any single event. In fact, depending on your perception, events can provide diametrically opposed learnings for individuals. Coming with prejudices leads to distraction by your personal thoughts, and a lack of appreciation for other learners and their views. Judgements can be about yourself as well as others. In the Wizard of Oz the characters held judgements about their courage, intelligence and compassion. Their own character judgements were actually different to their true selves and held them back in many ways.
You are flexible on when the ‘real’ learning comes
It can take time to develop the safety within the training group and confidence of individuals to get to the key messages or core of the learning. EL is for you if your prepared to take time with success with smaller areas first, progressing to the point that you can consider raising and tackling more fundamental issues. Once again in the Wizard of Oz the characters experienced learning that was not what they were expecting in terms of content and timing, but the learning was powerful and relevant nevertheless.
You’re able to engage in experiences that are real – not based on artificial impact
The purpose of an EL activity is to create an opportunity for valuable and memorable personal leaning. The ideal activity will engage, stimulate and challenge while you become absorbed in the task as yourself. You must be able to be yourself in the experience and not take on an artificial persona.
You see the value in meaningful reviews and reflection.
The ideal review will involve you in personal thought, challenge and discussion before coming to some form of conclusion. If it is to be of real benefit, the review must be an honest critique of what happened and the contributions and challenges of each individual. Real issues should not be swept under the carpet, but discussions must be positive, constructive and entered into in a spirit of ownership, accountability and responsibility. You must be willing and able to engage positively in those discussions with the intent to learn, not blame, deny or justify.
You don’t expect the facilitator to be the font of knowledge.
Experiential learners are able to take ownership of their own learning. Looking for a ‘professional analysis’ from the facilitator, or a structured outline of what you should be learning means that the experience is delivered from the facilitator’s point of view. The facilitator should be able to guide the discussion, reflection and outcomes in the learners’ context meaning and point of view. This point is illustrated perfectly in the Wizard of Oz. The characters abdicated or projected their own wisdom and knowledge onto the Wizard, but didn’t realise what they needed was within them all along. This is often a realisation within EL programs.
You have faith in your ability to learn.
You believe that you have the potential to make progress and be committed to the fact that your role is to engage and reflect on the opportunities to learn and progress.
You don’t expect traditionally assessed and measured outcomes.
EL is largely about learning at your own pace and taking your own meaning (individual or team meaning). Whilst it is proven to lead to better understanding, behaviours, changes, learning can be difficult to measure via conventional assessment measures alone.
You see learning as cooperative and interactive.
EL is for you if you prefer cooperation, participation, challenge and fun over winning, competing and alienation. Sometimes we learn by watching others journeys and by having them actively involved in ours. Feedback based on real interaction with others is often more of an assessment than an exam will ever be.
You are able to learn through experience.
Whilst there are various learning styles, an effective learning program incorporates other styles as well as EL. EL provides development of knowledge, skills and deeper understanding through physical activities, games and exercise, simulations, drama and role play that become real, and actually doing the task or job. It’s the emotional connection that comes with experiences that gives learners the personal motivation for change and ability to retain the memory and transfer the learning. EL is for you if you can appreciate and work within those type of learning experiences.
To discover more about how True North Learning uses advanced Experiential Learning methodologies and approaches to enhance the learning of your teams and leaders visit us at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/pages/experiential-learning-methodology.php