Leading Mindful Change

This client was, at the time we worked with them, one of Europe’s largest power companies. Founded in the 19th Century, it had a long and venerable history in electricity generation. But times have changed and by the 21st Century the public was more likely to perceive it as one of Europe’s largest polluters and creators or greenhouse gasses. Multiple pressures were being brought to bear to force a change in its business model. Legislative changes presaged the enforced closure of its nuclear plants; activists, consumers and governments were pressing for cleaner – even zero carbon – electricity generation; state subsidies for highly local domestic power generation were eating into its market.

This was a multi-billion Euro company that had to change or die.

The newly appointed CEO knew what was coming. He also recognised that many of his top leaders had been recruited and grown into their positions at a time when public utilities were thought to provide stable, routine, lifetime employment. The disruptive 21st Century would be a rude jolt for some of these and not all were equipped to face the changes the organisation had to go through.

That had to change – and fast.

The CEO recruited an independent programme director who in turn pulled together a team of consultants, including Michael, who formed a cooperating faculty – working together to design and implement a change leadership development programme. This was to be a living laboratory for change that modelled the unpredictable, disturbing nature of the company’s business environment and invited the leaders who attended to notice, own and regulate their responses to the experience.

When you’re leading an uncontrollable dynamic system one of the few things you can regulate are your own responses to that.

While the CEO had given the programme director carte blanche with the design of the programme, he had one key request: the mindfulness be the ‘tent-pole’ of the curriculum.

From personal experience, he was aware of its capacity to enhance working memory capacity – making more mental and emotional energy available for the crucial tasks they all faced. He saw its capacity to reduce stress and to enable leaders to come out of autopilot more frequently. And he saw that it was crucial for the leaders to begin to cultivate a kind of non-judgemental, open, curious way of looking at situations that would enable them to see more.

A total of 360 leaders, in cohorts of 30 at a time, attended the 3 residential modules of the programme across a combined total of 10 days.

Michael delivered 3 different Mindful Leader sessions on these and guided a further in-depth tutorial for small sub-groups. Each day of the programme began before breakfast with an optional mindful activity – meditation, walking, running, swimming, yoga and mindful moments were threaded through each day of the programme.

The programme was underpinned by an attitude of mindfulness. Whenever the group’s attention strayed from direct experience into an abstracted, narrative mode of mind, the faculty gently guided them to bring their attention back to the lived experience of what was actually happening in the moment. There’s nothing wrong with narratives, but too often they’re used as an escape from facing what needs to be faced in the moment. If you’re leading change, the crucial skill is to act appropriately and with intention in the present moment.

The leaders came gradually to see more of how their own habits of mind  impeded their capacity to lead change. “I never realised before how much I use sarcasm to distance myself from others!” “Now I can see how much my own self-judgement is holding me back.”

This was a multi-modal programme with many components working together to build change leadership capacity.

The mindfulness elements were very well received. We began to hear reports back from other parts of the organisation that people were noticing that their bosses and colleagues were calmer and more self-aware; more attentive, less controlling and judgemental – better able to deal with what came their way in a time of unprecedented change.

We also heard that it improved the quality of family relationships.

Towards the end of the programme the company pulled off a dramatic strategic move – effectively splitting the group into two: a zero carbon part and a legacy part that would “keep the lights burning” while gradually winding itself down. That was a transition fraught with painful uncertainty and it was heartening to hear reports back from their bankers and other advisors that they had never before experienced a group of senior leaders so able to quickly and collaboratively enact big change.


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