By Therese Juda, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program
This was the key insight I gained from the MBA Leadership Re-Imagined talk given by Telstra Chairman Catherine Livingstone.
Ms Livingstone has held key leadership positions in companies undergoing tectonic change, including Cochlear, CSIRO and now Telstra, sharing with the audience key enablers in the change programs she has led.
What you believe guides what you do.
Cochlear was transitioning from a ‘department within a department’ to a highly visible public entity when Ms Livingstone took the helm. Initially the organisation struggled to achieve their 20% per annum growth target, as it grappled with agency issues and ‘fiefdoms’ that had evolved under the previous department structure.
The key to changing what people were producing was to align what they believed, acknowledging that belief systems guide a persons’ actions, big or small.
By embedding a value system as an integral part of the operations, Ms Livingstone noted that this made breeches of the system easier to call out, as it depersonalised them. For example, if in a meeting a course of action was proposed that didn’t fit Cochlear’s mandate of ‘built to last’, it became common practise for other attendees to call this out and refer back to the Company’s agreed values.
Three little letters can cost millions.
Norms, such as the universal values Cochlear implemented, are powerful ‘reference points’ on which people base both conscious and unconscious decisions. The example Ms Livingstone gave of CSIRO’s change program hinging on the words ‘in’ versus ‘for’ illustrated this point.
The CSIRO was facing an uncertain future when Ms Livingstone arrived, with funding from the Federal Government substantially decreased. The problem seemed to be not what the CSIRO was producing, but how they were communicating it, culminating in a lack of advocacy for the organisation.
This lack of advocacy was found to boil down to a seemingly minute distinction. The scientists and technicians working within CSIRO saw themselves as working ‘in’ the organisation, rather than ‘for’ it.
Initially, I wondered if the organisation was getting bogged down in semantics at the expense of uncovering the real issues. On further reflection I saw how if a person saw themselves as being provided with equipment and labs by CSIRO, but no uniting mission, then their discussion and influence of their work could be limited to their particular discovery. In an organisation with high levels of specialisation and limited engagement, silos can emerge, fragmenting the organisation’s influence and effectiveness.
Ms Livingstone noted that silo mentality was a significant issue at the beginning of the change program, but by engaging in continuous, multi-level conversations, a unified vision was established.
The emphasis of the change program on these multi-level conversations recognises the role of ‘co-authorship’ of change, seeing the role individuals must have in creating change if it is to endure.
The conversations had within the organisation need to be repeated, with Ms Livingstone mentioning an average of seven iterations required until the message is received by each person. The consistency of these messages are vital, as I imagine for an organisation filled with logic-driven scientists, any inconsistency would damage the credibility of the message of unity.
A person’s understanding of their workplace and their place within in it will guide their actions, therefore it is essential that leaders know what their staff believe, and honestly examine if it is conductive to the organisation’s success.
Successful evolution of these beliefs requires open and consistent communication that includes everyone in an organisation, and will take time.
It follows that the right behaviour will produce the right results, and leaders need to be prepared to ‘stay the course’ as is Ms Livingstone’s refrain, to allow time for individuals to hear, comprehend and embrace new norms and create better performance.