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Reflective Leadership in Times of Change with Tim Casserley

We conducted a Q&A interview with Tim Casserley, HR Director and Organisational Consultant, about business transformation and the importance of reflective leadership.

Could you introduce yourself and what you do?

I’m an HR Director specialising in organisation transformation, talent, engagement and learning. Prior to setting up my own business, I was HR Director at Veon Telecom, Head of Leadership at a 20Bn start-up in the Middle East and Regional Learning Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Central and Eastern Europe. I wrote one of the first books that addressed mental health at work, ‘Learning from burnout’ (published in 2008) and designed a transformational learning programme based on the research.

In my current role, I work alongside leadership teams to create organisations that are commercially resilient and in which people can be their most creative, coaching HR teams to help make this a reality.

First and foremost, how do you define ‘Reflective Leadership’?

Essentially, it’s about reflecting on experience – about what’s really going on in a situation and the role you are playing in it. That requires finding the space, time and courage to stand back, slow down, notice the patterns that are emerging and encourage others to do the same.

My guess is that you’re thinking ‘That doesn’t sound like rocket science – isn’t it something we all do from time to time?’ And of course, it’s not rocket science, but in my experience, it’s a huge ask of both leaders and managers to do this and do it well when they are caught up in the frenetic busyness of everyday organisational existence. As humans, we are hard-wired to make sense of our experience, but few of us do it effectively when we are under intense pressure, fewer still are able to recognise how they are contributing to events and a tiny minority have the discipline to see the patterns that are emerging around them. By patterns I am talking largely of social ones, like the kind of language that is being used, the metaphors employed, the coalitions and alliance that are being formed around particular assumptions or ideologies, the power relationships that are emerging and the impact that all of this is having on people’s identities. By-the-way, I’m not saying this is the rightful domain of psychologists, quite the contrary. In my experience, many psychologists are inherently unable to think systemically in this way, particularly when it comes to accepting their own role in the unfolding of events. This is completely the territory of self-aware, politically savvy leaders with an unsatiated curiosity in human behaviour and social process.   

Why do you believe reflective leadership is important, especially during times of change and uncertainty?

In situations of increasing uncertainty and unpredictability, we are faced with a choice… We can either go on using the same old tried and tested solutions, knowing their relevance to the predicament we find ourselves in is likely to be marginal, or we can stare into the abyss and admit to ourselves we do not know what to do. If we summon up the courage to do the latter, we quickly realise two things: The first is that no one else knows what to do either, albeit they have numerous, usually divergent opinions about what to do. This includes the expert consultant who assures you he or she has seen this all before and they have a research-based methodology that will lead you back to the promised land of scientific certainty. Your second realisation is that the only credible way forward is to explore, together with your team, how you have gone about tackling the situation collectively, the thinking you used in so doing, and the consequences that resulted from this (both intended and unintended). You begin to notice patterns, some that are helpful, others less so, and slowly you develop a way forward, through uncharted territory, based on the learning that emerges from reflecting on action.

When it comes to the leadership of a transformation and change programme, what do reflective leaders do differently, compared to say ‘ordinary’ leaders?

They do five big things.

They sit with their own uncertainty about what to do longer than ‘ordinary’ leaders. This is not about dithering or being weak. It takes an emotionally resilient leader to control their anxiety about not knowing what to do, especially when they are under pressure to deliver results. The point about sitting with the anxiety of not knowing, is to give time and space for reflection so that a more effective way of tackling the transformation programme can emerge. Weak transformation leaders do precisely the opposite, cave into the pressure and jump to ready solutions that take the transformation further off track.

Secondly, they spend time upfront exploring the intention behind the transformation and whether it is realistic and feasible. I imagine we have all encountered CEO’s with bold visions of transforming a conventional industry player into a digital, technology company within three years, or defining a set of corporate values to which all employees are aligned so consistently that they can pivot at a moment’s notice to take on a new industry entrant. These are idealised and grandiose fantasies best left next to the stale, leftover sandwiches in the Board room. Reflective leaders of transformation engage in difficult conversations about such ambitions in the hope of grounding them in real-world experience. They may not succeed, but professionally and ethically they know it’s worth the risk to try.

Thirdly, they find ways to critically reflect with their team and others on the direction the change journey is taking. This is all about making space for the sense-making and reflection process I mentioned earlier.

Fourthly, they listen to different voices – those outside the circle of ‘usual suspects’ who are used to having their voices heard about the transformation programme. These are those on the margins of organisations, whose everyday working life is most affected by the transformation.  

And finally, they pay attention to the impact of the transformation on people’s identities and relationships and how these relationships are being ruptured. This means giving people an opportunity to express their sense of loss, and supporting them in reknitting, repairing and developing a renewed sense of purpose and belonging.

What role does reflective leadership play in getting people on board a transformation or change programme?

In my experience it’s pivotal. The effect of reflecting, noticing patterns and thinking systemically makes you more aware of inter-dependencies and the simple fact that you can only truly lead if others are willing to be led by you.

What does it take for leaders to become more reflective in the way they lead?

Self-awareness, courage, experience, a disposition towards seeing humans as ends rather than means and curiosity in organisations as social processes rather than machine-like structures that perform with a high degree of predictability and certainty. A willingness to challenge convention, is helpful too, particularly when it comes to the prevailing linear, sequential, project management approach of most transformation programmes which are a far cry from the complexities of the everyday, human world.

Are there any tools or strategies to help encourage reflective leadership?

Tools in the sense of techniques and models that can be universally applied, no. This is messy, human stuff and the most powerful way of encouraging others to lead reflectively is to model it yourself and seek to influence others to do the same. I think there are strategies that leaders can employ to encourage their teams to do this. Much of it is common sense. Taking your team away from their normal physical environment can help. So can convening conversations with diverse stakeholders – the different voices I referred to earlier. Using a professional consultant to facilitate key off sites and meetings can also be helpful, as long as they are true believers in reflective leadership and are there to facilitate, not to impose their expert opinion.

What examples of reflective leadership or its antithesis are there in public life at the moment, do you think?

Oh god! I guess you know what I’m going to say. It’s more evident in its absence, right now. In the UK, the Brexit debate is characterised by ideologically driven, unreflective, dogmatic leadership – Leavers and Remainers are equally guilty. Ironic, given the enormity of the social and economic transformation the UK is facing. Equally, both main political parties appear to be reflective leadership free zones.

In terms of the world of work, it’s difficult to see through the fog of spin as many organisations and their leaders would like us to believe they are paragons of reflection. Personally, I have not experienced an organisation whose culture truly encourages reflective leadership, but I have worked for individual leaders who have walked the talk. One now works for McKinsey, another for Air Products and the third has his own consultancy. Reflective leadership is more of a movement, a loose network of enlightened practitioners, than circumscribed by a few specific organisations, I think. 

This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.

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