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Culture is what people do when no one is looking: Gerard Seijts

Interview with Executive director, Ian O Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, Richard Ivey School of Business

Rajarshi Bhattacharjee  |  New Delhi 

In a recent discussion with Rajarshi Bhattacharjee, Seijts says the issue of good leadership boils down to what leaders do when the media, shareholders and politicians are not looking at them

What is your definition of a successful leader? Post the global economic meltdown, do you think leaders should look at running their enterprises any differently?
We had done some great research projects a few years back following our experiences during the global financial crisis. There was also a lot of talk in the media at the time that dealt with greed, as the financial crisis was a result of greed. I must tell you that many people, some of our alumni who are also our friends, knew that we are heading towards a financial crisis during the period. But they were not always greedy people. We engaged in conversations with 300 of these people and as you can imagine there was a shock in waiting — in terms of all kinds of leadership failures.

After learning from the insights of those 300 people, we put them in a number of buckets and found that a lot of the leadership failures have to do with lack of competencies. For example, one of those competencies we talked a lot about was risk I may not be a fine accounting person but I do know, for example, the essence of risk is asking appropriate questions. And that’s a behavioural piece. But in many organisations people feel almost threatened to ask tough, hard-hitting questions because they feel they might be ridiculed. Sometimes, people have to deal with dominating CEOs, and they are often not clear how the CEO is thinking, which way he or she is leaning. This makes it difficult to ask hard-hitting questions. That goes all the way back to the capability of — or competency in — establishing a culture of constructive dissent for honest and candid conversations.

You know, for the most part, business schools do an outstanding part by teaching competencies. This should be central in what you and I should be able to do. What I think we have failed to do over the years in business schools, even in organisations, is to place an emphasis on the character piece. Character is kind of a loaded word. Character, as it is explained in books, has to do with piece of personality; it has to do with values. In our discussions, we have got around to the notion of virtues—worthy behaviours that cut across processes, across religion, across time. These worthy behaviours lead to individual and organisational excellence. Wisdom is one of these; courage would be another, restraint one more and so on. What we have seen during the crisis, for example, is virtues turning into vices. If you nurture too little of the virtues they turn into vices. Like, too much of confidence turns into recklessness. If you do not have enough courage, it’s cowardice. So, when competencies talk about what leaders should be able to do, the character piece is: who the leaders are. The notion also goes around the commitment piece — the commitment to do the hard work.

  • Gerard Seijts is associate professor in organisational behaviour and executive director of the Ian O Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, Richard Ivey School of Business, Western University, Canada
  • Seijts is teaching several Ivey leadership programs with executives from organisations such as Aecon, OMERS, Maple Leaf Foods, KPMG, AS Watson, among others
  • He has taught executive MBA, MBA and undergraduate courses in leadership, leading change, organisational behaviour, human resource management, and performance management
  • His research activities, spanning several journal articles and conference papers, cover a range of topics including leadership and change, goal setting on complex tasks, training and development, fair employment strategies, performance appraisal and team processes 
  • He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Business and Psychology and Applied Psychology: An International Review. Gerard is past division chair of the Human Resources Division of the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada 
  • Several of his research papers have received awards. Dr Seijts has also received awards for excellence in teaching

You have spoken at length about the leader’s character about his/her commitment. What about the issue of control? Where does it fit in, especially in this scheme of things?

Most of us who like to be in a leadership position like to be in control, like it’s one of the perks of the job; they like to give orders to people and make things happen. But good leadership also involves a lot of hard work. There is a cost involved to it. Going back to the financial crisis, a lot of people said they weren’t fully engaged in the leadership space. There were a lot of rumours, whispers and concerns in organisations and many of these leaders were functioning at the top and not really at the bottom. How often have you seen in your profession somebody storming into your office and saying, “Come on, you got to help solve a problem.” It doesn’t happen. So, you need to learn to listen. Listen even to whispers and that’s how you get to be fully engaged. Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen.

What has changed between then and now?
A whole lot has changed — people again understand the value of strong corporate cultures, candid conversations. More than ever, people have started reflecting on who they are and what they bring to the leadership role. How leaders act, what they say or don’t say, what they do or don’t do, take a toll on an organisation. If you communicate with a certain amount of humility that you don’t have all the answers, I think people will be more willing to help you out. In terms of competencies, things can go wrong, so we need to continue to train people.

At Ivey School, we look at organisations that are interested to have constructive conversations. Talking of corporate culture, we must not forget that culture is what people do when no one is looking. The question boils down to what will these leaders do when the media, shareholders and politicians are not looking at them. What if two years from now the whole stuff around ethics slowly goes back to the background? If we want to make a difference then somehow it has to be embedded in people’s DNA. If we talk about culture and values, the question is, can you live those values? Can you live the ethics of your organisation? Can you live the transparency in your daily actions? As a behavioural scientist, I have seen it is very difficult to change one’s behavioural routine.

Don’t you think business schools have a role to play here? A person doesn’t develop a certain character overnight, after he has entered the workforce…
Organisations can’t just say to business schools “you gave us people of low character”, because organisations have a role to play too. In an organisation where there is a lot of team work, if some team members work harder than a few others and you let it go by, you send the message that it’s okay to slack off. But that’s not right. So, what we talk about, what we measure, what we reward, sends signals to people. A classic business article, ‘On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B’ (Steven Kerr), says that often we hope for excellence in performance but the way our compensation and reward structures are set in the organisation decides for rewarding people for their performance. I think in many ways, we hope for ethical behaviour in organisations, but we really don’t put in place the structure for the leaders to reinforce the behaviours that we would like to see. I am optimistic that things will change, but I am also looking at the picture realistically.

What are the principle concerns that need to be looked at when designing a leadership development programme to solidify organisational success?
The first important point is, of course, what are my leadership needs. A reasonable assumption is the quality of leadership, to a great extent, leads to the success of an organisation. But my assumption is, if we have better people, if we are able to field better players, we have a better chance of winning in a marketplace. If we can elevate the knowledge, the skills, and capabilities across the board, we have a better chance of winning the competition. We can capture the innovative spirit of the people who work for us and turn that into great actionable ideas. So, I have to first find out in an organisation what my real needs are and what do I need the most right now to get there.

Two things that we talk about a lot at schools — first, organisations always face the pleasure of performing now (in terms of people skills, motivation etc), and the second is building for the future (for example succession management, turnover, prepare the workforce for the future etc). I think all these have to start with some need-analysis. Then I will say, let’s see which school, which provider of executive education can develop best on those needs — who are willing to work with the organisation and willing to work with the individuals to help improve human behaviour.

Let me give you an example. I was with a construction company in Canada. It was a large programme at school and a part of it had a follow-up structure. We were asked what our specific take-aways from that programme were and those should not be any vague statements. We were asked to sit down with the supervisors to talk about the findings, about the content, about the realisations and so forth. Then came the pre-commitments: things that we were definitely going to do after the programmes.

So, in many ways, executive education is forging a partnership between the client and the school. I think, in India, organisations like to see bang for the buck. The buck will come but what’s the bang? What’s the commitment? How can we make the organisation better? Organisations really need to figure out what is it that they need from this programme. First, what is it that they need now, what is it that they need in the future? Second, find a good school or people with expertise who have the content to help deliver on those objectives. Third, it’s a partnership. A partner helps people in developing a plan for themselves and the organisation.

In your view, is there a lack of urgency in organisations to improve performance, which is based on the assumption that the current level of leadership skill is adequate?
What I have seen in this regard differs from organisation to organisation. Some organisations always upgrade with a sense of efficiency. When things start to move, they act. Take for example, an organisation going through a turnaround. A turnaround can be painful. People tend to be tired. Organi-sational changes, especially if you are the recipient, can be quite challenging.

Metaphorically, we need a few minutes to take a break. Be careful, because a few minutes turn into an hour, hours turn into a day and days turn into weeks and even before you know, you can turn into a complacent organisation. I think, as leaders, we need to be very careful how much we can stretch our people. We cannot stretch people all the time, sometimes we need to pull back a bit. But there is always a risk of turning complacent.

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First Published: Mon, September 24 2012. 00:44 IST