Bridging Minds: 
Successfully Transferring Knowledge & Leadership Practice to Evolving Regions

© 2017 CMC Today and Doug Macnamara, CMC


“How do I effectively energize change and persevere on-plan with my team, when I have to also work as a part-time professor and run my own business, just to be able to afford a driver, dress in a suit, entertain clients, etc. that are expected of me as a senior civil servant executive?” 
- Assistant Deputy Minister of Indonesian Government Department during a Leading Change session

“I’m not sure Islam allows us to be innovative or creative senior leaders.”
-  Senior VP of an Iranian Petrochemical Company during a Leading Innovation session

“Mr. Macnamara, the reason we needed to take a break, is because when you asked us who would be accountable for ensuring these programs are implemented as agreed; in our culture, you have basically just asked who would actually take a bullet if we weren’t successful.”
 - Senior leader in the Departments and Subjects of the Russian Federation in TTT session

The work we do as international consultants is exciting, fascinating and rewarding. It also requires us to take an approach that is both respectful of the cultures within which we work, yet also establishes a trustful bond so that we can deal with important issues and challenges (perceived or real), that are blocking change and adoption of new practices. 

I have been fortunate to work with top executives and Boards/Councils/Cabinets of major and well-known companies, Not-for-Profits and Government Departments in my home country of Canada, in USA’s Silicon Valley, in several countries of the Austral-Asia region, in UAE and Iran, plus several countries across Europe. I believe our success and repeat business over many years with the same clients and referrals in these countries, is due to some key elements of our consulting approach which I will outline in this article. In the context of the 5th International CMC Conference in Astana, successfully Bridging Minds from leading practices in one part of the world to evolving regions and organizations requires 3 key elements for success. 

  1. Truly embrace the notion of “abundance” and believe in transfer of knowledge and leading practices so they can become competent and self-led in applying their new skills and wisdom with others in their organization and country.
  2. Focus on building an understanding of key principles of excellent leadership and governance – not just some “5-step formula” or other models that have worked in a particular company within what might be seen as a dominant culture/country in the world. This often leads to the creation of reference tools, models or templates to help leaders prepare their interaction with employees.
  3. Facilitate active exploration, adaptation, and implementation of these principles with real-life exercises and simulations or case examples that integrate the unique culture’s, circumstances and challenges of their organizations and their people. Then build action plans specifically able to address the real challenges of evolving to the next level!

Let’s explore more deeply, each of these three elements and some related case examples.

#1 Embrace “Abundance” and Commit to Real Transfer of Knowledge & Practices
It has been said that “knowledge is power” and some consultants believe that their own longevity and financial success is based on creating client-dependence on the consultant’s knowledge or tools or both. In fact, quite the opposite is critical for success in evolving organizations. 

There is an “abundance” of clientele and opportunity in the world, and we have always believed our job is to develop capacity and transfer both knowledge and skills plus the self-confidence in the application of that knowledge and skills. In reality, your value as a consultant, and the value of a senior executive or leader is dependent on continually being on the leading-edge and continually evolving your own capabilities and experience, so that clients and employees see this practical value in your services.

In working to Bridge Minds and bring leading practices to evolving regions or organizations, the consultant and managers must truly seek to help their clients/employees both learn and practice and gain confidence in applying this knowledge to their own team and setting. 

The consultant-client relationship and “contract” is thus based upon successful skills and knowledge transfer – essentially ensuring a new level of competency is displayed on-the-job by the trainees within a few weeks of the training and that this continues for many months/years thereafter. In addition, you should see ongoing adaptation by the trainees/employees as they themselves become capable of self-improving and advancing their competencies.

#2 Focus First on Really Understanding the Principles of Leading Knowledge & Practices
You’ve probably seen them – the highly packaged “formulas” for success: The Nine-Step Planning & Problem Solving Model, the 5 Keys to Whatever – these are often significantly hyped, yet simplistic approaches to doing something new in your organization. Most of them fail. And they fail for a few important reasons:

  • The consultants or trainer don’t actually pass on the knowledge or insight around the core challenges their model or approach addresses; or
  • What works in one organization or culture is often not exactly transferrable to another; or
  • New practices are “blocked” in their implementation back on the job by managers or bosses that don’t understand or support the new approaches; or
  • Many practices, especially in the fields of leadership and governance, are situational and must adapt to different conditions or contexts.

Instead, whether implementing a new computer system or a quality/productivity initiative, a strategic shift or change leading and more, the leaders and employees must understand the WHY’s and the VALUES and the GOALS involved in order for the new practices and systems to be sustained. As countries and organizations evolve towards leading practices, we are creating more and more “knowledge workers”, and we are expecting these k-workers to exert judgment in adjusting their approach to different conditions.

Let’s take an example of a key leadership principle that many evolving organizations all around the world are trying to implement in different ways – Empowerment.
If you are a service organization or produce products/packages that get constructed differently for different clients or applications; then we really expect our employees to exert judgment in changing their approach depending on the client or situation. Blindly following simple policies or procedures in a manual doesn’t cut it anymore – just ask some of the USA major airlines where recently, employees got caught physically dragging passengers off overbooked flights!

If we are going to get employees to exert judgment, then managers and team leaders must really understand the principle of Empowerment and everything that is behind the organization wanting to employees to be empowered. The whys.

The leaders need to fully understand the knowledge they need to impart to employees, and they must actually believe themselves in the new VALUES supporting new practices. 
Finally, they must be able to visualize, indeed practice, the kind of team staff meetings or the various dialogues to hold on a regular basis, the type and quality and frequency of feedback they must impart to their employees, and so on. Clear GOALS for the new organizational approaches.

Before they can do empowerment, they must: 

  • understand the concept and principles and building blocks; 
  • actually believe that this new workplace environment of having empowered employees is a good thing, and not a threat to the managers/team leaders, and finally, 
  • see why and how this kind of new behavior will lead to reaching their team, departmental, and organizational goals.

In many evolving countries and organizations there is some “old thinking” still in place. Often there are some strongly held values or fears that were established to support the previous behaviours/practices that were expected still in place. Even old incentives (financial bonus structures or promotion mechanisms or other benefits) may still be in place and accidentally reinforcing old behaviours. Thus, before you can really move forward the executives/leaders have to wrestle with everything from religion or dominant owner-founder legacies, or existing incentives, or entrenched beliefs about the best way to manage or get the most out of employees.

Once Management and team leaders fully understand the principles; we are ready to discuss how to apply the concept in their culture, in their organization, for their unique context.

#3 Actively Explore Adaptation & Implementation for the Unique Client Context
While Element #2 is very important to effectively Bridge Minds, we must also create a safe space to imagine and practice these new behaviours and concepts before going back into the workplace. It is not until executives/leaders try to actively implement new practices, to do hands-on simulations or explain out-loud to someone else a new concept that they really understand it. Indeed this is the stage where we actually find barriers and challenges not addressed in Element #2 – often which can take us to a whole new level of insight and understanding.

  • In the Indonesia example, we were really digging into what it took to lead change and sustain the motivation and reinforcement of good practices when they happened. We conducted a practice staff meeting, when suddenly one of the participants came out with Quote 1 from the above article introduction. It broke the tension, but it also took us to a whole new level of dialogue and understanding of the principles.
  • Many of the Indonesian participants personally knew and were faced with the same challenges outlined by the person who spoke-up: that although they had a very senior government job, they were not paid very well for this job. Yet, because of their seniority, they were expected to hire a driver, operate a modern fairly expensive vehicle, have a maid and/or cook at home, and entertain regularly. In order to act the part and be respected in their job, they had to find other sources of income. Most taught a few courses at a university, and many also ran a home-based or family-owned business in order to generate the income required to meet the cultural expectations of their job. 

Unfortunately, this meant that these other commitments took them away from their office;  away from being able to “be there” and unable to provide hands-on support or encouragement to their employees or oversight of the new practices and approaches.

So, we had to really think through together how to apply the principles of change leadership for their very unique environment and cultural challenges.

[A consultant that was just delivering a cookie-cutter “5-step solution” program would have completely missed some of the very important cultural challenges required for effective implementation of their approach.]

  • In the first program of Leading Innovation in Iran, we did a hands-on practice session with some “acting” – led by a Canadian improvisational actor coach. The Iranian participants suddenly became very conscious of the video cameras that were recording the session for train-the-trainer purposes. They did not know who might see the video tape, and did not want to be seen to be acting “unprofessionally”. Near the end of an hour debrief conversation one of the older, most senior executives uttered the Quote # 2 from the introduction. 

Well, this took us to a whole new level of dialogue and introspection: was it indeed Islam that was the barrier, or was it cultural norms and expectations within their own organization that was preventing creativity and innovation and “acting out of normal character”? Digging into the real challenges, practical solutions became more clear.

The executives and consultants were then able to get each participant to role-play how to apply and how they might action the principles for success and innovation in their division and location within the company.

  • Towards the end of the 2-week developmental session with the Russian delegation, we were talking about implementation, what goals we would set for ourselves and how to be accountable for achieving our timelines and outcomes as we had developed them together. At one point, I asked the question: “Which person amongst you will be responsible for ensuring our just-developed-plan meets its milestones and expectations?” I got blank stares from around the room. I thought maybe the translators had mis-translated my question, so I asked again slightly differently: “Who is the one person of the Russian team that I should call, and check-in with from time to time, and to also hold responsible for ensuring everyone else does their part?” More blank stares, now some agitation in the group! 

So I tried a third time, “OK I’m sorry maybe I am not asking my question in a way you understand… Which one or two people of the Russian team can I talk to if our plan isn’t implemented the way we discussed?” More agitation and looks around the room from participants. Finally the leader of the Russian delegation suggested we take a break and discuss this at the break. It was at this break that the Russian woman delegation-leader spoke Quote 3 above!

Even though the old regime had dissolved, there was still a lot of fear throughout their new and evolving culture and enterprise. And, Accountability, while understood, also came along with great fear, and no one wanted to be “the one” accountable for fear of death! So, we had a whole new opportunity to take the concepts of leading change, and also accountability to a higher level of understanding and practical application.

There are many techniques for getting clients, executives, and leaders to practicing the principles of #2, in a meaningful and practical manner, applied to their unique culture and organization. These approaches include such things as:

  • Role Plays, using client examples
  • Simulations of the new technology or organizational leadership
  • “Live” case-studies created in advance in co-operation with the client
  • Action-learning experiences such as working with artists or outdoor/indoor team challenges with debriefs and even peer-observer debriefs.

In Conclusion
Bringing leading practices to evolving organizations and/or countries/regions is an important requirement for advancing our societies, sustainably growing GDP, developing local talent and a global value-proposition, while improving prosperity and standards of living. Done well with a solid partnership
from a global leading consultancy and a local evolving consultancy; the potential for high impact and success in Bridging Minds is enhanced if you also ensure the 3 key elements:

#1 Embrace “Abundance” and Commit to Real Transfer of Knowledge & Practices
#2 Focus First on Really Understanding the Principles of Leading Knowledge & Practices
#3 Actively Explore Adaptation & Implementation for the Unique Client Context

About the Author:
Doug Macnamara is President of Banff Executive Leadership Inc. offering public and customized programming to improve Board Governance and Executive Leadership Practices. He also provides coaching and consulting services to Boards and Executives to help enhance their leadership practices.