Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

The dust is just descending on the world’s greatest strategy off-site. Where 194 countries, represented by 38,000 delegates, descended on Glasgow for COP26. It represented the highest possible stakes leadership quest, the stewardship and preservation of our planet. The outcome, probably most aptly described in the FT editorial, which described it as ” more than expected, less than hoped”. Your current challenges as a leader might not be quite on the scale or the loftiness of the COP26 summit. Nonetheless, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get a group of people to mobilize around a common aim so that your enterprise can continue to survive and thrive.

Most organizations, most teams, therefore, most leaders at this moment in time, as we’re in the throes of the fourth wave of a pandemic, are going through major transformation or disruption. And we’ve dealt with this in terms of refocusing teams, rebuilding teams, during the mini season on this, from episodes 39 to 42. And what I’m going to dedicate this episode to is thinking about the parallels and similarities between the challenges that we face on a daily basis and the challenges faced by those at the COP26 summit.

I’m going to begin by going back to the basic blueprint for successful leadership, which is the effectiveness of a leader or leadership is measured by the level of clarity x the level of commitment. E = Cl x Co. The summary verdict on the summit in Glasgow is that clarity was high commitment…. mmm… That’s something completely different. Clarity without commitment is simply like having one hand clapping.

Clarity is based on the agreements that were made and commitment is measured by the level of buy-in that there is to delivering on what’s been agreed. On the clarity side, agreeing to where we want to get to, well, there were two things which were pretty clear as an outcome from that. The first was the purpose or the purpose of gathering and being together, was ultimately, the ultimate purpose, which was to save the planet from extinction. And the measurable outcome that went alongside that is that the Earth’s temperature would stay at no more than one and a half degrees above the preindustrial age levels by the year 2100. “Keep 1.5 alive” is the slogan accorded to this noble vision.

As well as clarity on where we want to get to, there’s also a clarity on where we are now, which is quite simply that we’re currently 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels. However, the second part of that is that our trajectory of where we’re going to go at the current rate is not optimistic. To that end, what is also clear are the priorities to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we want to get to. And these priorities break down into five main activities. The first is to phase down fossil fuels; the second is to increase the level of funding for poorer nations; thirdly, individual countries will redraft their own local climate plans; fourthly, there will be a reduction in methane; and finally, there will be a reduction in deforestation.

So, in summary, whilst the clarity is good, unfortunately, clarity alone is not enough. In order for things to get executed and delivered, you need commitment. Some of the risks involved with commitment and execution of the COP26 agreements are exactly the same risks that you will encounter as you’re trying to work with your own transformation, with your own team, in your own enterprise.

There are six that I’d like to outline that are immediately evident. The first commitment breakdown very often happens at source. And it’s what I would call a belief or lack of belief in the vision itself. Talk is cheap, and flip chart paper never refused ink. Even by the admission of COP26 president Alok Sharma, the “Keeping 1.5 alive” vision has got a weak pulse. It’s backed up by the general recognition that even if all the promises are kept after the summit, that the best we can hope for is 1.8 or somewhere between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees. This is a high risk. The risk is the loss of credibility. And when you’re working with your team to set your own destination or your own vision, it’s got to fall somewhere between being far enough out of reach that we’ve got to stretch and work for it but not so far out of reach that we believe that the effort is futile. It’s that sweet spot, right in between those two extremes, that enables you to access the Flow channel that we talked about in the previous episode, that leads to supreme high performance within a team to achieve things that they never expected.

The second potential breakdown is linked into the best definition I’ve ever heard for the word commitment, and it comes from the American psychologist George Zalucki. Commitment is doing the thing you said you would do long after the mood you said it in has left you. We can all recognize ourselves in that.

Think about Glasgow for a second. There was two years of a buildup and a preparation for the event itself. There was two weeks of frenzied activity and negotiation where the world was spotlighting one city, in one event on the planet. There was a weight of expectation, and there was an emotive energy that led to these agreements. It’s a little like the holiday romance. Once the holiday is over and we return back to the grind of our daily routine, then reality begins to bite, and the mood fades.

Part of the fading of the mood and the reality that people return to is point number three, which I call the conflict of the two jerseys. And what I mean by that is in sports terms, you often have situations where somebody is wearing the Jersey that they have when they play for their club, and they also wear a Jersey, but it’s a different Jersey that they wear when they’re playing for their country. And often, there’s tension between the club and the country and the two jerseys.

With executive or senior teams in particular, each of the team members has their own functional responsibility, departmental responsibility, where the 24 hours per day that they have is already not enough time to fulfil the obligations that they have locally. But if every member of the team prioritizes local, it becomes a win-lose game, and it’s done at the expense of the overall enterprise. Because we have a limit of time, we have a limit of resources, we have a limit of budget, and it’s only human to prioritize the things that have immediate consequences if we don’t get them done, which is typically local.

In global planetary terms, it’s a country versus global conflict. And going back to the responsibility and the importance of the vision, there needs to be an extremely compelling vision for people to be so committed to the greater good that they’re prepared to sacrifice locally. This is precisely why India and China fudged on the commitment to phase out coal and fossil fuels because 70% of their energy locally derives currently from coal. And to phase that out entirely would mean the loss of jobs locally and dire consequences for their economy. In all situations where there’s resistance to change in any transformation, it’s because I need to feel that what I’m committing and sacrificing locally, or from what I’m currently doing in my current present-day activities that I’m accountable for, that there’s a greater payoff in the medium to long-term for the common good, that returns back to me.

The fourth big issue with creating strategy and agreements where there’s clarity is that we feel that by taking the time out and investing the time to create that clarity, that’s the end of the work, and our work is done here. We applaud the inspiration, and we avoid the perspiration that needs to come afterwards. It’s so cliched, and I’ve seen it so often, that the offsite document gets typed up, circulated, it goes into the top drawer, everybody’s applauded it and feels great about the achievement and the time away together, and the next time anybody ever looks at it is a year down the road when we’re thinking about planning the next one.

Here’s the difference between launch energy and cruise energy. The launch energy is the energy that gets us to a point of creating the agreements and creating the clarity we need to create. But it’s a little bit like launching a rocket. If all you did was put the energy into the launch and you left it at that, you just plummet right back down to earth. Cruise energy takes over whenever the launch has been done to enable us to get to our destination and to cruise along at the altitude that we’ve selected. Living into or living up to those agreements requires rigour, requires persistence and on a practical level, it requires planning, accountabilities, work streams, scheduling, and reporting. We could simply call this good management.

Fifth obstacle to commitment is language. The whole issue about phasing out versus phasing down is just the changing of a word on the surface, but words have meaning. We make the very human mistake of believing that the meaning that we assign to a word when we use language because we know what we mean by that language is exactly the same meaning that other people will take from the word as we use it. George Bernard Shaw summarized this very neatly when he said that the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it’s happened.

To illustrate this point, we’ve just worked with an organization which was crafting a definition of why it existed as a team, and a subgroup of the team went to work on this to get to a point where they had a full understanding, common understanding, and buy-in in to what their purpose was. The team got stuck on the nuance with just one word, and it took them three meetings to get to a point where everybody was satisfied, and everybody understood. The paradox here is that it feels like an over-investment of time to get to a point of common understanding and common agreement around language that we don’t feel we can afford. The irony is, if we don’t afford it and we don’t invest the time, then people go off with different understandings and it’s going to blow up in our face at some point further down the line. So invest the time and take the pain upfront. Get to the common agreement because that’s where real commitment lies, is in the differing of understanding and the reconciliation of those differences.

The final observation and sixth, in establishing commitment to delivering on agreements, is the role of the leader. And the role of the leader increasingly in our modern society, is one where we are asked to influence without authority. Our world, hierarchically, is far flatter in our organizations, we’re more matrix based, we’re working on cross-functional project teams, more globally dotted line reporting. The idea of do it because I told you, or because I’m your boss, seems so outmoded, it’s just a trope from some dinosaur era.

The image of Alok Sharma, the president, moving from delegation to delegation at the 11th hour, trying to get agreement without the authority to impose it, was probably best summarized by Boris Johnson of all people. This is probably the one and only time that I’m going to leave the last word to Boris Johnson on anything, but he described it as what we can do is we can lobby, we can cajole and we can encourage. But we can’t force sovereign nations to do what we want them to do when they don’t wish to do it.

I hope this has been a useful deconstruction of the event, and it’s reflective of some of the key themes that we face as leaders ourselves in trying to make transformation happen at a time when there’s so much uncertainty.

Until next time. Stay safe. Stay sane, stay connected.

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