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Interview with Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe

Speaker Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, PhD, MBA, MSC, CPsychol, FBPS, has spent 25+ years in research and consultancy supporting the leadership development of individuals, and increasing leadership capacity in organisations. She is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist, Emeritus Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Leeds and Fellow of the British Psychological Society. In this interview you can read her thoughts on engaging leadership and more.

Who or what inspires you?

The range is enormous. It’s not just those who have achieved high public profiles, such as Malala and Anita Roddick, whose steadfast personal values drive, or drove, their passion to challenge the status quo, in order to improve the lives of those who have little power to influence their situation. It’s also those countless individuals of integrity, who are genuine and selfless, and who use their influence and resources, daily, for the benefit of others who are often disregarded by their organisation or community.

I’m greatly moved by those I’ve met in various organisations, who are open to new ideas and willing to admit the mistakes they’ve made, or who challenge their own assumptions about colleagues, and accept the need to change themselves so as to be more effective in their leadership and enable others to realise their potential.

I’ve frequently encountered individuals on workshops, who work in extraordinarily challenging situations, and who are genuinely excited about immediately applying their learning, to change – often significantly/dramatically – the way they work with their staff, teams, or colleagues, and who identify innovative solutions to what they had regarded as intransigent problems. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

In summary, integrity, generosity, authenticity, open-mindedness, respect for difference in others and their ideas, optimism, daring to dream, and a passion for doing the right thing to improve the quality of life, and/or experiences and effectiveness, of others, and who lack any sense of egocentrism and superiority.

 

Why is it so important that leaders are inclusive?

For a host of reasons:

But first we need to be clear about the difference between diversity and inclusion, as they are not synonymous.

If we use the analogy of an orchestra: having a diversity of musicians and instruments does not itself produce an outstanding performance; this can only occur when these musicians using their unique talent and experience, work in collaboration, guided by the conductor (leader).

Why organisations/leaders need diversity (apart from the obvious ethical reason):

  • Because society is diverse; Organisations cannot truly serve their diverse customers/stakeholders/community/wider society effectively if they do not reflect such diversity in their internal talent. Furthermore, they will be less able attract the diversity of talent on which their future success, or survival, depends.
  • Cloning the same type of employees, senior managers, and professionals in an organisation will strengthen traditional, out-dated ways of operating, thinking, and of approaching problems, and will increase the chances of ultimate obsolescence.
  • Innovation and adaptability are crucial for survival in a world of constant change – of ‘never-ending white water’ – which requires intellectual and perceptual versatility and agility.

Why leaders need to be inclusive:

  • Genuinely embracing diversity and inclusion enables organisations to view the world through the eyes of different perspectives and experiences, cultural background and values; it offers opportunities for daily challenge (‘cognitive catalysts’) to accustomed way of perceiving and judging situations, issues, ideas, through conversations and collaboration. It strengthens cultures of openness and of learning – so critical in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world
  • Connectivity is becoming crucially important in our global environment. Genuine collaboration within, and between organisations, and people with very different backgrounds, expertise, experience, provides our organisation, and teams, with the potential for daily stimulation and learning, which, in turn, influences our effectiveness. It also provides access to additional resources in an extraordinarily challenging world.
  • Organisations need to utilise the talent that resides in everyone of its employees to be able ‘to do more with less’, and because diversity brings constant challenge to assumptions that there’s only one vision, one solution, one means of achieving the vision and aims of the organisation, it broadens and deepens the quality of resources at its disposal.

 

What would you say has been your greatest achievement?

(Apart from my kids…).

The reason why I decided to become an organisational psychologist, and to specialise in leadership research, was because I saw the incalculable damage that bad bosses can have on their staff’s effectiveness and wellbeing, and on the morale and effectiveness of their team/work unit.

My dream was to conduct research and gather evidence of the leadership behaviours that address this issue by investigating influencing organisational recruitment, selection, and appraisal processes.

I spent several years studying the plethora of research on leadership – most of which was conducted in the US. But I became increasingly frustrated by the dominance of what became known as the ‘heroic’ models of leadership, which contributed to the notion that leadership is largely about being charismatic, inspirational, and the characteristic of a few ‘larger than life’ individuals who occupied very senior roles in large corporations. Closer inspection of these studies revealed that they were typically based on case studies, or on self-reports of small samples of CEOs of large corporations. In fact, they later came under disrepute as articles emerged about the ‘dark side’ of charisma, that is, that some of the most toxic leaders can appear highly charismatic in public, but often display narcissistic and even sociopathic tendencies in private.

I did not want to focus what is now called ‘distant’ leadership of a few very senior executives, but on the behaviour of ‘nearby’ day-to-day leadership of managers and supervisors at various levels of organisations, since this is what affects the everyday performance of individuals and teams, and, most importantly, also their motivation and wellbeing, the latter of which are critical to sustaining high levels of effectiveness, and reducing stress and ill health. In other words I wanted to know.

 

What were the behaviours of a boss that have a powerful impact on individuals’ levels of engagement.

My colleagues and I began what was to become a 3-year investigation of leadership, based on a deliberately inclusive sample of employees/staff (by gender, ethnic background, level, age, occupational group, and sector), and one of the largest ever-undertaken.

In interviews, we asked individuals to describe what behaviours of a boss made the most important difference to their levels of motivation, fulfilment, job satisfaction, effectiveness, reduced stress, etc., in other words, their engagement. A pilot questionnaire based on the 2,000+ behavioural examples was distributed across 600+ organisations and was used by over 2,500 individuals to rate their current boss. Analyses of the data produced a new model of leadership which we now describe as Engaging Leadership (EL).

EL resembles the notion of a ‘servant leader’, who behaves with honesty and openness, a selfless and genuine concern for their staff, and inspires a strong sense of working in ‘partnership’. S/he actively encourages constructive questioning of the status quo and offering suggestions for new and innovative solutions to challenges. They believe in the importance of ‘Building a shared vision’ with staff and relevant stakeholders so as to strengthen a sense of co-ownership, and the co-creation of strategies to achieve the vision. They also are quick to admit their own mistakes and help colleagues to exploit mistakes for learning opportunities. They are personable, accessible, and appreciative of the efforts of their people.

We have tested the validity of the EL model in various organisations and have revealed the evidence of its powerful effect on staff engagement and reduced stress, in several academic peer-reviewed papers.  We extended our research in two further 3-year studies, to look at the impact of an engaging leadership culture, on team productivity, engagement and wellbeing, and now have evidence that while the competence of a team correlates with its productivity, only a culture which combines competence and EL significantly predicts its productivity.

This finding that an EL culture predicts the productivity of teams is of considerable importance since longitudinal studies on the causal impact of leadership are extremely rare.  

This research has been a large part of my (shared with colleagues) greatest achievement, but it required one more stage to be fulfilled; this was to transform our research findings into materials that would be of practical value to organisations for informing their recruitment, selection, and development activities, so as to make a genuine difference, and improvement.

I am particularly pleased that, thanks to the efforts of colleagues and the involvement of partners, we have achieved this, and have now developed a suite of instruments for supporting the increased effectiveness of individual, team, and board/top team leadership, and for diagnosing the impact of organisational culture on a range of internal and external stakeholders.

While the opportunity to deepen our research into the nature of Engaging leadership has been enormously satisfying, our ultimate greatest achievement has been to be invited to support organisations in strengthening their leadership capacity, staff engagement and wellbeing, and effectiveness. What really excites me, is to hear the stories that people tell me about the changes in their lives, and in the effectiveness of their teams, as a result of their organisation adopting the model of engaging leadership.

 

Do you have a favourite experience from your speaking career?

It’s very difficult to select just one as each engagement brings new relationships, new questions, and sometimes challenges.

One of the most rewarding experiences was at an international conference of HR and OD professionals, where my presentation was “Creating a culture of engaging leadership in a climate of relentless pressure”. It was followed by a workshop. Having been allocated a room for a maximum of 20 participants, we had to repeat the workshop over the lunch break because of the demand.

The exciting experience for me was that delegates from a range of countries attended each workshop and the buzz from the exercises was amazing, as the participants worked as ‘peer-coaches’ on real challenges in their organisation and everyone identified actions to which they committed on their return home.

One of the delegates was someone we had worked in Singapore. She shared how she had been implementing our model in the large hospital in which they worked, for the last 3 years, and had seen significant changes in the culture, including, importantly, in the behaviour of senior managers. Together with colleagues, she had created coaches throughout the organisation, and even published a ‘guidebook cum journal’ of ideas and activities for embedding EL which they distributed to team leaders, and invited them to take on ownership of the movement by adding their suggestions of ideas and activities (Plus It!), and ‘share best practice’ (‘Pass It!).

 

You have been a leadership consultant for over 25 years, have the requirements for great leaders changed over that time?

Models have changed considerably, because our notions of what is leadership is influenced by changes in the world around us – social, technological, economic, political. Given the exponential rate of change due to various factors, including advances in technology and growth of social media, it is hardly surprising that the most significant changes have occurred over the last couple of decades.

(It’s important to note that the literature and research on leadership has been dominated by US writers, and studies based predominantly, if not solely, on white males).

The 80s and 90s the literature was dominated by what became known as the ‘heroic’ models of leadership, which promoted the notion that leadership is largely about being charismatic, inspirational, and the characteristics of a few ‘larger than life’ individuals.

The research was typically based on case studies, or on self-reports of small samples of CEOs of large corporations. The heroic models later came under attack/disrepute as articles emerged about the ‘dark side’ of charisma, warning that some of the most toxic leaders can appear highly charismatic in public, but often display narcissistic and even sociopathic tendencies in their organisations.

The dangers of hubris created by lauding the heroic models of those at the top were finally exposed in the appropriately termed ‘naughties’ as the era of corporate scandals surrounding the demise of Enron (2001), WorldCom (2002), Lehman (2008) followed by the other banking-related scandals, dominated the media.

This led to a seismic-shift in thinking regarding the nature of leadership, which switched from notions that it was the characteristic of a few ‘gifted’ inspirational leaders (which creates a culture of unquestioning dependency on them) to the realisation that the ‘leadership’ required to meet the challenges of an exponentially-complex world, with rapid developments in technology and increasing ‘disruptive innovation’, is fundamentally about the nature of relationships between people who work together in an increasingly-interconnected world. As the challenges increase, so must organisations’ ability to access the talent that resides in its people, much of which lays dormant, often inhibited by the culture of the organisation.

The concept of employee engagement is now regarded as critical if organisations are going to survive, compete, succeed. Engagement relates to the degree of discretionary effort employees are willing to apply in their work in the organisation. Whatever their level or role in the organisation, every employee ultimately chooses whether to contribute the minimum levels of performance required (or to sabotage), or to go beyond the minimum required by the post and to offer outstanding effort in their role, for the benefit of the organisation.

Strengthening engagement of one’s staff is now regarded as a critical responsibility of leaders, who are judged on their ability to create a culture in teams/depts/orgs that engage their people. There is now substantial research evidence of the significant relationship between employee engagement and organisation performance, as measured by productivity, profitability, and a range of other outcome measures.

The nature of what is meant by leadership has completely changed.

Leadership is not about one’s position in the organisational hierarchy, rather it is a ‘social process’ that is distributed across the organisation, at all levels.  

Leadership emerges as a result of individuals working effectively together, in collaboration, learning, sharing, and supporting each other to achieve the vision and goals of the organisation.

The responsibility of any ‘leader’ – ie someone who is responsible for getting things done through others – is to create the appropriate environment for their colleagues to generate leadership by sharing experiences, ideas, suggestions, learning, challenges, etc.,

We are now in the post-heroic era of leadership, which has turned the relationship between leader and employee upside down; with those in formal leadership roles being dependent on the willingness and commitment, of their staff and teams to give of their very best efforts to enable the organisation to achieve its goals.

It is now regarded as a shared process, at every level of the organisation.

This is why we conducted our leadership research on asking staff, rather than bosses, what it was that outstanding bosses did that had a powerful effect on their engagement, wellbeing, and effectiveness. Our sample was deliberately inclusive. Having tested the model of Engaging Leadership in three 3-year research studies, we have substantial proof that it has a powerful influence on staff engagement

This new model of leadership has immediate implications for organisations’ recruitment, promotion, appraisal, development, and reward processes.

 

Describe yourself in 3 words:

  • Passionate: to improve the quality of relationships between managers/supervisors and their staff so as to enable organisations to achieve their goals whilst maintaining the motivation, and wellbeing of their staff; and to create the culture that sustains this
  • Optimistic/Positive: a fervent belief that people want to do their best, and that everyone has the potential to display leadership, and that with support, we can create organisations that enable this to happen
  • Pragmatic: I strongly believe in the importance of applying evidence-based models of leadership, but, equally important, if not more important, is the need to translate research into understandable and immediately applicable and practical solutions for individuals, teams, and organisations. Hence the considerable resources we have devoted to creating practical instruments for professional and organisations to use.

Consistent with the values under-pinning our model of EL, is our philosophy of how we work with organisations (and accredit them to use our tools), which is based on our commitment to building internal capacity in organisations, rather than to create dependency.