Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Today’s guest is Alastair Robertson, and we are going to be talking with him about Leadership and Personal Mastery. That’s a really interesting topic for Alastair to be talking about because he is an expert on leadership development, but in a very different way from many experts, because he doesn’t come from an academic background. He’s from the pragmatic environment of the business world where leaders who are developing can rapidly impact business performance.
Alastair was a business executive for more than 20 years with top companies including Mars, Pepsi Co., and Pillsbury. If those aren’t some family oriented organizations and well-known organizations, I don’t who are, before joining the consulting world where I met him to help companies develop leadership styles and behaviors match to the needs of their business strategies and performance goals.
That’s a key in our conversation today: matching those key performance skills to the environment, which is what Alastair is going to talk about. We originally joined forces at Accenture where we were both partners for many years. Alastair worked all over the world helping top executives develop as leaders with the grain of their motives and personalities well understood.
We also did the research which led to our best-selling book called Global Leadership: The Next Generation. That book was co-authored by Alastair, myself, and Marshall Goldsmith. It became a part of a central launch that Alastair has spoken at, at many conferences worldwide, from India and South Africa, to the Czech Republic and Australia, on the topic of leadership.
Alastair runs his own business and continues to coach and develop leadership teams around the globe. I want to introduce him now, and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you, Alastair, to the show.
Alastair Robertson: Thank you Cathy and thank you Relly, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Dr. Relly Nadler: You know Alastair, we have a series of questions that we want to ask you and then we will be pretty open to go with anything that seems to be catching our attention.
I think it would be helpful for the listeners if you would tell us about your background and your experience in leadership development.
Alastair Robertson: Well, as Cathy said, I didn’t come out of the classic academic world of leadership experts, but it’s been 20 years. I’m actually a trained chemist. It seems strange that after 20 years practicing real-life hands-on chemistry with products, I’m now dealing with human chemistry which is what this program is all about today.
I really got into leadership development when I first moved into consulting in the days of total quality which became re-engineering. That really starts you thinking that you want to change the way a business works, to perform better, but sometimes the biggest impediment to that is not the people in the lower ranks of the business, it’s the people in the top because they have the most personal equity vested in the way things are and were and therefore the most to lose. They might see it themselves when they start to change things.
That begs the question, well if you want the change of business either from the inside or the outside, what would you do with the top 10 – 20 – 50 – 100 executives, and how would that impact the way the business changed in terms of speed and impact from profit and performance.
That gets you into the area of leadership development. What would you do with leaders? How would you handle them? How would you help them face up to this? How would you help them create a passion for the future, which is what transformational leadership is all about?
Dr. Relly Nadler: Alastair, Cathy knows this because you guys worked together; you really helped develop leadership programs for a series of organizations where you would really earmark the top leaders?
Alastair Robertson: I would like to pick up on something you said just then, which is leadership programs. I’m a fundamental sort of antipathy in a way to by rote training of leadership developers. Leaders are best developed in what Bob Thomas and Warren Bennis called Crucibles of Leadership in which they are tested. Helping people really face up, look themselves in the mirror, realize what they have inside, and then immediately apply that to a challenge and see the reward that they can get from having deployed themselves in a different way against that challenge. I think that is the way that leadership development works best.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Verses just sitting in a class, learning something? So really having a hands-on experience of applying some of the principles.
Alastair Robertson: Exactly. I think the hands-on experience helps you realize exactly how to deploy yourself, otherwise sitting in the classroom is a very different environment than the real live world. When you get back into that real world, the crisis hit and people typically revert to type, they revert to what they were comfortable with before, and that works against developing themselves and it works against change.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Alastair, I’m going to take you on a little bit of a personal trip here. One of the things we like to ask our guests on the show is who are what have been your greatest teachers? I think coming from a little bit of a different perspective here, you might have some different teachers that we would like to know about.
Let’s go back to the discussion we were having about the Crucibles of Leadership that produce the best leaders.
Alastair Robertson: I pick up on the sources of my origins being from the UK as part of the answer to this question, because typically, I’m generalizing rather dramatically, the UK doesn’t go for self-awareness too much. We are brought up, and certainly when I was brought up 50+ years ago, it is a stiff upper lip and if you don’t like something you grind it out and you get on with it.
I remember my dad telling me when I was going into the world of work, he said, son, you are supposed to have a job. You are not supposed to like it, necessarily, you are just supposed to do it.
So, self-awareness is not something that the British are real strong on. I think I had a lot of sources of inspiration as to where I might be going with this whole notion of leadership, from pinpoint places, executives I had worked for. I remember one executive back at Mars who used to spend quite a bit of each day sitting with his feet up on the desk, in an open environment, an open office, and when people would ask him how can you do that? He said, well it’s not my job to lead this business today. I have a whole hoard of executives to do that. It’s my job to think about where we are going tomorrow and then figure out how I can convey that inspiration to people to think beyond next week, next month, or next quarter.
It’s examples like that that started me thinking about what leaders actually do. Then, when I came to the US for the first time back in 76/78, I started to read a lot of Warren Bennis’ work, particularly at the time when he was talking a great deal about transformational leadership verses transactional. That started to get me thinking that yah, this transformational leadership is not the run-of-the-mill behaviors that I see executives engaging in. They are engaging in the transactional: I do this for you, you do this for me, and we will both be okay.
That is not why people come to work with a passion, it’s why they come to work and just punch the clock and go home and take a paycheck. That is not what is going to drive change in an inspirational way. It’s not going to energize people. They are not going to want to put 150% of themselves into the workplace.
So Warren Bennis’ writing and all of the papers he has written, and then latterly getting into the whole idea of motivation, building on David McClellan’s work, and working with George West out in Colorado. Taping into what gets people out of the bed in the morning; what gets them fired up, what gets them really energized and excited is infections.
To the point you made earlier on Relly, if you have an irritated, tired, executive, he’s going to have an irritated entire team. If you have an energized, inspirational executive, that is infections with people and they really want to work for this person and they really want to go where that person is suggesting that the team goes together.
The whole motion of how you tap into executive’s motives, what really they have a passion for, that was the next inspiration that I took with me. I tried to couple these together and take that motivational piece and the transformational leadership piece, and really drive that into the pragmatic, practical, business world of how would people running production lines, how would people running quality assurance departments, running sales forces, how would they take this and how would they deploy it into their world as opposed to just leaving it sitting up there in the air somewhere and trying to get inspiration from the atmosphere.
Listen to the entire interview, above.