Thank you for attending the OD Café on Thursday morning. I wish we had more time to get more of your voices into the conversation – I missed that, but I must confess that the four panellists brought fascinating perspectives. I hope you found the conversation as interesting as I did. I loved the contrasts: Mike’s voice of deep corporate experience and reflectiveness, an elder of the profession both cautioning us and encouraging us to go further and deeper, Byron’s immersion into his current corporate experience, always rethinking his role and contribution as an OD practitioner, James’ deep knowledge of learning organisations, his global experience, and also his long view, daring us to get ready for a world of work and idleness we can barely imagine, and Pierre’s optimistic pragmatism: what it takes to lead a successful global firm, with strong SA roots, right now, in conditions where both challenges and opportunities abound.

On quick reflection, here are some key take-outs from the session for me:

  • Our world is changing radically, and fast. There is no time for complacency. If you’re doing work that can be automated, you will be replaced by a robot. In the not too distant future, more people will be living off grants than will be earning salaries. My guess is that this will happen in the affluent North first, since we have a few more industrialisation and economic development hoops to jump through before we can sustain a “non-productive” population. We in the South will face significant risks in this transition.
  • No more organisations, said James, but organisation, the verb, the multiple acts of coming together to achieve things. We see this already in the shift towards volunteer and freelance workforces; significant advances in virtual space will accelerate this trend. Pierre’s company, Ctrack, aims to play a significant role in our “internet of things” future with their ambition to be the leading global telematics player. Can you imagine the impact of telematics on the world of work?
  • But what about right now? Nedbank, Byron’s organisation, and Ctrack need to make the most of their opportunities right now. Pierre is an adamant optimist, and his results show that it’s not mere talk. When he took on the MD role two and a half years ago, the share price was less than a rand – the company has now been sold to an American company based in San Diego for R4,40 a share.
  • How? By developing world-leading vehicle tracking in South African environment where a car is stolen every 11 minutes, then leveraging this innovation in the sedate and polite British society where a car is stolen every 7 minutes, now entering the ripe and under-penetrated US market where a car is stolen every 45 seconds. Yes, our “let’s make a plan” attitude in our hugely diverse, uncertain, complex and some would say dangerous society gives us excellent scaling opportunities in those safe first world countries.
  • Nedbank, unlike Barclays, will not leave Africa. Massive opportunity, says Byron, but we do not just impose the Nedbank brand all over the continent: there are already local players who are successful, who are ready for the advantages that transcontinental scale brings. Partnership innovation, business model innovation.
  • But how? The 1500 people of Ctrack will walk through a wall, says Pierre. Sappi, where Mike spent his career, made major changes when patterns in global paper markets changed irrevocably – massive capital investment, but even more: foresight, conviction, guts. Yet, we saw the case of Highveld Steel: an almost unforgivable act of local value destruction – local enterprise, community welfare, and the sustainability of SA industry are some of the slain and wounded in this ugly little vulture capitalist blood fest. So how then? Leadership, says Mike, and it needs to be built as deeply as possible into the organisation – “everybody must become a leader”. Pierre agrees. Earlier in the conversation James mentioned the increasing unfettering of the individual – we are realising that we can lead our own lives, and we are becoming rapidly enabled to do exactly that by shifts not only in the “hardware” of technology but also the “software” of social systems. People believe more and more in their agency. The organisations that realise that this is a strong development trajectory, build “leadership” and “agency” as an organisational capability, enabling them to dynamically respond to the opportunities that uncertainty, turbulent change, complexity and ambiguity bring.
  • What holds things together? The logic of the global economy results in increasing polarisation and, says James, the disappearance of the middle. Nowhere does this play out as starkly and, dare we say, as perversely as in the current US presidential elections. “The centre cannot hold,” WB Yeats wrote a century ago, “things fall apart”. I read somewhere today (please let it be one of those false, alarmist statistics) that we wiped out half the planet’s wildlife in the last 40 years. Something Stephen Hawking recently said also caught my eye: leave the Earth as soon as possible, because the ruling classes are destroying it. We’re not an immortal species.
  • Yet we are resolute optimists. We are, at best, stewards of the global household (oikos, meaning house, is the root both of economy and ecology) for our children, for the human future.
  • Values, says Mike, that’s the centre. Values, of course, says Pierre when I ask him: What makes 1500 people willing to walk through walls? I see James nodding vigorously – over the years, I have worked a lot with him on large-scale values-based organisational transformation. We rally around and we are held together by what matters most to us.
  • If “leadership” does one big thing in our world, it is to lead organisation, the verb, on a foundation of shared values.
  • South Africans are good and gutsy, says Pierre. Four engineers here have been doing more really complex telematics development work, of far superior quality, than a battalion of around a 100 in the US. Our diversity, our history of dealing with diversity and adversity, says James, has developed in us phenomenal capability for opportunism, perseverance, and finding better ways.
  • Companies that exist to make money must make money, says Pierre, and companies that exist to educate people, must educate people. I gather his subtext is: no excuses – there are many opportunities, and whatever looks like a challenge or an obstacle, is just another facet of the opportunity, perhaps as yet unexplored and unexploited. Let’s do what we exist to do, now.

What are the priorities for leaders, including CEOs, MDs, operations managers, HR, OD, L&D and Talent Management practitioners, and OD and management consultants, all who work towards making their own and their clients’ organisations more successful, more effective, healthier, more sustainable?

  • The quality and the depth of our leadership. Why were so many leadership decisions made that led to Highveld Steel closing down, destroying livelihoods for a local community and a valuable asset of industry and the larger South African economy? We need to create the right leadership, faster, more reliably, more deeply into the organisation, and “values” – not those statements on the wall we can barely remember if suddenly questioned, but the things that we actually agree really matter most to us – is a core heuristic for making coherent and congruent decisions quickly and acting in concert.
  • Says Byron to the practitioners: come to the table. Put strategy at the centre of your “people work”. I also hear: effective business partnering: how are you helping the organisation to develop congruent structure, strategy, leadership, culture, so that it can become more successful, more sustainably? Reinvent yourself and become relevant, Pierre tells the HR practitioners in the room, or I won’t hire you.

What else did you hear?

What stood out for you?

What lit a fire of urgency in you, fuelled by the belief that this is indeed a moment of immense opportunity for us?

Please add your voice to this conversation! [Link to this article/blog.] (I know, for instance, Aiden Choles, that you have a lot of thoughts about telling different stories … And what did you hear, Liezel van Arkel, which will impact how you shape and direct the potential of WorldsView™ Academy? What stood out for you, Lazarus, when you throw yourself into building advanced capability in the National Treasury? And you, friends from City of Joburg, what are your opportunities to contribute to a world-class metropole here in the centre of the Gauteng Highveld?)

We’re editing a video recording of the conversation – we will let you know as soon as that is published.

At the next WorldsView™ Academy OD Café, on the 20th of April, we challenge ourselves at WorldsView™ Academy and our colleague practitioners to explore the challenges posed to us:

  1. Build the right leadership for success in this uncertain world of uncommon opportunity.
  2. Partner with the ones “digging in the ground” (as the poet Rumi says of the ones “doing the real work”), whom we call “line”, or “business”, to succeed through excellent organisation development practice.

Don’t chicken out. This is our moment.