It’s easy to forget that leadership development is a relatively new concept in humanity’s evolution.
In a time of disruption and continuous change, it’s vital to equip existing and future leaders with skills, thought processes and techniques to ensure that the organisation not only survives but thrives.
In the latest episode of the HR Think Tank, we chat with a leadership development expert on what our future leaders need and how it contributes to their success. We learn the best ways to identify and nurture leaders within your orbit.
Our guest is Julie Birtles, the founder of BEyond Excellence and co-founder of the First100 – a leadership programme to support emerging and mid-career leaders. Julie works across diverse sectors with leaders to help unleash their potential, and she’s worked with some of the largest companies in Australia and abroad.
Julie is currently completing her Master’s Degree in Sustainable Leadership at the University of Cambridge.
Connect with Khai on LinkedIn:
YouTube Channel: HR Think Tank
00:00:00 – Intro
00:01:34 – The History of CSR and its Evolution
00:02:51 – The Different Types of CSR Activities & Initiatives
00:03:57 – Variations of Success & Engagement in CSR Programs
00:08:01 – The Key Benefits of Having a CSR Program
00:10:40 – The Key Challenges of Implementing & Maintaining CSR Programs
00:12:38 – CSR Impact on Company Brand & Performance
00:14:54 – How to Know if You’ve Selected the Right Charity Partner for You
00:18:53 – How Charity Partners Pick the Right Corporate Partners
00:21:02 – How Catalyser Works
00:22:08 – Good Examples of CSR Programs
00:23:45 – How Catalyser Was Created
00:25:39 – The Future of CSR
00:30:32 – The Future of Catalyser
00:32:59 – Fast Five Questions
00:37:09 – Outro
Q; I know that you're running a leadership program called the First100 to support emerging and mid-career leaders. What inspired you to start this program?
We were inspired to create First100 because we could see that emerging and mid-career leaders weren’t being developed properly.
So, if you go way back, we used to have very robust management training that we’ve put people through. And big companies like the BHPs, the BPs, used to spend a lot of time and money investing in their emerging talent, but we don’t do that anymore.
And quite often, what we find is that people who are coming through the ranks are not getting the foundational skills that they require to move into more complex roles. The result is that senior leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time coaching and mentoring, and guiding these people because they don’t have the skill.
With people moving to hybrid ways of working and working from home, they’re actually missing out on the experiential experiences, the side conversations and the casual mentoring. And so, we created First100 as an accelerated sprint to give people who are in their early and emerging phases of their careers the foundational skills that they need to grow and develop.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the First 100 program? You've told us what inspired you to start this, but what will participants get out of this 12-week program?
So we designed it as an accelerated experience.
When we first did our research, I thought it would be a six-month program, but when we spoke to the people that would-be participants, they weren’t prepared to dedicate six months – it was just too long.
So, we designed it as a three-month sprint and over 12 weeks; they’re exposed to a broad array of topics. And what they come out with is an expanded worldview. So, it changes how they think and how they interact with the world around them, which essentially changes the way that they critically think, make decisions and the strength of the judgment that they bring to that.
But, it also builds their confidence – which is super important – especially because we’ve found that there is a really significant confidence issue with some of the emerging and mid-career leaders. And some of this relates to permission; they’re waiting for someone to give them permission. There’s a level of uncertainty.
But, after the 12-week programme, they come out much more confident, in terms of how to promote what their capability and their ambitions are.
And through the programs that we’ve run, people have been promoted into different roles.
Q: So, given the significant investment in developing leaders worldwide, why aren't there more great leaders?
Such a great question, Khai – people ask us this all the time.
Billions have been invested in leadership development, and there’s a couple of reasons. One is how we’ve been developing leaders over the last 30 years – it just hasn’t developed the capabilities that we need for the times that we’re in. It was focused on more stable environments.
The great majority is striving to do their very best, but they’re not equipped with the ways of thinking and tools they need to lead through the gross uncertainty and disruption that shapes society now.
So, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the individuals; we simply haven’t trained them properly.
Q: How do people approach leadership development today? Talk us through this because you've been involved in this space for 20 years, you've seen the changes, you've seen the progress. You've seen the successes; you’ve seen the values. Talk to us about what leadership development looks like right now.
So, the conventional approach focuses on teaching people about competency, development skills, capabilities, and knowledge.
That can only go so far.
The part that’s missing is what we’re not doing is, in essence – growing bigger brains and an expanded worldview where people can make sense of vast amounts of information and data and speed and complexity and translate that into a form that they can use in real-time.
So, if you think metaphorically, we’ve helped them build the knowledge base that they pop in their backpack and draw on it if they remember it’s there. But, what we’re not doing is building a bigger container, building a bigger brain to make sense of the complexity that we’re in.
Conventional approaches are too linear – they’re focused on skill, knowledge and capability development. But what we need is far more dynamic experiential programs that stretch people beyond their current frame of reference, perspective and assumptions. This will allow them to open up different ways of taking in information and making sense of the world.
When they do that, it changes how they see the world, changes their leadership and unlocks value.
Q: Can you give us insight into how you and the program that you're working on at the moment have helped people expand their worldview?
There’s a blind spot in developing leaders: we think, develop strategies, and then act. But there’s a piece that should come before how we think, and that is called our meaning-making.
Unfortunately, many leaders don’t ever think about their meaning-making or how they’re making sense of the world.
So, through my work and First100, we teach people how to develop a more expensive view by shining a light on the fact that there’s a blind spot around meaning-making, and this capability exists.
And then we create stretched experiences that pull people beyond their current way of thinking – it’s almost like learning new languages. So, once they hear it and it opens their mind to another possibility, it opens them to curiosity and to seeing and hearing different perspectives they couldn’t see before.
Q: Are there any examples? Or stories of people who have been transformed that you could share with us? Because I love hearing these stories, given my time with the Australia Vietnam Leadership Dialogue, where our goal is to increase people's links. We have a group of young, high-impact individuals from Australia and Vietnam to give them these transformative experiences, and the stories that have come out are just amazing. So, I would love it if you could share some of the stories of the impacts that you've had, not only from the First100 but from the programs that you have run over the years.
Khai, there are so many stories, and it’s a beautiful thing when you watch the longitudinal path of people growing and changing. But, I want to share one really beautiful example.
One is Arup, which is a global design engineering firm. I worked with 59 of their leaders to help transform the Asia PAC business’s major infrastructure and projects area. I worked with highly skilled, technical leaders and helped them grow and expand the way they saw the world, which transformed them and the organisation.
So, through that period, we grew the business by over $240 million off the back of changing how the leaders were thinking and seeing the world. But, individually, those 59 all went on to do much bigger and more complex roles. Many of them have become leaders in the major projects and infrastructure industry across Australia and Asia. Some of them have gone off and started their own business, while others have gone to industry associations and competitors.
The result is that, as they changed, they’ve uplifted the industry – which is such a vital industry for us here.
Q: You mentioned earlier that we don't discuss how people view the world or how they make meaning of the world. When do you have that conversation with the new talent? Do you do it at the later stages of the recruitment process? Or, is that something that you have straight off the bat? And does it get into dangerous territory?
So, our worldview is shaped by how we’re raised and the experiences we have. And so, for those of you that are listening and going, “Well, how do I work out what someone’s worldview is?”
You hear it through language and through the words that they’re using or not using. For example, someone thinking in a very technical way and talking about operating based on rules, logic and law probably has quite a narrow view. On the other hand, if someone is talking to you about the opportunity to have a social impact, catalyse large-scale change, and create enduring impacts within society, they’re likely to have a much broader worldview.
But, timeframes are also something we’re thinking about. People who think narrowly often think of a very short time frame, whereas people who have a more expansive view are thinking over years and decades.
Q: How do you decipher between those just using the buzzwords to get in versus those who have a meaningful connection with that particular cause or purpose? How should leaders or hiring managers approach this? Because it can get into slightly dangerous territory from a recruitment process.
I would ask questions. If someone said to me, “My alignment with the purpose is critical.” I’d say, “Can you give me an example of where that’s happened in the past? And what did that create for you?”
So, you’re trying to work out what the linkage is to their statements and the actual value.
You could do it the other way and say, “So, you say that purpose and alignment is important. This organisation is important to you; help me understand how their values and purpose align with yours.”
A superficial answer would be to talk about purpose in the general sense because they think they should. On the other hand, people who think more deeply about the question will tell you exactly why they want to work for your organisation.
Q: Is this topic something that should be inquired about by hiring managers at all levels? Or, is this reserved for upper management and middle management?
Research shows that less than 70% of leaders can think with an expansive worldview. So, it’s not the domain of anyone. Right now, our job is to develop this.
So, the challenge is that senior people are not thinking in the right way, so they’re recruiting people who are not thinking correctly. That’s the problem with having such a blind spot.
Q: How do leaders develop the expansive capacity that you're talking about? Required, not only for today's challenges but for the future challenges?
Through interrogating how they’re thinking and putting themselves into stretch experiences that challenge their frame of reference.
You need to cross-check their assumptions and understand why they think they are true. It’s also important to check the diversity question of their network. If they’re surrounded by people that look and sound like them, they’re probably not getting challenged in the right way.
So, we put people into stretch experiences to grow their capacity.
If you think about Arup, we created tight and demanding projects with super-tight timeframes to deliver real value to the board. And through that force, they were able to think more openly. And once you do that, it’s like learning another language. You don’t unsee it; you don’t unhear it.
So, you need to get out of your comfort zone and build some comfort with being uncomfortable.
Q: I don't know if you're able to share this, but how did the Arup leadership get the others to come on board this transformative journey? Because I'm sure there are other business leaders out there wondering, "I see a need for change in my organisation." But, how do they approach it? What advice can you give? Do you have any insights that you can share?
It normally starts with one person, typically the leader, who knows that things need to change and be done differently.
And then, generally, because they’re the leader, they’re communicating to their people that it’s time to get together and drive change. Sometimes people are enrolled, and sometimes people aren’t. But, once you start to work together and introduce the ways of thinking that people need to employ to succeed in a fast-paced, risky world, there are endless opportunities.
But if you can’t see the opportunities, all you see are challenges.
And so, as we work with people, they start to see that the world is different to them, and they pick it up, and they run with it.
Once I get a little bit of success at driving change in different ways, it builds on itself. But, it normally starts with the heavy lifting of one person saying, “We’re going to change things around here.”
Q: I want to switch the topic to talk about the world of talent now. Can you tell us about what the traditional leadership and talent pipeline look like?
The traditional pipeline was driven by organisations and what they felt we needed in terms of capability, competency, development, and their ethos. But, we’re moving into a time where individuals will take much more responsibility for driving their learning and development – it’s an emergence of micro-credentials and individuals that will be far more fluid in their ways of working.
Research shows that large organisations will dramatically downsize, and they’ll move to what’s called the Hollywood-model way of working. In that environment, organisations will move towards a project way of working, and they will pitch for the best talent, and the talent will pitch for the best projects.
And so, in that environment, our networks and our reputation will become our currency.
If you have a strong enough network to trade on, that will shape connectivity and advocacy. And new capabilities will shape the way that talent finds work and develops their own careers.
Q: You said currency is our reputation, our network, and most people's network isn't sophisticated. So, for those that don't have that, how can they address this? What could they do about it now?
If you’re sitting at home thinking, “Oh boy, I need to work on my network,” the very obvious place to start nowadays would be LinkedIn. And a lot of people query the value of LinkedIn, but it is a meeting place for people.
One of my collaborators spends 15 minutes a day, every day on LinkedIn, reaching out to people worldwide, posting information, writing information and learning about things.
And so, LinkedIn is a very obvious place, but it’s good to start with seeking out different communities of people who are doing things, learning things and creating things that are of interest to you. There are many ways of communicating and connecting now, but you’ve got to make it a priority to spend time doing it.
Q: You said something to me a few weeks ago, which I thought was interesting. You said, "The most unexpected people show up in leadership development." And I think that's around who you end up tapping on the shoulder, saying, "Hey, you've got leadership potential." I think you touched on the diversity of experiences and backgrounds. Can you expand on these comments that you're making? I mean, what does it all mean?
With conventional approaches to leadership development, we view who the talent is and how we develop them.
But, if you embrace a different way of developing people and help them grow their capacities, their worldview and shape their leadership differently; the most unexpected people hop out with the motivation, ambition, hungriness and grittiness that we need right now to lead. Most of the time, though, these people don’t necessarily fit a normal talent profile.
So, how do you sniff these people out during the recruitment process?
I was talking with a senior leader recently, with whom I’ve done a lot of work over the years, and he said he’s just walked away from all of the HR processes around recruitment. Because the standard just simply hasn’t worked for him.
Instead, he goes on the recommendations of people that he trusts and who have worked with these people in the past. He also goes with his gut feel about whether they’ve got the right stuff. And so, he has been able to bring in a really diverse and highly capable group of people.
But, if you did a lineup, they wouldn’t get through the normal conventional processes.
Q: One of our earlier guests, Omer, the CEO of Vervoe, was talking about the fact that their whole mission is around hiring on merit, not on background. And they've developed this AI skills assessment platform that tests people on on-the-job relevant skill sets. Can you do the job? Have you got those qualities? And then, we talked about using the interview process to, I guess, pick up different other signals regarding whether or not they’re a good fit. So, he was alluding to some of the things that you've just referenced as well. Because, sometimes, if you're too rigid, you're leaving a lot of people out. People who are highly capable and highly motivated but just don't have the credentials or the right words on their CV, and that's unfortunate. What are your thoughts on this?
Many people in senior roles that I’ve worked with now say, “If I were being recruited today, I actually wouldn’t get through the recruitment process because I’m not as smart. I wouldn’t have gotten into that university.”
And so, what they lose is diversity, richness, and rawness.
When you hire people from diverse backgrounds, that’s where the magic really happens. And we know that intellectually and factually, yet we still narrow our recruitment strategies down to certain places or certain types of roles, which is a risk management strategy.
Q: So, can you tell us some effective strategies to identify leadership potential within your organisation?
I always look for attitude, energy, hunger, respect and curiosity – you can teach people capabilities, but you can’t teach them those intrinsic motivations.
And quite often, those candidates are quiet and not strong self-promoters – they’re not sitting next to the boss at lunch, they just quietly crack on and get on with it. And so, as the leader at trying to find talented people, you’ve got to listen to what people are or aren’t saying; and what they’re doing or not doing.
But yeah, if you put people under pressure, quite often, the talent just emerges.
Q: Based on your experience, what do you think has worked better from a leadership identification process? Is it a case of you blast it out to the organisation, and you say, "Hey, here are some opportunities, let me know you're interested?" Or, is it more covert, seeing what people have done and what their results have yielded? And then tap people on the shoulder and say, "Hey, I think you demonstrate some really good qualities. I think you've got some great potential. Would you be interested in this opportunity?" What's a better approach?
I’ve seen both approaches work.
Through First100, we’ve recently had an organisation put over 20 of their people on the program. What we found was, probably six or seven of the people on that program just absolutely shone.
They did that through how often they turned up, what they produced, the conversations they had, the level of curiosity they had and by being prepared to ask “the dumb question.” They took that back into their work environment, intending to make a change. But they weren’t necessarily people that were on the talent radar.
I would put them into a role that stretches them and makes them uncomfortable – where they don’t have all of the answers, and they need to use their wits, gut feel, capability and networks to find their way through it.
Some of the most courageous leaders I’ve worked with through the years, stretch their people to the point, not to breaking point, but beyond the place they were ready to go to. And the people were amazing.
Most of us are amazing when we’re under pressure. We can actually lift.
Q: What happens when you’ve identified an individual who you are going to champion, but they have some shortcomings or weaknesses? What's a good approach to address and work on these shortcomings and weaknesses with the person?
You can do it through coaching and mentoring, be it internally or externally. It could even be through simply having consistent conversations with.
If they know what they’re on the hook for, they know the timeframe they need to deliver it.
But, you don’t necessarily have to sit and forget and say, “Turn up in three months and let me know where you’re at.” You can walk with them through the process and constantly review to help them build on their weaknesses or shortcomings.
I’d also ask them, “What do you think you need to be? What do you need to grow or develop to be successful? And what do you think you’d like to do to build that capability?”
Q: At VerifyNow, we use the psychometric assessment to help us with these conversations. And we take it from a professional development and personal development point of view. And we have very open conversations about it. I feel like I've learned many things about our team members in those one and a half hour debriefs that we have. What are your thoughts on this?
Yeah, often it helps you identify at least two key areas for development. They aren’t necessarily fatal flaws but simply things that can be improved upon.
It’s so important to align your start at their start. But also make sure you don’t step back too fast so that they crash and burn before you’re aware of that. We learn a lot from our failures, but you don’t necessarily want to set people up like that.
Q: This question is more targeted at the individuals who are seeking leadership development opportunities. If you're an interested individual, but you haven't been identified, you've been missed for whatever reason, what can you do?
This can be a frustrating place for people to be in. And quite often, they leave because they can’t be seen and heard.
I’ve been working with a man who recently joined an organisation. When they hired him, they made a promise to contribute to his development. After some time had passed with no development, he raised it. They said they weren’t going to honour it. And he then was like, “Well, I’m going to put myself back in the market.”
But I suggested that he go back to them and talk to them about how important this is and that he took it as a promise. This would allow them to explore if the promise was really off the table before he left. And he did. And, of course, it’s resolved itself.
But, for people who are in complex organisations, who are trying to put their hand up going, “Look at me, I’ve got more to contribute,” you may have to find a more compelling way to get beyond your manager because quite often they are the person that’s creating the block.
You could create an initiative – all change starts typically with one person. Create a solution to something that needs solving and take that to people who can see it.
Recently, I encouraged someone to approach their CEO, who I know is open to hearing from people in the organisation. And they had a conversation about a tricky issue that he had a solution for. And that puts him on the CEO’s radar.
Q: And some people have other approaches too. They'll invest in their personal development, whether that's doing their coaching or they'll be involved in other leadership programs or development programs. And then, that suddenly puts a spotlight on them because management has seen that they're willing to take the initiative for their own success. And if their success means the company's success, maybe that will highlight their attributes and their qualities to management. Julie, what are some practical things leaders can do to shape a future-ready workforce?
Be curious – be really curious. Try and work out what you don’t know and what is in your interest to learn and find ways of developing that.
I would also suggest that you check your assumptions. It’s really hard for us to find the edges of our thinking, beliefs, and information we need to reinforce our decision-making. So check your biases and the edge of your thinking.
And then, the third suggestion would be to have a look at the diversity of your network. And if the diversity quotient is low, i.e., most people look and sound like you, get out there and challenge yourself over the next 12 months to build a much more diverse and connected network.
You’ll learn through all of those things and what other people are doing, which will help you bring innovation and challenge back into your environment.
Q: Can you talk to us more about the mindset? How important is that? What role does it play in talent development, leadership development, and leadership potential?
Our minds are the most potent “muscle” we have in our bodies. So, if you’re going to learn to master your mind, you will learn to shape the life that you want.
The piece that I find most curious is around the way we develop our ways of thinking. So, we learn to think based on how we were raised, our educational experience and our work experience, but what we haven’t understood until very recently is that the way we make meaning of the world can change.
And we tend to do that over many years through our experiences. We have good and hard times, and we reflect, grow and learn through those. And that takes us through what we call the stages of development and how we see the world.
But, that process can be accelerated. And we haven’t known how to do this until quite recently. And if we could build this into our curriculums, schools, and L&D practices, we could rapidly change the way people think, which would change the way they lead and the value that they unlock in society.
The core of the work that I’m doing involves growing the ranks of leaders who can think at the level that we need to catalyse large-scale change. At the moment, about 5% of leaders can do that. So, our collective job is determining how to exponentially expand – which means we need to change how we’re developing leaders.
Q: How do you get people to open up and be willing to put themselves through these experiences in this day and age? If you look at the world right now, a lot of people can be quite content just in their own bubble, looking at their phones and saying, "Well, I only have control over this. And so, I'm not going to think about everything else. I'm just going to think about what's happening in my world right now." How do you get people to step outside of that?
We create stretched experiences that pull them out of that. So, we introduce them to things they haven’t seen or heard before and help them understand that they can embrace that and play a role in that and that their life will improve through that.
And once it does, they take a couple of little steps and go, “Wow, I didn’t know the impact would be this.”
Then, we’ve got converts, and off we go.
Q: Some people can be cynical, though. After their own leadership experiences, after their own management experiences, they're like, "Look, I'm tired of people. I don't want to influence change. I just want to stay to myself." And that's okay as well. People will have their own preferences, but what you're saying is we need to multiply it. We need to get more people to think more openly and broadly about the challenges we've got ahead of us. So, that way, we're well equipped for when that time comes because it's coming. Can you expand on this?
Look, it’s already here.
Huge changes are happening around the world – positive future changes. But, we don’t hear about it. We don’t hear about it in the news. And so, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive, but you’ve got to be able to bring some of that good stuff to the table, or people would just think we’re going to hell in a handbasket.
- What was your first job? My first part-time job was working in a pharmacy. It was so boring. I just knew I needed to do really well at school.
- What’s something interesting that is not on your CV? I’ve done a lot of kickboxing. Very fierce!
- What advice would you give your eighteen-year-old self? Slow down; you don’t have to do it all at once. And it’s such a silly thing to say. Because I hear so many people pushing and shoving, but yeah. Enjoy the journey as much as what you’re doing.
- What book is a must-read, or what movie is a must-watch? I’ve got too many books to say one, but I’ve got a little pile of books that if my house were on fire, I’d grab them as I was running out the door: The Art of Possibility by Ben and Ros Zander and Synchronicity by Joseph Jaworski. I’d take both of them.
- What’s a job for the future that doesn’t exist today? I think we’re going to see an enormous rise in ethics around AI. So, I think that’s a vocation that is coming really quickly. We need to work out how to handle that. Yeah, I have about 10,000 I could talk to you about, but that’s the one on top of my mind.