Clive Wilson on how to design a purposeful organisation: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Wilson, Clive

Clive Wilson is a writer, speaker, facilitator and business coach. He is a director of Primeast, a learning and development company based in the beautiful town of Harrogate in the county of North Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, some 220 miles north of London.

Primeast works primarily in the oil and gas, power, pharmaceutical and technology industries as well as with the United Nations and other agencies in Southern Africa to facilitate the sustainable development of some of the world’s poorest nations.

He has spoken or facilitated workshops worldwide on strategic alignment and talent leadership, and his clients have included Exxon Mobil, Novartis, and Celgene, a biotechnology company located in New Jersey. In recent years, with his passion for purposeful change, he has facilitated workshops and spoken at conferences in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Australia.

Clive’s latest book, Designing the Purposeful Organization – how to inspire business performance beyond boundaries, was published by KoganPage (February 2015).

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Morris: Before discussing Designing the Purposeful Organization, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth and professional development? How so?

Wilson: There are a number of people who have influenced me. From business writers such as Marcus Buckingham, Daniel Coyle and Jim Collins through to world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. However, the people who have influenced me the most have been the plethora of clients with whom I have worked to help make their organisations more purposeful and consequently more effective, often from a clean sheet of paper.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Wilson: In the 1990s the electricity industry in the UK was privatised. I was responsible for a number of change programmes and quickly realised that the most difficult aspect of change was evolving the culture. I went to the US and spent time with Human Synergistics learning how to measure and manage this phenomenon. After applying my new knowledge, I resolved to support organisations with such challenges and have been doing so for nearly twenty years now.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Wilson: My formal education extended late into my career. I was awarded my Master of Science degree by the University of Bradford as a 40 year old. I actually find structured education difficult, preferring to follow an intuitive learning journey. Whilst writing Designing the Purposeful Organization, I took several sojourns into unusual places such as stem cell biology, fractal mathematics, quantum physics and biomimicry, as well as more obvious places such as business leadership and psychology. Thanks to the Internet, I got to attend classes taught by some of the world’s greatest thinkers. I had people like Bruce Lipton and Greg Braden speaking to me right in my living room.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Wilson: To be honest, I have to say “nothing”. My greatest learning has been starting out on the journey with little knowledge or experience and learning from the people I have worked alongside over the years. Especially from those who provided me a relatively safe space to fail and grow as a consequence.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Wilson: Probably not the answer you’re looking for but I really enjoy adventure films such as Braveheart where the “hero’s journey” is enacted. The hero is born, is taught, discovers their quest and from that point has no option but to make the hero’s choice – to do the right thing. In a way, business is like that. Every organisation and person in it is looking for their purpose and those who discover it and follow it diligently have rewarding careers. When people know who they are and have a curiosity about their context, feelings arise which steer them on an amazing journey.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Wilson: The one that springs to mind is No Destination by Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence Magazine. It tells of his life story, his sense of purpose. It tells of how he came out of a monastic life to be involved in land reform in India and then to walk without provisions from there to Moscow and beyond to discuss nuclear disarmament with world leaders. And much more. An inspiring and sincere journey. A life of meaning and adventure.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they kno
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Wilson: This takes me back to your earlier question about who I learned the most from. It is through meeting people where they’re at and sharing the journey with them that we learn the most. Not in the arrogance of knowledge but in the humility of common quest and mutual insight. In such circumstances the illusion of duality dissipates and the truth of oneness and growth manifests. In such circumstances, no one person can claim personal ownership of the gain.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Wilson: I’ve never worried about people stealing my ideas. My sole purpose is to play a small part in developing an increasingly purposeful world. If my ideas have any merit at all, I will be happy to see them turned into action.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Wilson: I’ve never been an orthodox thinker. I dance creatively with the challenge of a better future. I awake in the night with new thoughts and explore new ways of doing things. I have met skepticism and been reassured to discover much of my thinking becoming the norm. Such was my response to the divisive talent management strategies prompted by the “War for Talent” in the 1990s. When I first started to suggest that talent management needed to be inclusive and cultural, I was one of a few voices out of kilter. Now this thinking is becoming the norm and my head is into “what next?” By the way I conclude that the “what’s next” is that the ownership of talent will be firmly with individuals with organisations creating the conditions in which it can flourish and managers being skilled facilitators. But that’s a topic for another text I suppose.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Wilson: Absolutely! “Eureka” is the end of a quest (or at least of a chapter). “That’s odd…” is a new beginning. Providing we take the baton.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Wilson: A few years ago I was sitting with a colleague outside a cafe in Malawi, where we do a lot of work with the UN and various agencies that are trying to change the world. I heard the word “Dzukani”. It is a Chichewa word (of the Malawian people) that means “wake up”. I stole the word and drew a process that describes how feelings arise when a person is placed in a context. The feelings provide a sense of direction from which a vision is formed. But the vision is meaningless without a commitment (and follow through) to action. In taking action we channel the energy of a context (positive or negative) into a better future. Thus is the act of creation.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Wilson: Exactly – which is the whole point of my book. Everything we do should be truly purposeful. Losing touch with purpose is negligent and wasteful. Purposeful leadership, in my view, is the only meaningful leadership.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Wilson: Whilst my book focuses principally on the purpose of organisations and their people, the truth is that purpose is bigger than any “great man” or any organisation. It is the universal script that joins all of creation. Purpose is bigger than any of us and, when we join in it, duality disappears and the joy of a common quest takes over.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Wilson: One of the authors I should have mentioned earlier is Otto Scharmer. His thinking in books such as “Theory U” and recently “Leading from an Emerging Future” suggests that there is no longer time to experience and then withdraw to perfect the plan. The answer is in self-knowledge and the willingness to prototype new ideas with conscious awareness. Mistakes are inevitable but the skill is in minimising loss and maximising opportunity.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Wilson: Executives often reach the top through ownership and attention to detail. Little wonder then that some find it hard to let go. But the successful ones learn to trust and empower wherever the circumstances permit. I worked with one (now a global COO) who came to Primeast with the challenge of getting half his time back to play to his strengths of strategy and key commercial relationship building. We achieved this by working with him and his management team to help them become more interdependent and less dependent on the “man in the middle”. He got his time back and made good use of it to the benefit of his organisation and (as a side effect) his own career.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Wilson: Storytelling is a key leadership skill. I have worked with some amazing leaders who weren’t in the best situations for one reason or another. They developed the skill of being honest, realistic and compelling – making sense of the past and present and painting a picture of a compelling future that people can’t resist. And the best leaders consciously co-create the story with those around them.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Wilson: As I discovered during the privatisation of the UK electricity industry, culture is the hardest aspect of change to manage. Many managers frankly just don’t get it and don’t pay sufficient attention to it. I’m currently working in a complex change programme where the CEO completely gets it, as do many of his team. But those who don’t become blockers to progress. We are adopting a range of techniques to achieve the change, including measurement, workshops, coaching, purposeful learning and development and so on. People are being provided every chance to align to the new ways but some just won’t make it. This is being dealt with.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Wilson: I don’t have an MBA but did study some modules towards one before opting for my MSc and I have taught leadership on the MBA programme for the University of Hull. From these limited insights, I believe MBA learning would benefit from being more experiential and less taught. At Primeast we use a framework we call ELAS, developed by my colleague Warwick Abbott. It simply means Engage, Learn, Apply and Sustain. If we only focus on the “L”, most of what we learn will ultimately be consigned to our attics and forgotten.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Wilson: The biggest challenge will undoubtedly be sustainable development. Many of our economic and ecological systems are unstable. And yet we continue to be driven by relatively short-term goals and predominantly financial ones at that. One CEO that I admire is Paul Polman at Unilever. Check him out on YouTube. He has much to teach our corporations. Also check out the draft Sustainable Development Goals due to be ratified by the UN this September. They form the most inspiring vision I have ever encountered for our planet and yet very few people have even heard of them. By the way, they will have a 2030 time horizon but need attention right now if we want to leave anything worthwhile to future generations.

Morris: Opinions are rather sharply divided about this. I think leaders cannot motivate other people but they can inspire them to be self-motivated. What are your own thoughts about all this?

Wilson: Hey Bob, I’m with you entirely. In fact at Primeast we often use the phrase “leaders see a better future and create the conditions in which it will manifest”. The conditions, as described in my book, are purpose (the anchor), vision, engagement, structure, character, results, success and talent. Each one gets a chapter by the way. The most powerful of these in terms of motivation are purpose, vision and success. Purpose informs why we’re here, vision describes where we are heading and success is both the outcome and the feeling we get when we arrive and throughout the journey. All of these three should be co-created in such a way that they serve to inspire. Leaders can’t do it for us and we can’t even do it for ourselves. True inspiration occurs when the duality of leader-follower gives way to shared purpose.

Morris: Recent studies by Gallup and other research firms indicate that, on average in U.S. companies, fewer than one third of those in a workforce are actively and productively engaged; the others are either “mailing it in” or actively working to undermine their company’s success. In your opinion, what must be done to increase the percentage of active and productive workers?

Wilson: Engagement is what happens when people know who they are and are given space and stimulation to be curious about their context, work out how they feel about it and the opportunity to make purposeful commitments alongside their colleagues. Nothing more, nothing less.

Morris: Long ago, I realized that in the healthiest organizations, those who comprise the workforce think and behave in terms of first-person plural pronouns. What are your own thoughts about this?

Wilson: Your words convey ownership and shared commitment. In such scenarios people stop playing the victim and become the heroes of a common quest. Perfect!

Morris: Opinions are also divided about the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Wilson: Charisma has its place in the mix for inspiration but so do authenticity and humility. The key is for leaders of all styles to bring the best of who they are into service with those around them.

Morris: The last time I checked, Amazon US sells 134,3711 books on “leadership” and 55,938 are on “business leadership.” In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of effective business [begin italics] followership [end italics]?

Wilson: Let’s be honest. We are all leaders and followers. And the greatest leaders are also great followers – of those they admire, their peers, their stakeholders and especially those who work for them. There is little more powerful than a leader who listens actively to someone who has something to say about the work they do and provides the quiet affirmation that person needs to step forward into play. Similarly, when leadership resonates, our collective and systematic follower-ship provides the energy that delivers the better future.

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Clive cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Designing the Purposeful Organisation Amazon link

Kogan-Page link

Link to additional KoganPage resources

Primeast link

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1 Comment

  1. Clive Wilson on April 19, 2015 at 7:29 am

    Hi Bob. Thank you so much, first for your excellent review of ‘Designing the Purposeful Organization’ and then for your follow up interview which I found inspiring and thought-provoking. If any of your readers want to know more or share their thoughts and relegated experiences, feel free to point them my way. Looking forward to visiting the US (Houston) in September.

    Keep up the good work.

    Warm regards from a very sunny north of England, Clive.

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