Love Diversity!


Photo credits: Chris Luttrel

Just back from Toronto. Had a great time taking a group of 25 sales and marketing team members out on a Leadership Outbreak journey. The most fascinating element was that these 25 individuals consisted of 8 different nationalities and were from 4 different continents. Woah now that is a diverse group! What fascinated me even more was how this group got along. Specific cultural idiosyncrasies were taken for granted and laughed upon whereas when the going got tough the group really gelled together and delivered results.

Research shows that multi-cultural groups perform when:

  • There is a long-term commitment
  • There is a focus on a range of issues of shared concern
  • They share core values of mutual respect, valuing of difference, and a high level of trust.

All elements were present in this team and it was beautiful to see it working together.

So how do you lead diverse teams? It might sound a bit counterintuitive but research shows that to successfully lead diverse teams you have to focus on task orientation when a team is newly formed to ensure all members are clear about what is expected of them, the roles they have and the structure in which they operate. When this is established the leader can switch to relationship orientation and focus on building trust, commitment to the team and shared values.

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Couple of tips on how to lead diverse teams:

Misconceptions and Misunderstandings
Language is essential to communication yet it can cause many misunderstandings. There are thousands of differences in how people might interpret American and UK English. Just because people speak the same language doesn’t mean that it’s as easy for them to communicate as it is for native speakers.

Behaving Differently
Understand, be considerate and tolerant of cultural differences. These can be habits, or beliefs, body language, ways of speaking or the amount of personal space that people want. What may seem strange in South Asia is totally normal in China and completely unacceptable in the United States of America.

Be Self Aware
Think about how your own background, education, upbringing clouds your way of thinking and working style: what you consider normal may not seem normal to others.

Appreciate People as Individuals
The worse you can do is to treat everybody the same. People want to be recognized as individuals, who they are, what they stand for and what they have achieved. Don’t fall into the stereotyping trap.

Leading teams of people that are like you is so much easier. It takes an effort to get out of your comfort zone and make a diverse team work. The advantages however are bountiful. For me the single most advantage is that working in diverse and multi cultural teams is that they make you so much richer.

– Paul Keijzer

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When Was The Last Time You Did Something For The First Time?

7189397708_72402c108a_zI was always a big fan of the old Emirates Airlines ‘Keep Discovering’ campaign. The most memorable ad for me was the one where two African men check into a hotel during winter and were over the moon to see snow for the first time. I love it when I can create the same “first time” sensation for my clients.

This week I spent three days in the north of Pakistan with the top team of a pharmaceutical company. Their aim was to forge personal bonds, allowing them to collaborate better as a team and lead their organization through a number of exciting challenges coming up. From my previous blogs you know that the Leadership Outbreak Journeys are my favorite interventions and this one was no exception.

These journeys combine taking people out of their comfort zone, creating experiences together, having conversations that matter and embracing first time experiences. The Leadership Outbreaks are always such a success because they combine all these 4 elements in an exciting cocktail, transforming the team in the process.

The ‘First Time Experience’ is a key component as it forces people to do things that they haven’t done before and often allow people to confront their fears. There is nothing more powerful for me (as a facilitator) to see people overcoming their fears. This Outbreak was no exception. On the contrary, it was even more exciting as we created experiences that were also new for me; we went paragliding!

Picture taken of my paragliding shadow
Picture taken of my paragliding shadow

One of the activities I did this time was climbing a 60 foot rock (of course fully secured and safe) and subsequently then repelling down the same rock face. One participant was particularly fearful of coming down the rock face, as the top had a bit of an overhang that made it quite difficult for beginners to start. He was unable to overcome his fears, despite coaching and guidance from the instructor that was with him at the top. He finally amassed enough courage when his colleague, who went down before him, told him “Zahid, do you trust me? You can do it, you just have to let go.” Can you imagine the power? Not only of the person overcoming his fears, but also of the bond that was created between these two team members. 

Rock Climbing

Similarly at the end of the three days the most senior team member, who had been awesome in completing all the activities, despite his age, physical conditions and vertigo, said that it was an “unbelievable” experience. He shared that he would never have done any of these activities on his own, but as he was part of the team he completed each task and was rightly so very proud of his achievements.

This drives me. Pushing people’s boundaries, letting them do things they thought were not possible and in the process enjoying the experience to the full. Thanks team for a wonderful outbreak. I know for sure that together you will achieve your dreams! So next time you are faced with a new task, a scary yet thrilling experience – ask yourself the same question; “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”

– Paul Keijzer

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Lets Experiment More

I was in Kenya last week and wow it was great to be back after so many years. A client had asked me to help him develop stronger bonds between his top team members. Certainly an exciting prospect, and it turned out the group was the most diverse team I have ever worked with, which consisted of 16 senior executives from 16 different countries covering 4 different continents! It was really an amazing group of people. You know by now that I relish on these opportunities and that it plays straight into my strengths and expertise.

However, the only way for me to deliver with the time frame at hand, was to approach things differently and to experiment. I decided to start the day with something that I normally do after a couple of days. I had worked with my client before and knew he was an extra-ordinary leader who was willing to partner with me and make my experiment work. The results were phenomenal and to quote one participant “What happened that day was extraordinary and it has created a tremendous link in all of us”.

Throughout my Unilever career I had been relatively predictable, and had done things according to ‘how things are normally done here’. However, when I was appointed in my second country HR Director role I made a conscious decision to try to do things in a way I had never done before.

Of course to experiment and take risks is easier said than done. You need to have the courage to do things differently without being sure what the result might be. This requires confidence; in your own abilities but probably even more so in your preparation. Experimenting doesn’t mean that you do things ‘in the blind’ but means you must be prepared for anything. In my line of work I prepare myself through visualization. I visualize how a discussion will flow and what kind of questions, responses and reactions will guide people in a certain direction.

People often don’t experiment because they are afraid to fail. And yes, this requires courage. But from personal experience I have learned that as long as your intent is right and you try things differently – that even if they you don’t succeed people will appreciate the effort, the courage, and more importantly you learn more than you ever can doing things the normal way.

To experiment you have to have the confidence to walk the ‘road less traveled’ and not be afraid to fail. But, you know what – if you experiment you will have more success, learn more and at the same time have more fun doing it.

– Paul Keijzer

A Positive Reinterpretation

Last January I went to Panama with Earth Train’s Mother Nature CEO Program, jointly led by Lider Sucre and Nathan Gray. Both Lider and Nathan are truly inspiring figures and recently Nathan proved why I hold him in such high regard.
In one of his emails, Nathan shared that following a 2008 surgery to remove a benign tumor in his brain, his doctors have recently discovered another one, twice the size, pressing on his brain stem. He is now scheduled to have open-brain surgery in September.

If given such news, I, like most of us, would have freaked out. Nathan didn’t, and believes this to be (in his own words) “nature’s way of nudging me to focus on what’s important”. You can learn more about a person by how they respond to hardships over success’. I would like to share part of his email:

“ … We all talk about the importance of teaching a man how to fish. Nice, and certainly better than trying to hand out fish. But, in a world where our seas are acidifying, that´s but a four-foot jump over a six-foot trench. What we need to do is to teach men, women and children how to teach and, ultimately, how to create learning communities. We´ve been content to focus on tools for positive change, be that projects or inventions like micro water purification units. We need to encourage the emergence of tool-makers. Teachers, tool-makers, and community builders are the vanguard of a liveable future.”

Nathan, you truly inspire me.

– Paul Keijzer

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The Power of Leeches

Anyone who has ever been bitten by a leech knows the strength of these blood-sucking creatures. It is almost impossible to kill one and when it attaches itself, it doesn’t let go before it has sucked enough blood, which can last from anything between 20 minutes and 2 hours!

We encountered plenty of leeches last week in Sri Lanka. It was pouring for most of the day and night and of course leeches love their wet, hot and sticky climate. So within hours, numerous of the participants from the outbreak were covered in them. Have you ever seen a Pakistani man, who has never spent a night in a tent or seen so much rain, come across (let alone be bitten by) a leech? I can tell you, it is a spectacle. These small creatures somehow caused fear and havoc amongst these high performing business executives. And the funny part is these little guys managed to play an important part in the team coming together.

An outbreak is designed to create as many ‘first-time-ever-experiences’ as possible and to create surprises and memories. It is designed to take people out of their comfort zone; not by doing things that they don’t want to do, but by taking away their control over the event. Outbreak participants do not know what they will do, where they will sleep, when they will eat and what is going to happen next. They are told they must learn to let things go and go with the flow. This loss of control seems to create the biggest level of discomfort for executives.

Giving up control along with physical tiredness and discomfort, creates the ideal circumstance to have conversations about things that matter, to disagree and be feisty, to air out frustrations and talk about issues that normally remain hidden under the carpet of civility and business etiquette. This is what these creepy crawlies did – they removed restraints and allowed participant to open up and discuss issues that would usually have been bypassed.

So sitting in a rain soaked tent, after a day full of exiting first ever experiences, created the ideal moment for the team to come together in an amazing way. And the leeches made it perfect! They created the right level of discomfort and surprise, and ever since we have been back this has been the most talked about experience, creating a shared memory that will last for years.

I will always remember my leech; it was stuck to my groin. How it got there I will probably never know.

– Paul Keijzer

What We Think, We Become


Do you ever realize that sometimes you end up watching the absolute best and simply worst movies on a plane? You never know what you are getting into. On the flight back from my Leadership Outbreak in Sri Lanka I watched the movie the Iron Lady on the life of Margaret Thatcher (what an amazing performance from Meryl Streep) and really enjoyed the message it had to offer. There were plenty of examples on the importance of sticking to ones principles and values on things that matter, even if it results in disagreements (see my previous blog: Creative Conflict). However the highlight of the film for me was when she quoted her father, Alfred Roberts, saying:

“Watch your thoughts for they become words
Watch your words for they become actions
Watch your actions for they become habits
Watch your habits for they become your character
And watch your character for it becomes your destiny
What we think, we become”

It specifically resonated with me as I had just spent the last 4 days with the top 30 leaders of a financial services organization talking about leadership; on how they want to work together to lead the organization and what they should do to translate their vision into actions.

To get yourself (let alone a team) to think and act synchronously is not a small act. However, when you do get people to work together everything is possible. This is what the team in Sri Lanka was able to achieve. They ‘stormed’, came together and decided what they needed to do. Now it’s up to them whether they are able to translate their thoughts into actions.

This is normally the point where I ‘hop-off’ the transformation train for any team. This time however I have the opportunity to continue to coach and guide the team to make their actions became a habit. For me, this is an exciting new prospect and one on which I will continue to report and share my learnings.

– Paul Keijzer

Creative Conflict

Margaret Thatcher, the British Iron Lady, once famously said “Consensus is the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects, the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.”

Sounds familiar? It does to me. Throughout my career, most leadership teams I participated in tried to avoid conflict and would come to conclusions that everybody could agree with, even if it wasn’t the right solution for the organization. They didn’t have the ability to deal with the discomfort that comes from a good fight.

I don’t mean fights in which individuals are all about pitching personal interests or those fights that revolve around clashing personalities or settling long-standing grudges. No, I am talking about those fights in which people vehemently disagree about ideas, concepts and the issues that are important to the organization.

The willingness to disagree, to make yourself vulnerable and admitting that you don’t have the right answers, is a hallmark for a healthy team. A strong team comes from trusting each other and giving individuals space to be wrong. And when there is trust, people are willing to pursue the right answers even if it doesn’t fit their personal opinion.

Increasing conflict is of course not something that happens automatically nor does it happen by someone just saying that they want more constructive conflict. As in all changes, the ‘message from the top’ and installing a process that supports the change is crucial. I love the example of a senior leader who in order to encourage more conflict in his team implemented two key rules. The first rule was to that he would interpret silence as disagreement, so if people were not contributing a decision could not be made. And the second rule he introduced was that at the end of each meeting he asked each member for a formal commitment to the decision taken.

This of course is very similar to the old team development steps of: forming, storming, norming, performing. You can’t get high performing teams if you haven’t gone through this process and there is no short cut in which you can skip a step. That is why I take business teams on Outbreak Leadership Journeys. The idea is to take people out of their comfort zone, not tell them what they will be doing, make them do things they have never done before and after a few days most people are tired and have short fuses. This is when you can get conflict out and only then can you move on and start building a team that is committed to the organization, each other and themselves.

I am off to Sri Lanka for another Leadership Outbreak tomorrow. Let the storm begin!

– Paul Keijzer

Joint Leadership

I had a tremendous experience in Panama as part of the Mother Nature CEO Program. One of the great factors of this experience was getting so see joint leadership in action. Earthtrain, the NGO that brought all of us together and organized the Mother Nature CEO Program, is led by two remarkable people: Nathan Gray and Lidar Sucre.

Photography by Duncan Grossart

Nathan and Lidar are both Co-executive directors of Earthtrain. Yes, both of them are jointly responsible for implementing this amazing vision of preserving the bio and cultural diversity of the Maomi Valley Preserve. According to Lidar; the Preserve’s conservation and restoration efforts are strengthening one of the most important areas for the protection of biodiversity in the world.

In all my experience I have rarely seen such a successful joint leadership and having watched them in action for a week, I’ve made a couple of observations on how they pulled it off.

Firstly, both had very different and complimentary strengths. This is of course not uncommon, but what I noticed was that both were very comfortable in recognizing and letting the other person play to his strengths.

Secondly, they were constantly checking in with each other. Whilst making statements, or making sure whether they were on the right track, they stayed in sync with one another. This was not intentional but came to them very subconsciously, and as a result they were never moving forward or making decisions without the other being on board. Although I understand where this can be interpreted as very inefficient and time consuming, they did it in such a natural way that it didn’t hinder their organizational progress, whilst obviously making full use of their complimentary skills sets.

And finally I think what made them work as one unit was the mutual respect they had for each other. This had formed a relationship that had developed over the years into a bond of trust and loyalty that was difficult to break.

I am sure they have gone through tremendous difficulties through the years, to come to where they are now. I admire not only their relationship, but even more so their commitment to their vision. The realization that they would be able to achieve their goal faster and better together than alone has kept them together.

– Paul Keijzer

Mother Nature CEO. Panama 2012

People have always asked me if it is really worth it to fly halfway cross the world, spend a week in the jungle and spend money to join a hiking expedition in the jungle? I never know what to say, because each adventure appeals to different sides of me and I can never think of one specific reason to explain my actions.

The interesting thing is that I nominated myself for this latest opportunity in Panama. It was a moment of instinct rather than having considered all the aspects, and I must admit that going to a country like Panama that I had never been to was the main reason. As a result of my impulsive actions I went with little expectation and during my 44 hour flight to Panama frequently cursed myself for having made this decision.

Now on the way back I realize that sometimes, intuitive decisions are the best decisions. The opportunity and the inspiration I have gained from seeing people who are extremely passionate about a vision and being able to pull off the impossible and at the same time do good for this planet, was in itself worth the trouble.

Another enticing factor was the opportunity to immerse myself for 6 days in the jungle. I was excited at the idea of getting physically exhausted, doing things that I have never done before, meeting amazing individuals and getting to share life stories with people who have very different experiences. Above all, I could not wait to see Mother Nature from close-up in action.

I was reminded of the understanding of how everything in an Eco system has a role and that no one can function without the other. How in some instances a blooming flower has developed a unique partnership with a single humming bird species to get its pollen distributed. How vines piggyback on trees and in then ‘strangle and merge’ with the tree to create a new entity. How plants and animals adapt to counter changes in their environment and of course how everything in nature is about long-term survival and growth.

There are so many similarities and so many things that we in the business world do that are diagonally opposite to how nature works and then are surprised if things don’t work out in a way that is sustainable over a longer period. You might say that we know this of course and this is nothing new, and I can’t agree more. But sometimes it helps if you are being reminded of all these principles and encouraged to apply them again.

– Paul Keijzer

My New Hero

I have a new hero and his name is John deCuellas. He is a linguist from Cambridge Massachusetts whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my adventures in Panama. John is 81 years old and participated with the rest of us team members in the Mother Nature CEO program we just took part in and completed in the jungle of Panama.

This was not like any ordinary program. This was a unique adventure program, with jungle hikes and kayaking, where we slept for days in tents with little comfort and interacted with the natives from various villages. John did everything everybody else did; he hiked for 6 hours, waded through streams, descended on a rope through steep hills, plunged down waterfalls and rapids and contributed to all chores that needed to be done.

81 years old and he had not one complaint. Declining any offer for help and assistance, he just kept going.

I found his strength and willingness at his age to be inspiring, so I had to ask him what it is that drives him to do these things. For him, it was the fun and excitement of doing new things that made him adventurous.

How do you do it I said? And his answer was as simple and humble as you would expect from him; if your mind wants to do it you can do anything.

The funny thing is, I think John will still be doing this when he is 90!

He is my new Hero!

I can only hope I can keep my mind controlling my body and be able to do a fraction of what John does when I am his age.

– Paul Keijzer

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