Beneath the Noise: The Power of Meaningful Conversations and Deep Reflection

It might seem like us taking the last posts message about "switching off" to heart given our virtual absence, but there was a rather good reason for this. We were able to spend some time with the participants in an executive development programme called "The Next MBA" - see here for details. This 18 month global learning journey takes senior leaders to 6 different places in order to better understand contextual challenges and emerging solutions - but also to form learning partnerships and networks among themselves. This concept - started and operated by management consulting firm Mazars - has once again been a response to the lack of innovation in offerings by major business schools.

One of the "African inspirations" we were keen to unpack with the team was the art of meaningful conversations - a "slow" way of creating and sharing knowledge that seems to be under threat in our always-on society with back-to-back meetings creating an illusion of progress. What emerged was that this type of deep listening and learning experience might well be what most leaders are yearning for in their current situation. In a great article called the "The Rewards of CEO Reflection" the authors point out the value of deep thinking to executives and how to overcome the barriers to this practice in everyday life. Three things are helpful in this regard:

A Structure and a Schedule. Unstructured and unguided thought tends to dwell on immediate worries and familiar conundrums rather than fundamental and foundational issues. Thought focused on solving immediate problems is critical — not reflective — thought. Reflective thought sets the stage for long-term success.
A Trusted Dialogue Partner. A CEO has to maintain a persona. In front of their people, CEOs need to project confidence, optimism, and command. In public — and even with their most senior executives — they rarely exhibit signs of self-doubt, admit uncertainty, or question core beliefs. Scrutiny in social media amplifies this tendency toward heroic stoicism. Reflection, on the other hand, requires introspection and honesty that are difficult for CEOs to convey in their day-to-day activities.
A Catalytic Conversation. Many executives and other stakeholders who meet with the CEO want to focus on their own agenda or are simply executing the CEO’s agenda. Their conversations are a critical part of corporate life, but they are unlikely to lead to reflective thought. Dialogue partners bring an entirely different mindset and set of materials to their discussions with CEOs. CEOs benefit from new and unbiased information in order to stimulate and catalyze their thinking. By having an independent eye-level relationship with a CEO, a dialogue partner can provide perspectives that otherwise are unlikely to be aired.

As Tim Leberecht points out in his article "Think More, Collaborate Less", there is value in deep  and guided introspection in order to come up for air above the management consulting inspired buzzword noise and group-think so prevalent in most large organisations - which also leads the authors of this MIT Sloan Reaview article to postulate "The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organisations".
One could also go one step further with William Deresiewicz to see solitude as the hallmark of a great leader: "If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts." In this view being alone allows a leader to form his or her vision, the ability to think differently instead of just following the established consensus.

Which brings us to one of the exciting projects we are busy with at the moment - the journey of an established business school outside Cape Town to start an Executive Monastery: a building complex with stylish accommodation, seminar rooms and a natural environment for physical regeneration which they hope to become one of the key sites for reflection, negotiation and retreat in the world.