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Take a Systems Leadership Approach to Change

October 25, 2021 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

Last month, I wrote about leadership and self-reflection with Teresa Roche, a long-time friend and colleague. As we discussed potential topics, we uncovered so many possibilities that we decided to write a trilogy of sorts.

Last month it was integrity, and this month it's systems leadership. Stay tuned for next month when we’ll reflect on our favorite — gratitude.

I was familiar with the topic of systems leadership, but I wanted to know more about its methods and applications. Like much research, a significant source of thought leadership comes from institutions like Stanford, MIT and Harvard. If you’d like a more detailed overview of systems leadership, check out this article from Harvard Kennedy School.

Harvard's Learning Innovations Lab community, to which Teresa belongs, has defined systems leadership as: 

"Both a mindset and a set of skills that includes seeing the system by engaging diverse stakeholders and perspectives that challenge your own, and changing it from the inside, starting with the people. It is about learning and observing, balancing tensions and paradoxes, and creating conditions and adaptive spaces that enable others to develop, lead, and collectively work towards shared goals that benefit the entire system sustainably."

There are clear global applications of this approach in areas such as climate change, food insecurity and overall sustainability. In business, there is significant real acceleration of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) efforts, including investments, data transparency and strategic initiatives. Some would argue it's long overdue.

The topic of systems leadership can seem daunting, but in its simplest form it comes down to the intersection of these three elements:

  1. Insights: Understanding how a complex system actually works.
  2. Tactics: Building advocacy within the community that is impacted.
  3. Skills: Developing individual collaborative leadership skills that foster trust and alignment.

Systems leadership can be put into action in business settings, particularly when the goal is sustainable change. The formula makes perfect sense: collaborative leaders + inspired colleagues + clear processes = sustainable change.

When one of these elements is missing, it requires much more effort to generate even a temporary change. Sustainability requires coherence, which means all elements must fit together and make sense, and the resulting whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When new initiatives lack coherence, our brains process that new information similarly to error detection, and therefore not much changes. Conversely, when policies, words and actions fit together and make sense, the potential for change is dramatically increased.

How Can We Encourage Systems Thinking at Work?

  1. System insights: Spend time with those who are directly involved with the complex work. Observe the work being done and talk to those who are doing it. They live in the midst of that complexity every day and can speak to what’s working and what’s not.
  2. Community tactics: Engage with those who will be impacted by your work, both inside and outside your organization. Listen to their input and resist the urge to evaluate their perspectives in the moment. Seeking to understand other points of view is the first step to building a coalition and creating advocates who genuinely feel heard.
  3. Leadership skills: Include capabilities such as building trust, fostering psychological safety and developing self-awareness in your leadership development efforts. Effective systems leaders inspire others, share their power and leverage their influence to create opportunities for others to contribute and make an impact. They also are leaders who resist rushing to judgment, as they understand that navigating complex systems and diverse communities takes time.

Teresa Roche,  Chief Human Resources Officer for the City of Fort Collins
Teresa Roche is the Chief Human Resources Officer of the City of Fort Collins, a fellow at Harvard University’s Learning Innovations Laboratory, and a member of the Colorado State University Human Resource Executive Network.

When I first became a public servant five years ago, I felt overwhelmed as the complexity, pace and intensity of providing exceptional services to our community was beyond imagination. To facilitate my own growth and adaptation, I participated in "Activating Collective Wisdom," led by Alan Briskin and Amy Lenzo. I also embraced the core practice of keeping the whole system in mind.

As our world continues to feel the impact of the pandemic, the systemic issues of climate change, racism and poverty only grow larger. We face these challenges globally, both within our communities and our organizations. So much is changing exponentially and simultaneously that just when I think I see the system, my understanding is upended.

To lead now, I’ve learned to listen to many different voices, become more comfortable with discomfort, collectively intervene in the system, and stay present to what is called for next. As an example, in March 2020, we closed our city facilities, and reduced programs and services as we anticipated a decline in sales tax and use fees — we had difficult choices to make.

When asked what I would recommend, I said let’s ask our people, and we did. Their input guided our decisions as well as the resulting, positive shift that occurred in our culture. I’m grateful for the leadership opportunity to make an impact across a system, but equally important, I’m honored to learn from those whom I serve.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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