Posts in November

A lesson from Nanjing on the value of personal ownership and accountability

November 27th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

A lesson from Nanjing on the value of personal ownership and accountability


We are born with a desire to create and we often take pride in what we make. In some organizations, however, work is so fragmented, that many members have little sense of how their efforts contribute to outcomes that truly matter – for clients and for the organization. This tends to alienate people. Over time, this lowers motivation and can lead to burnout.


On a recent trip to Nanjing (“Southern Capital”), in South-East China, I came across an inspiring example of how perceptive leaders had turned repetitive, low-level work into something much more.


The construction of the city wall of Nanjing was started around the year 300 and the wall was completed during the Ming Dynasty. It still stands – in glorious condition. The photo at the top of this article depicts one of the gates. From a distance, the wall towers impressively overhead. Moving up close, another feature is striking. Many of the bricks are “signed” – in beautifully crafted characters. Here is an example:




This particular brick articulates which authority was responsible for this brick, at city level and ward level. It then proceeds to list the chain of government officials who were responsible for this particular brick. Quite striking.


Different authorities used different templates. Here is another example:




The text on this one states that the craftsman was professional brick maker Wen Hua from the Fu-shan temple, working under the leadership of the Zhou brothers.


Imagine the pride at seeing the wall come up – and being able to point out to your friends and family: I crafted these particular bricks! What an ingenious way to nurture ownership and pride!


Now, every strength has a shadow-side; every bright idea also comes with a cost. While this example inspires me, there is a dark side to this approach. Any brick that broke could be traced back the artisan who shaped it. And the consequences for the artisan could be dire. As in “terminal”. The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), was a smart, but also a harsh, even cruel, ruler. He did not shy away from having unskilled or sloppy artisans executed. I expect there were not many bricks that broke.


But we don’t have to copy all the aspects of an inspiring practice. We have the option to adapt the practice to current realities, to implement those parts that are beneficial in our environments.


Let us consider a simple examples. In an NGO that I serve, I observed that the MD asked one of the volunteers to order pizza for a gathering later that day. Seems innocuous, right? Well, it did not work very well. The usual pizza place was booked for a private children’s birthday party and did not take orders. The volunteer had followed instructions, and the instructions were faulty. There was quite some frustration later, when the MD discovered that there was no lunch ready. The volunteer could of course have shown greater initiative and ownership. But the MD could also have made a much more meaningful request, such as “Would you organize things so that everyone gets fed during the lunch hour and that they have a good time?” – a more empowering and meaningful request. This MD learned from the experience and developed the habit to delegate the responsibility for meaningful outcomes, not tasks. He was already good at sharing credit and showing gratitude, but it become much more meaningful to say ‘thank you’ for outcomes.


The pizza example is trivial, but similar things happen all the time.


Consider the difference between:

“Please photocopy these pages” and

“Please organize the physical production of our proposal and ensure it is delivered on time, according the client’s specifications.”


Consider the difference between:

“Conduct at least three sales calls per day, following this list of leads” and

“Use all your creativity and skills to help us achieve our sales target – your share of the budget is x.”


I would love to hear your examples. In the areas where you lead, how do you engineer things so that people around you can take visible ownership for meaningful outcomes? How does the example with the Nanjing bricks stimulate you to do this in new and creative ways?


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

The Power of Doubt

November 20th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

The Power of Doubt


We tend to think of ‘doubt’ as something vaguely uncomfortable and often undesirable. Doubt can be confusing and disturbing – something we experience viscerally when we are led to doubt what our colleagues or friends are telling us. And doubting ourselves can be draining – it can sap our will to move ahead with things that have to be done. But it is worth pondering: Can doubt also have a positive, even a powerful side?


I was in Australia last week, facilitating an executive workshop on Diversity and Inclusion. My client was determined to ensure that the executive team take into account more diverse opinions and include more varied perspectives in their analysis and decision-making. I was impressed by the vision of this team. Their conscious thinking about their own decision-making was inspiring and their will to enhance their own decision-making was impressive. As I worked with them, it struck me that what they were actually doing, was to inject a healthy dose of doubt into their decision-making. They were building the muscle to doubt that the standard approach was always the best, to doubt that their traditions ought to prevail, to doubt that the classical sources of information would be the most useful ones at the next junction.


This led to me connect some dots. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a few days at Oxford University, where I am an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School. I go to Oxford regularly to spend time in the academic environment, meet friends and extend my network. This is always invigorating. It gives me fresh ideas. It lets me bounce my ideas off diverse and brilliant people. It stimulates new thinking and uncovers new opportunities for collaboration. This time I met with Dr. Michael Smets, one of the key drives of a vast collaboration effort that has led to “The CEO Report” ( Dr. Smets and his colleagues conducted structured interviews with more than 150 CEOs to understand how they think and work. One of the emerging, surprising findings was how conscious many of these CEOs are about the importance of doubt. They said things like:

“One of the most important things is having people around you that tell you how wrong you are.”

“The idea that you are crystal clear at those moments – for me anyway – it’s an artificial construct, because if you’re that clear, you have probably missed something.”

“If you are not careful and you think that you are indestructible, then that is where the dangers lurk.”


Dr. Smets highlights concrete, productive actions that can spring from healthy doubt:

– obtain peer mentoring

– benchmark your practices to build perspective on where you stand

– put in place mechanisms to ensure diversity of thinking

– manage risk proactively and creatively

– build in time for continuous learning – ensuring diversity of input.


Upon moving from Europe to Hong Kong, I adopted all these practices as I learned to operate in a new environment. I connected with senior business people and asked for their input on local customs and traditions. I compared my way of working with the procedures used in similar organizations in the region. I increased the time I spent networking with people outside my area of practice – to increase my aperture. I adopted the humble mindset that there would certainly be risks that I was completely unaware of and the curiosity to discover them. Finally, I carved out 20% of my time for continuous learning – much of it in areas that made me distinctly uncomfortable as I went through the learning. I optimistically chose to interpret the discomfort as a sign of growth.


As a leader, where might you benefit from injecting a healthy dose of doubt in your information gathering, your analysis and your decision-making? How can you engineer for people to challenge you productively? How can you get more creative about understanding and managing risk – leveraging perspectives that are more diverse?


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Exerting power without formal authority – The King’s Choice

November 14th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Exerting power without formal authority


I often see the idea of leadership equated with the exercise of power, where there is formal authority. Perhaps though, in totality, there is greater impact from the leadership that is exercised without formal authority. This is a form of leadership that each one of us can exercise – in our families, in our communities and in our workplaces. For these reasons, I am intrigued by leadership without formal authority and I often find it hugely inspiring.


I recently enjoyed watching the film The King’s “no” [original title: Kongens nei, Director: Erik Poppe]. This historical drama describes the German invasion of Norway in the early days of World War II. It was a special privilege to watch the film with my 81-year old father, who lived through the War and remembers it vividly. The story told in the film is well known by many Norwegians, but perhaps less well known outside the country.


Synopsis: After the British forces lay mines in Norwegian fjords, Germany invades Norway in a bid to control the North Atlantic and to protect the transportation of iron ore (bound for the German factories), which is shipped out through Narvik, in northern Norway. Germany does not declare war on Norway but presents the action as a bid to ‘protect Norway and Norwegians from the British hostile forces’. In spite of this friendly cover, Norway perceives the German invasion as an attack, and fires torpedoes and shells at the German war ships as they cruise up the Oslo fjord – at night, with extinguished lanterns and without prior warning. Mobilization in Norway is shambolic, but the King and the Government flee the capital on a train that leaves Oslo a few hours after the skirmishes in the Oslo fjord. All major Norwegian towns are rapidly captured by the Germans, but the King and the Government remain at large – spending nights in private accommodation and driving in private cars by day. The German diplomatic representative in Norway seeks to negotiate, to avoid the loss of life, but the ‘negotiations’ consist of a thinly veiled ultimatum from Germany – presented to the King personally. The King is clear: Norway is a democracy, and he will take no such decision on this own. He will submit the question to the Government, even though he considers the government to be weak and pliant and in spite of his fears that the Government has very limited will to stand up to the occupation force. This is the backdrop to the highlight of the film, a stirring scene where the King presents his position to the Government. His stance is clear: He respects the Government’s right to make the decision. At the same time, his personal perspective is values-based: if the Government chooses to accept the German ultimatum, he will be forced to abdicate, together with his house (extended family and lineage). This short, poignant speech shames the Government into rejecting the German advance, and Norway is at war. The King is acutely aware that his actions will lead to casualties on both sides, but accepts this responsibility in the context of the greater good that he stands for. [Should you wish to watch the trailer, you can find it here].


In many conversations about leadership in the organizations I serve, we explore self-leadership and leadership of direct and indirect reports. Just as important, often, is leadership without formal authority. King Haakon VII’s speech is an inspiring example of strong leadership without formal power. As King, he is a representative for the people and the nation, but his formal power is limited. The King fully understands the power of symbols, though, and uses this understanding powerfully, to great effect.


He demonstrates due respect for the Government and clearly shows that he understands other priorities and competing perspectives. This is a prerequisite for ‘reaching’ the senior politicians to whom he is speaking. He is somber and terse – conveying in body language and in tone of voice, in pace and in tenor, a message that is entirely consistent with his words. He clearly demonstrates that he is prepared to risk and sacrifice the monarchy in order to stay true to his values and maintain integrity – in keeping with his personal motto: “All for Norway”.


I am regularly inspired to see politicians, NGO leaders, church leaders and business leaders risk their own position, the prospect of re-election, their financial safety, and their prestige to advance the cause they are fighting for – with a visceral understanding that “I am living for something greater than myself”. A friend of mine rejected a corporate career to start a think tank that would stimulate and nurture a more strategic and positive dialogue about the future of his country. A politician that I know was among the first in the world to advocate a ban on smoking in public places, at a time when this proposal was hugely unpopular and was met with derisory comments from restaurant owners, conference center managers and most voters. This politician was driven by a deep conviction that he was fighting for better health for the entire population. A business leader, who is also a friend, placed his personal prestige and career on the line as he spoke up against objectionable business practices in his own organization. (He ended up leaving the organization because of this).


Are you clear that you are living for something greater than yourself? What consequences does is this having in your life? Are the people you lead (with or without formal authority) visibly inspired by your vision? What are your moments of powerful leadership where you choose to stand on principle, perhaps at significant personal risk?


I would love to hear your perspective and your experiences.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

The exciting inner journey of discovery

November 6th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

The exciting inner journey of discovery


I am a keen kayaker. I have had the joy of paddling kayaks around the world – in the US, in South Africa, in New Zealand, in Norway and in Greenland. My most spectacular kayaking trip was perhaps a weeklong trip among the icebergs along the west coast of Greenland, starting in the town of Ilulissat. The icebergs were sometimes beautiful – in shades from white through baby blue to deep teal. And sometimes they were enormous. The largest one we passed was a roughly hewn cube with sides of approximately two kilometers. We would regularly observe a huge chunk of ice break off from the top of an iceberg, and then see the iceberg, now destabilized, turn majestically around in the water to find a new equilibrium – sending waves out in all directions.




At one point, we paddled quite close to an iceberg when we heard a loud, cracking sound. We expected this sound to be accompanied by something more, but nothing happened. Nothing happened, for a while, that is. After about ten seconds, a mini-iceberg came rushing up from the deep, broke the surface, and lazily turned over on its side. The new iceberg had broken off from the main one, deep under the surface and, being lighter than water, had floated to the surface, where it sent a gush of foam and water in all directions. We figured it was time to get out of there, lest further instability would have more dire consequences for fragile kayakers.




I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about icebergs along the coast of Greenland. Even more exciting, though, has been what I have learned about the iceberg that each one of us represents. We observe the behaviors of people around us, including their speech and their gestures. These behaviors give us some inkling about what goes on beneath the surface, but there is often much more than we perceive. The metaphor of the iceberg is therefore apt. The iceberg reveals around a tenth of itself above the water surface. The test is hidden beneath the surface. In a similar way, people show a small part of what goes one within them, and most of it remains hidden. Through respectful and gentle probing, we can uncover some of it – thereby deepening our understanding and vastly improving communication and collaboration.


What are the components hidden beneath the surface? Assumptions (some warranted, some perhaps not), anxieties, fears, needs (some met, some perhaps not) and much more.


My wife and I were raised in different cultures. She was raised in a low-trust culture; I was raised in a high-trust culture. She was taught to nurture harmony; I was taught to ‘speak truth to power’. She was raised with collectivist values; I was raised with a strong emphasis on the value of the individual. Hence, I am regularly baffled by her behavior (and I know I regularly baffle her). But knowing that we have such different backgrounds sometimes makes it easier for us to acknowledge our differences and to remain curious – rather than getting frustrated or angry. Paradoxically, it can actually be easier to communicate with someone from a different culture, as we avoid the illusion that we (fully) know and understand the other. When working with someone from our own environment and culture, it is easier to fall in the trap of writing off a surprising behavior as “stupid” or “immature” without taking the time to explore what drives the behavior. When communicating with my wife, I consciously force myself to retain an open mind and to ask “Why?” when her behavior, her words, her priorities surprise me. Sometimes I use more gentle words, since “why” can be a bit harsh and can easily be interpreted as the start of an inquisition or an accusation. “What leads to you to say this?” can work better. Or, perhaps, “Help me understand what makes you prioritize this way”. And as I practice with my wife, I am getting better at staying curious with other people too – including the ones who are culturally closer to me.


How does this work in practice in the professional world? Let me offer an example. At one time I served a hospital chain that was working to renew its IT infrastructure. This was a critical endeavor, as much of the hardware equipment was so old that it was no longer supported by the vendor. Many software solutions had passed the official “end-of-life” date of the provider. The amount of systems downtime was increasing, thereby jeopardizing the lives of patients. It happened regularly that patients could not be admitted because the admissions system was down. Or surgery could not be performed because the scheduling system that matched patient, surgeon and surgery was unavailable. The situation was becoming dire. In addition to the risk to the life and safety of patients, there was another cost: by skimping on capital expenditure, the hospital had dramatically increased its IT operating expense – it was becoming inordinately expensive to operate their aging IT infrastructure.


While budgets were tight, there was little doubt that some renewal was required. The hospital put together the estimates and the business case for this. I got the job to meet with physicians and build support for this investment. The meeting was memorable. I had scheduled the meeting with two representatives for the medical doctors, but when I came to the meeting room, there were 20 people present. They listened in cold silence as I laid out the case for renewal. Then they voiced their perspective that this was entirely unnecessary. I was struck. I had just laid out the case that the hospital was incurring very high costs, unnecessarily, and that patients lives’ were in danger. And here were these doctors saying that there was no need for change. It would have been easy to dismiss their position as “stupid” (perhaps using a different term). Instead, I probed to understand what was going on. It took more than the one meeting, but by asking “why?”, level by level I got to understand the doctors’ stance. It was actually logical. At least, there was an internal logic to their position. It was this: Any investment in IT may yield real benefits, but these are uncertain (the money can be wasted along the way) and they are likely to only materialize several years in the future. On the other hand, money made available today can be used to buy expensive oncology medicines that will prolong the lives of patients who are in the hospital today. These individuals have names, faces and families – they are real. Weighing up future uncertain benefits against the very real benefits that were available now, the physicians’ choice was clear.


It would have been easy to dismiss the physicians’ initial position. But curiosity about what was beneath the surface together with some patience plus some gentle probing made it possible to create the arena for an intelligent conversation. People are always more open to considering your perspective when they sense that they have been heard and understood.


I am writing this on the plane on my way to my next destination, having just facilitated a leadership development program for a group of 20 senior leaders from a dozen different countries. The program was energizing and inspiring because the participants chose to remain curious – while also being supportive of one another. They were good at probing, gently and respectfully, to understand the aspirations, the hopes and the fears that their fellow participants harbored. This made them effective at challenging and supporting one another. And this, in turn, helped the participants gain a deeper understanding of themselves, of their objectives and of the next steps on their journey. This clarity will make them more inspiring as leaders in years to come. They will be more inspiring because they will be more inspired. And they will be more inspired because they have more courage. And the courage will come from increased clarity. And the clarity comes from curiosity and persistence.


As leaders, we can make a huge difference by remaining aware that there is critical insight lurking “beneath the surface.” This applies to other people – whom we do not fully understand – and it applies to ourselves. For we do not fully understand ourselves: our implicit assumptions, our scars, our hopes, our fears, our needs. If we approach situations of conflict and tension with curiosity, with generosity and with kindness, we can gain rich insight, uncover untold riches, unleash great potential and create tremendous value. Let us help one another in this quest.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.