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Executive Master in Change - Learnings Module #5

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

I returned to INSEAD for my 5th module of the Executive Master in Change at the beginning of December.

I had very little time to write with so many agenda items in the last few months. Writing gives me a broader perspective and puts the order in my thoughts. So, because I have been so busy and written little, I decided to take a few days before the module to see friends in Paris and walk around the small streets of Fontainbleau in search of a gin bar, a good meal and the French experience.

Taking time out before the module was a great idea. A transition period between work and study has allowed me to clear my mind for new ideas and get into a learning mindset. Modules are intense and personal, with major revelations at every step. The more tired I get, the bigger the revelations - maybe because the existing layers of certainty, knowing and defence are no longer strong.

As we started on the first day, we talked about group dynamics and the valencies we have when we enter a group. We start as an individual, then we connect with other individuals in the group and then, later on, we may become an integral part of the group. When doing so, we adopt the group’s culture and norms. Yet, we must maintain our independent thinking in the process. If we look at change agents, they share the group’s norms enough to become part of it, but they equally share different perspectives, driving them to lead change. I discovered that I belong to groups where my thoughts and ideas are valued, and without this context, I often have difficulties becoming an integral part of a group.

The next day we had the pleasure of meeting Professor Manfred Kets De Vries, one of the founding members of EMC. As one of the top leadership thinkers in the world, at 80, he is still publishing two books a year. He remains very committed to his mission: I saw him in the morning, in his office, writing intensely while it was still dark outside.

He warned us about the upcoming days and the simulation we would go through, as he had designed it initially. And he was right! We were split into teams, given an agenda and put together to collaborate with the other teams for an outcome. The exercise sounds easy, but roles are far from clear when new teams come together. Objectives less so. Not to mention that each team had a different briefing, and new information was emerging every couple of hours. The new information put pressure on some groups, changing the interaction dynamics and power plays. We concluded the two days with significant insight into our personal and group interactions.

I discovered that what makes me uncomfortable in business is what made me uncomfortable in this simulation. This is an area to explore further in my papers because there is an obvious layer of personal interpretation. We also learnt that it is easy to stay aligned as a team but very hard to be committed at all times. I wondered why is that and what I could do better to inspire commitment in teams.

The entire simulation taught us that leadership is not an act of control. We can be in charge but not in control. The dynamics and the challenges of collaboration in complex settings make it impossible to be in control during change. Yet, I now appreciate even more how taking the time to reflect and use ourselves as instruments can reveal so much insight into these complexities.

In the evening, we detached from the simulation by watching the World Cup matches: Brasil - Croatia and Netherlands - Argentina. We did go through disappointment because we supported Brazil and the Netherlands, who were eliminated in those rounds. We found out, though, that groups can handle better disappointment together and that stronger bonds are formed during hardships.

Lastly, we explored social defences and how people and organisations protect themselves from change. “We have always done it this way” or “This department is the source of the problem” are just a few of such defences. All such defences protect from an underlying anxiety or fear that is activated, even if they are unconscious or apparently very rationally expressed.

On our last day, we exchanged gifts in anticipation of the holidays. I received, unsurprisingly, a book: Care to Dare, by George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe. It speaks to the essence of leadership as a secure base, something I have been exploring in the last few years. I can’t wait to read more over morning coffees.

In Module 5, I saw many threads connecting based on my observations about myself, the organisations I am part of and our cohort. I could not be more excited about the learnings.

Yet, I realise we are approaching the end of our master, with only 3 modules left. It feels like we started yesterday. In a blink of an eye, we are now transformed as people and a group.


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