The culture of ‘we’ and how to get there.

Something said by legendary heavyweight boxer and influential activist Muhammed Ali was the inspiration for the theme of the 2016 RSM Leadership Summit. After giving a lecture at Harvard University in which he urged people to become more selfless, not more selfish, students asked for a ‘short poem’. Ali told them: ‘Me. We.’

A controversial concept

But ‘we’ is a controversial concept these days, said Prof. Steef van de Velde, dean of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It’s interpreted narrowly as ‘us versus them’ by politicians and used as justification for building walls and borders, and for closing doors to the outside world. Yet the port and trading city of Rotterdam has a long tradition of inclusiveness since the 13th century, and the mission of RSM is to be an inspiring force for positive change in the world.

The ‘we culture’ – a thriving industry

The scientific study of creating a ‘we culture’ is a thriving industry right now said Summit moderator, Dory Grandia, assistant director for RSM’s Career Development Centre. Results could show how to integrate a ‘we culture’ into organisations, she said as she introduced the plenary speakers.

Five key principles to move from ME to WE

Professor Dirk van Dierendonck said when businesses are all about processes, efficiency and downsizing, it tends to be forgotten that people do the core of the work. He described five key principles for changing the culture of HR and leadership ‘from me to we’.

1. Happiness results in performance.
Doing something great gives a temporary good feeling and happiness is related to wellbeing, being better at negotiations and being more creative in problem-solving. Depressed people are more likely to identify faults when they could be looking for possibilities.

2. Motivate through empowerment.
Most people know their own job and need only the autonomy to get on with it. “Empowerment is so important. Data show that the strongest driving factor for performance is a sense of empowerment and allowing people to use their skills,” said Van Dierendonck.

3. Lead with humility.
Research shows that the effectiveness of humility increases the higher up the organisation you go. Effective leaders are strong and confident and are role models for others. “It’s less me, more ‘the other’, and about valuing the other person,” he said. Higher hierarchical positions with more responsibility don’t mean other people in the organisation have less importance.

4. People need people.
A sense of connectedness keeps people motivated, and organisations should enhance the culture of people doing things together.

5. Build on respect.
Van Dierendonck suggested this might be the most important of the five principles. “Who doesn’t want to be respected?” he asked, and asked the audience to imagine that the writer of an email is also a person. People like recognition. The higher up you go, the more you should ‘stop talking and start listening’.

Evolution beyond revolution

The first guest speaker was Stefano Rosso, CEO of the fashion manufacturing and distribution company OTB Group, the parent company of the fashion brands DieselMaison MargielaMarniViktor & Rolf, Staff International and Brave Kid. He oversees its corporate governance, and plays a role in the development strategy of the group.  

He spoke of the struggle to make sure the spirit of his father, Group founder Renzo Rosso, survives as a driving force during the succession of the business to following generations – a great example of ‘from me to we’. Despite Van Dierendonck’s five principles, the reality of the process could sometimes feel like a slap in the face, said Rosso. He described his small-town upbringing and a wealth of international and cultural influences, including studying and working in New York, before joining his father’s company. There, he tried to imitate his father. “I failed. Miserably. I realised I’m somebody else,” said Rosso. “It’s important to understand that there are certain types of people who can make an impact, but you can’t always be that person.”

He now sees his role in the company as turning his father’s revolutionary entrepreneurial thinking into a ‘constant evolution’ in preparation for the future. It involved boring tasks such as writing a mission statement and company values, said Rosso, who suggested that change comes naturally to younger organisations, but people with senior positions must also ‘bring new things to the table’. He observed that it’s impossible to transform a ‘me’ model into a ‘we’ model in a day. “People need people, and ‘we’ know more than ‘me’,” said Rosso.

Empowering workers

Stefano Rosso and Dirk van Dierendonck launched a debate, answering questions from the audience.

Stefano Rosso was asked if it was necessary to recruit only autonomous people – those who are already empowered. “There’s no equation that works for everyone,” Rosso answered, there is a personal profile specific to each job. Sometimes that would be efficiency, or practicality, or it might be the ability to create change. Businesses shouldn’t expect accountants to change the way they approach their work, but designers are expected to ‘see things from another planet and challenge them every day’ said Rosso.

Stefano Rosso said his father created the right team for the OTB Group and gave them autonomy using four company values as guidance, which work ‘99 per cent of the time’.

Dirk van Dierendonck suggested that asking people what they think rather than telling them what to do would help organisations become more mission-driven. Employees can generate new possibilities, he said. “Successful teams need people who ‘know stuff’, and also people who know people outside the organisation who can bring things in,” he added.

Dory Grandia warned job-seekers in the audience that that job descriptions regularly contain so much about ‘what you’re going to do’ but not much about ‘how you’re going to do it’.

We were good in the past because we were young

Stefano Rosso suggested that workers between the ages of 30 and 40 were the most able to make a difference to organisations, and it was of fundamental importance to empower these workers. Young employers may find this easier than older employers, he commented, saying: “We were good at doing this in the past because we were young.” Growing up as an organisation is a major task. It comes naturally to a young organisation, but as the higher levels of management get older, they should make sure to encourage people in lower positions to express themselves.

Dory Grandia asked how the principles of empowerment for an organisation change through the various growth stages of a company. 

Stefano Rosso said: “We grow in size and complexity, and the cultural differences are complicated. The best thing is to try to have a common objective and strategy.” OTB has a series of services that extend across every department; best practices are in place for these business service functions. “But then we give total freedom to the brands to make sure their individuality comes out,” said Rosso. “We shape the frame, but inside the frame people can move freely.”

Humility present at all levels

What about humility? asked Dory Grandia. Some CEOs are approachable and not afraid to go on the shop floor – here’s where humility is present at all levels. Stefano Rosso said he always tried to lead with humility. “The other day I was talking to someone I don’t work with, and she said: ‘From far away, we’re scared of you’. I was surprised.”

He concluded that leaders “have to say ‘we’ when you’re doing something, and ‘I’ when you’re taking the shit,” and even though he aimed for that style of leadership, he realised he was not approachable. Dirk van Dierendonck said Rosso’s example illustrated how people project ‘how leaders should be’ onto their own leaders. “You’re approachable, but they don’t see that.”

Be more approachable

Asked what concrete actions can be taken to be more approachable, Stefano Rosso advised doing simple things like smiling and greeting colleagues. He also said he thought – appropriately for a fashion organisation – what leaders wear was important. He said he thought his brother, Andrea Rosso, the head of licences for Diesel, gives a first impression of being much tougher, more down to earth and more humble. “This is something I want to work on and talk about with my coach. I don’t want people to have this perception,” he said. Stefano Rosso said he and his brother have two very different jobs. “Andrea is a creative person, and he sees the world from another planet.”

A month to write the values

The organisation made a sensible move when it started the generational transition five years ago. Changing from a ‘me’ model to a ‘we’ model can’t be done in a day, said Rosso, and first the company must understand itself. “Writing down our own values was incredibly hard. It took a month to squeeze a vision and mindset into a few words, it’s most complicated!” he remarked.

Budgeting for ambience

An audience member asked about budget cuts affecting the ambience of the workplace. How can a firm budget for employee happiness and a cool working environment? Stefano Rosso said they knew they were working less than effectively in the old headquarters building, and the reaction to moving into their new headquarters was immediate. A better working environment and a better lifestyle for people gives better results, he said.

More than just a job

Dirk van Dierendonck asked Rosso how the OTB Group kept motivation going in the worst of times, when the Pavlovian reaction would be to cut out parts of the operation that were not running well. Stefano Rosso said motivation had to be driven from the top because people tend just to do their job if left to themselves, and there is ‘much more inside a person and a company than just a job’.

More listening?

The professor and the CEO were asked if professionals at a higher level should do more listening. Stefano Rosso said it is difficult to listen to ideas and negative feedback. But as a leader what you think doesn’t count much anymore. “You have to be good in taking what they think and driving it to where you want.” He also suggested asking questions as a positive way to challenge people, for example, by asking ‘How do you see this working?’

Serious, positive and relaxed

How can someone look serious and positive at the same time as looking relaxed? Dirk van Dierendonck said feeling happy is about an innate feeling of positivity, but once work starts, ‘you won’t smile all the time’. Stefano Rosso said it’s about bringing concentration into skills and competencies, plus accountability, and thorough preparation. “When you get to your appointment and you’re prepared and know the task, you are able to bring something.”  

The second plenary session of the day took place after the break-out sessions and lunch.

Trust, discipline and focus in modern leadership

Dutch cabaret performer, satirist and writer Freek de Jonge  entertained the audience with stories and anecdotes illustrating his distinctive view of the issues of trust, discipline and focus. He said people can live an unaware life without choices, or they can have choices. “It’s paradise when you don’t have to make choices. Too many choices is hell, but it’s also a life with a free will in a world you create yourself.” 

Are you alive or dead?

There are two kinds of people, continued De Jonge. “You’re either living or dead. Some people have been dead for 500 years but are still living. And some have been alive for 65 years but …” implying they had always acted dead. He explained that the question ‘to be or not to be?’ must be answered. “Are you aware of if you are or if you are not?”  

From selfism to otherism

Getting from ‘me’ to ‘we’ requires basic trust, according to De Jonge. He said this basic trust lies in answering the question ‘Am I allowed to be in this world?’ “Our doctrine is the upper selfism and change to otherism,” he said, adding that if you’re in charge of your mind, you can help it grow by using it in the right way.  

Secondly, discipline is needed. “It’s about intrinsic discipline; what you make yourself and find out yourself. I you want to be somewhere, you have to play the game by the rules.”   

Shaping the world

De Jonge said concentration and focus are needed. “When you’re focused there’s no conflict between reality and fantasy, and no obstacle from convention and feasibility, and no difference between theory and practice,” he said. “We have to make choices in life because we’re not living in paradise. Basic trust, discipline and focus are what we need to get from ‘me’ to ‘we’.”

How vain the art of planning

The cabaret performer animatedly explained his points in an anecdote about helping a drunk marine pilot steer a ship carrying chemical waste, as an example of building trust, concentration and focus. De Jonge said he had to make the escapade work without experience or theoretical knowledge. “There’s a balance between basic trust, discipline and focus. You can start all over; firmly focused or searching shyly. Just stick to rules or follow your own intuition. Explore the world your way, or grab a guiding hand.”  

De Jonge told his audience not to be afraid of big dreams, or what people think. “How vain  the art of planning!” he said. Surprises usually arrive at the right time, and the expected is often too early or too late.

“We are one of many and at the same time, there’s only one like you and me. That means that very often we have to share. And sometimes we have to say: ‘just let me free’.”

Values-based leadership

“Organisations exist to do something you can’t do alone,” said Daan van Knippenberg, professor of organisational behaviour at RSM, and final plenary speaker of the day. The leadership challenge is to embrace the purpose for which the organisation exists. Successful companies are those driven by their beliefs and their purpose, he said. “OTB’s Stefano Rosso said this morning that it’s their mission to be the coolest. But you need to be profitable to be able to stay the coolest.”

Where inspiration comes from

Prof. Van Knippenberg said the key of effective leadership is uniting people towards a purpose. It’s where inspiration comes from, but it must be based on values. “Why do you want to work for this company? What do you believe in? You need a shared sense of purpose.”  

But companies are not always able to clearly formulate, define or articulate that purpose. Then it becomes a challenge to convincingly communicate ‘what are we doing’, and ‘why are we doing it?’“This is where values come in. They explain why what you’re doing is meaningful.  

“Shared values help you build connection. This dialogue – a conversation in which you share why your company exists and why it’s important – is how you create the buy-ins and shareholder’s trust.”

Coach and develop

Empowerment is also important. Some people wait to be told what to do but you want people to think for themselves and be proactive, he said, requiring a shared purpose and shared leadership. By doing it together you share responsibility, and coach and develop people. “Engage people and help them with challenges but keep them in the driver’s seat,” said Van Knippenberg. “Outsource your thinking and create a sense of psychological ownership. Give people the choice of how to do things.”

Van Knippenberg said shared leadership requires opportunity for disagreement. “You have to be open. You can create synergy this way.” He said psychological safety is also important for development. “When you try things, sometimes it doesn’t work. You sometimes have to take baby steps, otherwise you don’t learn.”

Why you need this knowledge

Taking questions from the audience, Freek de Jonge explained he doesn’t aim to ‘sell’ his ideas. “You have to be aware of why you need this knowledge.  You have to feel psychologically safe and have basic trust,” he said, adding this is difficult with all the distrust in the news. De Jonge said money is spent to control many local and international problems, but not to solve them. He said people are too busy ruling their own busy lives than to worry about the spirit of change. De Jonge concluded his performance with a tale about ‘the one’ waiting for ‘the other’ to make a change, concluding with the enigmatic statement “I am the other is me.”