Challenging and changing the gender conversation #SeePotential

100Women in Hedge Funds invited me to the HK Stock Exchange today to speak at their Market Opening Ceremony. Katarina Royds bravely asked me to share my views on the development on women in the workplace. Katarina is a brilliant leader, I took inspiration from her.... And here it is....

I'm here today because I want to challenge where we're headed. I worry that we're approaching the development of women in the workplace as a zero sum game. It's not. We need to embrace the potential of men and women alike and develop together if we're to progress at all. There is no real value created in a zero sum game, only winners and losers.

I was born in 1983. I grew up in Australia, in a small town of 120,000 people, about the same number of people working in the IFC. My mum stayed at home to raise five children, and together with my father, raised us to have respect for everyone, to treat others as we would like to be treated and imparted in us a belief that if we worked hard, we could do anything.  

Growing up in the 90s meant I had exposure to countless examples of brave men and women standing up for what they believe in and as a result, initiating mass social change. This had a profound impact on me during my formative years and definitely shaped who I am. I read and watched Nelson Mandela’s Freedom Speech over and over again. I cheered when Princess Diana left Prince Charles and cried when she died so tragically. As power was becoming more evenly distributed, and empowerment on the rise, I grew up appreciating the bold men and women who fought hard to shape the world we live in today.

The men who have fought physically and mentally on the battlefields and in the boardrooms deserve our gratitude and respect. And the heroic and courageous women, who challenged the status quo and took a stand against discrimination and inequality, I salute them.

I acknowledge the suffering and sacrifices made and know that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.

Which is why I want to challenge where we’re headed.

Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of statistics. It’s hard to hide from the constant tirade of articles about the lack of women in boardroom positions, leaning in and the glass ceiling. And as I read and listen to the rhetoric, I can’t help but feel it’s not driving the right change.

The undertone where men are painted as the enemy and women must fight men – is self-defeating and not productive.

If our future is one with more opportunities for women, at the expense of men, it’s not a hopeful one.

Empowerment isn’t a limited resource; just because we give it to one demographic doesn’t mean we have to take it away from another. Women don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a zero sum game.

While it’s true that women are underrepresented, in business, politics and other areas, and there are many parts of the world where women and girls are still oppressed and treated horrifically, I worry about the future we are creating with such an adversarial focus on gender. If nothing changes, I see a future where the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction- men are oppressed as women once were.

Racial discrimination in South Africa is an example. If you are a white male in South Africa today, the system is stacked against you. Not to discredit the complex and difficult racial history, but today thousands of white South Africans are leaving their country because it’s almost impossible to get a job.

Blacks were oppressed for decades, now whites are facing prejudice in a different more circumspect way. It’s an interesting debate and there are many sides to it, but oppression is still oppression. How do we as a society move past the history of hurt and injustices to create positive and productive change?

I had an experience recently that altered my perspective. In December 2012 I left Hong Kong for a month and went to live in Liberia. I was warned that it was extremely dangerous; I would most likely get stabbed, kidnapped, raped, maybe even killed. People looked at me in shock when I explained I was going to hang out in the slums of West Point and work with an NGO that gets little girls off the streets and into school.

I would go to school each day and spend time with the girls. I saw with my own eyes young girls prostituting themselves for money to buy food and water. You and I may never comprehend what they’ve been through, and yet they turn up to school every day, eager to learn and play, laugh and dance.

While their stories were heart-breaking, their rehabilitation was inspiring. However it wasn’t the girls who left an imprint in my heart. It was the little boys stood outside the school gate, who day in and day out, would look on with sadness and emptiness, as they were shut out of the school. I asked why we couldn’t let the boys in too and they said the school was only for girls, and it was the girls in the community we must empower and take care of.

And so it went on, day after day, casting these little boys aside. They too were eager to learn, to play, to be educated, and to be included. And yet, we excluded them.

The image of sadness in their eyes has stayed with me. Their sense of loss, of being excluded is never far from my mind. And it got me thinking about the present moment in history, I started questioning the future we are creating:

Are we fuelling an ‘us versus them’ mentality and creating even greater divides?

I’m standing here today because I want to change the direction in which our society is headed and I’m hoping you will join me. It’s time the conversation changed, it’s time we stopped talking about ratios and statistics and started asking different questions.

  • What if we focused on empowering everyone to be the best version of themselves?
  • What if we stopped perpetuating discrimination and started seeing potential in everyone?
  • What if we drew inspiration from Mandela's tolerance and sheer determination to end apartheid and rather than repeating the mistakes of the past look for a third way?

I want to live in a world where gay or straight, black or white, Gen Z or Baby Boomer, male or female, Asian or Western, Christian or Jewish, we look each other in the eyes, and with mutual respect, we look for potential and we lift each other up.

The problem is we don’t have commonplace mutual respect and until we do, societies will continue on this path to adversarial oppression.

And I’m not talking about men’s respect for women. Or men standing up for women’s rights. I’m talking about mutual respect.

I’m talking about having respect for those whose beliefs or skin colour or gender may differ to our own. It’s only then we can see beyond face value and look for potential in everyone, making everyone better, not one side worse.

What does it look like to stop the judgement and remove the labels?

It means we start looking for and seeing potential in everyone and everything.

I am where I am today because others in my life saw potential in me.

They gave me the courage to stand for something, to fail fast, fail often and fail forward. Bold enough to have a go, start again, push for change.

Like you in the room today and the 15,000 members of 100WHF, I didn’t get where I am by perpetuating discrimination, complaining about gender inequality and percentages. I did get where I am today because of courage, grit and determination.  

  • Do I wake up in the morning and worry about whether the men I’m pitching against are getting a higher daily rate….no I don’t, I invest my energy in being awesome.
  • Do I want my actions to match what I preach? Yes I do. In fact I just hired a new staff member based on the potential I see in him. James happens to be a 23 year old white south African man who moved to HK a month ago.
  • Do I imagine a day when the gender conversation stops? Do I dream of a meritocracy – hell yes.

I think back to the little girls in Liberia and can’t help but wonder what will happen to the little boys. As the girls get educated and empowered, the boys are being left behind. Who is going to educate them and how will we stop the cycle of women being mistreated and abused? We have a responsibility to better ourselves, to better our community, and that means all of us.

We all have the power to effect change by demonstrating leadership. What impact do you have on those around you? Who are you mentoring and how far are you spreading your brilliance?

Conversations create movements and movements change the world – is success being a statistic for statistics sake? Or is success being empowered without the constraint of gender, race or religion?

My challenge to you is to see what happens when you stop looking on the outside and start looking on the inside - if you see potential, you have a choice to create opportunity for that person. Spend the day today in pursuit of potential. Suspend judgement, remove the labels, ask different questions, and explore potential. I guarantee you will stumble across awesomeness.

It’s not a zero sum game.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sui-Mei Thompson from The Women’s Foundation through TEDxWanchai Women last month and she said something that’s inspired me.

Her daughter said to her recently, "Mum, when I grow up I want to work at the Women’s Foundation" and she said "Well darling, I hope by then we don’t need one."

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

Emma Reynolds


Life Lessons from someone born in the 90s (A Tribute To Ankita Roy)

I wondered when this day would come. I didn’t think it would be so soon, but here it is. It’s Ankita Roy’s last day with the e3 team. It’s a weird feeling when someone resigns. Part of me feels like I’m losing an arm. I’m certain that a little bit of the e3 soul is dissipating. Ankita has been in my life for about 653 days, and I already can’t imagine life without her. 

It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that Ankita is leaving us to go and live in New York City. Not because she’s leaving, because she is going to live in New York City! Jealous? Yes! There are few things better in life than a fresh start, and I am filled with joy for Ankita (honestly, I am).

To mark her send-off and to do her farewell any justice, I thought I would reflect on what she’s taught me. She’s had a lasting impact on my life, and I owe it to her to honour that.

Listen to learn and solicit people’s opinions before you give yours

Ankita is possibly the best listener I have ever met. At 22 years of age, she has mastered the art of listening. I don’t mean ‘listen’ like the rest of us do (as in, we don’t listen, we half listen, we make assumptions and we hear what we want hear). Ankita actively listens and asks wicked questions. She is never the first to proffer her opinion. She will ask yours first, and listen to what you have to say. Then she’ll ask more questions, and then seek to understand what you are trying to say, and then she’ll share her thoughts. Not very many people do this. Not very many people are interested in other people’s opinions. Ankita has taught me how to listen again, and she’s altered my perspective on conversation. 

Seek feedback. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

In her 1.5 years with us, Ankita frequently sought feedback. But not in the annoying ‘Gen-y’ attention-seeking way. She would have prepared thoughts, jotted down notes, and reflected deeply before we caught up. She would discuss what she thought she could improve and then ask for feedback on what she can be doing differently. And she did this often. She never waited for us to do it. She took ownership of her own development and came prepared to every conversation. It’s easy for days, weeks and months to slip by without even noticing. Ankita frequently made the time to get feedback. And she gave it too. She would have always thought about how we can do better and would give us feedback. I really appreciated this about Ankita. She’s helped me become a better person.

Curiosity is the antidote to fear

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Ankita grow and develop over the years and I’ve observed one quality that surpasses all others in terms of her brilliance. It’s her curiosity. She is one of the most well-read 22 year olds on the planet, she is constantly scouring books and articles that bear no relation to our day to day work, but that add great value. She is the first to share a statistic or reference a TED talk, and when new projects come her way, she dives straight in and embraces the unknown. Most people would be scared to death with the type of work Ankita gets involved in. We’re constantly throwing her monumental challenges, like how to raise awareness of money-laundering and corruption to the branding of an ultra-high-tech-infrastructure project in Malaysia. Ankita hasn’t been held back by fear; instead her curiosity guides her to incredible outcomes. We’ve come to rely on her curiosity and we will greatly miss it.

Thank you Ankita, for believing in E3, for turning up every day ready to embrace the chaos, and for bringing sunshine to all of our lives. NYC is ready for you, and we have no doubt that you will rock it. Enjoy every minute, be grateful, take in your surroundings and never forget what a fabulous person you are. You have enriched my life and I am forever grateful. 

All my love

Emma xx

Big organisations are executing new ideas (but not in a good way).

I find the word execute quite ironic. In one sense it is about putting a plan in place to achieve a goal or end state. And in a completely opposite definition it is carrying out a death sentence. So I might be just as likely to want to execute a new idea as I would Hannibal Lecter. The English language is a curious thing.

Unfortunately, when it comes to having new ideas within big organisations there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. Because they seem to be killing them off, instead of bringing them to life. Big organisations are like the executioners of new ideas.

It’s no secret that executing a good idea isn’t easy. This is a reality. Not something to be upset about. But why is it almost impossible within big organisations? We’ve been grappling with this question for a while now, and we think it boils down to this…

1. Because everything has to be approved by everyone

New ideas call for a merry go round of approvals. Marketing, HR, Legal, IT, and then back to Marketing, back through Legal, HR again. By now weeks/months have gone past. People have lost interest. And you’ve heard ‘No’ so many times you have no fight left.

2. Because everyone has a day job

I have yet to meet someone whose sole job is to implement awesome idea and make cool shit happen. Usually people have more than enough on their plate to fill their day. They’re probably putting out corporate fires. Attending long meetings. Replying to emails. Keeping their head above water. Then you ask them to shift their attention to a project that isn’t part of their KPIs, may or may not be successful and requires intense effort. Chances are, the ‘too busy’ excuse arises.

3. Because short-term results win over long-term gain

We find companies would rather focus on increased efficiency and reduced cost as a way to continued success. Better sameness is safer. It keeps the board happy. It keeps shareholders happy (in the short term). But the reality is those ‘breakthrough innovations’ that everyone is chasing are seldom found when we’re focused on instant results. It takes ten years of hard work to be an overnight success.

All of these create a vicious cycle within big organisations. We know that a new idea will be very difficult to execute, so we stop proposing our ideas. Then we stop having good ideas altogether. Then we start to think that we suck for not having any new ideas so we hire someone external to have them for us. Then we shoot those down too.

We’ve spent a lot of time in this cycle – experiencing it first hand and experimenting with different ways to break it. This is what we’ve discovered – five things that you can do to make executing your new idea less hard.

Make a lot of friends internally and get them to believe in what you believe in

Bringing new ideas to life is a job for many people – not just one. Build your internal network early. Be comfortable getting to know people from all over the organisation. Take the time to understand their reality. What is their top priority? What is their area of expertise? Strong relationships will make it much easier for you to call on people when you’re ready to execute.

When we start working on a project we invest hundreds of hours connecting with people. We’ve been known to travel to offshore oil rigs and have taken a day trip to Manila to do so. We don’t just speak to senior executives – we engage at all levels and in all departments. Then we map the connections we’ve made to identify those people who are influential, intensely passionate or have a unique skillset, so we can reach out to them later.

Tell a great story tailored to your audience

If you want to sell your idea to the world (or at least your colleagues), storytelling is your most powerful tool. Tell, don’t sell. Your story doesn’t need to focus on the product or service at the heart of your idea. It should be about how it’s going to make people feel. And be conscious of your audience. The story you tell to the Board might be different to the one you tell to your team or people in Legal. You need to make it apparent ‘what’s in it for them’, having a strong internal network makes this easier. We like to tell stories by getting our audience to “Imagine the new bliss….”

Start by imagining failure, and get all stakeholders doing a ‘Pre-Mortem’

Executing a new idea is a journey. It is going to take blood, sweat and tears. We start every journey with imaging failure. A ‘Pre-Mortem’ exercise is a great way to get all the risks on the table, all the potential landmines. This helps to understand where the resistance will come from and what will block the idea from being successful.

Ditch detailed project plans at the start, and excite people with visuals

Excel spreadsheets and project plans won’t always get an idea off the ground. People get lost in the complexity and give up before they try. We need to make it seem as easy as possible, and keep people engaged, excited and focused on busting through bureaucracy. Take every opportunity to tell people about what you’re trying to achieve. Write a newsletter. Stand up in a team meeting. Volunteer to join other peoples’ team meetings. By making people aware, you can harness their support and maybe, even get them involved.

Celebrate often, your successes & failures

Like we said – execution is a journey. And it’s not a short one. It’s easy to lose interest. Lose sight of the vision. Lose hope as time passes. Celebrating often can help to keep everything in focus. And it’s not just big wins that you can celebrate – small wins are worth a glass of champagne too. In fact, so are failures. They all take you one step closer to final execution.

At the core of the work we do is fighting against the untimely death of good ideas and navigating the organisational labyrinth so they can be brought to life. We love hearing stories of successful execution, reach out to tell us yours…

Curating Greatness with Ralph Lauren – Q&A with Laura Winch


Laura is our totally awesome User-Experience Design Manager. When she joined e3 in February 2014 she started working with one of our luxury retail clients . Here we interview her…


1. Let’s start with a bit of background about this project. What was it all about?
This is the second year we’ve worked with this client. We facilitated their leadership offsite last year when Senior Vice President first joined the team. It was a great opportunity to work with them again for the second year, especially as there were new members to the team and several changes to the organization structure.

We had three days scheduled with the Leadership Team at their offsite in Hong Kong but the project didn’t start or end there. The pre-work and follow up sessions were as important as the offsite.



2. How did you get started?
Starting a project like this is always daunting but very exciting. There were a lot of people to meet and to make the leadership offsite a success we had to know what problems we were trying to solve. Which meant stepping in to the world of the Merchandising team…

We facilitated 7 x full-day workshops with each team, exploring team dynamics, painstorming as well as diving deep in to their business strategies and action plans. Prior to that, each person had completed a team effectiveness survey so we were able to spot patterns.

Each member of the leadership team also participated in 360 degree surveys with one-one follow up sessions to go through their reports. This helped them see where their areas of focus should be but also guided us when thinking about the offsite agenda.



3. How did all this engagement shape the actual offsite meeting?
Our workshops gave us a fantastic insight in to each team but also in to the way the function worked together as a whole.They are an extremely talented team and recognised that there is always room for improvement. The painstorming exercise was particularly interesting, common themes were coming from each workshop. All these inputs fed into the design of the agenda for the offsite.


4. Tell us about the leadership offsite event.

I always say organizing an event is like a rollercoaster. This one was no different! After looking at what felt like 100 venues, and none being exactly right, we decided on using a different venue each day. I can’t say we made it easy for ourselves!

We knew how important it would be to mix up the space and environment so changing up the days entirely felt like the right thing to do. Taking inspiration from the brand we chose three very different lifestyles to create three unique experiences: The Hamptons, Americana and Hollywood Glamour.

Our invitations were a moodboard, made up of images representing the three themes. It was very inline with the Brand and each one was wrapped in beautiful black paper. We hand delivered them in Hong Kong and sent them to the rest of the team across Asia, Australia and New York.

When it came to the agenda design, each day was vastly different. We started slowly on day one, taking the time for ‘Connection’. It takes time for the participants to connect and it takes effort to create a safe environment for people to open up and engage. We spent the entire day getting people to talk, share, listen, connect and open their minds. Malissa took the time to hand-write personal cards to the 39 people on her team, and spent two hours going around the room and celebrating their achievements. It was very powerful.

Day two was focused around creating a strategic narrative for the function. The group was split in to smaller groups and each was involved in a different part of the Merchandising Story. Bringing everyone back together at the end of the day to hear the outcome was a significant moment for the team.

Day three was more about identifying the issues that were causing the most pain and committing to driving change.

I look back on the offsite and despite the pressure to find three equally awesome venues and panic to organize logistics and agendas I would do it all over again tomorrow. There’s something incredibly special about working up to a certain point on a project and seeing everyone and everything come together.


5. What were the outcomes of the offsite event?
We didn’t want to lose any momentum after the offsite. The Leadership team left on such a high with incredible energy and force to go forward, the last thing we wanted to do was get lost back in the day to day.

Each person at the offsite left with very clear actions, this was so important to them driving change. We scheduled in a follow up session and maintained close contact with the teams to check progress since the offsite.

The follow up event was for the entire function. It was a great opportunity to loop back in with those who attended the workshops, pre offsite, and invested a whole day to share feedback and challenges they faced.

We covered what we went through during the offsite with the leadership team running different interactive stations, each one representing a particular pain point that they were responsible for addressing. It was an extremely fun, high-energy day to close off the project.

What I learnt in my first year of full-time work

Hello. It’s been one whole year since I joined the lovely e3 family. I can’t quite believe that 365 days have already surpassed me but at the same time, it makes complete sense given all the cool projects I’ve been a part of. Then again, given all that I learnt in my first month alone, I knew that I was in for a big year.

On the occasion of celebrating my one-year anniversary, I sat down for a bit of reflection..

1. Everyone is creative.
It’s high time we stop doing ourselves the disservice of thinking that we’re not creative. Everyone has creative potential, regardless of industry and discipline. We need to tap into this potential. Going forward, the one skill we need from people is the ability to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to some of our most complex problems. Being creative is to identify opportunities from problems.

It’s difficult for people to get started because thinking creatively requires us to let go of things we’ve be taught to hold on to. It’s about stepping into the unknown and being okay with asking more questions than having answers. It’s about forgetting assumptions, listening first and acting next. And this can be scary at first. But imagine a workforce full of people that think of themselves as creative. Anything that was ever a frustration or annoyance would become an opportunity for improvement.

2. Change agents are everywhere.
The typical e3 client is a disruptor. Bold. No tolerance for an uninspiring status quo. And they are from all sorts of industries – oil & gas, banking, fast moving consumer goods, airlines, etc. There are change agents everywhere, you just have to look. I bring this up because a lot of people make the excuse that they don’t have any room to think outside the box in their organisations. I understand that many companies are restrictive, but it’s also an individual responsibility and choice.  Everyday, I am so inspired by the people we’re lucky to call clients. They are the ones proposing major changes and overhauls in the way things are done internally. We need more people like that, the ones that are bold enough to suggest improvements. People who don’t passively suffer through problems but actually raise their hands and do something about it.

3. Dive into the chaos.
We often joke that e3 stands for emotional, exhausting and exciting because that’s the journey on most of our projects. It’s rarely ever smooth, easy, done and dusted. No. That would the anomaly. Most of the times, it’s up and down. Successes and failures. Trial and error. A lot of gut instinct tests. I often find that these things sound really cool in writing. Whenever I read about something like this, I imagine dynamic teams, lots of coloured post-its, markers, the smell of coffee. And sure, those things are indeed a part of the project. What is difficult to imagine, because it’s intangible, is the real stress people feel during the downs. When you are so close to completion and then have a real set back. Or when you keep trying things that don’t work. When you’re out of inspiration and ideas. It’s tough. But it’s BECAUSE of this process of iteration, starting small and testing, co-creating with clients, that we end up producing something that actually resonates and solves the problem. It’s the upfront chaos and complexity that leads to the simple, intuitive solutions later on.

4. Don’t worry about fitting in.
At university, I thought I missed the memo that outlined how to be successful in the next three years. Everyone around me seemed so sure of what they wanted to do and had everything lined up to get there. There weren’t many honest, energetic conversations about our passion, but lots of pseudo-intelligent comments about the latest news. Everyone trying to up each other. Success, it seemed, was a measure of everything but happiness. In this environment, I felt an outsider and like an amateur, doing the whole self-discovery thing instead of following the masses on what seemed like a proven path to success. Looking back, I am so glad I didn’t. Authenticity requires courage. At first, it can be daunting. Many perceive deviation from the status quo as you just not being good enough to make the cut. But that’s okay. All the time and energy spent into figuring it out for myself led me down a path where I get to spend my days with people who share a similar enthusiasm and passion for not wasting one’s life doing work that doesn’t excite them. Life is fun and you are under no pressure to wait till you crack mid-career to start doing what you love.

LinkedIn Hong Kong – InDay


Our most recent adventure took us to the beautiful LinkedIn office here in Hong Kong. We took on the challenge to design and facilitate a high-energy, interactive session to explore their company culture. It was a real pleasure. The team are awesomeness personified. Shout out to Ray,thanks for organising it.

By way of context, we took on this challenge to show them how we work, rather than tell them. We are starting a partnership with LinkedIn and what better way to get started! They gave us 30 of their people and two hours, and we gave them everything we had!!!

30 people. Two hours. Four activities….



1. Culture is tangible.
In the first activity, we divided the group into small teams and gave them the challenge of bringing LinkedIn’s culture to life using different mediums. One group went around the office taking Polaroid photos. Another created a playlist to serve as the company’s background music. The point being that culture exists beyond words on a piece of paper. Instead culture rests in the sights, sounds and visuals we experience everyday.


2. Culture is built on a foundation of real stories
No one walks around talking about how their behaviours are aligned to the company’s values – unless they’re joking or being sarcastic. But as human beings, we are wired to communicating through stories. For the next challenge, we got the group to think about real stories that were ‘so LinkedIn’ versus stories that are anti-LinkedIn. Some incredible stories emerged that encapsulated LinkedIn’s open, friendly culture. And of course, there were some hilarious examples of things you’d never hear in their office.


3. LinkedIn Personas
Next prompt was – imagine if you were at a party, how would you be able to tell if someone works at LinkedIn? The challenge was to create personas of the type of people that work at LinkedIn. Things got really funny here. People got up and acted out the personas in skits with hilarious scenarios. While all good and fun, the idea was to think deeply and try to codify the type of personalities that fit in at the office. Who succeeds at LinkedIn? Who doesn’t? As teams grow, it’s important to be really mindful about the types of personalities that are added as each and every person contributes towards the culture.


4. Culture is answering ‘why’.
The final activity offered some time for reflection. We are all great at describing what we do and we do it that makes us different from others. But we are not very good at communicating why we do something. The most inspiring leaders and the best companies always start with ‘why’ first; they define their purpose. They know that external factors can change what they do and how they do it, but their purpose is the core which lasts over time. Everyone got a moment to reflect on why they get up every morning. Why they work at LinkedIn. Why the company even exists.

Just like that, the morning flew by! We had so much with our friends at LinkedIn. They have such a fantastic culture and we walked away with lots of input from their team. We returned a few days later with creative that captured the LinkedIn culture.



We produced the LinkedIn Hong Kong Manifesto, we also designed a box set of 10 cards and some sarcastic posters for their office.


Huge thanks to the talented Jen Kong, she joined the e3 family six weeks ago and managed to create TOTAL AWESOMENESS for LinkedIn (in 24 hours…). Malou rocked her usual magic and so did Louisa. We are so proud of our creative team.

10 Reasons Why Leadership Offsite Meetings Are Terrible and 10 Tips To Make Them Awesome

In the past seven years I have attended over 100 leadership and management offsite meetings. Either as a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator or a participant. 90% of them have been terrible. Why do we accept such dreadfully designed internal meetings? Why do we keep turning up, month after month, quarter after quarter, year after year, to the same horrendous internal management conferences?

Think back to your last leadership offsite meeting, management conference or internal event. Was it held in a dreadful hotel conference room? Or worse, was it held in your office boardroom? Was it two-days? Maybe it was three-days. Maybe you can’t remember because the days all seemed to blur into one after the first drawn out monologue. The coffee was probably terrible. The room was definitely freezing cold.

Most importantly did any meaningful action come from it? Most likely not. We have a problem. Organisations are spending millions every year, in both money and opportunity cost, taking their managers and leaders offsite. But more often than not, it doesn’t result in any real change.

So why are they so terrible? Here are 10 reasons why:

  1. The agendas are always too full and the energy of the group isn’t managed
  2. People aren’t consulted or engaged on the agenda design and very little thought has been put into the actions / desired outcomes / results
  3. The communication is one-way. They are filled with PowerPoints instead of powerful experimentation
  4. Action-items aren’t captured, so nothing gets done afterwards
  5. Keynote speeches are half-baked, they inject new thinking, but they don’t make change easy
  6. They are anti-innovative
  7. Breakout discussions are at best average, and more often than not they are a mediocre discussion about nothing meaningful
  8. They attempt to inspire but they don’t give people the tools to execute new thinking
  9. People often leave feeling that their time was wasted
  10. The venues are dark, cold and uninspiring (and the food is average)

The list goes on…

Something needs to change and we’re changing it. We’re taking a stand against poorly designed, poorly executed and time-wasting leadership offsite meetings and internal management conferences.

We’ve started asking different questions. What if we applied the principles of design thinking to make offsite meetings productive and enjoyable? What if we did more than just deliver a keynote speech? What if we actually took people through an experience that catalyses change? What if we created an environment that fuelled innovation and experimentation, instead of killing it?

In the past year we have designed, curated and produced some really inspiring leadership offsite meetings and internal conferences that we are proud to say have resulted in real change.

Here are our 10 Top Tips to designing an awesome experience:

  1. We never use hotel conference rooms or office boardrooms. In the past we’ve used art galleries, private members clubs and ping pong halls. Don’t underestimate the power of the physical space.
  2. We only include two items on the agenda per day. Nothing more, nothing less. We allow time and space for agenda items to be discussed deeply, and real action to be debated and decided upon.
  3. For a three-day offsite, we leave day three of the agenda totally clear. We decide on day two how we are going to shape day three. We’re not obsessed with having every single minute planned. We also build in an element of surprise to keep people engaged and inspired.
  4. We engage many people before the offsite to make sure we are solving the right problems and focusing on the right agenda items. Agenda creation is an art, managing energy and audience participation is also an art. As pre-work for a recent leadership offsite we ran seven full day workshops, a 360degree feedback survey exercise with 30 people and met with 100 people - before we designed the agenda.
  5. We take ‘connection’ very seriously. It takes time for the participants to connect, it takes effort to create a safe environment for people to open up and engage. It doesn’t happen instantly and it certainly doesn’t happen without some careful planning. During one of our previous three-day leadership offsite events, we spent the entire first day getting people to talk, share, listen, connect and open their minds.
  6. We have a No-PowerPoint-Deck-Principle. Period. We push the presenters to think of different ways of sharing their content. We design sessions with leaders that engage the audience in ways they’ve never been engaged before. It’s amazing what can happen when you restrict yourself to not using a PowerPoint deck. Creativity emerges. At a recent meeting the Vice President we were working with took the time to hand-write personal cards to the 39 people on her team, and spent two hours going around the room and celebrating their achievements. It was very powerful.
  7. We rehearse with every speaker. Even the CEO. We don’t assume that speakers are prepared or that they’ve rehearsed their content. We put pressure on them, making sure they facilitate an engaging and inspiring session and that they don’t bore the audience to death. We work hard with them on their content, we push back when we feel it will push the audience to sleep. The outcome? Every presentation is awesome.
  8. Ask people what success and failure looks like. It’s amazing that people don’t do this. They will organise an event with their entire senior leadership team, and never ask them what they want to achieve out of it. We listen to every person, we make sure we know why people are turning up, what they want out of it, what success is and most importantly, what failure is.
  9. We have a No-Email-Invites-Principle. Email makes people very lazy. When we are designing the invitations, or other communications touchpoints we put effort into it. We focus on the tiniest of details. For a recent offsite in the Luxury Retail sector, we designed a huge moodboard invitation, wrapped it in beautiful black paper and hand-delivered it to every one of the 40 participants.
  10. Actions speak louder than words. Our role during the offsite is to capture the actions, capture the conversations and present it back, the following day. Too many people leave offsite meetings not knowing what the next steps are. Any energy and optimisim created during the event is lost when people return to their busy day jobs. We keep momentum by capturing actions, getting people to commit to their actions and then communicating the plan as soon as the event is finished.

We’re on a mission to help companies treat their employees like customers. We’re on a mission to make leadership offsites and management conferences transformational, instead of time-wasting. And we have a brilliant time doing it.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

We originally posted this blog on LinkedIn.

It’s time to say goodbye to bland and meaningless company vision statements

Has anyone ever told you your company vision statement probably doesn’t mean anything? If they haven’t – we can certainly tell you now.

Your company vision statement probably doesn’t mean anything.

“It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to quickly create principle-centered sources to meet our customer’s needs”

“Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based infrastructures”

“Our vision is to be world-class, best-in-class….”

Sound familiar? What does ‘world-class’ even mean? How do you know when you achieve it? Who will judge whether you are world-class or not?

People can often recite the vision, yes, but can they really explain what it means and how it’s measured? Often, it’s left open to interpretation, meaning different things to different people. It’s never top of mind. And so progress toward achieving the vision is slow (sometimes non-existent) and it’s hard to measure such bland, lofty statements.

So how can you create a sticky vision? Something with a collective, meaningful, consistent definition, that influences day-to-day work, decisions and relationships.

We’ve gone through the process of creating an organisational vision several times, across different industries. We’ve learnt many lessons along the way. And we’ve also discovered five things that you can do to create a vision that sticks…

1. Get out of the boardroom
Boardrooms are generally very nice places. The table is big. The coffee is hot. Usually there’s a good view. Boardrooms lend themselves well to deep discussion and pondering. But unless everyone in your company can fit in the boardroom you need to get out of it.

Company visions should drive mindsets, actions and behaviours across the entire organisation. That’s why everyone in the business should participate in the process. By asking for their input and involvement you can achieve faster adoption because the resulting vision reflects everyone’s ideas, not just a select group.

Recently we helped run a vision and strategy road show across Asia Pacific with an oil & gas company. During 90-minute open discussions with employees and the CEO, employee’s input on vision and strategic focus were explored and captured. We engaged over 200 people in six countries. Then we used these inputs to shape the organisational vision and strategy. For employees, the sessions not only helped to give them a greater understanding of the business context and direction but also gave them direct contact with the CEO as an added bonus.

2. Include what you’re not and acknowledge the past
When Howard Schultz stepped back into a CEO role at Starbucks in 2008, he recalls, “First there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession —that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families… We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point.”

A company vision is forward-looking. It paints a picture of the future and provides direction. However, it doesn’t entirely wipe out the past. Creating a vision is not just about the glitz of the future and all that you hope to become. It should also be about holding up a mirror to acknowledge the blemishes. We need to take a moment to account for what we don’t want anymore to better articulate the mindsets and behaviours we do want going forward.

We are currently working with the IT department of a major airline to help clarify their vision and strategy. The first step in the process involved running workshops with the employees. Through the open discussions, we were able to identify the scars of the past and hear the employees’ deepest concerns and pain points. We were told that workshops felt like therapy sessions; employees left feeling like they had finally been heard. We left knowing which hangover from the past we had to acknowledge and address.

3. If you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen
We very rarely see company visions that can be measured. As strange as it sounds. And we very rarely see vision statements with KPIs linked to the senior management team. We’ve spent the last year comparing company vision statements with performance agreements. More often than not, we see no linkage at all to what senior managers are measured on, and the company vision statement. It’s time to include clear measures of exactly what you mean. And then publish it. Make it transparent so the whole organisation can see how the management team is linked to the company vision.

Spot the difference…

Our vision is to be the world’s best airline

Our vision is to be the world’s best airline in these three areas: passenger safety, on-time performance and customer experience. As a leadership team we are measured on improving from xx to xx and our KPIs are published here.

We are about to launch a vision and strategy for one of our clients. When we’d finished the strategy, we linked every single one of the CEOs KPIs to the strategy and priorities. Then we published it for the whole organisation to see.

4. Don’t email it. Create an experience.
There’s something about experiencing a tropical island or exploring a new city that can’t be captured through words or pictures (that’s probably why looking at other people’s holiday photos is more ‘Yawn’ than it is ‘Yay’).

People remember what they experience. And unfortunately great sentences don’t count as experiences. And neither does PowerPoint. And the worst thing you can do is launch a new vision through email. The greatest impact is achieved by designing an experience that brings the vision to life. This makes the vision real, rather than words on a page.

We recently created a three-day offsite with a luxury retailer where employees experienced the company vision in a number of different days. Day one was all about connection – with the brand, with each other, with their customers. One of the sessions involved the employees going out into different parts of the city to capture photos which they felt expressed the brand and all that the company stands for.

The experience gave them the time to interact with the vision, understand what it means to them personally and how it can influence their actions and behaviours. And by creating a safe environment throughout the experience we were able to get honest feedback from participants, giving us the opportunity to address concerns, confusion and unavoidably – cynicism.

5. Use the power of storytelling
Vision and strategy documents are boring. There is a real opportunity to use the power of storytelling to rally people behind a vision and strategy. It’s perplexing that we don’t do it enough – choosing instead to hide behind cryptic diagrams with words like ‘integrity’ and ‘partnership’ in circles connected with arrows and dotted lines.

Storytelling works because it’s deep-rooted in human behaviour – across cultures and generations. It’s how we communicate on a daily basis, whether it’s about a funny incident on Facebook, or an inspiring tale from a stranger on the subway. Stories touch every facet of our lives. We can relate to and connect with them.

Sadly, the language we use internally is corporate-speak and bland. We’ve lost the human element to the language we use. Every project we work on involves storytelling. We bring people on a journey; we are brutally honest with what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. We get people on side because of this honesty. We inspire leaders to stand up and be vulnerable. It’s not easy. It’s definitely challenging. But at the end of the day, people want authenticity, and it’s only through the power of storytelling that we can connect and relate to people.

Are you embarking on a vision-creating mission? Remember these tips…then go forth and disrupt the conventional approach:

1. Don’t just develop it in the boardroom, get out on the road, get as many people involved as you can.

2. Include what you’re not, as much as what you want to be. Acknowledge the blemishes of the past and tell an honest story about what you’ve got right and what you haven’t.

3. Avoid bland statements and measure, link it to senior managers KPIs.

4. Never, ever rely on email for communicating a new vision and strategy.

5. Tell stories. Be authentic. Be human. Avoid corporate-speak.

We originally posted this blog on LinkedIn.

Chasing innovation? Start with disruption.

We are officially entering the next generation of business. Disruption. What will separate the successful, prosperous businesses from those that wither and die? It’s how intelligently they can disrupt themselves, again and again and again. Before others disrupt them. “Disrupt yourself before someone else comes along and does it”

In a world where the pace of change is accelerating, consumer tastes shift overnight and entire industries are being challenged by young start-ups, there is only one answer: disruption. If efficiency and experience were the keys to success in the past, disruption is our form of survival in the years to come. It will be the lifeblood of businesses. “Disrupt yourself instead of protecting yourself.”

So, how do we build a disruptive culture inside our organisations? As Jean-Marie says “Disruption is not destruction. It’s creation.” Do we create secret rooms for ‘Innovation Managers’ to be locked away in while they ponder what the next big thing is? Do we buy the latest technology to help our thinking along? Or maybe, we just need to invest in some beanbags and nap-pods?

The fact is that there isn’t one key ingredient. There are many. It takes bold, brave leaders to open themselves up for disruption. It takes bold, brave leaders to challenge everything they’ve built and pose radical questions around reinvention. A solid foundation for disruption starts with recruitment. Technology doesn’t generate ideas. Neither do processes. People do. And recruiting is how we find those people. Unfortunately, the way we recruit is stuck in the 20th century. It’s probably one of the least innovative parts of a business. And that lack of innovation is the first link in a vicious circle that stifles disruptive thinking.

So how can we break this cycle? Here are three ways to think differently when recruiting.

Forget about past performance.

In the 20th century, past performance was seen as an important factor in the hiring process. Many roles were standardized and professionalized. And in fact, most roles were similar across companies and industries. So past performance was a pretty good indicator for success.

Today, we couldn’t be further from that definition. In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment, no amount of past performance can prepare you for future success. And we certainly wouldn’t associate innovation and disruption with standardization.

Instead we should be recruiting for behaviours, mindsets and ways of thinking. By seeking out innovation-friendly qualities like motivation, curiosity, insight and determination above all else we are more likely to find the people who have the capacity for discovering breakthrough innovations. And if there is a knowledge gap – they can just Google it. Because information certainly isn’t something that’s scarce in this internet age.

When it comes to teams, seek depth and breadth

The word ‘innovation’ is often associated with expertise. We believe that teams of experts in a field are the ones who trailblaze breakthrough innovation.

They have the experience and knowledge to spot trends that lead to incredible discoveries. But a room full of people with the same frame of reference eliminates diversity of thought. And a monoculture grows.

To achieve the best, most disruptive results, teams should be inter-disciplinary. A mixture of T-shaped people, with depth in one area (an Architect), and breadth in another, (marketing experience). Organizations should be assembling teams of anthropologists next to biomedical scientists next to accountants next to managers. When these T-shaped people come together in a way where they are able to appreciate each other’s contributions and weave them into their own thinking, inter-disciplinary teams are created. And completely new ideas are born.

Request actions, not words on paper

If you asked someone to write about the process that led them to innovate or disrupt, they would probably find themselves ten pages deep before they got half way through. That’s because innovation is messy. It’s chaotic. It can involve lots of going back to the drawing board. Reframing. Redefining. Failing. If you really want to understand a candidate’s potential for innovation don’t ask them for a cover letter that tells you so. Ask them to show you.

Set them a challenge based around a classic problem. And when they come back to you, don’t just focus on the outcome, spend time talking to them about their process. How did they approach the challenge? Did they apply traditional thinking? Or did they go in a completely different direction? Did they reframe the problem altogether? It’s the way that people think about things that is a real indicator of their capacity for disruptive thinking.

So, when it comes to recruitment what will you do differently?

It’s no surprise that to find disruptive mindsets and innovative people we need to disrupt ourselves. Change the way we think about indicators of success. Widen our view of the skills and experience that we’re looking for. And know that best practice may no longer be relevant. What qualities will you be looking for in your next innovator? What will their area of expertise be? What challenge will you set them?