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Leadership and Letting Go: The Business Wisdom of Willy Wonker

04/04/2014 13:38 | Updated 04 June 2014

In Greece, they work about 2000 hours a year. In Germany, they work an average of 1400 hours every year, but their productivity is 70% higher than Greece. I knew that my colleagues and I at Global Tolerance needed to work less in order to achieve more, but the pace of our work seemed relentless, and something needed to give.

Enlightened self-interest

The decision to place Global Tolerance on a one year sabbatical was one of enlightened self-interest, not self-interest alone. Yes, I was about to have a baby and the clock was ticking. But from our daily Sound of Silence ritual, I knew that we would all benefit from serious time out and reflection. I also knew that I was not the only one who was feeling overwhelmed by work, and lacking the balance required to lead a truly fulfilling professional life.

I see it as the leader's job to decide what is best for themselves and the employees and the long-term sustainability of the company. It should never be 'either or.' Only 'both and.'

'What is best' is a difficult and subjective thing to discern, and a challenge that all leaders share. For me, what is best is that which is authentic, which truly serves the brand (which is greater than the sum of its leader and employees), and the long-term sustainability of the organization.

The example of Mandela

Sometimes what is required is a radical approach. In Africa, there has been an unhealthy recent tradition of leaders clinging to power, continuously imposing themselves on their people, regardless of the consequences. When Nelson Mandela passed away during the sabbatical year, I reflected on his leadership lessons and the potential implications for the future of business.

One of the many things that set Mandela apart was his pioneering decision to step down from leadership after a single term. He said that he was too old to govern. In truth, he was making an enlightened self-interested decision that served both himself and his vision for his country. The needs of a leader are inextricably linked with those of his or her people.

After my recent post for the Harvard Business review, 'Why I put my company on a one year sabbatical', a commentator questioned whether I was putting my own needs before those of my employees. These needs are woven together. I also feel there is a danger of using the 'needs of our teams' to deflect the need for real change. Like squabbling parents who say they are putting the needs of their children first to justify staying together. Or heads of state who stay in power for 'the people's sake'.

Open Leadership

I was also questioned whether the decision for the sabbatical was based upon my desire to control 'my' business. While I do wish to influence the future of the organization, I now realise that I don't wish to control it. In fact, I want the total opposite. I want to let go.

The sabbatical space to contemplate has led me to a radical decision.

I have decided to open up Global Tolerance to a new leader and owner. The sabbatical year has been my greatest year of growth. I have become a dad, had time to reflect, and realise that I no longer have the capacity to drive global tolerance forward for the next decade. But I still have an unswerving belief in the company, it's vision and mission. I believe that most leaders find themselves in this position at some point. And I believe that we all have the responsibility to be honest about where we really are on our personal and professional journeys, and our capacity to serve. We're in the service sector, after all.

As part of this process, I am launching an Open Leadership Exercise (OLE) - a new type of exit strategy for business leaders and owners.

While it is not usually the motivation of the leader, almost all existing exit strategy options are framed around extracting as much value for the individual as possible. In my view, this risks setting up an unhelpful choice between the rights and needs of the majority shareholders and the future of the company. Why can't we have 'both and'?

The Willy Wonka model

Perhaps Willy Wonka set out a blueprint for a new type of approach for us all? An unconventional business leader, I admit, but he innovated to ensure that he found someone who believed in his business and whom he could trust to take it forward. Then he gave it away. I'm not sure the story would have been so poignant if Willy Wonka approached an angel investor instead!

An Open Leadership Exercise (OLE) is an open, corporate search process for a company's key shareholders and leaders to transfer ownership and leadership to a new beneficiary. A modern-day golden ticket.

For Global Tolerance, the Open Leadership Exercise (OLE) is open to individuals, teams, companies of all kinds, as well as the existing board and team. At the end of the process, in the Summer of 2014, the new beneficiary will receive 95% ownership of the company, £10,000 in the bank, a decade of business contacts, and all the company assets. There are no corporate debtors and the company continues to be profitable, having enjoyed a record revenue year in 2012-2013, before going on sabbatical. I will stay on as a non-executive Board of Advisors member for a year, mentoring and guiding the new leader and beneficiary during the transition.

I believe than an Open Leadership Exercise (OLE) represents a 'both and' solution for business leaders who wish to act in their enlightened self-interest, and serve themselves and the organizations they have worked so hard to build. It means not clinging to power, but leaving a legacy for those who follow us. After all, most business leaders are not motivated by money alone. They go into business to make their mark, leave a legacy. The OLE is a sound business and leadership exercise, not an act of philanthropy.

Multiple perspectives on growth

An OLE takes an almost open-source approach to painting the future trajectory of the brand and business. For people who are already within the team, it's a unique opportunity to own and lead the organization. For those outside the organization, it's their chance to lead an established company, rather than start up from scratch. The organization itself can only benefit from having multiple perspectives on its future growth.

You may ask what those associated with my company think of all this. The team were informed, before the sabbatical, that we simply didn't know what the return from the year out would look like. That was the point: a year of reflection, to enable the seeds of innovation to cultivate. I have been in touch with all the team and invited them to apply for the OLE if they are minded to do so. In the short term, I have helped to ensure they are all clear and confident about their own paths forward, to help ensure that no-one is exposed financially. In one case, I have helped negotiate a previous client to stay on with a past team member as a consultant, rather than come back to the company. As much of the company value (in purely financial terms) was tied up in my leadership, the value will undoubtedly diminish in the short term. On the face of it, this is all corporate madness. But that is only when we define growth, value and success in short-term financial terms alone.

I believe that the value and reputation of companies that implement an OLE will grow in the long term. An OLE is about the long term picture, about stewardship, legacy, responsibility, building trusted brands. Like a sabbatical, it is about creating the conditions for us all to thrive, and not just survive. Enabling corporate owners and leaders, who truly believe in their businesses and brands, to invest in their future.

This is 'my baby'

I do not feel like I 'own' global tolerance, just as I do not feel that my daughter, Seren, is really 'my' daughter. She is an individual, with her own character, her own future. What I do feel is a deep sense of stewardship. Of responsibility. As her guardian.

Like being a parent, I feel that same sense of stewardship and responsibility for my company and its vision. As its guardian. For the last decade, I have nurtured an organization, predicated upon ideas that are far bigger than me, or any individual.

We often talk about our projects and companies as 'our babies.' I wonder what the world of business would look like if we integrated this idea of stewardship into the heart of how we work, and how we leave our companies for those who follow us?

I think it's time we relinquish obsolete ideas about corporate ownership and exit strategies, and think about corporate stewardship. 'Both and' not 'either or.' I hope that leaders of companies around the world will consider including an Open Leadership Exercise (OLE) - or their version of it - among their exit strategy options.

I believe that when we consider the needs of a leader as inextricably linked with those of his or her people; when a sabbatical is seen as a necessity and not a luxury for sustainable business; when we see the health of a company as tied to the health of a community; and when we see the stewardship of a child akin to the stewardship of an organization; we begin to leave a legacy of leadership that really serves those who follow us.

If you wish to apply to lead and own Global Tolerance, you can apply here: http://www.globaltolerance.com/#/story/gtoleentryform/. The process is open to all and the application deadline for the first stage of the process is 15 April 2014.