Purpose & Engagement in digital times [Approaches & Tool]

Purpose & Engagement in digital times [Approaches & Tool]

Many of today’s leaders are asking themselves the question of meaning: Why do I do what I am doing? What do I contribute and what is the point of all of this? In a time where the speed of change is enormous and nothing seems to be permanent, it is only natural to deal with such issues. Companies can help their leaders and leaders can empower their employees to find meaning and simultaneously encourage their engagement for the job.

Anita Berger about Purpose and Engagement in digital times
About the author

Anita Berger is MDI Managing Partner and accompanies organizations internationally and from all sectors as a consultant in organizational development, as a management trainer and coach, for many years already. She is an expert when it comes to engagement and motivation 3.0. As a certified trainer, she offers the Original Drive Workshop after Daniel H. Pink, which is also a module of the Agile Leadership certification course.

Being an agile leader – be mobile & motivate


For me, being an agile leader means to be flexible and to stay mobile. The conditions in companies, teams, and projects are changing so fast today that it is often not possible to act proactively – you have to react. As fast as possible. Agile leadership is about being mobile and staying mobile. Wherever possible, you should, of course, be able to plan and act proactively. But in my opinion, nowadays, it is more important to react quickly, constructively and productively. Another important skill is being able to adapt to different circumstances as a leader.

A successful leader also creates a set-up that allows employees to think in terms of ideas and solutions rather than problems. Employees must be able to think outside the box and constantly explore options and opportunities. Employees need a high degree of self-commitment and personal responsibility. The reason for this is that our fast-paced time is exhausting, certainly not always “easy-cheesy” and relaxing. In order to do so, a leader needs employees who understand the reason behind actions and projects. More importantly, they need to believe in it and go an extra mile to achieve the maximum performance from their own accord.


It’s all about purpose


In this context, the purpose plays a crucial role. Ideally, it is like this: There is a clearly formulated and strong corporate purpose the employees know about. They can reflect on this corporate purpose and establish an intersection between what is important to them and the purpose of the organization. With this interaction, they know how to contribute to the “bigger picture”.

Of course, there will be cases in which the company’s purpose is not tangible enough to define one’s own contribution as an employee. If this is the case, it takes a break on the organizational unit, which is relevant for each team member, followed by the comparison: How does that fit together? What is important to the person?

I think that there is still potential in many companies when it comes to defining the purpose. Especially regarding the correlation between one’s personal purpose and the purpose of the organization.

Finding Purpose

Many leaders are asking the same question: Why do I do what I am doing? How can I contribute?


If you would like to start working on this topic, start with questions like What does purpose actually mean for our company? How tangible is it and is there place and time for a real confrontation? Is it something that stands on a marketing folder or do I associate more with it as a leader, as a CEO or as a board member?

Furthermore, it is important to look for the dispute according to rounds of questions and discussions. It is about a conscious process, in which employees deal with their own purpose and at the same time as the one of the company. As well as actively looking for points of friction and similarities. It can happen that somebody says: My purpose is not your business, that’s private. Of course, this must be respected and, as a leader, you must at least make sure that the respective team members recognize their own contribution to the corporate mission through their work tasks. Thereby they have to find meaning in what they do and, as a result, gain commitment.


The concept of engagement – Drive by Daniel H. Pink


A concept, I really like to use, is the Drive concept from the bestselling author Daniel H. Pink. I use it to reflect with leaders and team members and to work on motivation and purpose. From my point of view, it gives you clarity in a complex of topics that is sometimes elusive and difficult to grasp. Furthermore, it provides valuable insights by determining the location: where do I stand? How do I fit for the business purpose? What else would it take for the fit to be better?

For example, I worked with a group of senior executives and spent a whole afternoon answering questions like: ”What is my own purpose? How does this coincide with the corporate trajectory?” One participant has stated that she clearly separates her own purpose from that of the company, and at the same time realizes that it requires quite a bit of effort. As a result, she asked herself where there could be a common intersection, and how much energy she can use to bridge this gap.

Exactly those kinds of reflections are the ones, I find extremely valuable for both sides, the participants, and company. It offers a real value, to pause for a moment and go into depth to gain clarity on the one hand, but more importantly to gain motivation and commitment for the daily challenges.

More about the DRIVE concept


In addition to the purpose, the Drive concept is also about self-determination (Autonomy) and perfecting (Mastery) as a lever for engagement. Find out more about the concept in this video and in Daniel H. Pink’s book The surprising truth about what motivates us.”


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Incredible 40 billion Lego bricks are said to exist in the world. After they conquered the hearts of many children, the small colorful stones are now conquering the seminar rooms in the management & development industry. We wanted to experience this method ourselves. Therefore we had a Lego Serious Play workshop, where we asked ourselves: What will MDI look like in 2025?


Impuls Workshop Lego Serious Play – Our Hard Facts


Duration: 3 hours

Number of participants: 15

Facilitator: Dominik Etzl

Question: What will MDI look like in 2025?

Framework: MDI team workshop 2018, day 2

Goal: First of all, we are always looking for new agile methods and wanted to experience this one as well. Furthermore, we wanted to find a common vision for MDI in 2025.


Think with your hands


This is basically the only rule in Lego Serious Play, wherefore it is unstoppable that all participants are starting to build once the little bricks are spread out on the table. But that’s not a problem at all, as Lego Serious Play is not about thinking and planning for a long time, it’s just about doing it.

While our facilitator has given an overview of the method and different fields of application, we have already developed the first buildings within a team. In addition to the intuitive and unstoppable building, we also had some warm-up exercises, with questions such as: What motivates you in your daily work?

Lego Serious Play Teamworkshop Marketing

„It motivates me that we are a team many different characters with different tasks. Nevertheless, we have one important thing in common: we all work at MDI. The cooperation with my colleagues and the helpfulness within the team motivates me every day. ” (Judith, Marketing)

„While building my model, I realized that I do not have a strict division between my professional and personal life. All my different activities and roles in life are symbolized by the different branches in my model. Having the ability to flexibly move around on those branches and combining one with the other motivates me tremendously.” (Julia, Marketing)

Lego Serious Play Julia
Lego Serious Play Teamworkshop Consulting

“When my colleague asked me what motivates me in my job, I shaped a smiley. I think it’s important to be able to laugh a lot, no matter how serious life is. I don’t miss that at MDI. There is a lot of laughter and fun in my work environment, and that is something that motivates me to go to work! Apart from the good mood in the office, we have a great relationship with our clients and coaches! This atmosphere motivates me a lot.”(Valmire, Junior Training & Development Consultant)

Since no specific know-how or skills are necessarily needed to work with Lego Serious Play, we came straight to the point fairly quickly: What will MDI look like in 2025?

In order to obtain different results here, we have divided our team into three groups according to their functions: Consulting, Project Management, and Solution Development together with Marketing. What was the concrete task? Everyone had to build their own vision first. Afterwards, the individual versions were assembled on a large board and supplemented or shortened.

The unstoppable euphoria about building new things has temporarily paused here because the question was complex and we wanted to take some time to think about it. But after a few minutes, all three team tables (Consulting, Project Management, and Marketing + Solution Development) were already starting to build their ideas and visions.


The ideas and discussion


After 20 minutes, it was time to introduce our future visions to each other. What we quickly noticed was, that new ideas were coming to light – even though we didn’t have a lot of time. The models we built, were the ideal starting point for discussions. We did not only discuss the models within the whole MDI team but also within the small groups and departments.

But what are the next steps for now?

We brought the Lego structures of “MDI in 2025” of all the teams to our office so that the ideas, we collected during the workshop, would not be forgotten. In the next few weeks and months, we will see which ideas will be implemented. However, it is already clear that we did not only get to know another agile method but also gathered many new ideas and motivation for future projects, through this workshop.


Why Lego Serious Play?

  • Everyone is actively involved and makes their personal contribution to answering the question
  • Knowledge is taught and the learning effect is enhanced
  • Thoughts are illustrated
  • Tangible models remain stronger and longer in our memory


In which areas can Lego Serious Play be used?

  • In the search for new ideas and innovation
  • To create a shared vision and concrete strategies for your own company
  • Team Development
  • Communication, values, and behavior can be reflected by this method
  • To analyze future scenarios in a playful way

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Interview with leadership expert Nataliya Sergiyenko

What are – according to your opinion – the biggest challenges for companies in the United States and Europe?


In my opinion, the biggest challenge in the US is to become client oriented externally and internally. Probably, the US is one of the best countries in the world when it comes to “organizing activities” and processes, especially online. The organizations in the US have tons of information about their clients – if you buy food for your pet for instance – they take your telephone number and email. You buy show tickets online – give them names, addresses, telephones etc. But at the same time, they never make use of it and never ask you what type of pet that you have in order to sell you something else or to strengthen their customer relations. Just a few of those companies try to make a real contact with the customer. We had an experience like this. A month after we bought a new car, the car company gave us additionally a 30-minutes session in order to help us understand how to use all the electronics inside the car. The lady from the company, let’s call her the instructor, was following her procedure. After a while, I forgot the questions which I wanted to ask and didn’t’ buy some additional electronic devices which I really wanted to buy in the first place. Why? Because nobody asked me what I really wanted. In USA they do not offer reprogramming services of car electronics after the car is sold. The car company would win if they would have it in the procedure – “make a contact with a client, ask him/her questions about the needs” and give him what he wants. At the same time, sure, this is a subjective point of view of a newcomer to this huge and rich country.

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American companies have to start putting more effort in their customer relationship management and not only collecting information about their customers


For Europe, as it consists of so many different countries, I wouldn’t be able to name one distinctive challenge for the whole continent. But I can talk about Ukraine – the country of my origin, which becomes more and more being the part of European Union. The biggest challenge for Ukraine is to allow young, well-educated, ambitious people to grow professionally inside their own country. For the last 3 years, nearly 4 million people left the country to work abroad.

Ukraine is perceived as a country with well-educated young people especially in the field of software development. One of my clients for instance – a software development company based in Lviv – is growing rapidly. The company has probably now more than 5000 employees. Their customers are mostly situated in the USA. They try to be so much internal customer oriented, and try to create and save their unique culture to attract and to retain talents.


“Nice to have” or a strategic factor of success: How do you experience that organizations in the USA and Ukraine view (international) leadership development at the moment and how will that be in the future?


It is still a question – how much leadership is an inborn trait, and how much one can learn to be a leader. Let’s suppose that anyway some characteristics are inborn and some characteristics the environment supports, based on the values of the environment. In the US – right from the elementary schools and further – they try to teach and support respect, honesty, loyalty and the ability to follow the rules. And this is great! At the same time, there are many situations where you should speak up, demand higher standards, and reveal yourself. You should not be afraid to be different – this is important if you want to be a leader. Just remember famous American leaders – Martin Luther King with his “I have a dream” speech. Or Steve Jobs who was crazy demanding high standards on everything his people were doing.

“Nice to have” for the US organizations – they should support their people to go beyond the expected rules and procedures. Probably, what I’ve seen in the US, many companies work on stable markets. To go beyond, it’s about changes and development. But if you do not grow, one day the market will kill you.

How is the situation in Europe? Well, the amount of international business headquarters situated in Europe is tremendous. When they operate in their home countries – which again are stable markets – the leader is a person who is able to support the status quo.  When these companies go to the growing markets – they need another type of leadership. The challenge here is to manage the transfer from a stable environment while to a flexible and changing environment. “Nice to have” is to stop trying multiplying strategies and approaches which worked for them in the past. The future is different.


Working as an international trainer – the challenges and the skills you need


What is most important when working as a trainer on an international level and what skills does it take?


To be flexible. Be able to follow before leading. To develop your “sixth sense” – research cultural differences, be attentive and to be sensitive enough to adapt your training to the group you are working with. Once I got an advice from a local taxi driver in Uzbekistan – do not make any critical comments – any at all. It worked, the group blossomed for me like a wonderful lotus. On the second day, they were ready to help each other and give confrontational feedback.


Can you think of any typical challenges and maybe think of some challenging moments you’ve experienced during a training?


Cultural differences, “the training traditions” and different languages, especially the idioms, are the most typical challenge for me. One American group I’ve worked with used so many idioms that I can still remember some of them. For instance, they said their company had to “reinvent the vows”. Usually, when people marry they give each other “vows” – promise to love and take care. So, their 50 years old company had to look at what they promised at the start, and, probably change something to answer the needs of their current customers.

What can help as a trainer is to prepare the slides of the flipchart with written rules and tasks if English is not the first language for the group. My MDI colleagues are doing a wonderful job creating some Power point slides with a vocabulary list in case we give a group some sort of bright metaphors or stories with unusual or uncommon words and terms.

And then there is also a difference of the room set-up between different groups. Some training groups prefer to sit around a big table with their laptops. Other groups are ready to have an open space training without any desks inside. Psychogeography (the location of people and subjects in the space) influences a lot of the training path.


How much does the digitalization really influence the training industry?


In times of the unstoppable digitalization – do you think that classroom trainings will vanish completely at some point? And according to your experience: do you think that e-learning solutions are more developed in the US than in Europe?


I do not think they “vanish completely”. But in the nearest future, a huge part of the training content will be digital. It is the same tendency for Europe, the USA and for Ukraine, as well. Sure, Ukraine has fewer resources for it to happen quickly. But in Ukraine, we are highly oriented on gamification of such sort of digital education, especially in IT companies.


How does the digitalization affect the training industry in general? Which changes/processes are happening at the moment and do you think that companies are ready for this change?


Right now we as training and development companies/specialists need to develop a new set of skills and competencies. Briefly, it is the ability to create useful and engaging digital content. It’s much more being a scenario writer. We need to be able to understand what picture we will put on the screen. Well, probably we need to learn from Hollywood now.


According to your opinion: What will be the biggest challenge for the training & development industry in the next 5 to 10 years?


The world changes faster than the industry. In order to survive and win, the training industry has to learn faster than the other business world. To learn faster doesn’t mean to run quickly. It means the training industry has to find a creative way of doing it. This is the main challenge.

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Nataliya Sergiyenko is working as a trainer for more than 15 years and is focused on providing business-trainings for multinational companies. Last year, she left her home country Ukraine and moved to Texas, where she is continuing with working as a trainer for sure. Why she loves being a trainer? “I love to learn. On trainings, participants share their unique experience and knowledge. We have a lot of WOW moments”

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Being a leader in Kuwait – the situation back then and now


What are currently the biggest challenges for organizations in Kuwait or the Middle East in general?


Laurie: In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for organizations in the Middle East is actually growing too fast! In the last 9 years in Kuwait and throughout the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), there’s been a lot of development. However, the planning is not always so sound. It is often seen that a number of wonderful businesses get started in Kuwait but unfortunately don’t last so long because the planning behind the business is lacking or not well-thought out. Kuwaitis will even say, “We are great at ideas but not so good at execution.” One of the reason’s Dubai has made such a “dent” is that they have a victorious vision and within that vision are benchmarks and immensely well-thought-out planning. Additionally, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are using the European Foundation for Quality Management’s Excellence Model as an ongoing framework to insure well-thought out and well-constructed implementation of the vision. It often feels a bit more like Kuwait is “flying by the seat of their pants” when comparing to Dubai.


You moved to the Arabic Gulf in 2009 and lived there for 7 years. What was your first impression when it comes to leadership development?


When I first arrived in Kuwait, I was in awe. But, keep in mind, I had literally just gotten off a plane from Angola where I had been living and working. So when I arrived in Kuwait, I definitely knew I wasn’t in Africa anymore! At that time, when I first arrived, I could immediately feel it was far more organized and developed than Angola as the roads were in good condition, there were huge skyscrapers and lots of malls, restaurants, and boutiques. I entered Kuwait as a consultant for a publishing company. They sent me and my colleague to complete a country report on Kuwait regarding its current status in the world after the Iraqi invasion and thus, I interviewed hundreds of leaders in both the public and private sector—which gave me such a great way to learn all about Leadership from a very “boots-on-the-ground” perspective.

In answer to your question: regarding my first impression about leadership back in 2009, I definitely thought Kuwait needed more female leaders back then. But: let it be known that at the time, they had a female Minister of Education and three female members of parliament. Additionally, in 2009, there was quite a lot of strife between the private sector leaders and the government leaders as private sector leaders felt that the Kuwait government stifled their growth by placing a lot of “red tape” on projects which required permits and permission. Many private sector leaders indicated that they had been waiting for the government to grant permits and the like for 10-20 years. As such, many of their foreign (Western) partners had backed out of deals and left Kuwait (many of these foreign partners were from the U.S. and U.K). Thus, at the time, there was a lot of negativity in the private sector. When I would interview leaders from the government, it was quite different as they were more positive, upbeat and outgoing but honestly, I could see they had it “easy” in their jobs. My impression was that the ministries needed to be audited, streamlined and updated and I still feel the same on this issue present day. Considering Kuwait sits at the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, I do feel they still try to maintain that “neutral” stance and due to this position, they aren’t as forward-moving as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Kuwait has all the potential in the world to be as impressive as Dubai but holds itself back and a lot of this is due to cultural and religious differences within its community itself along with its relationship to Saudi Arabia. It should be noted, however, that Kuwait has been investing a lot of money in Training and Coaching programs for the past eight years. They still have a lot of work to do with respect to realizing that Training and Coaching is a process and not an overnight “fix” or “cure” to problems, as well as not just a mandate but can actually benefit leaders and organizations for the long-term.


How did you experience that organizations in the Middle East view (international) leadership development and how did it change since then?


There are definitely more female leaders and more woman in the workplace now than when I first entered Kuwait in 2009. It used to be, when I consulted or conducted trainings, I’d often be the only woman in the room. Last month, I conducted a 5-day training for a government institution in Kuwait City and there were actually more women participants than men. That was the first time that I had that happen. Additionally, the vast majority of the woman in my training rooms for the past four years have been and still are uncovered. It used to be that all of my female participants were covered so I do feel we are experiencing major differences among the women in Kuwait with respect to their own values, traditions, and culture. The Kuwaiti millennials have a lot to do with this newfound openness. It used to be that a lot was “hush-hush” and never spoken about (this could be even something as small as asking how a family member is doing) but these days, the Kuwaiti millennials talk about everything rather openly. This has been quite shocking for even me when I return to Kuwait now. However, it’s quite refreshing and promising because I feel this openness is what good leaders are made of and can prevent a lot of the bottle-necking that Kuwait has suffered in the past with its prior leaders and development. Many millennials, however, have expressed that they do indeed suffer due to their open mentality and that they feel there is still a very authoritative style of leadership in their country. They feel frustrated as they bring back wonderful ideas and education from the West and hope to implement this learning in their Kuwaiti organizations but they feel “stamped out” by their older, more authoritative bosses and leaders. As an outside consultant, I do see this, too, and hope the millennials remain persistent.

Cultural differences in the Middle East, Europe & USA


You are originally from the US but you were living in Europe before moving to Kuwait and currently living in Europe again. What are the major differences between leadership development in European countries and countries in the Middle East?


Great question! I often don’t see much difference which may sound a bit funny yet it feels very true from me. Currently, I reside in The Netherlands and my husband is Dutch. Prior to living in Angola and Kuwait, I was residing in Spain and for a short while in Portugal. Why I say I feel a lot of the leadership style is similar between Europe and the Middle East is because it feels a bit antiquated and slow to move when it comes to innovation, technology and change. It often feels like a lot of resistance and defensiveness with even subtle suggestions of modifying something compared to the US.

A simple example is: In most organizations in the US, employees are either paid weekly or every other week. It is rare these days to see employees paid monthly. I’m from California and even government employees are paid bi-monthly with the exception of State of California employees who are paid once monthly. But, federal, county and city officials are paid twice monthly. The same as in Europe goes for Middle Eastern employees: they are also paid once monthly. There are a lot of studies that describe the benefits and advantages for both organizations and employees of being paid twice monthly (or more). But: in my experience, European and Middle Eastern organizations close their ears and are not open to hearing why. I’m often greeted with the comment, “That’s how we do it here in Europe.” Returning to live and work in Europe in 2016, well, I had thought it was going to be very different than my 7 years in the GCC. I didn’t expect it to feel so similar!

International leadership development


Companies in Europe and the Middle East often stick to their old habits and are not as open to new ideas and methods like companies in the US

Another surprising experience has been the pre-judgment that many Europeans have against Americans. I actually think that this has been the most curious or alarming experience since returning to Europe. I don’t remember these stereotypes feeling as strong back in 2007 as they do now. In the States, we don’t have experiences of people saying straight in the face of another, “You do this because you are from this country.” In fact, if one does that, well, there are lots of negative consequences. But here in Europe, Europeans have had no problems saying straight to my face, ‘We don’t like Americans. We find them fake, superficial, and over-the-top.” Thus, I feel cultural sensitivity and tolerance is lacking at least between the countries I’ve been working between since returning to Europe. I’ve mostly been working in Belgium and The Netherlands since returning here in 2016. I often feel that Europeans say these things because they feel we Americans don’t have a culture. In my humble opinion, being polite, courteous, and empathetic are actually core cultural values that mean a lot to us Americans.

One more reason I feel the countries I’ve been working with here in Europe have such a similar feeling with respect to leadership in the Middle East is that they are small just like Kuwait. Therefore they have a focus on teamwork and team-building. Kuwaiti cultural is built upon helping the other, being supportive of the other and doing things together.I don’t feel that’s any different than Belgian and Dutch culture. Dutch culture, for example, has such a strong focus on not showing off, being equal, and having a sense of consensus. Kuwaiti culture has something called “Diwaniya’’ which very special and intrinsic to its culture. Diwaniya is usually a weekly, open gathering, in a leader’s home, whereby, folks come together to discuss business, network with each other, as well as to talk politics. They all sit together (usually on the floor), and if you walk into a Diwaniya, you won’t know who the actual leader is because it has more of a team or consensus “feel” to it.


So you’ve been working in different countries on four different continents. What do you think is most important when working as a trainer on an international level and what skills does it take to be an international training and development guide in general?


The most important thing to do as a trainer is to always, always, always research the company, the participants and the culture you’re going to work with prior to the training event. I really believe in understanding as much as you can (as a trainer) about the company culture, the culture at large, and the dynamics between the participants and their leaders before entering the training room. Having this information beforehand safeguards the trainer from losing their neutrality and sense of objectivity. It’s very easy for a trainer to be pulled into the drama or negativity of the participants if they aren’t careful. I believe doing the above-mentioned research beforehand keeps the trainer focusing on the course objectives while still maintaining sensitivity for the overall culture and employees’ situation.

The skills it takes to be an international trainer and development guide in general: Risk-taking, decision-making, creative problem-solving, and facilitating. I’m a certified coach, facilitator and trainer and one of the things I truly value is not consulting when I’m giving a training. Participants want us to give answers but the truth is, that’s their job. A good trainer asks open-ended questions and allows time for the participants to work things out themselves. Furthermore, we are not representatives of the companies that the participants work for. That’s why we must be careful not to provide answers because we could present conflicting information from what their company would provide. Thus, I truly believe neutrality is key and to remember that we are not there to “fix” anything. We are there to provide possibilities, options, opportunities, new tools and to inspire them to reframe perspectives.

It’s also important as a trainer and coach to constantly re-educate ourselves. Every year, I put myself through a new training and/or work with a new coach. Thus,  I can always remember what it feels like to be the participant or “coachee.” Additionally, the new techniques, tools, tips and resources we gain by participating in continuing education keeps our work as trainers and coaches, fresh, current, provocative, cutting-edge and fun. I often attend others’ trainings to watch how a trainer handles a tough participant or how they open their trainings. The amazing insight I gain from other trainers is priceless. It helps me never grow bored of this work and I feel my participants can relate better to me because I can relate better to them, especially if I was recently a participant in a course myself. That sense of empathy that we can transfer to our participants is priceless and I feel we can cultivate that empathy and deepen it by always being a student ourselves. Ongoing education gives us as trainers so much: new tools, better techniques, and new ways to deliver the same type of information over and over.

International leadership development


Constantly re-educate yourself and participate in different trainings as a trainer is very important – not only to learn and experience new tools and methods but also to know what it feels like to be the participant or “coachee”


International leadership development is a lot about intercultural awareness and empathy. As a coach and trainer it is very important to have an intercultural sensitivity. How was it for you moving to Kuwait in the first place?


My experience as a coach and trainer has been absolutely wonderful in Kuwait and the Middle East. I think because when I first entered the GCC nobody was doing what I was doing. I was so lucky! I had been trained as a Co-Active Coach back in 2002 in California and this type of work was really not being done in Kuwait at all when I first arrived. So, bringing this work into workshops, with individuals, and in trainings, well, to be honest, it’s why and how I ended up staying in Kuwait so long! I was actually only supposed to be in Kuwait for 3-6 months. Then word started spreading like wildfire about my style of coaching and training that I just couldn’t leave! And, my name started going around the whole GCC because, for them, this style of coaching and facilitating was so unique, new, fun, engaging, and they felt the immediate growth. I really was and am blessed to have entered Kuwait when I did. I’m really grateful I’ve been able to offer this work and still continue to get to go to Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar to deliver courses.


Are there many differences between Europe and the Middle East when working as a Coach or aren’t there as many as someone from Europe may expect?


You know what I’ve noticed about working in Kuwait versus Europe? The Middle Easterners are actually more willing to ‘get crazy” in the workshops! They are way more willing to take chances, to stretch themselves and to throw their comfort zones out the window. I’ve found that here in Europe, the participants have been far more reserved, shy, timid or possibly feel ‘too big” to do this crazy exercise or that crazy activity. Here’s where I see the difference: In the Gulf, it’s okay to stand out, it’s okay to shine. Fellow Middle Easterners love and support great, big-thinking ideas. Here, at least in my experience, in Europe, there’s some “narrative” that if you have a great idea and share, you’re arrogant or showing off. In coaching, we call this “collusion.” There isn’t a correlation between having a great idea and showing off. Sure, it depends on how the idea is presented, but if an individual is simply sharing an idea and offering it to the group as a whole, this is a gift, not arrogance. So, this is one of the most massive differences I can see and feel between the European cultures I’ve been working with and the Gulf.

I think we would believe that the differences between European and Middle Eastern cultures would be that the Middle Eastern cultures would be more conservative in the training courses than the Europeans. However, in my experience, it’s actually been the exact opposite way around. I’ve experienced the Gulf participants to be more open, outgoing, engaged, interactive, willing to risk and stretch themselves than the Europeans I’ve been working with. It’s actually been quite stimulating for me both professionally and personally. Initially, it was quite challenging to return to Europe and experience this as I did not expect this difference at all. The great news is, however, that I am enjoying exploring and finding new ways (to stretch myself!) to appeal to the European participants to help them have radical growth (in their way) in the training and coaching courses


“Invest in Rest” – Typical challenges when it comes to working on an international level

Let’s talk about the challenges of this job. What are the typical challenges when working on an international level?


One of the typical challenges I have faced is working a lot and not getting enough rest while traveling internationally. It can be tough having to be at the airport so early, then arrive super late in the country where I will be teaching and then have to get up super early the next day and teach a full day or a full 3-5 days after all that travel. That may sound simple but it is one of the major perils of being an international trainer. Trainers often feel they are invincible and can “go, go, go,”. But: we must remember just how much energy output there is when dealing with a room of 10 or even 100 people. There’s a lot of stimulation of our senses and we must always be focused. That focus can only happen with getting good rest and practicing great self-care. I’m a major proponent and advocate of “Always Practice What You Teach”. So, if you’re a trainer who teaches your participants to drink a lot of water, mediate daily, take nature breaks, and go to bed early so you don’t have a lot of stress, then you as a trainer better be doing those things too!


Can you think of any challenging situations you’ve experienced and give us some tips how to handle them?


The most challenging scenario I can present to you happened to me last year. I got a last-minute request over the Easter holiday to fly from Amsterdam to Kuwait City to give two separate 2-full day trainings through a university for one of their major banking clients. I’ve been working with this university for a long time and have been serving their banking client for equally as long. We had a very wonderful, successful relationship. Although the request was super last-minute, I agreed to accept the trainings and had to create the course material over my holiday. (I was in sunny Spain when the university made the request and thus was working in my hotel room to get them the course material by the next day!). Two days later, I was on a plane back to Amsterdam. The following day, I was flying to Kuwait City. The flight was delayed into Kuwait City and once at Immigration, the entire computer system went down and I was stuck waiting to get my visa until 4 a.m. I arrived at my hotel at 4:30 a.m. and needed to be up at 6 a.m. so I could arrive at my training room by 7:15 to set it all up. I called my coordinator from the university to explain what had happened and asked if I could actually start the course an hour later. This was the first time I had ever made such a request. Honestly, I was nervous to do so, but I figured I’d ask just in case because I knew I literally had no sleep due to the events the night before. My request was declined and ultimately I became very ill during my week in Kuwait. I managed to conduct all the trainings without any problem and on-time but sadly, I truly suffered from extreme illness due to no rest.

The message: Many companies and coordinators feel trainers are super-heroes and they forget we are human. Ask for what you need, set boundaries, and choose which courses to teach wisely. Looking back, I should not have accepted those courses in Kuwait because I was on vacation at the time when I received the request. It meant that in less than a week’s time, I was on 6 flights. My tips are to really evaluate your schedule, know how much rest you need, and if a coordinator can’t cooperate with your requests, it may not be the training for you. As freelancers or independent trainers, we often feel we should or must accept every assignment because we feel we need the money. Be careful of this mind-set! My tip is to ask yourself: Am I operating from desperation here? Or, am I operating from inspiration? Am I taking this assignment because I feel I can help others develop, evolve and grow (including myself) or am I taking this solely for the money? If you’ve answered that you’re feeling desperate and the focus is more about money, my tip is to decline the training. We, as trainers, are messengers to help the other grow and should be operating from an inspired place. If we operate from desperation, the assignment may turn out to be a rather negative experience as mine was above.

Individuals who wish to enter the training industry must always accept its realities. In that, it’s fast-paced, may require long days, long nights, not enough rest, and that it isn’t always easy with every participant. In other words: It’s important to advise newcomers to the Training industry that it isn’t actually always the fun, awesome, dancing and parties we tend to see in social media. Despite this, if we always keep our focus on sharing how it’s truly meaningful, transformative, and deep, we will always maintain our credibility and be able to facilitate that immense growth participants crave. And, with that credibility, we have longevity.

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Unconventional methods in international leadership development

Unconventional methods in international leadership development

The world we live in is constantly changing, therefore the business world as well. Many people are talking about a VUCA-world (=volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations) as a short description of how our world looks today. There are many new business models that are trying to get along with this change process. But somehow you get the feeling that the training-and development field is not going along with this process. In this guest article, MDI trainer Sylwia Lewandowska-Akhvlediani is talking about this aspect and about unconventional methods in international leadership programs to co-create a space for people to act from their highest potential.

About the author

Sylwia Lewandowska-Akhvlediani is an inspirational and energetic cross-cultural psychologists, working as a strong sparing partner and coach for senior leaders and as a trainer and facilitator with more than 15 years of training, coaching and management experience! She is Co-Founder of the Emerge Leadership Festival, a global community of purpose driven leaders. Her focus is on daily rituals that build your power in leadership and parentship.

If the business is changing so dramatically each day in a VUCA world, why are the leadership development methods not along with this process?

The VUCA-world we live in is marked by constant change. There are new business models rising up as a reaction to this “new” world. Agile leadership can be an answer, more self-designed and self-managed organizations that are offering more purposeful work opportunities, more remote teams that are successful, more robots engaged, fewer people needed here and there, digital disruption where nobody really knows what it is all about. There are many discussions between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg whether AI (Artificial Intelligence) can support the human kind or if it will lead to what we were watching passionately in Terminator in the early 1980’s? The concepts of what is constant or secure are changing. The managing methods that were created not very long ago, seem to not having so much adequacy regarding the new challenges. Points who are important for leaders or business owners are changing. You have to be equipped with new skills so you can stand still when your head is on fire (as I heard once). Those new skills are dealing with the uncertainty, facilitating group processes (including conflicts), managing energy rather than engagement, mindfulness and emotional intelligence, creative and community problem solving, creating new products (with design thinking for instance) for instance. You as a leader must as well make sure that people are able to transfer their experiences from different contexts (parents <–> leaders).

International leadership development

Artificial Intelligence: can it support the human kind or if it will lead to what we were watching passionately in Terminator in the early 1980’s?

What are the reasons that the methods are not getting along with the process?

Then the question I ask myself is – why are the methods of delivering the training and development opportunities not changing so much? I mean, of course, we have much more room for coaching tools, facilitation technologies (e.g. Open Space Technology), we dare to be a bit more provocative than in the past but honestly, does this really offer a lasting impact on a person and the organization?

We know from the research that we forget over 60% of the learned material on the second day after the delivery, the next two days 80% and 99% when not applying the new skill or knowledge. Most of the companies look for better products to make their customers’ life easier, more pleasant, happier and healthier sometimes. But WE (= Development Guides in a role of a coach, trainer, facilitator, HR or talent managers, people or wellbeing officers,  head or business partners etc.) should really keep in mind that this all requires a set of new methods – and equally important: the mindset!

Why do you want to work with unconventional methods?

I asked some of the customers we’ve been working with developing leaders worldwide and these are the answer

  • Curiosity: we always think the same way, with unconventional methods I can provoke and kind of step back and free up.
  • I rely on previous programs and still want to have a surprise moment and a balance between what’s new and then experiment,
  • Change, innovation, and digitalization make people think out of the box, we want this from the people, I want to walk the talk and have it inside of me,
  • I don’t want to offer standard trainings, I want a different setup and apply it in intercultural setting as well,
  • I want to have this experience during the training, reflect and ask myself and therefore become better and broader,
  • HR meetings, forums, and conferences are a good form to try something new,
  • I want to make internal HR community meetings unconventional,
  • I want to do something different, demanding a lot of self-responsibility, it must be connected to the purpose of the training – and I want an “aha moment” and curiosity that offers something to really remember!

We agreed that WHY we really want it, is to have an IMPACT that LASTS on a leader and the organization. While working internationally for the last 15 years in really different contexts, I created a Personal Learning Model I am applying to all the development program I am engaged which says:

International leadership development

This is really to underline that one learn and change only when something touches him or her – not my boss, nor HR but me.

What does this mean in practice?

Having this in mind what does it really mean now to offer the learning space for leadership programs? I asked myself and the group and the answer seems to be obvious:

– Leadership development programs should be a space
that offers the most opportunities to be touched –

Now, people differ, so you never know who will be in the program to say – well, John joins us at 11.15, so there will be something for you to transform, or Anna comes for the afternoon outdoor session as there will be „your” exercise. Thus, we need to create a space as a whole – virtual space, physical space and the connection before and after, so people can come with curiosity and willingness to contribute not only for themselves but also for the collective. And remember, that the fact that you take a group outside of the training room but keep talking does not mean that you will gain the lasting impact 😉 From this perspective for me personally, it emerged that leadership is:

– Co-creating and holding a space for people to be and to act
from their highest potential, every day –

When working with my teams on specific projects or delivering an individual or group space I am present there in a collaborative way, so the person I am working for will reach the highest potential and will know how to fire it up every day – and not just during the training.

The 10 rules of how to co-create a space for people to act from their highest potential

I know what’s on your mind now:

Sylwiaaaaaa, please share how to co-create and hold a space for people to be and to act from their highest potential, every day? Don’t worry, this is what I will do now as I put it in 10 rules.

1) 80% success is in preparation, 20% in execution.

Save 80% of the time for the preparation of the program, meeting or conference so you can offer different opportunities to be touched.

2) Co-creation is a key.

Engage different stakeholders to co-create the space and learning experience (this I show and name it instead of just a program). Don’t try to be the smartest one but use crowdsourcing. This is how self-responsibility for growing starts.

3) Set some rules for the learning process.

Change and deep learning only happen when people feel safe to be vulnerable. Make sure that people co-create the rules together and live them during the program.

4) The balance between experience, reflection, and talking.

Equality in a learning process is important – we can learn as well as the ones we design the programs for. Thus, you are not the only expert in the room but you offer the space for the experts to go through something meaningful by doing, reflecting and sharing. How many times were you touched by the story somebody shared? Make sure you have time for that.

5) Use the time for transformation at the event or training not only after.

In a VUCA world, I want to already transform during the program and not wait until I go back to work or home. Thus, I want to experiment here and now, so make sure people understand the intention and get ready for that!

6) Body-Mind-Heart connection.

Offer the experience that supports the connection of all three aspects of the humankind. Concentrating too much on the intellect only (what happens most) will not have a lasting impact. Include movement and emotions – that makes the change!

7) Create curiosity and intrigue the surrounding but not too wired.

Offering the space to be touched does not mean to come up with “too strange” exercises or exercises that, instead of putting you out of your comfort zone, will put you in a fear zone. If so – not much learning can be done! Keep it in mind.

8) Check your mindset first.

We want our people to be more innovative, agile and so on. The first question is: are we the ones who are innovative, agile etc.? How do you walk the talk? How do you grow yourself? You will not include new methods once you will not have your own internal believes that it works. What holds you back?

9) Simplicity versus seriousness

I know that something that sounds serious seems to be the smartest. But the question is if the person really understands it and if she/he can apply it later on?! I prefer to do less of the material but the one that can be applied instead of having an ego satisfied to deliver something sounding so good. You know what I mean, right?

10) Let’s have some FUN!

You’ve probably heard the quote <<work hard, play hard>>. Some say that Millennials made us act differently. I disagree as being around forty, working on complex challenges, being a mum of two young ones, working internationally and being married to a foreigner who is also working internationally. This requires a lot of creativity, agility, and FUN unless I want to stay healthy and strong in my life. The same refers to the leaders we offer our space too, isn’t it? How can you invite a sense of humor in the way you do things?

Last but not least: who can co-create and hold a space for people to be and to act from their highest potential every day?

The last thing – and I would admit that it is the most important one are the questions “who can co-create such space” and what kind of skills and mindset does it really requires?

From my experience, holding this transformative space is a big thing. You need to be very self-aware and mindful, so you feel and read what’s happening in the field. This requires not only a great body-mind-heart connection of your own but also the ability to confront the reality, show what is hidden, bring a shadow, witness the old passing and the new coming, set some rituals to celebrate it and work on the everyday habits to support it, depending on what the group purpose is. It is more the role of a facilitator or coach than an old-way thinking trainer or an expert. I call it leading in a leadership development journey.


Methods and formats that can inspire you:

  • Welcome rituals
  • Cards and pictures
  • Lego blocks
  • Art and painting
  • Music, including live music
  • Movement and dance
  • Body work
  • Laughing yoga
  • Visualization
  • Experiments
  • Challenges in public
  • Social responsible projects (CSR)
  • Self-designed reflection groups
  • Fuck up nights
  • Cabaret and show
  • Evening sessions
  • Concerts
  • No hotel rooms anymore but nice pensions, development centers, co-working spaces often used for start-ups
  • No power point presentations
  • No tables, circles
  • Transfer of learning – easy to use platforms for people to stay connected
International leadership development

Laughing yoga, challenges in public, bodywork & Co. are only a few methods that can inspire you

Believe me, the sky is no longer a limit, so is designing the development opportunities.

Happy to discuss this by email or virtually.

Have fun and lasting impact on the work you are doing to support leaders worldwide create a better world.

Sylwia Lewandowska-Akhvlediani

sylwia.lewandowska@mdi-training.com or sylwia@leadershipfestival.com

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Leadership development in South Africa – Insights from a trainer

Leadership development in South Africa – Insights from a trainer

South Africa – also called the rainbow nation – is famous for its beautiful beaches, an impressive wildlife, the warm hospitality of the people and much more. The country doesn’t have an easy past though. Uncertainty and intercultural conflicts are still noticeable. We talked to Gerard Le Sueur from South Africa, who is working as a trainer for almost 20 years about the current challenges, differences to Europe and the being a trainer in times of digitalization.

The current situation: a challenging environment and the Seta system


According to your opinion: What is currently the biggest challenge for organizations in South Africa?


Gerard: There are a few: the political uncertainty/turmoil, corruption and ethical issues involved in that, economic climate and uncertainty, including uncertain and changing economic policy, a political economic atmosphere that is unfriendly to business, navigating the volatile and the uncertain environment every day.


“Nice to have” or a strategic factor of success: How do you experience that South African organizations view (international) leadership development at the moment and how will that be in the future?


There are different levels or hierarchies. Multinational companies, like European ones will very often follow the global trend to focus on their core business and outsource product and service delivery. This delivery is mostly global and from one or few sources; one global delivery. The same is true in South Africa, where multinationals will drive delivery of leadership training from a single point, often outside of South Africa. Large South African organizations follow the trend in that they will follow the Leadership technology that is trending and they don’t fall far behind. Here these South African organizations will often use Business schools or very well-known consulting companies to delivery programs. The fact that in South Africa there is a system for delivering training that is acknowledged officially via Seta’s (points), which can collect towards an official qualification or access to university programmes, means that there is often collaboration with business schools or officially recognised Seta providers. Locally there is is also a tendency to developing leadership skills in levels, basic management (upskilling people who have little “technical” management experience), where one would say the leadership is not new or sexy, but as the leadership level and experience increases there is more strategic and personal process side of Leadership that is found, like you do globally.

Training designs in South Africa & “African leadership”


As we all know international leadership development is a lot about intercultural awareness and empathy. For a training professional doing a leadership program in South Africa: What would you as the expert recommend and are there important things he/she shall pay special attention to?


You are never an expert, just another person in the room. We are different and the same. Don’t pretend to be the same, when you aren’t and don’t be totally different (better or not from here). When you engage deeply in South Africa it stretches you. Concepts like VUCA are everyday real experiences, you need to be able to feel totally uncertain, listen deeply and say you are sorry without losing your center. A friend says, “It’s the choice between being right or happy.” In Africa, this choice will confront you!


People from many different cultures are living in South Africa and there are eleven official languages which are probably not always easy: Are there any typical challenges when it comes to the cultural differences of the participants of a leadership program and did it change a lot in the last couple of years?


In South Africa, there is a huge discussion going on about “what is African leadership?”  This comes from the colonial inheritance, which involves EVERYONE, even Europeans coming over to work in South Africa. So we need to be very open to questioning and discussing what works for South Africa. Even if you agree to come up with the same result, the discussion and questioning are important. Don’t bring your powerpoints and say this is how the world works.

There is a higher level of volatility and dissatisfaction, this between cultures. Meaning that the sensitivity and “aggression” is higher, but the energy generated by openness and warmth is also much higher. So never be afraid, unless you think you know better.

Design tips for your international leadership program

In South Africa, the rainbow nation, people from many different cultural backgrounds are living which is not always easy

People from Europe who don’t know South Africa may underestimate how developed South Africa actually is – in your opinion: are there any major differences between leadership development in South Africa and Europe for instance and if yes, can you tell us something about them?


We are talking about African leadership (maybe a more globally accepted form of leadership), inclusivity and equality on a very deep level. Europe is not really anywhere near the same depth of this discussion. The Status quo in Europe is very strong to the point that nobody really recognizes it, “They don’t see, that they don’t see what they don’t see”, whereas in Africa there is real disruption here. Chaos and lack of clarity too, but rigorous discussion and challenging.


Being a trainer in times of digitalization


What do you think of the following: In times of unstoppable digitalization – Are classroom trainings – which means face-to-face – still up-to-date or will they vanish soon? And why/why not? Can you think of any differences between Europe and South Africa?


The University of Stellenbosch Business school has been doing very advanced virtual classrooms for many years, including people who sit “in the room”. Running webinars, online (with presence via media tools) is very common and developing itself very professionally, using IT technology to engage and connect in very practical ways. Here I would say Europe is actually behind in some ways, partly because it’s closer and easier to bring people together, geographically and economically. This, however, does not take away the need for “presence” programs but drives the ingenuity required to deliver impactful programs that are a mix, holding the engagement over longer periods of times, using a variation of technology.


Let’s talk about international leadership trainings in general: what is the most important thing when working as a trainer on an international level and what are the typical challenges? Can you give us any tips?


An Old bushman told me, “You white people (meaning westerners) are really stupid. First, you dig/build the hole you want, then when you lie in it, you cry that it isn’t right and you need to change it. He said, “There’s nothing to change. Everything is exactly as it should be.”

I understand that it is a huge arrogance and disservice to humanity, to think we know what to do and what must change. Don’t go to a leadership training thinking you are going to “fix” something or somebody. Rather stay at home and plant some veggies, if that’s your attitude.


According to your opinion: What will be the biggest challenge for the training & development industry in the next 5 to 10 years?


Global roll-out, that suits the local requirements, including finding the right level of collaboration to make this work for both the central organization and the localized.

Our interview partner

Gerard Le Sueur is living close to Cape Town, South Africa and has more than 18 years of experience in Consulting and Organisational change development, including topics such as Agile Leadership development and development of teams. He loves to be a development guide because it is his way to stay in a relationship with the world. His personal preference regarding development fields? “Whatever moves me and pulls me towards it. I love coaching at present.”

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Leadership development Greece

Leadership development in Greece

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Leadership development in Greece

Leadership development in Greece

Interview with expert Sotiris Karagiannis


Sotiris Karagiannis is a trainer at MDI with more than 20 years training and consulting experience in Greece, wider Balkans, and the Czech Republic. We talked to him, amongst other things, about the current situation of leadership development in Greece, the differences to Austria and the typical challenges in international training.


According to your opinion: What is currently the biggest challenge for an organization in Greece?


Sotiris: Undoubtedly, the future gave the prolonged financial recession that has resulted in shrinking household incomes, ambiguity, and pessimism. Also, heavy taxation and the lack of external financing raises high barriers to any Greek company that wants to grow in this turbulent environment.


How do you experience that Greek organizations view (international) leadership development at the moment?


Currently, the emphasis is on training the front line staff, mainly salespeople. This is understood since companies are currently more concerned about getting sales than training other staff in soft skills.


What are the differences between development measures (e.g. digital learning and training) in Greece and, for example, in Austria or Germany?


The difference to Austria or Germany is that digital learning is lagging behind. One reason could be attributed to cultural differences between the South and the West. In the South, communication is preferred to be face-to-face –or in general terms physical – than digital. There are hybrid programs though but the demand is not as high as in Austria or Germany.


What is the most important skill and what does it take to be an international training and development guide and can you tell us something about typical challenges and give us some tips?


I think the typical challenge is how to deal with different cultures. Hence, preparing for a training and development program on an international level should include getting familiar with the culture you are about to meet. In any case, working internationally is a great experience since you expose yourself to different habits and traits and that widens your own perspectives. This is especially important for leadership training and development since each culture may have a different understanding of what leadership really is.


International leadership development is a lot about intercultural awareness and empathy. For a training professional doing a module of a leadership program in Greece: What would you as an expert recommend? To what shall he/she pay special attention and what is important? What are your tips for success in order that the training is really beneficial for everyone?


Greece is a culture with still a high level of power distance and intolerance of ambiguity. People tend to follow their superiors’ orders or advice and there is little emphasis on assuming personal responsibility and taking initiative. Especially today, most employees ‘play it on the safe side’ and don’t take risks since the possibility of failure may have a serious impact on their future.

However, this must not be taken as characteristic of every Greek employee or company. It is wrong to generalize, so for a trainer knowing the culture of the company they would offer their services is absolutely necessary even at the development stage of a program, not to mention the delivery. Also, for a leadership program to be really successful, those who will attend it should have a very high level of awareness of where they personally are as leaders, before they lead others.


What do you think of the following: In times of unstoppable digitalisation – Are classroom trainings – which means face-to-face – still up-to-date or will they vanish soon?


I don’t think that it is possible to train people in soft skills by means of a digital program. It may be that the younger generations process information in a different way from the older ones but I cannot see how a digital training and development program can provide a high level of interaction as a face-to-face. I would see digitalization more as a great supplement to a soft skills training.


According to your opinion: What will be the biggest challenge for the training and development industry in the next 5 to 10 years?


There seems to be a need to boost people’s engagement levels more and to provide a working environment that promotes well-being and happiness. Also, raising the levels of the challenge at work is another necessary enrichment to ensure that people do what really excites them and they do not get bored. We have been talking a lot about fighting burn-out but boredom is another serious symptom we need to fight against if we want people to feel engaged and see a purpose in what they are doing

Sotiris MDI trainer Greece
Interview partner

MDI trainer Sotiris Karagiannis has more than 20 years of training and consulting experience in Greece, wider Balkans, and the Czech Republic. Among others, one of his core competencies is leadership and organizational behavior. His personal passion is leadership, change and the pursuit of happiness. Originally from Greece, he currently lives in Prague, where he works as a trainer.

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International leadership development with Mondi

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This fall, Mondi will launch its new global leadership training program. The program will focus on intercultural leadership and the preparation of leaders for international challenges. We talked to the head of The Mondi Academy, Birgit Höttl, and our MDI Training & Development Consultant, Helena Gutierrez about the program.

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Mondi’s Global Leadership Training Program (Customer story)

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Mondi’s new global leadership training program will be launched in the fall of 2017. The program will focus on intercultural leadership and the preparation of leaders for international challenges. We talked about the program with Birgit Höttl, head of The Mondi Academy and Helena Gutierrez, MDI Training & Development consultant. They explained the benefits for the company, the complexity of the topic and gave some tips for the successful transfer of intercultural content.


What were the main reasons for the development of the Global Leadership Program?


Birgit Höttl: As a globally operating company we often send out our managers to other countries, for example as part of the integration of new plants. It is important that managers who come to a new country have a sense of what intercultural leadership means and what risks are involved. With our new training we want to create awareness for cultural differences and show the participants what they have to keep in mind when they come to a new culture, one which is maybe completely different than the own one – especially when it is about leadership. An integration phase is already a stressful time. If a leader doesn’t have a feel for the new culture, particularly during such a stressful time, many things can go wrong – such as loss of time, friction loss and in the end can lead to something like financial loss.


So does it mean that the program is a preventive measure?


Birgit Höttl: Yes, prevention is one focus of the program. We want to help our managers to better understand others cultures and their ways of working. We want to support the global mind-set of our managers in general. Mondi is globally operating and we all work in a world that is growing together. This is why we want leaders with a broader view and who have intercultural sensitivity. In relation to their leadership mind-set they should have a holistic approach to leadership and think globally.  “Think global, act local” is a good example of explaining it.


Intercultural competence is an important skill at Mondi and at the same time the core of the new program. What makes a manager at Mondi culturally competent?


I think that it is important to get some information about the foreign country in the first place and to compare your own values with the values from the foreign culture. This makes someone cultural competent. Another thing is to recognize and reflect your own learning fields. This gives you the chance to work on them and enables you to meet your own expectations as well as the expectations of the company and your future employees.  Self-reflection is therefore something that is important in a culturally competent leadership.


Does this mean that cultural competence is more a mind-set than a toolbox?


Not only – I think that it definitely starts with a mind-set because you have to be open for the new culture and start to compare their values with your own. It is important to show openness for new cultures, perhaps as well a healthy curiosity for how things work in the foreign culture and what you can learn from the people there. An open mind-set is not enough. You need a toolbox you can go back to as well, tools that help you to apply and implement things. The right mixture of mind-set and toolbox is therefore important for cultural competence.



Intercultural competence can be a sensitive topic in terms of stereotypes. How do you avoid clichés?


I think that in training like this – you may not necessarily use stereotypes – but you must emphasize certain things. However it should not remain on this level – it is important to provide the participants with practical examples such as exercises to get them out of their comfort zone as well as personal experience reports from participants. This creates a truly practical work environment. In the pilot training, employees from many different cultures were involved as well as managers who already gained international experiences as expats. This was a very valuable and important contribution that made the training work and implementable without sticking to stereotypes.


Keyword comfort zone: the new program should get the participants out of their comfort zone to develop new skills. How does this work exactly? 


You need practical exercises to get out of your comfort zone. I can especially remember the exercises which had insecurity as their basic motive. The good thing about such exercises is that you get out of your comfort zone relatively fast because you do not know what is going on and how to react. No basic rules were made in the beginning – the participants were thrown into the deep end. This reflects very well what can happen when you are not informed about the habits and values of the new culture. Exercises like this demonstrate how misleading and dangerous it can be to go unprepared into such situations.

International leadership development

Exercises which have insecurity as their basic motive get you out of your comfort zone very quick – which is a very good learning effect

How did the participants like the pilot training?


They liked it very much! They particularly enjoyed the exchange of information with other participants who have already gained international experience. But of course – and that is the reason why we have a pilot training – there are some things we have to refine a little bit. Perhaps we must even add more of those “uncomfortable” exercises to the training – our employees like hands-on exercises such as the ones we had in our training. All in all the feedback was very positive. One sales director liked it even so much that he is now offering the training to his team – apart from the training we offer.


What would have been different without the pilot group?


This is hard to say because we always have a training with a pilot group before the complete roll-out. The participants of the pilot training are people with a lot of experience. In this way we are able to get really good, critical and constructive feedback.


Is this a measure you would recommend?


Yes, definitely. The training can be designed by a professional training provider and can be in line with the shareholder’s expectations: the practical implementation will always differ from the actual plan. This is why I would always make a test run first – it simply enables quality assurance.


What has to be done until the launch in September?


We will advertise and change and adapt certain things – based on the feedback from the pilot group. Afterwards we can start with the international roll-out.


In the end a look into the future: what must happen that Mondi considers the program as successful?


Well, it is successful when the participants recommend this program to their colleagues afterwards – positive word-of-mouth is always a sign of success.

We asked our consultant

Helena Gutierrez is MDI Training and Development Consultant for Mondi’s program. We asked her some questions as well.


From a training provider’s point of view: What was the most challenging task in designing this new Global Leadership Training Program?


The most challenging thing was to come up with the right learning transfer strategy, mostly because the employees of Mondi are very well equipped with a lot of soft skills and a lot of training in their pockets. We wanted something that would not only take them out of their comfort zone but also offer them a deeper look into culture and to show them what it really takes to be an outstanding leader in the global environment. It was not an easy task but because we are not dealing with ‘rookies’, success was achieved.


How did it work out? Would you say that there is a key to really developing and strengthening such skill as “intercultural competence”?


I think it worked out really well plus the feedback was clearly fantastic. The key: Mondi’s got it!  People at Mondi are willing to get out of their comfort zone, they are open for challenges and growth. That is the success factor: Mondi goes the extra mile. They act with global understanding and they want to learn from best practices. That’s one key success factor why this training is so successful.

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