THE challenge for managers of motivating their teams to be creative, productive work units comes into focus on Thursday when author and management consultant Maxine Attong hosts her second annual leadership conference.
Titled Lead Your Team To Win: The Power of Collaborative Leadership, the event is a continuation and expansion of a conversation she started in 2017 with corporate leaders about maximising the potential of their staff and about leadership in a Caribbean context more generally.
This year, she shines the spotlight on collaborative leadership which she defines as the way in which leaders invite and support their team members “to bring their creativity and intelligence so that collectively they can improve efficiency, productivity, and achieve the strategic objectives of their companies.”
Born in Guayaguayare, Attong began her career as an accountant more than two decades ago and has held managerial positions in several regional and international organisations in the insurance and energy sectors. She is a certified professional facilitator, coach and expert in organisational development.
Attong has run a private consulting practice since 2000. She says over the years she observed with concern how people were “losing their intelligence” in the workplace.
“I’ve seen women dumbing down, which is a pet peeve … and I’ve seen it with men as well where they debate less, where they begin as adults to shrug when situations come up,” she explains. “People who at home [can] make decisions and manage budgets, when they come through the door in the office become almost like drones.”
One barrier to creativity in the workplace, Attong feels, is the belief that it is only for artists or artisans. But, she points out, “There’s a lot of room for creativity in how we present projects, how we treat with customers, how we develop our processes in a way that they’re efficient.”
She continues: “One of the quotes I like is, ‘Creativity is intelligence having fun,’ but we don’t often think of it like that.” It’s not about drawing or colouring, she adds, but “how we do work that maintains the fun and humanity in work.”
The solution Attong proffers for these challenges is the use of a “safe space”, a powerful tool in the kit of a collaborative leader and something she explores at length in her 2014 book Lead Your Team To Win.
Safe spaces originally grew out of sensitivity training for corporate managers devised in the 1940s by American psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin delivered the course in a group setting and participants were able to give honest feedback and challenge others without being judged thereby making the environment “psychologically safe”.
As Lewin’s concept gained in popularity, it was adopted by feminist and gay liberation groups in the 1960s and in more recent years has been mired in controversy, for its use in universities across the US.
Attong used the safe space approach during her tenure as assistant vice president of corporate planning and implementation at Guardian General Insurance from 2012-2015.
A self-confessed recovering workaholic, she did a lot of introspection and made a deliberate decision to “co-create and co-vision” with her team members.
“It was not utopia,” she says, explaining she had to be vulnerable and supportive for her staff to mirror that.
Her team members also hit back at her because they thought she was abdicating her leadership role.
She states: “If I say to you bring your creativity and intelligence to the office, it means then as a leader I am not delegating, I’m no longer telling you what to do. I’m telling you, ‘You tell me what you think we could do and we will work together to make it happen.’ So, there was an immediate push back with that.”
Attong’s team members began to accept the new culture only when they saw that she championed their ideas and their projects became successful.
Today she is convinced it was one of the best moments of her managerial career.
“I’m very proud I made that decision and stuck with it because it made a difference for how I had to show up as a leader and it made a difference for the lives of the people who worked with me,” she shares.
Attong will talk more about safe spaces at the leadership seminar which she will co-facilitate with Dalia Joseph and Nigel Romano. She will also present new research about collaborative leadership which she recently undertook with a diverse group of leaders.
Attong is eager to start work on her third book later this year on a topic that is yet to be decided. Then, come the end of September, she will focus on her other passion – coaching women through her eight-week programme Call To Creativity.
Outlining her hopes for the seminar, Attong says: “I believe conversation changes things. I strongly believe in the power of relationships and relationships happen and thrive when we have conversations. Using that as a backdrop, let us continue this conversation about leadership so we all get new ideas and permission to try new ideas with the teams we lead and continue building a construct of what leadership is like in the Caribbean.”
Lead Your Team to Win: The Power of Collaborative Leadership takes place at the Kapok Hotel, Maraval.
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