Q&A: Mandy Chooi We’re excited to be working with Mandy Chooi, a world-class expert in leadership development, to help put authentic and purposeful leadership at the heart of mission-driven businesses.
Mandy Chooi has spent over 20 years in global leadership roles, most recently as ING’s Global Head of Strategy & Innovation for People, where she helped the bank pivot to an agile, innovative and digital culture.
As a leadership coach and consultant, Mandy has partnered with Fortune 500 companies, including technology, professional services, manufacturing, banking and FMCG firms, to help their top leaders dare to be authentic, drive transformational change, build capability and bring out the best in their teams.
Purpose caught up with Mandy to talk about how leaders can overcome the barriers to embedding a truly inspiring and transformative purpose in their businesses.
Q. Why do leaders sometimes struggle to make purpose work?
It’s very common to get stuck in the “know/do gap”. This happens when an organisation knows why purpose is important, but somehow can’t make it take root.
It’s all about context and opportunity. As a business, your purpose has to live in soil where it can grow. This means building an environment where people genuinely have opportunities to make decisions based on purpose: where your purpose affects whether you choose strategy A or strategy B, and whether you invest in X or Y. If your purpose isn’t part of that day-to-day decision-making, it’s not a real purpose.
The “know/do gap” affects individuals in the same way. You can learn something, but unless you have the capability, motivation and, most of all, the opportunity to apply it, you’re not going to change your behaviour.
Q. How do you help people overcome that “know/do gap”?
You really have to look closely at the systemic context. Are you building a work environment where people are encouraged to live and act according to the purpose? Are they being allowed the space to ask tough questions, to create healthy conflict?
Because if you put a changed person into an unchanged context, nothing will change.
Leadership is about setting the context and being the role model for what you want to see in others. The more the top leadership walks the talk, the more quickly the whole organisation starts to pull in the same direction. Leaders’ behaviour is a large part of the culture recipe.
Q. How do you create those opportunities for real change?
It’s a tough nut to crack — people are often reluctant to try new things, either because it’s uncomfortable, risky, or because they’re not already good at them.
Organisations need to create not only the right space and environment, but also the pressure to experiment. As part of the leadership development process, I try to push people to create behavioural experiments over the course of several weeks. It’s especially effective if they then invite people to observe that new behaviour and feed back (and there are some great digital tools for that).
Q. How did you develop purpose-driven leadership at ING?
At ING, we gave all of our leaders the opportunity to discover their personal purpose and create a life plan — a holistic, integrated plan that goes beyond work. Because if you want people to bring their whole selves to work, you in turn need to respect and support their whole lives, including all of their interests. Companies must start to embrace this — don’t just look at someone’s current role, help them develop holistically as a person.
Q. What do these life plans look like?
If you were to live your purpose for the next five years, what would that look like? Who would support you? What do you want to do more of, what do you want to do less of? What are the milestones in the years in between? That’s what the plan captures.
We’ve taken over 7000 people through a weeklong, offsite programme to develop their purpose and plan. And after that, we continue to support them with living that plan. The plan doesn’t just gather dust, we go back to it every couple of months, interspersing support, coaching, and establishing the expectation to revisit it within their own teams regularly, to keep it going.
Q. Do you ever encounter any resistance during this process?
Not in general. Although, there have been the small handful who struggle with the concept. If you’ve spent a long and successful career totally compartmentalising your life and your work, it can be a struggle to think and plan in terms of a single holistic purpose. And of course, since it’s an immersive, introspective process that you share with other people — this means that you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and trust people.
Q. How do you achieve this?
The environment and setting design helps us get over any initial reluctance. For the first hour or two you sense some hesitation in a few people, but very quickly, people drop their guard and feel safe.
The key is really to design learning experiences that are experiential. People have to really feel it.
The experience takes people from “realise”, to “confront”, to “reframe”, to “commit”. If you confront people with their own assumptions and beliefs, you can cause a real paradigm shift in which people commit to doing things differently. But people have to feel that shift, they have to feel that reframing.
All of these needs to be carefully nurtured and reinforced by putting the right practices and systems in place. In other words, how people work, make decisions, collaborate, receive recognition, etc. must all be tailored afresh to nudge and strengthen this new purpose-led way of being.
Q. Let’s take a step back — what do leaders actually gain by focusing on purpose?
It’s three things really. First, today’s leaders are constantly being expected to make difficult decisions with very little data. When you’re confronted with unprecedented dilemmas in a fast-changing environment, purpose gives you that rudder and North Star.
Second, purpose de-clutters. It stops a changing business from drowning in new initiatives. A clearly articulated purpose helps you choose what you do, what you do first, and what you don’t do at all.
Third — to stay ahead these days, you need to constantly innovate. And to do that, you need to ask your people to create magic every day. You’re asking them to bring their whole self, their ideas and their passions to you. They simply won’t be prepared to do this until you foster a sense of excitement around a shared and aligned purpose.
I always believed that a good leader knows that who you are (and how you show up) is more important than what you know or can do. Especially in situations of increasing complexity and uncertainty, people need to know that they are following someone who is guided by a good purpose, one that feels aligned to their personal values.
Q. Just to wrap up — I know that everyone at The House is very excited about working with you. What are your hopes for the partnership?
When I met Steve at the THNK School of Creative Leadership and learned about The House, I immediately sensed that there was a natural partnership here.
The House has great expertise and capability in terms of thinking through a purpose-driven leadership development approach and communicating and embedding it into a company in a creative, immersive way. What I bring is the experience and ability to identify and drive the real business changes that come with that — helping organisations figure out the next steps towards building skills in their leaders and helping other parts of the company create the right context and systems change to support a purpose-led transformation. I’m looking forward to it.