Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme
Gold Fields Full Case Study
I first came across the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme about six years ago. I had previously completed some US-based leadership courses while working for US companies, and thought it was about time I looked at what was available in the UK, to see whether there was a cultural difference to leadership. Oxford seemed a good place to start.
To be honest, when I selected the OSLP I had no idea what to expect; and when I got there it was like nothing I had ever done before. But I found the whole experience so powerful that as soon as I got back to Australia I wanted to send my entire management team on the same programme. I will have achieved this goal in 2017 but it has taken around six years to complete the process.
Three sessions in the programme really stood out for me: the introduction to Nudge Theory; Richard Olivier’s session on Henry V and leadership; and conducting the choir.
I am not musically inclined, and did not feel at all comfortable doing the exercise. But now I go to orchestral concerts just to observe the conductor. It is such a good metaphor for leadership: an orchestra consists of a group of individuals, all experts but all playing different instruments. The job of the conductor is to pull them all together so that they work in harmony in order to produce a beautiful sound. There is no real difference with a large organisation, the challenge is how to get the individuals harmonising for the good of all.
I was amazed by the way that Peter Hanke [Leadership and Performance session] could understand a person just as soon as they moved their hands. For example, I am fairly quiet, an introverted person, though a fairly effective manager and leader. Almost as soon as I got up to do the exercise, Peter observed how unusual it was for an introvert to be the first to volunteer to do the conducting.
As one of my managers said after he had been on the programme, it helps you to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.
As well as all my direct reports, we extended the opportunity to experience OSLP to the general manager level. This was probably an unusual move because the programme is focused on the individual, but my feeling was that if everyone gained this individual experience it would help collaboration and strengthen the team overall. If you feel comfortable with yourself as an individual leader, you can feel comfortable in the team – just as in the orchestra, where you put personalities aside and concentrate on making your own contribution to the team.
Each member of the team probably got something different out of the programme – but I noticed a change in every one, and they have all started doing something differently too. One manager in particular had not been on a senior leadership course before this one. He was managing a very difficult project and was coping with a number of challenges. Having experienced the programme he is now one of our outstanding leaders.
The OSLP may not be for everyone or for every organisation. To benefit as an individual you need intellectual curiosity and enjoy being challenged. The organisation needs to be one that values collaboration and a combination of diverse people and skills.
Personally, I’m still gaining from the programme, even after six years. It challenged concepts of leadership in ways I hadn’t thought of before. It revealed my areas of weakness and helped me understand my strengths; and gave me an insight into where I should be as an individual.
The Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme is completely different from any course I’ve ever been on before. I got so much out of it in terms of management style, clarity of thought, and how to be a better leader. It really helps you understand how to engage with people and how to influence them in different ways – it is more about bringing out your own natural leadership style than being taught how to be a leader.
I was surprised by the psychological insights and also by the tutorials, which were so important and meant that every person on OSLP got a very personalised experience. Everyone got that ‘lightbulb’ moment too – you could actually see in the tutor group when someone got it. It happened for me on the Tuesday: there were a couple of sessions in a row that took me right back to that moment when I realise I made the decision to be a leader at nine and a half years of age. The programme really helped me understand how certain events had an impact on me. It also forced me to think about legacy – what do I want to leave behind? It is an interesting slant just as I am about to go into a senior leadership position but really valuable in making me think about how I want to tackle that role.
The tutors were very good at going beneath the surface and teasing out what people were really worried about. It was useful too to get insight from other members of the tutorial group, who could often see things more clearly than the person immersed in the problem.
I found Peter Hanke’s conducting session fantastic. I didn’t know anything about conducting but when I stood up there I really felt the connection between me and the musicians – and I also felt exactly when I started losing them!
Nothing can prepare you for the Oxford style.
It’s fun. It forces you to confront things that perhaps you have not thought about or have consciously avoided thinking about. But it does give you a sense of comfort along the way. It’s especially confidence-building to know that the people you meet are advising governments and senior leaders all over the world.
It is also powerful to realise that the programme is not targeted at one type of individual or slice of management. You meet people from different industries and sectors, including the public sector, NGOs, and politicians, and find that they have the same problems, dilemmas, and anxieties as you.
The programme is inspirational. It inspires you to make changes. Sometimes it might be only a small change but it can have a big impact, or just be a weight off your shoulder. It wasn’t just me: there was someone in my group who over the course of the week went from being someone you’d actually be quite concerned about to being someone phenomenally strong. They had obviously undervalued themselves but had been given enormous confidence.
And at Gold Fields the people we have sent on the programme have almost all come back noticeably better leaders, but not all in the same way. One might be more decisive; one might be a better listener. We weren’t necessarily bad before, but we are now much better and managing ourselves and people with confidence. One very inexperienced person we sent is now I would say an absolute star manager and number one leader. That change took place all in that one week.
There are uncomfortable moments. But I’ve always been quite willing to give a bit about my life and talk about mistakes I’ve made – and the programme reinforced that such openness could be very powerful. I think we’re all less scared of having difficult conversations and willing to accept trust, responsibility and accountability.
It is always fantastic when a company sends its entire leadership team on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme. They tell us that the fact that they share a language, models, and an approach makes them much more effective.
We are careful never to accept more than three individuals from the same company on any one programme. If we do have two or three we always ensure that they are never in the same group, as so much of the programme depends on their being able to step away from their day-to-day experiences and identities and to learn from participants from other sectors and cultures. But OSLP is still a powerful shared leadership experience, even over a number of years. It can shift an organisation’s leadership culture and practice in a profound way – almost without anyone realising it.
Richard Weston did it consciously with Gold Fields, sending first his direct reports and then the rest of the management team. This enabled us as tutors and faculty really to learn about the company, its challenges, and the context in which it is operating. Over time we were able to go into even more depth with the tutorials and create a truly bespoke experience.
What the OSLP does, and why it is effective, is give individuals ‘permission’ to be their whole selves.
People find it revelatory: it gives them encouragement and validation as well as language and models. For us, meeting new members of the Gold Fields leadership team on each programme meant that we were discovering them afresh every time, which was an enormously positive experience. They have a culture of decency and integrity that just shines through. Not only did they gain from the programme as individuals but they made important contributions to other leaders and to the learning of the participant group as a whole.
Richard Weston - Previous Executive Vice President, Gold Fields
Stuart Mathews - Executive Vice President, Gold Fields
Tracey Camilleri, Programme Director, Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme