Case Studies

Senior leaders: transforming them from doing to leading

Julia Bailey, HR Lead in Australia and New Zealand for global agri-business firm Monsanto, talks to Alistair Gordon about the challenges and successes she has experienced working with her country leadership team.

HFL: You joined Monsanto in early 2013 as a member of the country leadership team in ANZ. How were the senior team operating at that time?
JB: I spent the first few months talking to each individual and observing how they were operating as leaders and as team members. The company is a fast-moving, innovative and scientific, so the senior leadership team is populated by very bright people with enhanced technical skills. These leaders were super busy because they were doing all of the work, making all the decisions at every level, and being supported by administrators.
HFL: From our perspective, this is relatively typical. The hardest part is figuring out where to begin. Where did you decide to start work with this team?
JB: There were lots of choices, but we agreed to start with succession planning. This was something that everyone on the team could see the value of. If we were going to elevate the senior leaders from the detailed doing and into strategic matters, we had to develop a cohort below them that could effectively ‘do the doing’.
The first piece we did with the senior leaders was a diagnostic, using the global 180-degree GPI survey, and behavioural based interviews. We wanted to understand what the group and individual strengths were, and where the development areas sat. HFL helped us map the results back to the Monsanto competency framework.
HFL: Senior leaders tend to get a bit anxious about assessments. How did you handle that aspect?
JB: Everyone here is very focused on performance. The senior team understood that getting feedback on critical thinking, influencing skills, developing people and teams, inspiring great performance, and modelling the Monsanto Pledge was important.
The feedback was extremely important. The individual reports they received were very detailed and the feedback sessions, which were handled externally by HFL, were comprehensive. Many of these leaders said to me that it was the first external feedback from an organisational psychologist they had ever received, and the vast majority of participants really liked that. They said they felt they were being strongly invested in.
We made sure that both the communications and the reality for this was that the assessment was for development purposes, not anything else.

HFL: What did the data show you?
JB: The aggregated results showed a very common area: developing people in teams and inspiring others. This wasn’t a complete surprise: like many technical organisations, we had had a history of promoting functional specialists into people leadership positions and the gaps showed.
HFL: At HFL we always argue that there is no point doing assessment unless there is a real development that follows. What did you execute?
JB: We used the data to inform a range of workshops that were rolled out for this group and those below them. The workshops focused on the performance cycle, and the various conversations – performance, development, inspiration – that our leaders needed to have regularly with their teams. Our leaders were charged with making sure development needs conversations were had, and development plans were produced for everyone. Everyone in Monsanto ANZ now has those plans.
HFL: So, one year on, what changes have there been?
JB: We decided early on that we would re-run the leadership 180 survey after 12 months as one measure, and look at the work and team dynamics as a second more subjective measure.

The survey results were very satisfying for the senior team (and me!). Every leadership person in the team increased their scores in every dimension, and the aggregated responses all record jumps of between .3 and .45.
On a more subjective level, we could see that most senior leaders stopped and thought about the impact their behaviours were having on those in their team. We’ve seen a real rise in their self awareness, and this has translated into everyone using the tools we provided in training to communicate more effectively, be more inclusive and so on. We have several case studies where leaders have transformed from highly directive styles to collaborative and development focused.

HFL: Next steps?
JB: We are continuing with the development. We feel we now have a solid structure in place with good processes, good conversations being had and so on. The next step is to develop higher order skills in the leadership team, including compassion and valuing behaviours, building trust etc. We are asking: how can we take it to the next level?
HFL: Please share some of your key learnings.
JB: Getting the buy-in from the senior leaders is the hardest bit, and making sure the CEO is on board is obviously critical. As an outsider coming in, it was helpful that I could compare the workings of this leadership team with others I have worked with. It was about pointing out that they were doing lots of work that was below their pay grade, and not doing some that they were being paid to do - ie the strategic stuff.
Once we got the diagnostic agreed to, communication around the purpose and very carefully managing the feedback process was critically important. This is one of the things I have learned to really trust HFL with. The consultants I worked with, Jennifer and Kat, truly partnered with me on this piece which were immensely helpful.
When it comes to development, I’ve learned that it is best delivered ‘just in time’. Senior leaders were very prepared to come to a session about performance reviews when they knew they were about to have one, and the same could be said for development planning discussions. They could see it was direct support and relevant.
Finally, the re-measure was important, not only because it showed us the progress they had made, but it also showed them that the efforts they had put in were worthwhile and having an impact on the engagement and motivation of their teams.

HFL: Thank you so much for your insights, and sharing your journey.

Julia Bailey is the HR Lead for Australia and New Zealand for Monsanto. Monsanto is a global agri-business firm. Based in St Louis, it has 22,000 employees worldwide and revenue of US$15 billion. HFL has been a leadership development supplier to the business since 2013 in the Asia Pac region.


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