Stop making monkeys out of young leaders

Times are tough for young leaders: their role models in business have failed them; the ideas they were taught have been undermined; and the companies they looked up to have disappeared.

If you are a young leader in an organisation then I dedicate today's column to you. If though, like me, you're a veteran, then only read on if you can stomach self-examination. Times are tough for young leaders: their role models in business have failed them; the ideas they were taught have been undermined; and the companies they looked up to have disappeared. They witness greed oozing out of senior bankers, financiers, even gold merchants. Uncertainty fogging the property sector has left a bad smell lingering over the carcasses of once proud developers. Questions of corporate governance cloud the financial services industry and the neutrality of audit firms is being scrutinised.

Many of the business ideas that a young leader may have learnt over the past few years are now up for grabs. Does the customer always come first, or employees? Is shareholder value the totem to stand under or are there wider responsibilities to society? Will things go back to normal, whatever that means, so that it will be a case of more of the same, but at a slightly slower pace? Do ethics have a serious place in the boardroom and not just in flowery corporate social responsibility brochures?

Even the companies trumpeted as success stories by distinguished academics that young leaders studied turn out to be little more than train wrecks in the annals of corporate history. There are many examples, but let's take just one: in 2006 the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at the Northwestern University in the US issued a case study on the Washington Mutual (WaMu) bank, an organisation established in 1889. The rose-tinted case study reported how WaMu successfully re-positioned itself as the "Wal-Mart of banking" in the US and how it grew aggressively through acquisitions.

But guess what? By September 2008 WaMu became the largest banking failure in US financial history, triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis. To make matters worse, when young leaders enter the corporate citadel they bathe in the murky waters of corporate culture. Powerful, opinionated "godfathers" patrol the corridors and act as unappointed gatekeepers to people and process. Young managers must "serve-time", undergo rituals to gain recognition, be told what works, be indoctrinated with control structures, fed paradigms and subjected to symbols to which they must pay homage.

With such immense forces weighing down on young leaders, many of them have thrown in the towel and moved into the placid waters of the government or semi-government sector. And who would blame them? But as Adam Kingl, the director of the emerging leaders programme at the London Business School, and who was in the UAE recently, stresses: "We urge our participants to think about the levers of culture: why people think the way they do; what are their mindsets and environment?

"Young managers will often look to the top to emulate their leaders, but the next generation of leaders would do better to look at themselves in order to create the leadership culture that is fit for purpose in the 21st century." Defining the right leadership culture is one of the challenges for today's young executives. But it's not as simple as out with the old and in with the new. In my first role upon joining a corporation with more than 120,000 employees, I was fortunate to be taken under the wing by a veteran in the department. He must have felt a pang of sympathy at the sight of a green-behind-the-ears management trainee.

His introduction to the lay of the land or "how we do things around here, sonny" was an extremely useful lesson in finding the way through the machinery of the organisation. His mentoring and tutoring, alongside encouragement for me to challenge orthodoxy helped me get on and up. But my experience is, unfortunately, not common. Young leaders' wings are often clipped, so stifling creativity. The programme that Mr Kingl runs helps "young managers develop greater self-awareness, sharpen their decision making ability and create a more results-focused outlook", he says.

Mr Kingl's remarks remind me of the famous "monkey in the cage" experiment, in which bananas were placed at the top of a cage with five monkeys in it. The most adventurous primate rushed up the conveniently placed ladder to reach the fruit. Just before reaching the bananas the monkey was violently hosed down with ice cold water. The other four were also sprayed with the ice cold water. It was the same again when a second monkey went for the bananas. Soon enough the five of them got the message and sat forlornly looking at the bananas from the cage floor.

One monkey was replaced by a new one, who immediately made a dash towards the bananas, only to have the four original monkeys beat him up and prevent him from climbing the ladder. Over time, all of the original monkeys were replaced with new ones and each time a new one went for the fruit the others pulled him back. By the end of the experiment none of the new monkeys had been sprayed with ice cold water, but they still didn't attempt to take the fruit. By now the monkeys had learnt that was just "the way things were done around here".

Young leaders today have a great opportunity to break with many of the unhealthy and deeply damaging aspects of corporate culture that have built up over the past few decades. This opportunity may not present itself for another generation. I guess they are just looking for the assurance that the grizzled guy with the ice-cold water hose is no longer there - can we assure them? Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai