This was my second conference, the first had gone very well and the teams were getting used to my leadership style and we were starting to create the culture that I was looking for.
As we were a new department, and we were driving a significant transformation there was quite a bit of friction between the team and our strategic partners, as well as with a few other department because of the change in service model which not everyone was happy with.
I was also a part of the problem myself, because as the leader, I felt it was my obligation to defend my team whenever someone attacked them, and it was something I did often as we were attacked often.
The theme for the conference was Collaboration, we had started to improve our performance achieving new levels, but it was clear to me that we could do even better, but to do so we needed to focus more on teamwork, sharing of best practices and creating synergies within the department but also with our partners, and other departments.
The time for fighting was over, we needed to rise above that, and work with everyone, even our critics so that we could provide the best performance that we could give.
We had a great program, with lots of interactive sessions, and some great teambuilding events. But the problem is a great agenda is never a guarantee of success.
As I arrived at the conference I was chatting with my coach, and we agreed that in order for the conference to really achieve the changes we were looking for I was going to have to be the change I wanted to see.
When I entered the conference room I saw Ricardo who was leading our Latin American Services and as he came over he gave me a hug, which I reciprocated to.
Then it occurred to me, that I was going to hug everyone of my team including the partners. When you’ve hugged someone, and meant it, you have moved the relationship to a different level, even we’ve broken down another barrier.
Now as I was based in Germany, and the majority of the attendees were German, around 55%, hugging was not something that was that common in the working environment we had. So it would be an action that would take people by surprise, it would be change in behaviour, one that would be clear for everyone to see.
So after hugging Ricardo, I went on to hug everyone who that I met, including my German colleagues, one or two of them who asked why I was doing it because it was not common in Germany for people to hug, and especially not a boss hugging his people.
I said because the time for fighting is over, and now it’s time for improved collaboration, and its difficult to fight someone who is hugging you.
People responded well to this, it created a bit of buzz and definitely a talking point, and I noticed that other people started to hug each other too.
It was becoming a little contagious.
As part of my opening keynote speech I decided that I would include hugging as one of my strategic objectives, I was not going to fight with anyone, and I didn’t want anyone else to either. Whenever someone tried to start a fight me, I was not going to defend myself, I was going to hug them. Show them that I cared about them, and that I wanted to help them.
Over the course of the conference, the theme of Collaboration was replaced by a new theme that of Hugging.
At every interaction I hugged people, it became expected, it became wanted, and I never turned down the opportunity for a hug.
On the second day of the conference, I was on the agenda straight after lunch, and the topic was my vision of our organisation going forward.
As I stood up to speak I was asked to stop, as the team wanted to play a piece of music for me, which they felt strongly epitomised me, and my leadership style.
I said ok, and as I stood there waiting I wondered what on earth this piece of music was going to be. The atmosphere was electric, I could see on the smiling faces of the team that they were really looking forward to surprising me.
Then the music started, at first I didn’t recognise it had quite long intro, and my music knowledge isn’t that great. As the lyrics started, everyone joined in, which was great but didn’t help me figure out the song, then they all song the title line, which made it clear.
It was ‘Can you feel the love tonight’ from the Lion King.
As they all sang it, I can tell you I had a lump in my throat, without doubt, the best feedback I have ever received from a team that I had led.
I thought they would just sing the start and we would move on, but they sang the whole song, they had their lighters out, or the lighter app on their i-devices, and were holding hands and swaying as they sang.
I couldn’t believe the feedback, it was incredible, it was electric and it also showed me that cultural changes really do start at the top, and can happen very quickly if we are passionate and have an open heart.
The rest of the conference was a huge success, and when I was due to give my closing speech on the last day, I said I was honoured and proud to be part of this team, and that I had a speech prepared, but given what had happened I was going to skip it and close the conference with a piece of music, and I would like it if everyone could just hug the person next to them. Once we have hugged we are well on the road to increasing collaboration.
We actually had the music playing for 15-20 minutes as everyone went round and hugged everyone else, they were not content to just hug the person next to them.
My coach, Julie Starr, who had facilitated the conference was surprised, impressed and dumbfounded as to what had just happened, what she had just witnessed.
She said without having seen it, she would never have believed it.
About three days after the conference she contacted me, she said that she had been telling everyone about the conference, and he had been trying to find an explanation as to what had happened, how had we made that transition in just over a day and a half, and she said the only answer she could come up with was it must have been magical pixie dust, as nothing else made sense to her.
It is true that leadership can be magical, but it’s not magic, it just starts with a leader who is prepared to be open, passionate, vulnerable, and who chooses to follow their heart.
When you do that, you can change the culture, build trust and get a team to follow you anywhere.
That year we had our best results ever, all due to the team collaborating, working better together and caring for each other, and it all started with just a hug!