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Taking Over My Family Business: The Adaptive Work in Leadership

What defines a leader? Some people say with a title comes leadership. Others say that being able to enforce rules and “carry a big stick” is what makes a leader effective. In the book Leadership that Triumphs, Maria Mitch San Buenaventura shares her daring foray into the world of business when, out of the blue, her uncle tasks her to play a key leadership and decision-making role in running the group of companies her family owns. Having next to zero business smarts — or so she thinks — San Buenaventura realizes that to understand business one needs to understand people.

In an excerpt from her essay, she reveals how attending an adaptive leadership course helped her understand two major roles of real leadership: to help people face reality and to draw out shared values, priorities, and beliefs that go beyond petty self interests and tribal loyalties. Read on to find out how business is all about leadership and leadership is all about people.

Speaking the Unspeakable

Earlier in the essay, I mentioned how Professor Williams defines real leadership. The first part is to help people face reality. There are two actions to this. First, you have to provoke by “pointing the spotlight on a show that there is a problem that demands their attention and to ignite a process of discovery and change.” To evoke, means to “bring forth, elicit, or draw out from people values, thoughts, and feelings that transcend self-interest and tribalizing instincts.”

Throughout my first month, I made it a point to hold one-on-one conversations with each employee, supervisor and manager. I found out that although they were stuck in their ways, most of the employees were also burdened with the same sentiments that things were just not right. Despite this, I did not sense any concern for the company, nor a sense of ownership for their work. I realized that they were able to get by, because at least they were able to get their monthly salary.

I challenged them gently at every turn whenever I saw something wrong. But also, I encouraged them that I was on their side to help them and by showing how important their work is. What I needed to do was light a fire that sometimes stung, but also warmed them to a sense of meaning about their vital role in the company. While doing this, I helped them “zoom out” by helping them understand the impact of their actions on the whole company.

For example, with the employee who is in charge of collections, I asked her, “If you don’t collect, there won’t be money coming in. And if you don’t collect, how can we do our budgets? If people don’t come looking for it, that doesn’t mean it’s not needed. Cash flow becomes extremely tight and we just cannot operate. We implode for no good reason. It’s a domino effect. We hired you to do something very important for this company.”

As Filipinos, we have a very polite culture and in the Philippines, some people will even die to protect their honor. However, it is something that can be misconstrued. I realized that essentially, the company was too nice and trusting with each other to a fault. When something went wrong, I saw that people would rather not confront and face that uncomfortable conversation. People highly value relationships and when something goes wrong between two sides, it is easy for a fracture to break and tribes to form.

It is not a science on how to provoke and evoke; it is an art, something which I needed to trust my instincts. For example, when I feel they are stressed – I am not their boss anymore, I am their friend. I say, “Okay, everyone makes mistakes. Let’s just move on.” This pacifies them but when I feel they are slacking off, I have to change to a bigger voice, and say, “Hey, come on.”

I saw also that the norm in the office was that if someone with seniority speaks, it was very difficult for the subordinate to question anything. It becomes a huge barrier and inhibits learning and productive work.

Towards the end of my first month at work, we held a town hall meeting. I knew that this was going to be a critical “leadership moment.” I was given ten minutes and these were some of my key messages:

“Hi, I’m Mitch. I’m the Executive Assistant to the CEO and I’m at your service.

“All the departments as a whole lack communication. That’s why we are creating and modifying policies. The same reason why I need you to be open through this whole process.

“When you have a problem, I need you to come and tell me what they are but also understand that not everything you bring to the table will be implemented. We need to make the decision based on the wellness and the growth of the company.

“I’m open to anything. I’m here for you. Don’t treat me as your boss because I’m also here as an employee, willing to listen to what you have to say, to improve the well-being of not just the whole company but to your lives as a whole.

“Let’s move forward.”

After the meeting, I developed a simple suggestion box as well as an open-door policy.  I filtered what I thought was essential and categorized their concerns and shared them with my family.

I continued to develop relationships with employees and they started to trust me. At the same time, I also began to hear the gossip that I should not become too close to certain people, and that I should not listen to certain people. When I heard these, I said, “Let’s stop this. Let’s be professional and talk as a team.”

It is understandable to act in certain ways because we are protecting something valuable, whether that is a sense of security or affirmation. It is so easy and natural to develop these habits or practices, and it is not always a bad thing. Sometimes those things can develop in dysfunctional practices that inhibit our learning and growth, as well as create fractures in a company.

I began to see my role as a leader to what Professor Williams calls an “attention manager,” someone who intervenes and keeps the spotlight on interdependent problems. On a personal level, I see a need to always help those around me focus and prioritize on the interdependent work at hand. On a ‘horizontal level,” I see a need to facilitate communication and learning between employees, managers, and the owners to help overcome the things which are preventing our ability to function as a productive company. On a ‘vertical level,’ I see a need to coordinate between the sister companies to collaborate more on key issues.

‘Following through’

I thought about how my grandfather always told us to “follow through.” Once he came up with an idea, he’d exhaust all efforts to make it happen. He was an industrialist with limited resources who was way ahead of his time. Of course, not all of us are gifted with that kind of personality and perseverance. For me, I’m glad that I can follow my ambitions within the Adaptive Leadership framework, which helps me collaborate with my employees. Thanks to the insights and lessons I learned from the CALI program, I am now confident that I can lead my company, even though at first I was afraid that I lacked the technical skills. I’ve realized that I can still lead while learning from the people I work with. Sadly, this method of leadership is a contrast to how the Filipino government works: most of our politicians believe that they are always right and that what they say is the only solution for the problems we face. I now know that taking a back seat sometimes and letting other voices be heard will end up bringing more solutions to the table. A great leader must first listen to others and then use his or her own expertise to sift through the suggestions and see what should and shouldn’t be applied. This decision-making stage is where the diagnostic work of assessing adaptive and technical needs must happen. But the hardest part of the trick, as always, is the follow-through.

Once you find solutions, you need to transition from assessment to implementation. This collaborative, adaptive attitude must prevail, whether we are in the corporate world or in government, if we want to harness the power of all the people who share our vision. If we don’t, we will be faced with delays or even new problems. Sharing the same vision is now part the checklist I have created for my employees. The CALI program made me realize that it is crucial for leaders and their teams to be on the same page at all times, and to change their company’s culture and practices together. If that happens, not only they but the next generation will benefit from better methods of working and organizing projects. Since my company is a family corporation, it goes without saying that its vision should be aligned with our family’s values and beliefs. Unfortunately, the same rarely happens when it comes to national governments. We have a multiple party system in the Philippines, and each party creates a different program. If Candidate A wins, then Program A will be implemented. After six years, if Candidate B is elected, Program A will be scrapped in favor of Program B. There is no continuity between administrations because the politicians are so eager to brag about their own achievements that they refuse to acknowledge the good deeds of the previous party.

Since I am a third-generation family-member who grew up with my grandparents, the founders of our 57-year-old holding company, I would like future generations to remember its humble beginning, to remember the reason why it was built—to give employment to the Filipino people and to help make their lives better—and to remember to give back what is due, upholding fairness. If I don’t help out now, even if only in my own small ways, then there might be no more tomorrows for the company. Someone needs to care, and I am determined to step up. In my opinion, the Filipino government also has a backlog of Adaptive Leadership work to do. One example is the train lines in Metro Manila. They’re not connected! To get from one train to another you have to go to different stations, in contrast with the Metro systems of cities in other countries, which offer multiple platforms within one station. We also don’t have a single, unifying Metro Card for our public transportation. If our politicians have real concern for their people, then they need to sit down with urban planners and fix pressing, day-to-day problems like these. Unfortunately, the implementation stage is where things tend to go haywire, and too often the projects stop before being completed.

I am grateful to my family for always pushing me to be the best I can be and for being the invisible safety net whenever I fall. They always encouraged me to aim high but also to make sure that my feet are planted firmly on the ground. Thanks to them, I can now step up, take my place in the family’s business as a leader, and encourage my cousins to work with me and improve the organization. I have a long way to go and many mistakes to make, but I also know that I possess the tools I need, because I’ve learned how to use the Adaptive Leadership framework. Its balance of adaptive and technical skills is what I need to take leadership of both myself and the large business that has been entrusted to me. One day, I hope to share what I’ve learned on a policy-making level, as many of our projects involve leaders in governance. I look forward to the future with renewed confidence and high hopes.

By Maria Mitch San Buenaventura