Systems-inspired leadership

Even dismantling business relationship systems can be done with care and skill

“Shut down the entire unit of 250 people within a year” was the task that landed in the leader’s lap in 2017. And while all management and all staff, including the senior leader, were to lose their jobs, the request was to create an elegant and thorough transfer of their work to other service centres in the company’s global network.

In other words, dismantle this unit with care as we need the staff to remain dedicated and focused. Part of the “off boarding” journey will be for them to train and support staff in the new receiving centres.

“Without MetaSkills and ORSC I would have messed this up royally!” said the GM of the business unit in a major South African city 3 months into the process that included his own redundancy. He also drew heavily on the ground conditions for change he learned from ORSC:

  • For change to happen, new information has to enter the system
  • People need to know they have a say in the process, and how their input will be used
  • People need to know how decisions will finally be made.

Interviewed again three-quarters of the way through the process, he reported that the wider global organisation was “in awe at how well the transition has gone. 95+% of the staff have stayed 100% committed to the transfer of their tasks and knowledge. And we are getting excellent feedback from the receiving centres in Europe and Asia.”

How did he and his team do it? The leader, who was completing his ORSC Certification when the decision for closure was made, identified these key factors:

  • Following not just the letter but the spirit of the law that requires thorough consultation of the workforce when redundancies are contemplated. This included frequent engagements with the key transition committee including staff as well as HR and the GM himself, with a powerful communication platform from regular meetings to an intranet site. They were also supported by the CCMA (employee conciliation body) from the very beginning.
  • Making real and realistic changes to the plan in response to proposals from employees.
  • A systems view: Not leading with a single point of view and just eliminating opposition, rather taking on board multiple perspectives and giving them value and respect.
  • Getting management buy in – an away day with managers to set the context that they are leading in an atmosphere of huge emotional uncertainty and disappointment. This is true for themselves and their teams. Designing ways to be with and lead in uncertain times.
  • Paying attention to the emotional field (the senior leader tapped into his own emotions as part of the wider system, and tapping into the emotional field of the system)– reading and responding to what is happening in the human relationship system, rather than wishing it wasn’t there.
  • Active Support for staff in finding their next jobs.
  • Broader corporate support for a people-first culture was crucial.

“There are definitely challenging and crunchy bits in the transition from an autocratic to a more systemic style of leadership,” said the GM as he looked back on the journey so far. “In the older management style, a premium was set on control, moving at speed and having all the answers. In this case by working with the whole workforce of 250, holding a systemic view and investing in engagement, we have created a bearable pathway through job loss and a superlative outcome for the business.”

Klaus Lombardozzi sharing leadership lessons at global Systemic Leadership Summit 2019

For more information please visit Klaus Lombardozzi at