The world’s fast-paced economic growth is compelling companies to catch up in scale, and executives are feeling the pinch not just in their wallets, but in their workforce as well. Over the years, leadership in the largest companies worldwide has been challenged from the inside-out by volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments, comprised mostly of economic highs and lows, an increasingly younger employee base, and the overall challenge of staying on top of the game amid these, and then some.
Amid such challenges, Nestlé Infant Nutrition (NIN)’s Field Managers partnered with Asian-based management consultancy firm Management Strategies (MgtStrat) to design its first-ever Leadership in Flight Training (LiFT). Over the course of the intensive, six month program, NIN’s Field Managers learned key concepts not just to address the obstacles, but in the longer-term build a solid culture of collaboration and growth for the company: top-down, and inside-out.
Asking powerful and insightful questions was the first key skill NIN’s managers immediately found that the organization needed, through the Action Learning (AL) method woven carefully into the program.
Using AL, trained MgtStrat coaches moderate problem-solving discussions, encourage reflections on the problem statements, and facilitate action steps to take moving forward.
But Brenda Labastida, Field Manager of Luzon says, it took her and her teammates two whole hours to warm-up enough to get the ball rolling.
“During the first meeting, we challenged ourselves just by asking questions, and we were not used to it. It was a struggle. It took two hours, we couldn’t move on, we were all just deliberating to identify the problem,” says Brenda.
But she adds that once she and her team got the hang of the line of questioning, it set the tone for the entire program. “As we went on, we formed the habit. Once we had the right attitude of asking questions and listening, from there, the insight was delivered,” she says.
Brenda says that as a result of asking the right questions, blind sides were even brought to the surface, and addressed one by one.
“There was a point that we had to draw things out from each other, and it was uncomfortable at first, but then the sense of realization and awareness increased. Finally, we realized that there were reasons behind our performance, and we could tell each other those,” says Brenda.
MgtStrat Partner and WIAL Certified Action Learning Coach Leo Castillo says effective leadership has taken a more relational turn over the past decades, an observation also noted through MgtStrat’s 15-year partnership with Nestlé Philippines.
“Now it seems the ideal leader is not the one who commands but the one who listens. Not the one who gives answers, but who asks the questions. The one who sees the value of his people and knows he needs to collaborate outside where he is. Instead of the leader who is always right, it is the leader who is willing to admit he is wrong, because that’s how you learn,” says Leo.
“Command and control” is passé.
The six-month LiFT program also showed a deeper need for NIN’s Field Managers to coach and develop the younger workforce, aligned with an internal coaching effectiveness survey recently revealing that while Field Managers scored highest on energy and passion to win, they scored lowest on coaching and development to grow talents and teams.
Reyza Paz-Santos, Field Manager for Visayas, says she felt the impact of the low scores on coaching and development particularly when she was transferred to the Visayas region, from Luzon, “The attrition rate was high at that time. The team in Visayas has always been known as a team of high achievers, but when I came in, I noticed there was a lack of motivation. People were not as motivated as I thought they were.”
To address these concerns, MgtStrat spread the program out into 4 modules over 6 months, with AL projects scattered strategically throughout the entire duration.
The first module was Leading Self, and Reyza says it was here that she immediately felt the difference—first in herself, and then her teammates: “My personality is dominant, so even when they just see me, my voice is already loud. I learned to make adjustments in the manner I talk. I catch myself at critical moments, now before saying a word, I now bother to ask questions. They see the effort from my end to really adjust and reach out,” she says.
MgtStrat Partner and WIAL Senior Action Learning Coach Tina Alafriz says that the AL projects were critical to the LiFT Program, with AL being a powerful tool to address their VUCA realities while developing the 6 leadership success drivers they needed to succeed in Nestle´.
“If you look at the AL projects, it was meant to address the biggest challenges of the organization, which if you read it, isn’t necessarily directly related to leadership. While this is a leadership program focused on developing leaders, we would also like to make sure there is bigger scope,” says Tina.
Leo adds, “For example for NIN: what is the objective to help the business, it wasn’t merely a program, or just an intervention, or just for the leader. How will the business benefit? Where will the business be years from now? It’s really understanding that,” he says.
And so the days when leadership meant commanding and controlling the entire workforce from the top-down are gone and over, says Tina.
She notes that companies like NIN have moved from following set, rigid leadership programs, to asking for more customized trainings to cascade to their workforce.
“They now create their own leadership framework. maybe it was due to the rise of competency-based development—that wasn’t there before, where companies create competency frameworks and then they start hiring, developing, training, rewarding people against that framework,” says Tina.
Melissa Ayson, NIN’s AVP for Field Operations agrees, especially for a younger workforce.
“We have a lot of new, younger people coming in as medical delegates, and this revealed weaknesses in leadership. The managers were unable to analyze and act quickly on the issues of these younger employees.” she says.
Melissa adds that the initiative to undergo the LiFT program helped bridge this gap immensely: “Our coaching used to be very functional in nature, but after the LiFT Program, there is now more sincerity in the way they approach their team members. It’s more personalized in some way. There is also a stronger sense of accountability and responsibility for their team. In the way they raise issues and concerns, they know now they have the power to drive the resolution of the concerns.”
Renee Valdez, Human Resources Business Partner of NIN says the change came from the managers themselves, as revealed in the updated Area Nutrition Managers Assessment conducted after the program.
“The leaders are now more conscious about having a learner mindset as well. Instead of reacting immediately to a situation, they can now pause, and exercise mindfulness. We are making sure now that the new line managers would have the same mindsets,” Renee says.
Practice what you preach.
Months after the LiFT program, internal changes have been made to sustain the lessons learned, including the continuation of structured feedback sessions. New line managers are also slated to undergo the same program in the future.
Tina says the LIFT Program was intended not just be a one-off event, but a longer-term cultural shift within NIN.
“There is never an immediate effect. Leadership development and culture development would typically take months to achieve small wins, and years to achieve big changes. Organizations will need to put other things in place, not just training, to make sure that the entire system and process and culture also supports the new skills and the new mindsets that the people are learning,” she says.
Leo adds, having a clear and solid company culture is vital to keeping everyone at the top of their game.
“Company culture is a competitive advantage. The advantage used to be whoever is the biggest, whoever had the most skill and technology. But in the last few years, company culture has become a big thing. Suddenly you have now people looking at what Silicon Valley companies are doing, etc, in terms of culture,” says Leo.
And for Reyza and Brenda, the change indeed runs deep: “What stuck with us is the safer environment. If the environment is safe, we will have happy motivated workers. The reality is they will always have frustrations. There will always be bumps, but it can now be managed,” Reyza says.
Brenda keeps her LiFT notebook with her now wherever she goes. “I check on it. It really reminds me. We are persons in the process of improving and molding ourselves, and the only way to do that is to keep coming back to this,” she says.
Written by Michelle Orosa-Ople