Creating a transformative leadership culture

Established in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an independent, neutral organisation operating worldwide, helping people affected by conflict and armed violence and promoting the laws that protect victims of war. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, it employs over 20,000 people in more than 80 countries.

In 2014, the ICRC partnered with Hult Ashridge Executive Education to create the Humanitarian Leadership & Management School (HLMS). The HLMS is building inclusive, authentic leadership at all levels by developing leaders to deal with humanitarian challenges in the most effective way. Its purpose is to contribute a new transformative and inclusive leadership culture in the ICRC, bringing together diverse leaders from across the organisation to learn with and from each other.

Over the past seven years, almost 1400 managers of 104 different nationalities and various metiers and hierarchies have attended at least one of the three HLMS Modules, with boundaries broken and new connections forged. The programme continues to the present day, evolving with the needs and evolution of this unique organisation and those of its talented and increasingly diverse workforce carrying out such an important role in the world.

‘We all need to focus on building a healthy and inclusive working environment where everyone feels valued, empowered, and encouraged to challenge the status quo. Genuine and seamless collaboration – across hierarchical and geographical boundaries – also needs to be incentivized and strengthened, to allow for creative thinking and new ways of problem-solving.’ – Robert Mardini, ICRC Director General

Changing humanitarian landscape

The world is becoming more volatile, complex and ambiguous, increasing the complexity and nature of armed conflicts and humanitarian needs. As such, for ICRC to maintain its strictly humanitarian response to the affected people’s needs, the ICRC had to evolve while remaining true to its mandate.

The ICRC has been experiencing a few years of transformation, reflecting the rapidly changing landscape of conflict and humanitarian work, the diversification of its own makeup, and the challenges of implementing change within a large organisation with a rich heritage.

The ICRC has been on a journey to effectively leverage the rich diversity throughout the organisation. However, this has not always been reflected in its leadership roles and practices. For example, career progression into leadership was historically restricted to the 20% “mobile” expat staff, and the leadership practices and approaches have not embodied the full diversity of the workforce. The organisation needed to tap into the potential of its entire employee base to increase engagement at a local level and providing visible pathways to development.

To better serve people affected by conflict, it was identified that knowledge, communication and expertise were being constrained within silos, whether geographical, technical or hierarchical. At times, this left room for better collaboration and effective use of collective intelligence.

Alongside all of the above, it was key to transform the organisation while still honouring its rich history and aligning with its wonderful intrinsic DNA.

‘The HLMS has a big role in bridging gaps and hierarchies in the ICRC.’ – Gherardo Pontrandolfi, HR Director

Commitment to development

The organisational and senior stakeholder commitment to the transformation effort has never been in doubt, with its aims carefully inscribed in strategy documents and voiced by senior leadership.

ICRC selected Hult Ashridge as a partner due to their focus on the human, interpersonal and reflective approaches to learning, teaching and research, which is aligned with the ICRC vision and goals. Ashridge Executive Education also had the experience of partnering with ICRC to design and deliver an earlier leadership programme and therefore understood the culture and challenges at play.

It has been crucial for the project to bring the expected results that both ICRC and Hult Ashridge facilitators design and deliver the programme together. This was judged to take advantage of the latest academic research and best practice combined with the real experience of the ICRC humanitarian context and the ability to encourage leaders to fully apply the learning in practice. This had a major impact on adoption and engagement with the programme.

The transformational nature of the programme faced resistance from some managers that perceived it as a challenge to the “good old” ways of doing things. The challenge was not just in the “new” concepts and their applicability for leaders in the ICRC but also for the concept of “leadership at all levels”, breaking otherwise comfortable boundaries. Through active and continuous feedback-seeking and adaptation, the programme’s evolution facilitated their adoption of what it offers. The programme’s evolution increased its relevance to the ICRC reality, the applicability of attitudes, behaviours and mindsets to the evolving leadership culture in the organisation.

Learning together

The approach has been to strengthen the focus on leadership, relationships, and collaboration across the ICRC. This has been achieved by having leaders learning together in diverse groups which span hierarchy, function, nationality, and experience. The programme focuses on balancing the “how” of leadership and not just the “what”. As such, the HLMS had to focus on transformative attitudes, behaviours and mindset, and to introduce a common leadership language to contribute to a wider transformation across the organisation.

The diversity of the participants, the cultural change it promotes, and the resistance and uncertainty it creates required an engaging and stimulating design for all participants despite their differences. It had to apply to people of different educational, cultural and technical backgrounds as well as their different seniority levels. It also had to align with other transformations within
and outside the organisation.

The co-designed and co-delivered, three-module programme aims to develop strong and passionate leaders who manage, empower and inspire a diverse and high-performance workforce and set the example for effective leadership. Participants must start at the beginning and complete each of the three modules to progress regardless of experience or seniority. They must apply for a place by way of a “Letter of Motivation” to ensure they are ready to embark upon this journey.

Each module consists of distinct phases:

  • Distance learning: 20 hours of reading, assessed e-learning and coaching.
  • Face-to-face: A 5-day programme of experiential learning, exchange & reflection.
  • Action Learning Sets: conducted during the face-to-face week, participants work in smaller groups to discuss challenges and go through a peer coaching process.
  • Work-based Learning: 30 hours of applying the learned skills in a workplace setting.

Pre-COVID, teaching was delivered in Kenya, Jordan, Thailand, Senegal as well as Switzerland. During the pandemic, the programme has successfully transitioned to a virtual platform and has grown to become a truly global, blended programme. Evaluations post-programme reflect a positive rating of the virtual experience by the participants, significantly above expectations.

Leadership and cultural impact

The programme has contributed significantly to the wider organisational transformation ongoing across the ICRC, and all staff have a very positive view of the HLMS regardless of whether they have attended the programme or not.

It has been shown to bring people together, breaking down silos and enabling more effective collaboration in various ways. It unites people through a common leadership language, attitudes, behaviours and mindsets as well as providing transformative tools and practices.

It creates a network of leaders across the organisation that contribute to wider organisational transformation.

‘I feel there has been an impact on the ICRC leadership culture, and this impact is also reflected in the staff barometer data that came out where we realized that people who have done the HLMS Modules are more positively assessed by their teams.’ – Balthasar Staehelin, Former Deputy Director General of the ICRC

The HLMS is creating impact culturally and behaviourally in both anticipated and unexpected ways. The programme is helping to support ICRC’s credibility and performance in the future through the development of relevant leaders in the evolving Humanitarian field. The programme has now been accredited to support an optional ongoing journey of a Master’s Degree in Humanitarian Leadership from the University of Lucerne.

Participation in the HLMS programme is now an essential commitment for leaders in the ICRC and a prerequisite for senior management positions in the organisation, demonstrating the importance of these teachings in shaping the leadership practices for the organisation.

The leadership culture and practices the HLMS is building in the ICRC are not just on an organisational level. Most of the participants highlight the bigger impact it had on them in their personal lives and their roles in society. The quality of the transformational learning of the HLMS and what it teaches today attracted participants from different National Red Cross and Crescent Societies who are starting to attend the programme. The transformational nature of the programme itself and its capacity to impactfully touch these diverse participants is exceptional and one that is gradually but surely making a difference.

‘I feel I have grown as a manager, but also as a person, a father, a husband and a colleague. I have been the sceptical one that needed to be convinced, the critical challenger during these modules, often sharing strong opinions and doubts. You provided a safe space to learn, to exchange, to motivate me to continue to believe in the beauty of the ideals for which we work.’ – Manager in the field

See more articles from Vol.15 Issue 03 – EiP’21.

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