Modern Terminals Ltd. (MTL) has been a pioneer in the growth of the container terminal industry in Hong Kong and Mainland China since 1972. Now one of the world’s recognized leaders, it is an organization heralded for its innovation, its strong customer-oriented focus on developing solutions that match the needs and business initiatives of its customers, and its commitment to continuously improving the efficiency and productivity of its people and processes. A key component of that continuous improvement focus is leadership development. Indeed, a central belief sees leadership behavior as one of the key drivers of company culture, together with people programs, policies, and organizational structure. And for nearly 2 years, MTL has incorporated The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® as a core element of its comprehensive push to create a leader-based culture, bringing together 140 leaders to experience the power of The Leadership Challenge through training, coaching, and follow-up.
Aligning Values and Leadership Behaviors
When it came time to conduct its strategic review a few years ago, the organization took action to revisit its vision, mission, strategies, brand promises, and culture values. Senior management felt that it was very important that the cultural values be the guiding principles and foundation for everything they did, and that the leadership team live by and lead with a set of leadership behaviors that reinforced and embedded those cultural values. According to Theresa Lai, General Manager, Human Resources at MTL, “When we began our search for leadership training for this purpose we found The Leadership Challenge®.”
Theresa and her team mapped the organization’s core values and corresponding leadership behaviors with the leadership behaviors of each of The Five Practices. There was such close alignment that the decision to embrace and adopt The Leadership Challenge was an easy one. After a successful pilot with the HR leadership team, a full two-day The Leadership Challenge® Workshop offering was launched with the top executive team and rolled out to top leaders in various business units shortly thereafter.
Engaging the HR team in formulating a new vision
The Leadership Challenge training was inspiring for all of MTL’s leaders, especially for Theresa Lai. As she considered each of The Five Practices, she saw how the behaviors and principles around Inspire a Shared Vision could be used to create an even more engaged HR team. In particular, she saw how this Practice could be used to enlist her HR team in creating a common vision. And she knew the forum she would use to put this new process to the test.
Each year, the HR team holds annual review meetings to Challenge the Process by asking two key questions: What are we doing right? and What could we do differently to become an even better HR team? Once her three direct reports had all completed their two-day workshop experience, Theresa called them together to prepare for the full department’s visioning session to be conducted during their next annual review meeting. Theresa and her managers had their own views about what they wanted the vision to look like and knew they could develop one in short order as a small leadership team. However, rather than developing and refining their vision just among themselves, they committed to making the vision process an inclusive one for the entire team.
“One of the challenges we faced was how to facilitate quality discussion around our team vision with the various levels of people on our team,” said Heidi Chow, Manager, Human Resource Development. “We needed to make the process easily understandable so that all team members could participate. And we put a lot of effort into crafting well-thought-out questions for this purpose.”
The full HR team visioning session began with important discussions around:
- Emerging trends influencing how the work of the department gets done
- What MTL wanted to be as an employer
- What kind of HR role the team wanted to play
- What kind of an HR team they wanted to be when it came to delivering services to internal and external stakeholders
All participants were asked to think high-level—as a team, as part of the larger organization—rather than focusing on their individual team roles. They were encouraged to consider all areas of their work for their input and ideas and, most importantly, to share their dreams for the future.
“We always believed that people would have a stronger sense of purpose and achievement when they are enlisted in creating a common vision, which is the key reason why we involved all 18 of our HR members in this visioning process,” explained Theresa. “The creativity and the quality of new thinking were impressive.” And most importantly, the full team felt that they had been heard. “We talked about the kind of employer we wanted to become and the workforce we wanted to build, HR’s role in promoting continuous improvement, and how we wanted to function as a team” In the end, these collaborative efforts created a shared vision that today reads:
HR is a strategic partner to the business. We are a committed and professional team which contributes to making MTL an employer of choice.
Leveraging the team’s shared vision to create an increasingly engaged team
That very first visioning session served as a catalyst for more brainstorming, more discussions, and more actions that have been instrumental in putting into action the team’s common vision. Cheer-Me-Up Stations, for example, started small. They initially were set up as kiosks, once every other month in different MTL work locations where people could come to get healthy snacks and drinks. Staffed by members of the HR Employee Relations team around shift-change times, operations employees (many of whom do not have work computers) could learn about sports and recreational activities, volunteer work opportunities, staff benefits, policy changes, pay adjustments and bonuses, and more. The HR Employee Relations team also took the time to ask employees how they were doing—to provide an opportunity just to talk—and received very useful feedback regarding changes in company policies, ways in which HR could be of more assistance, etc. Six months after the initial launch, Cheer-Me-Up stations now are set up twice each month as a result of suggestions from HR team members during the ‘realizing our vision’ discussions. Other HR team members outside of the Employee Relations unit now participate as well, welcoming MTL employees to a Cheer-Me-Up station 20 times a year.
Walking the talk of The Five Practices
The Five Practices are now deeply-rooted in the culture of the organization and, specifically, in the behaviors of its HR leaders. As Theresa explains it, “For a while I reviewed The Five Practices every day…then every week…then every month. I don’t consciously think about them quite the same way anymore. Now they are just part of my DNA.” And as a high-functioning, productive and cohesive team, the deep-rooted nature of The Five Practices is also evidenced in the increased engagement of the larger HR team and the various ways in which they have brought each of the Practices to life:
Model the Way: The HR Leadership Team has consistently followed through on the actions they said were important to build MTL as the employer of choice—including the Cheer-Me-Up initiative. They did what they said they would do (DWYSYWD).
Inspire a Shared Vision: The learning of this Practice inspired Theresa Lai to hold multiple visioning sessions, inviting all team members to participate in crafting the overall vision and providing a forum for all voices to be heard.
Challenge the Process: While regular review meetings are standard as a way of engaging the team in finding new ways to improve their work, incorporating the learnings of The Leadership Challenge has reinforced the importance of Challenging the Process for the team—to take the initiative to innovate and experiment.
Enable Others to Act: Fostering collaboration, building trust, facilitating relationships, actively listening to all points of view. HR leadership did an exemplary job of involving all 18 members of the HR staff in the process of generating ideas on how to achieve the vision.
Encourage the Heart: They recognized team members by agreeing to do what they proposed, and supported the initiatives by actively participating in those activities. HR managers use the monthly meetings of the whole HR team to recognize efforts of team members in projects or for just going the extra mile.
Creativity and innovation have continued to flourish within the HR units at MTL over the past 18 months. In part this is a result of the exemplary leadership the HR Leadership Team modeled so that others could follow. It is also due to how fully the team embraced the Practice of Enabling Others to Act that resulted in the creation of their powerful vision that is driving positive organizational change and engagement.
Terence Yeung, Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge, has led TACSEN Management Consultants Limited, a Global Training Partner of The Leadership Challenge, to become the only training company elected “Hong Kong’s Most Valuable Company” in 2012. As Managing Director of TACSEN, he has helped numerous multinational clients in Hong Kong and China enhance their leadership capabilities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Pearce, a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge, is a popular facilitator, speaker and team developer whose personal mission is to amplify the greatness of others. He enthusiastically carries out his vision through his coaching, training, and mentoring with clients across the U.S. and in Asia. He can be reached at email@example.com.