In an interview with Heideli Loubser, Dr Mario Denton reflects on Character-based leadership challenges. He also offers some practical thoughts and best practices towards sustainable implementation of character-based training in the workplace.
Loubser: In a recent interview in the McKinsey Quarterly, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe illustrated the need for character training when he said the following:“We are struggling ourselves, as a new democracy in South Africa, to restore values … Values are never a given. They have got to be developed, worked upon, and consolidated on an ongoing basis. Because if at any given time we as a society or as sections of society become complacent about them, we run the risk of losing them…. We are therefore duty bound to try at all times to bring to the fore the values that bring us together as fellow South Africans, as human beings, united in our diversity.” Given the statement of Deputy Minister Kgalema Motlanthe, what does it mean to you?
Mario Denton: The challenge raised by Our Deputy Minister is not a new one. As a diverse country we have had a record of being very religious yet treating each other in the most appalling ways. We have used our differences as an excuse for checking our morals at the door when dealing with those different from us. Our ability for doing this so well over the centuries and decades that shaped our history made us experts in believing one thing and doing another. But the real process of bringing this country back to its moral centre has to take place at different levels: First and foremost, each and every one of us needs to go on a personal journey of aligning our character with our actions. Let me illustrate this by using the iceberg example: It is said that an iceberg has over 90% of its weight below the waterline and only 10% of it shows above the surface. The 90% that is below the surface is like the values in our lives that shape our behaviour (the 10% above the waterline). I am sure that many South African leaders, when asked about character principles, claim to believe in them. But upon closer inspection one finds that there is big gap between this belief in character principles and the reality of our actions. Personal transformation is necessary on an individual level.
Loubser: It is clear that you are excited about character-based training. What is the scope of your character-based training project with Water and Sanitation of the City of Cape Town?
Mario Denton: The project started as part of their Quality Management, a value adding intervention which stems from Inputs as per their Strategic Session held in March 2010. This intervention intends to motivate and breach the gap between Corporate HR interventions and areas that Corporate have not been able to improve. They have agreed that character is the "missing link" in leadership and organisational development. With character-based leadership, Water and Sanitation has a road map to create an energetic alignment between their core constituencies, their strategic vision and their department’s structure and systems. The Character First leadership development program will train managers and staff on how to build a culture of integrity, how to resolve conflict, how to encourage employee morale, and how to integrate character-based standards into job descriptions, reward structures, and management practices.
Loubser: Can you give me a general definition of character, and also the outcome of this character-based training program?
Mario Denton: Character is the qualities built into an individual’s life that determines his or her response, regardless of circumstances and it springs from the heart. The true test of character is always our response to pressure. Wrong actions and attitudes damage relationships. As I have been watching the World Cup soccer, it is again clear that good character transcends age, position, financial status, race, religion, education, gender, and personality. Building character makes a person not only a better employee, but also a better spouse, neighbour, parent and citizen.
The expected outcomes of the program are that we hope to create a value system based on virtues in which productivity efficiency is enhanced so that water & sanitation staff members reach their potential, restore relationships between management and staff, improve communication and build teamwork, and teach management how to hire for character and train for skills in order to deliver better service to water & sanitation customers over the long run (i.e. over & above usual requirements - education, experience and training, character must always be the tie-breaker). Managers will also learn that building character is not something that can be delegated but starts at the top. Every staff member will learn what character is and help develop ways to improve it and the managers will learn to sustain the focus on character building after the program is finished.
Loubser: That sounds amazing, but why is it that we receive great training and books, yet we go out the same? What is your view?
Mario Denton: Studies show that less than 15% of all training has any impact at all on job performance, not to mention bottom-line business results. The reason for failing to achieve much progress or change is that they don’t use creative, dynamic, high impact interventions that are tangible and visually interesting, training focused on producing long lasting results, and/or a creative training experience and projects that are packed full of learning and practical tasks with intense feedback systems.
Loubser: Wonderful. What have you suggested that Water and Sanitation of the City of Cape Town do to improve implementation of character principles?
Mario Denton: It is wonderful that you used the word commitment as my fundamental training philosophy is that you start learning the day you teach other people and that information without application is only entertainment. I am definitely not in that business. I also have all the senior delegates to sign a document containing the following statement as an indication that they are serious about placing character-based leadership in its rightful role.
“I count it a privilege to be trained in Character First! principles and will take up my role with integrity and excellence. I agree to make the time commitment needed to carry out this Action Plan. I further agree to meet regularly to review progress towards the achievement of our Character First! project goals. I will be a good steward of the opportunity, investment and resources that are entrusted to me. I am committed to displaying good character in all aspects of my daily activities and interactions with others and to be a person of exemplary character by reputation and example. This commitment will be reviewed every 6 months over the next 4 years.
Loubser: In short, how do we rebuild organisations on the foundation of character?
Be committed to establishing a character-based culture in the workplace. Train all managers and supervisors and equip them with the character tools and bulletins. Be an example of character and do the 49 character qualities assessment in your team and department twice a year. Focus on one character quality per month. Hold character application sessions. Evaluate and include character also in the annual performance discussions. Get rid of “employee of the month” recognition schemes and recognise each employee once per year based on one of the 49 Character qualities. Terminate for bad character. Publicly recognise good character with genuine praise.
It is my strong belief that we can create a moral society that is diverse and a true example for the whole world. Our rainbow can shine brighter again as we let the rays of hope for the future, personal responsibility and the reign of peace through character-based leadership prevail. Each of us can play a critical role in creating the right conditions for this Rainbow Nation to live up to its true potential.
Mario Denton holds a doctorate in Organizational Behaviour and Business administration. He uses his strong academic and corporate background and his uniquely effective coaching skills to help organisations tap into their potential to make a difference in the workplace.