How leading by letting go and cultivating compassion leads to better performance.
It’s a windy, crisp morning at Middleton Point surf beach in Adelaide. The swell is bumpy and difficult to ride. Mark Searle dives under an unpredictable wave, emerging the other side. “Surf just happens. It’s not personal. Pointless fighting the surf. Choose when to paddle and when not to paddle. Sometimes you just need to let it roll along.” This philosophy has served Mark well over the years.
A former CEO of City of Marion, a local government area in the south western suburbs of Adelaide, Mark joined at a time when the council recognised the need to do things differently. “What hit me first when I arrived in 2000 was the financial situation. The council had never had a surplus, it had an operating deficit around 12-13%, and no long term strategic or financial plan.” Mark also inherited a staff turnover rate of around 25% and a poor project and customer service reputation. His challenge was to build the performance of the organisation and a readiness for change.
In spite of the pressure to act quickly and decisively, Mark did something counterintuitive – he took his time, getting to know the place and the people. He deeply reflected on and investigated the challenges, rather than jumping in to solve them. “I didn’t do the classic restructure. I worked with what I had. My strategies were simple - see what is going on, build trust, talk to people, ask for help – build a constructive caring culture.” These strategies were grounded in Mark’s belief in the fundamental importance of leading by letting go of the need to control.
Mark understood that a minimalist approach was essential to working in a complex system. In such systems, one thing we can rely on is for interventions to have unintended consequences. In fact, the bigger the intervention, the bigger the unintended consequences. Rather than create new roles, make others redundant, and move people from one department to another, he set up smaller, more inexpensive interventions. These were experiments that tested assumptions about the appetite for change, and provided useful learnings about what worked and what didn’t. He built a common language, philosophy and focus of caring to deliver outcomes.
Mark faced the challenge of transforming the culture from an organisation that rewarded and encouraged self-protecting behaviour, with people shifting responsibilities to others and blaming everyone else for mistakes, to a more humane, compassionate organisation with higher level purpose. Mark’s approach was based on his hypothesis that by shifting the internal dialogue of self-criticism, people can become more compassionate with one another. This was informed by an insight earlier in his career that his protestant work ethic, ‘if you don’t suffer, you don’t get results’ approach, was feeding his inner critic. “Our biggest barrier is telling ourselves we are deficient. When our actions are grounded in positive intent, our actions are more constructive.”
All Mark’s decisions reflected this philosophy. Rather than tighten performance measures, he ensured that every single employee was supported, encouraged, appreciated and involved in setting their goals. “The organisation is only a corporate entity. I wanted to care for all people.” One year later, this approach yielded incredible results: turnover dropped to 16%.Over the next few years, all turnover dropped to 7.3%, including retirement. As staff were trusted and trusted others in return, they were less scared of making mistakes, and more focused on learning and contributing. As it became a more compassionate organisation towards staff, the compassion towards the community grew too. Complaints dropped. By 2006 the council had an operating surplus of 8% and never looked back.
Mark embodies what English poet John Keats’ called “negative capability” in reference to William Shakespeare’s ability “to dwell in mystery and doubts, without irritable reaching after fact or reason.” By slowing down, taking small steps and focusing on the human element of the challenge, Mark facilitated a powerful learning process for his organisation and opened up the space for his staff to flourish. By removing the hurry and force from his approach, Mark enabled greater connection, compassion, and ultimately a high level of performance.
After 14 years as a CEO, his legacy lives on. “Organisations come and go. Look after the people and the organisation can stay a bit longer. Not the other way around,” says Mark. Then starts paddling as a wave begins to break behind him and he takes the drop across the clean face of a beautiful right hander – in the flow of nature’s energy.