We recently sat down with Leanne McDonald, Group Manager of Organizational Capability at Allianz, a large financial services company headquartered in Munich, Germany. McDonald works in the Sydney, Australia offices and is leading several change initiatives within the multinational company. We had the pleasure of speaking with her when she was here attending Leading Change in Complex Organizations, a week-long course led by MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen.
For starters, we’re hearing that you have a history of extreme sports? Is this true?
Yes! While the most exciting sport I’m doing these days is driving in rush hour traffic, I used to be quite active in extreme sports in my earlier days. I did all kinds of things like sky diving, rock climbing, scuba diving, parasailing, canyoning—even swimming with sharks. I loved it!
That’s amazing! Have any of those experiences informed how you approach your work now?
Absolutely. It certainly helps you become more familiar with the feeling of fear. Extreme sports often require you to talk yourself through your fear—but once you’re over it, and in the action of the sport—your fear goes away and it’s exhilarating. The tricky part is just getting started, and not talking yourself out of taking action. I find the same is true when starting new projects or taking on new roles.
I also learned a lot about understanding and assessing risk. I often had to ask myself—what’s the likelihood that something could go wrong here? What’s the worst that could happen? What will I do then in that scenario? Often in extreme sports, you have people with you—advising you—you’re working in teams, you’re relying on equipment, and if one aspect of that fails, you have to be prepared with contingencies. Work is a lot like that too. And I have also found that, as a team leader, I am better equipped to coach people through their fears through assessing risk. Being comfortable with change is really the key takeaway—for myself and others—getting out of that “stuck” feeling and moving forward can be challenging.
In your current role, what are some of the projects you are getting “unstuck” from and pushing forward?
One of my projects that focuses on strategic change is “Future Workforce.” Future Workforce has been underway for two years now and is helping Allianz develop the diversity and capability to stay competitive given the emerging business challenges. What we’ve found is that we have an aging workforce, with many of our senior executives having been in their roles for more than ten years, and now we need to understand how to attract the next generation of talent and how to become an employer of choice for diverse talent, as well as leveraging the migration patterns we’re seeing in Australia.
Allianz has a refugee employment program in Australia, which brings talent in from all over the world— from different backgrounds and industries, from Asia to the Middle East. This has been very beneficial. Their international perspectives as employees help us better understand and serve our customers, as well as how to better evolve an inclusive workplace culture that values difference.
And disruption is becoming more and more common in all areas of business. We are facing the challenges of big data and analytics, how to be more agile, how to be more responsive, how to incorporate new technologies, and how to innovate our product offerings. My role touches on all these issues and so that’s why this program has been particularly relevant to me.
What made you choose MIT Sloan Executive Education?
Well, in Australia there is an organization called “Chief Executive Women” which provides advocacy, targeted programs and scholarships to help remove the barriers to women’s progression and they awarded me a scholarship. While researching various schools, I liked how this program focused on some of the most pertinent challenges in my current human resources role. When you are tasked with making enterprise-wide change in a complex organization it can seem daunting at first, so I wanted this curriculum to help me consider new actions and perspectives.
What insights have you taken away from Leading Change in Complex Organizations?
A lot of the lessons have been very relevant to my work. I found the robust frameworks—ways of conceptualizing different layers of what’s going on in an organization—very helpful. And the different lenses through which to look at an organization—political, cultural, and strategic—were also very helpful.
An example of this in class … we talked about motivation. I’m familiar with how to motivate employees and teams, but John Van Maanen helped me look more thoroughly at different types of motivation that must be leveraged if you are to have high engagement and retention across a company. The other insight is how to effectively motivate people to get on board with change, given the natural tendency is to resist. Just going through that lesson helped me organize my thoughts around my own projects and how I can develop new change levers to get better outcomes when I’m back at work.
And then, I loved the case studies and simulations too, because in the real world, the actual application of these concepts is never straightforward, and so you can learn how these frameworks were put into place given a real business and market context.
Were you able to network during the program?
Absolutely. Colleen Berger, the program’s director, helped me get in touch with fellow Sydneysider Kristine Dery, a research scientist at MIT Sloan’s Center for Information Systems Research. Over dinner we talked about the ways our work overlaps. Kristine focuses on how to create more effective ways of working through technology and new ways of engaging with talent in the digital era. It was really valuable so we will keep in touch and connect when Kristine is back in Sydney later this year. I am also now in touch with Professor Emilio Castilla, who taught in Leading Change in Complex Organizations, and researches unconscious bias in organizational process. We found we had some common interests and Emilio has passed on some of his research papers to help me with my work.
Through MIT Sloan Executive Education, I have been able to mine some of the thought leadership coming out of the Institute, and tap into the wealth of knowledge here. Having that access and ability to create those personal connections is quite unique to MIT. And of course, I’ve loved speaking with the 50 other global participants in the program and hearing how they are tackling change management within their own organizations. The cultural diversity of the group has been just fascinating. It’s really just been a great learning experience.