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Jen Emery brings magic to the world in many ways. She’s a leader, a thinker, a writer, a speaker and Global People Leader at Arup. Jen’s professional passion is unlocking the potential of people to help them flourish. 

This is a conversation we had with Jen in November 2020. Naturally we spoke via Zoom as much of the UK was back in lockdown again.

As with all of our conversations, we ask the audience a question before we start chatting with our guest. Given the nature of the conversation he was about to have with Jen, Rubens asked: How do you feel in a space of change and transformation? 

Back came the typed responses: challenged, inspired, frightened, out of control, anxious, worried… Most people were certainly not positive about the concept of change. 

Then we started chatting with Jen:

Where does the passion for working with change come from and how do you link what you do with magic?

The answer to that is in the response of the audience to your question… There’s such tension in the concept of change; there’s fear, negativity and resistance. But there’s also great potential, the scope to unlock something positive and magical. I found that, in every aspect of what I was doing professionally and personally, I was dealing with change. And I actually find change hard, I’m hopeless at endings. I almost cry if someone leaves the room, never mind emigrates or leaves my life in some way! I’m also someone who worries about every possible permutation of what could go wrong. I grieve in advance for stuff that might never happen. Yet I am also someone who loves unlocking potential, moving people and organisations. 

How do we grapple with the complexities, tensions and dilemmas inherent in change? How do we ensure we have a relationship with change that is productive and positive? Where’s the magic in that?? Well, magic is about changing things from one state to another – visible to invisible, black to red, square to round. And in the same way that magic needs spells, rituals and stories, change needs stories, patterns and rituals to work.

What’s the secret to making change magical?

The first thing to acknowledge is that change is scary. Your brain makes no distinction between the uncertainty that comes from a change in social status or what’s expected of you professionally, and a tiger chasing you down the street. In your brain, it’s all real and it’s all scary. The neuroscientist, David Rock, has an acronym that I find useful – SCARF. It’s a reminder of what happens to us when we’re uncertain or afraid:

S = status changing
C = certainty
A = agency
R = relationships
F = fairness

(You’ll find the TED talk at the bottom of this blog 👇)

Before you can get to the magic of change, you first have to put those things on better footing. If something uncertain is happening, how can I give people the status and standing they need? How can we create even a little certainty and give people agency? How can we keep people in good relationships with one another and make sure what we’re doing is fair, and that people understand it? You can play away the fear and then supercharge some of that. Then you can make relationships central, give people confidence and agency. To do that there are three things you need to give people. And we need to talk about this over and over again…

  • Great leadership: authentic, wholehearted, sleeves up leadership
  • A clear sense of purpose: knowing where you’re going and why – individually and collectively
  • Storytelling: make it magical of course!

What’s the power of storytelling in change?

I love words. Like you, I used to be a lawyer. Lawyers use words for precision and to make things happen, you write detailed words on a page and stuff happens in real life. Now, I write poetry and the use of words there is different. It is about precision, but it’s also about beauty. I keep a list of words that I want to use because they sound beautiful. Nimbus, subterranean, polarities. I’m going to try and get all those words into poetry soon!

But in business, we do the opposite. We so often use bland, abstract language – process, systems, programmes, talent management, governance. At best it’s uninspiring. At worst, I don’t think it’s benign because it keeps us unquestioning and compliant. Storytelling cuts through all that. It gets rid of all the jargon, the nonsense, the obfuscation and hiding. Stories move us beyond the surface, beyond the rational part of the brain that we want when working on change at work. Stories actually move us pre and post rational because they ignite the animal part of ourselves – our passions and fears. They also ignite the spiritual part of our brain – what are we here for, what inspires us, what’s our purpose. Stories engage at a different level. They need you not to be a dispassionate observer. What stories make happen in the brain is quite complicated. There’s plot, different perspectives, empathy, cause and effect, implications. All that triggers cascades of perceptions and motivation that enable change to happen in a way that legal rationale doesn’t. And that’s the power of storytelling.

What blocks change from happening?

Not very much, but the blockers are disguised. Sometimes they look like process, governance, resources or money. But really, the two big blockers are fear and greed. We’re scared to change, which makes neurological sense. We understand and weigh up the potential losses and downsides of something. It’s much harder to imagine what the future upsides are, the gains we haven’t seen yet.

As for greed and power – if the current way serves you well, you want to preserve that. There are always winners and losers, in transactional terms anyway. So, to enable change means seeing what people are afraid of and addressing that. If they stand to lose something, address that too. Then things like due process, governance, etc, tend to fall into place.

How do you align process and belonging, and why?

Every organisation is its people. It’s more obvious in professional services – law, consulting or engineering. There we sell time and expertise. However great your tech or your brand is, you only have your people. Purpose is why we’re all here and we get out of bed in the morning. Meaningful work, feeling that what we do matters, being able to put our shoulder to the wheel in service of something. That’s what ignites us. I keep talking about the brain don’t I, as well as the heart! When you trigger those pathways, it enables people to make discretionary efforts. And that’s what will help us, our businesses, and the world flourish. So you need to talk about purpose for people.

But purpose isn’t one single thing – it’s like a Russian doll. There’s a big, broad corporate purpose. There’s the purpose in relation to the particular change you’re trying to effect or the project you’re working on. Then there’s my purpose or your purpose, which will have some relation to the wider purpose. But it’s also for me. What’s in it for me, what am I learning, where am I growing, what are the relationships I’m in that matter, what’s my sense of reward from this? Purpose matters in all those ways and that’s intrinsically linked to motivation.

Belonging is slightly different. There are many longitudinal studies, which show that belonging – far more than weight, age or general health – is a predictor of longevity and health. We’re made to be in relationships with each other. In a corporate business context we forget that. We undervalue the importance of making people feel that they have an identity vetted in the corporation, that they have relationships at work that matter to them and that they’re part of a tribe. These things help your people and your business flourish. But it’s also how you build loyalty. It’s how people accept accountability, take risks on your behalf, make decisions and effort. It’s not about aligning everybody like droids or robots, all preaching the same thing, with the corporate purpose planted into their brains! It’s about harnessing all the motivation that comes from people when they belong and have a purpose.

Arup's leadership team

Arup’s leadership team

What’s your approach to change and how has the pandemic affected that, what still works and what doesn’t?

At times, particularly at the start of the pandemic, I felt that it was like launching a fast horse the year the steam train came out! To have written a book about how to ‘do’ change before the pandemic… unfortunate to say the least. But, if I can get my own ego out of the way, it’s been the richest learning experience ever. Looking at what I believed, studied and held onto, and what I thought held water… then working out whether it does now. The changes I talk about in the book were largely self-initiated, so somewhat in my control. Take something like a big merger. Every person in the company might not control it, but it is a human-initiated change. But it’s certainly not on the scale of a pandemic.

The central thesis of the book is that change can be good. Not because it takes you from a bad place to a better place. But because the change period itself can be rich, productive, full of growth, learning, added value, and so on. I talk about all the ways that can manifest. Building greater belonging and confidence. Creating energy. Enabling things to be done more simply and people to be more agile. But it depends on those three conditions I mentioned earlier. Great leadership. A clear purpose. And great stories. So, that’s the premise of the book.

I do think those three basics work though, they’re still 100% right in the pandemic world. What we’ve desperately needed, in business and in life, has been great leadership. A north star, a unifying sense of direction and purpose. And sense making – understanding what the heck is going on and what will the future look like. We need the opportunity to evolve and simplify.

What did I underestimate in the book? I used the word energy rather than resilience. I wanted it to feel positive, that change can be a generative experience. You get to grow and spark ideas off each other. But the pandemic has taught us that protracted change of this scale – with this amount of uncertainty and lack of control – is so draining and so hard for people. Thinking preventatively, how do you build resilience and wellbeing to enable any change? A second edition of the book would reflect that – I’d put in more about wellbeing and resilience.

How do you create space in the change process where magic can happen and people can flourish?

What should leaders do? It’s been hard. Over the past few months I’ve been working closely with our senior leaders at Arup. They feel overwhelmed, there are so many things they have to do. Leaders aren’t just leaders at the moment. They’re parents, doctors, teachers, counsellors and coaches too. We’ve been distilling it down to what they really need to do to create this magic space. So, what does being a great leader in this moment mean? It’s about creating a context for your people where they can make sense of what’s going on, for them. It’s about giving people a vision – help them tell their story, elicit what their purpose is and explain the corporate purpose to them. It’s also about creating a place where action can happen – where people feel they can act and are trusted to act. There are three great gifts leaders can give to people.

  • Attention: show up for people; be there, be present
  • Permission: tell people it’s ok to take a break and role model that by looking after yourself
  • Trust: empower people to act and make decisions; show you believe in them to act in the best interest of the organisation

How do we change the nature of leadership given so many operate in a top-down manner?

One of the things the book has a go at tackling, and that I’m constantly thinking about, is advocating a shift in the leadership paradigm. A shift from top-down, paternalistic, shouting loudly and resisting change. Instead, embrace uncertainty and show a degree of vulnerability. That shows courage because you’re prepared to admit you don’t know everything. Co-create solutions and listen to other people. That’s a big shift in paradigm.

But how do you do that? With time, development and support. And to some extent a change in the actual people. Role model to show people that better results do happen if you step into things. Listen and create with people from the periphery of your organisation who have the knowledge you need. Cut through the BS and the façade to what people are afraid of. Show up as a real human. Address everyone’s status, their relationships, what they need to protect. And highlight where they have agency and choice.

We always finish our conversations with three magical questions…

What’s your superpower? 

An encyclopaedic knowledge of random pop lyrics, mostly from the 80s and 90s. And the ability to inject them into any conversation! More seriously though, I have the ability to synthesise. I see patterns and make complex things simple. I can tell a story back to people. I love to do that.

Tell us a secret…

I have four kids and we had mugs made with their initials on them. Only two mugs are left, one with an F and the other with an E. In my head that means friend and enemy. When I make cups of tea for people, I give them the mug I’m in the mood for. So, if they’re annoying me I give them the E mug, for enemy. It’s so unbelievably petty!!

If you had a magic wand, what would you change?

I’d enable us to have better conversations with one another. Remember the Tower of Babel story from the Bible, where people talk different languages? I’d reverse that so we can all connect and truly understand each other across every border that exists. It could be so beautiful if we took the time, insight and capacity to understand each other better.

💖 Thank you so much to Jen for taking the time to talk to us. We’re sure you’ll agree there’s a lot of food for thought here and well managed, there certainly can be magic in change! This conversation is also available as a podcast

Want to bring magic and storytelling to a change process at your company?

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