The train slows down for London St Pancras. I scroll through my presentation, pause at slide 30: ‘The way the world makes, moves and sells goods is changing.’ So much is changing in the world, ever faster, ever more disruptive. I close my laptop. Time to apply Shakespeare’s King Lear.
‘Under the CHEP and IFCO brands, Brambles helps move more goods to more people, in more places than any other organisation on earth.’
On the terrace of the conference centre just outside of London, I take a bite of my strawberry scone. I’m lucky to have been invited to conclude a multi-day strategy session of CHEP: subsidiary of Brambles, global market leader in pallet and container pooling, pioneer of the circular economy in logistics. Preparatorily, I had read about the challenges of the company. Just before the start of the third decade of our 21st century, these challenges are substantial, as so many other organizations experience these days. Digitization, robotization, aging, distribution of wealth, social inclusion, climate change and the growing call for sustainability; How can you, as a company, anticipate these developments? Are you aware of the far-reaching influence of your strategic decisions? How do you contribute to a better world?
To find the answer to such questions, you can tell a story. Because a story gives structure and offers new perspective. A good story is exciting and gives a bit of friction. Some stories are mirrors for the soul. William Shakespeare, the famous English playwright, was a master in writing such stories, also called allegories. An allegory is a story with an emblematic meaning, built on an orderly and recognizable structure. Characters and developments in an allegory refer to underlying myths or to concrete persons, ideas and events. Shakespeare’s allegories can be alarming, disquieting, uncomfortable. Because they are human, lifelike, familiar. They hold up a mirror to you. They did so then, and they do so now.
What happens if you really dare to look in the mirror? Then you do not only see yourself, but also what happens behind you, next to you, above you, below you. So that you gain insight into someone else’s perspective and broaden your own. By following the plot line of the allegory and linking it to your own situation, you can identify a pattern. This allows you to anticipate decisions with a positive (sustainable) effect in the long term.
To look in the mirror: that’s the gauntlet I throw down to the twenty CHEP supply chain directors sitting around the table. A streak of sunlight slips through the yellow curtains, for a moment blinding me. Then I tell them how King Lear’s choices end in a bloodbath. The old Lear is ready to pass the crown to the next generation. Once he divides his empire among his daughters – under curious conditions – everything goes wrong.
We draw the parallel between the challenges of Lear and CHEP. If Lear stands for the old strategy – then his daughters are the pillars under the new one. The oldest stands for ‘business operations’, the middle represents ‘technology and innovation’, and the youngest (Lear’s favorite) the ‘customer relationship’. Following the analogy, we invent relevant questions. Before a father passes his crown to the next generation, shouldn’t he wonder if his daughters are ready? So, is your operational management in order (daughter 1)? Have you invested enough in technology and innovation (daughter 2)? If you consider your customer relationship to be conditional and contractual, that may logically lead to estrangement and breakdown (daughter 3) – what happens in business reality? And what do Lear’s disruptive sons-in-law represent?
In the next thirty minutes, we have a frank conversation. What values do you need to protect if you want to manage a company ‘sustainably’? Is Lear able to listen, and do I really listen, as a manager? What makes a good leader? Who are my ‘disruptors’ and will I talk to them? How can you make a linear target structure cyclical and more sustainable? How to manage change? How to sustain?
It’s ‘at thy choice’
Thanks to all participants for your enthusiasm and substantive feedback. Special thanks to Christophe Campe for the invitation to apply Shakespeare to CHEP and to Adrian Dodd for the good communication. And to my Shakespeare applied partners Kaja Pohlmann and Erik van Plateringen for joining me later that day for a riveting Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe.