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Riding the elephant

The WorldSkills International (WSI) General Assembly in Kingston, Jamaica, marked many milestones for WSI – the election of your new President and Board of Directors. The induction of the world’s most populous nation into your membership (China became WSI’s 53rd Member country/region), and the presentation and ratification of a new 10 year plan.

There is a strong emotional connection to this organisation that is felt by many thousands of people the world over.

Those of us who have caught the ‘WorldSkills bug’ come back time and again, putting personal and professional lives on hold for what could be several weeks at a time, in service to this great organisation and its development of tomorrows’ youth.

I’ve recently been reading a book called Switch, about dealing with change. It’s given me great context for my current work and I thought it would also be helpful for what I’d like to say in this post.

The authors talk about the two independent parts of the brain – one that controls our emotions and the other that controls the rational and conscious mind. They compare this to a rider on top of an elephant – the rider being our rational side, directing the elephant – which is our emotional side. The two are equally important, but one clearly can outweigh the other.

WorldSkills is a very big elephant: emotional and stubborn and the Members are its riders, rationally deciding how to direct it so that it goes where we think it should go. Changing its direction is an almighty task. But just look at how far you’ve come!

There were 12 Competitors in Restaurant Service back in 1993 in Chinese Taipei when I was first an Expert. The Competitors were judged by 8 Experts standing in a line and observing. That was how we did things in those days and it was as good as it could be. Fast forward to today and this is what Restaurant Service now looks like; at WorldSkills Calgary 2009 there were 25 Competitors and 25 Experts!

Restaurant Service at WSC2009

Just imagine what the sheer increase in scale means to the management of such an event. Back then we had less than 400 Competitors and 600 Experts and volunteers. Today there are almost 1000 Competitors and 3000 volunteers.

Back then we had to make do with whatever equipment we could get our hands on, working with our Experts and, if we were lucky, a shop steward – usually shared between all the hospitality trades (which is what we called them back then).

There were no emails, no website, no means of communication in between Competitions, and worse, few rules. There was also a lot of unfairness and total lack of transparency. Today the equipment is state-of-the-art, tools are cutting-edge and communication systems are second-to-none.

As a Technical Delegate and Jury President for the Hospitality Trades in St Gallen (1997), Montreal (1999)and Seoul (2001), I was able to experience first-hand the way in which the WorldSkills Competition was executed.

And then, as they say be careful what you wish for, I was  appointed Quality Auditor soon after which resulted in the delivery of a report after each of the next four Competitions.

Back then there was no collaboration between the Secretariat and the membership. Today that is a given. There were no key performance indicators. Today there are many. There were many poorly run skill competitions – in my first report, 8 skills out of 40 needed significant improvements and 2 were totally unacceptable. Today that would not be allowed to happen.

This elephant has definitely changed direction for the better.

It’s amazing how well the new ways of working quickly become taken for granted. We rapidly forget the pain of change. From Competition to Competition significant qualitative improvements are made but we know that perfection is an ever receding goal, and therefore more improvements are needed and will come.

In my professional role at Four Seasons, quality and perfection are our obsessions. We rigorously measure ourselves against our competitors and against our own standards. The luxury hospitality market is now crowded with newcomers only too willing to take our place.

Until fairly recently we were a family owned and operated organisation, relying on leaders who had grown up with the company and processes that had always been in place. Over the last 2 years though, as we were going through the worst recession ever seen in our industry, we came face-to-face with some startling realities.

As a result we set out on a course of evolution that would fundamentally change how we operate our hotels and the corporation.

We all feared a loss of quality, a loss of control, a loss of what made the company great to begin with and of what the true essence of the organisation is. But if any organisation is to survive, it needs to grow.

We’ve recognised the power of the elephant, and of the rider, and tried to win hearts and minds. We’ve looked for and found bright spots. We’ve become solution focused vs. problem focused. We know that clarity dissolves resistance and that to change, new habits must be formed

There are parallels for WSI in this story – success will depend on our ability:

  • To evolve
  • To keep pace with society and the vocational marketplace
  • To rigorously question the way in which we do things
  • To seek new ways of being, rather than doing more of what you have always done
  • To determine whether or not we keep talking to each other and debating the issues
  • To understand that resistance to new ideas is a normal and healthy part of any change process, and not being put off by that

And on recognising just how far we’ve already come.

4 Comments to “Riding the elephant”

Jack Dusseldorp 20 November 2010 at 9:43 pm #

Thank you Ellen so much for your keen observations of our organization’s growth and development. It’s not easy to see the ground when you are riding an elephant, and it also seems a miracle that the elephant responds to your wish to change direction, but by looking back you can tell how far we’ve come and you have helped us do that.

Laurent Thibault 22 November 2010 at 7:27 pm #

Ellen, I very much enjoyed listening to your address to the General Assembly, and appreciated the opportunity to read your text on this Blog, and to think further about your very thoughtful remarks. Your perspective going back to the early 1990′s is very useful, particularly to those of us who tend to be perhpas too close to the beast.
Thank you for the enormous contribution you have made over the years in helping to improve WorldSkills.
I have now read the book “Switch” that you refer to, and have found it very useful in orchestrating change here in our local community.

The one statement in your address that strikes home with me is that “Clarity dissolves resistance”. At the Board level, we have tried very hard to make sure we really understand the essence of WorldSkills, and articulate a clear vision and mission.
The recent efforts to see clearly what the future of WorldSkills might be, which started with the insights gained from the branding study, helped us to see the potential of moving beyond being just an organizer of competititons, and towards becoming a full-blown “movement”.
It was gratifying to see at the Jamaica AGM the unanimous endorsement of the vision for the WorldSkills Foundation . Hopefully, we have achieved clarity for this next phase of WorldSkills’ evolution, and we can look back in the years ahead to see the same kind of success that you describe for the competitions.

Looking forward to your contribution again in London in 2011 where we fully expect the President can again say “the best ever”.

leenamaijatalikka 9 March 2011 at 1:22 pm #

Dear Ms du Bellay!
I very much enjoyed reading your blog; both emotionally and intellectually: How the current WSI has evolved and how many people with ‘WSI bug’ were needed: I like especially the final statements; what is needed in order to find new solutions new teams and new success
* To rigorously question the way in which we do things
* To seek new ways of being, rather than doing more of what you have always done

We in Skills Finland are questioning and seeking new ways of being – if you want say- in a “grass root” level in order to learning from each other:
Tomorrow I am visiting Skills Morocco and if not riding an elephant maybe a camel. Thank You for energicing thoughts!

Ellen du Bellay CA 15 April 2011 at 5:55 pm #

Dear Leela – thank you for your comments and congratulations on the work you are already doing. The more I am involved in change efforts the more I realize just how important the elephant – we ignore him or her at our peril! The other thing to remember is clarity – much of the resistance to change is simply misunderstanding! All the best to you.