After working in sport and hospitality, Carlo Giardinetti is paving the way for innovation in the higher education sector as a champion of Holacracy. We caught up with him recently to find out how self-organised institutions operate, and what makes the Holacracy system so successful in Business School Lausanne (BSL), Switzerland.
You’ve previously worked as a professional football player and then in the hospitality industry. What attracted you to the education management space?
I always say that this is my third life, or chapter, if you like. My life in education began somewhere between 2008 and 2010 when I had the privilege of working with a wonderful international coach who took me along to some coaching sessions.Her advice enabled me to see that I'm at my happiest and most rewarded when I see others happy: I knew then that I wanted to help people grow and succeed. From that point onwards, I started exploring careers in education. I moved to Switzerland and began teaching in the hospitality management education space and then moved into general business. I’ve been at BSL for two years now.
In a recent article, you explained how BSL is focusing on changing the present education system and experiencing a very exciting transformation. One of the changes has been the adoption of Holacracy as the operational management system since 2015.What were the main reasons behind this profound change?
Interestingly enough, this change was the one condition for me when I joined BSL. I initially came to BSL to enquire about a doctorate programme and started speaking with Katrin Muff - the Dean at that time - who told me of her intention to shift to a self-organised institution.
The reason Katrin Muff wanted to explore the shift to a self-organisation institution started from her intellectual curiosity as well as a personal need. After eight years of being the Dean at BSL she felt almost burnout by having to make most of the decisions so she started looking at alternative management models.
I immediately became very interested in this and read two ‘must read’ books on the topic in just five days. The two books I’d recommend to someone who is thinking about self-organised institutions are Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux and Holacracy: The System that Abolishes Hierarchy by Brian J. Robertson, the founder of the Holacracy concept.
I was experiencing a moment in my life and career where I felt uncomfortable in traditional management, so the conversation about doing a doctorate quickly transformed into the possibility of joining the school as a staff member to help champion the move.
Is BSL the only business school that operates as a self-organised institution?
Yes, as far as we’re aware BSL is currently the only business school working as a self-organised institution. There are a couple of other schools: one is a children’s school and the other one is a music school in Berlin, but no business schools. We’re now going through some new accreditation processes so I think BSL will become a good case study for other business schools to take inspiration from.
How has it been to shift from a traditional business school management structure to a Holacracy environment with distributed authority?
Let me start by clarifying that when we shifted to a self-organisation at BSL, we only started with the management and administration team. I think schools are a different kind of organisation compared with traditional companies. Schools almost work as communities - you have the management team, the faculty and the students. In the past year, we’ve also been looking at how we can bring on board our faculty and students and that opens a whole new set of challenges and opportunities.
The management and administration team’s shift to Holacracy has been a very challenging yet rewarding transformation. The shift touched on people’s fears and habits; in a self-organised institution you don’t have a safety net anymore (your manager or your team). Similarly, there’s noone to get approval from or delegate your tasks to. This can cause a lot of anxiety in some people. This shift is profound and paradigm to the individual and it challenges the way people are used to working. When you don’t have this typical structure of command and control and people that delegate projects and tasks you have to create new rules.
"The management and administration team’s shift to Holacracy has been a very challenging yet rewarding transformation."
Self-organisation works really well if you have rules and expectations, otherwise it can create chaos. In that sense, Holacracy is successful as it has a prepared set of rules and a constitution to follow.
At BSL there are no job titles but rather people have multiple roles and responsibilities within the institution. What’s your current role or responsibility?
Because the work is organised in different circles, I have quite a few roles within BSL. I am the lead link at the BSL company circle, which is essentially the overarching circle, as well as the Executive Education circle. The lead link is the closer role to management although I never manage other people. The main responsibility of the lead link is to allocate other people to roles and support partners with choices around priorities and resource allocation.
Within the Executive Education circle I also have the role as programme lead for the MBA programmes and professional development courses as well as candidate interviewer. I am also the secretary for the Thought Leadership circle.
In addition to this, I’m an internal coach for the Holacracy system and I also have a role for faculty development and one called, 50+20 platform. The 50+20 platform role is actually the one that I love the most as I get involved in reinventing business education and get to promote a more responsible and sustainable way to intend business education around the world.
How do you get an important institutional decision made in this circle structure?
Two of the most important elements of Holacracy are clarity and accountability. Even if a decision touches different roles, there has to be a role with final authority. In Holacracy this is called Governance.
Do you have more team meetings since adopting Holacracy?
Not at all - we actually have less meetings than before. Normally there is only a weekly tactical meeting for each circle which should not take more than one hour. Also, because there is no hierarchy, most decisions are made individually and the tactical meetings are just a moment to synchronise everything and collaborate.
"Two of the most important elements of Holacracy are clarity and accountability. Even if a decision touches different roles, there has to be a role with final authority."
For governance, we conduct a monthly meeting where we discuss governance roles and proposals. We actually process most governance proposals online and we only take it to the meeting when someone has an issue with the proposal or wants to discuss it further.
In Holacracy, people decide on how many meetings they want to have or go. There are no mandatory meetings.
Do you feel that universities are reinventing themselves by adopting new business models?
It is certainly growing as a trend but there’s still a lot to learn. We look at sustainability and responsibility as paradigm shifts. Most schools are making incremental changes in this area, for example by offering courses in sustainability and ethics, but they’re not really changing the message of business education.
Businesses should serve the world and offer solutions to the big challenges of our times such as poverty, inequality and climate change. Unfortunately, businesses have more often than not been the cause of these challenges and not the solution.
There’s a long way to go but there’s already a great network of schools such as the United Nation PRME Network, whose ethos centres around ‘responsible management education’, and there’s already 700 business schools around the world that are signed up to this.
Did BSL face resistance from the team when adopting Holacracy? How did you address any opposition?
Yes, not everyone fits with a self-organised system, the same way that not everyone fits a ‘command and control’ system. To fit a self-organised institution, most people have to go through a personal development and change phase and not everyone is ready to embrace that,so it is natural to have big staff changes.
For someone who is not comfortable with this system it becomes really hard to continue working in such an environment, and it is only natural that they start looking for a different job. When we started in 2015 we had a team of 14 people and only 50% are still here.
Medium decided to abandon Holacracy after four years. Did you ever consider going back to the old management system?
There are a lot of companies that abandon Holacracy and most do it in year one but there are also a lot of success cases. To succeed with Holacracy it takes time and personal investment.
I don’t know if we’ll continue with Holacracy forever, but I’m confident that we’ll continue with self-organisation forever. I’ve been invited by Harvard to teach a course in self-organisation next year together with Mike Lee, a PhD student who has been specialising in this topic. His research highlights that there is more than one model for self-organisation. Holacracy is certainly the most thorough and efficient model which is why it’s so popular, but there are other models emerging in education.
What kind of metrics do you use to measure the impact of Holacracy? Do you already see positive results?
From a financial perspective, you measure the end of year accounts but it’s hard to allocate results or directly link these results to Holacracy.
There are two other things we can measure that are far more interesting to us. The first one is the rate of innovation. In a self-organisation, people are so empowered to do things in their role that the number of new initiatives increases dramatically. The other thing is the human part, namely personal development. Everybody who has been exposed to this change has been impacted on a personal level. Many people start to flourish and others learn more about their fears and limitations.
The results you get from Holacracy differ from person to person. If you ask me, I am a lot happier in this dimension. I can’t think of going back to a traditional management model. But if you ask some partners that have left they’ll have a very different opinion!
"Everybody who has been exposed to this change has been impacted on a personal level."
We’re moving to an age where consciousness is rising and people want to take more control of their lives, so I think self-organisation will resonate with more and more people in the future.
How do you think this new management structure impact students and teaching?
We can already see the impact at BSL for students. For example, instead of the traditional organisation behaviour course, we teach a course called Organisation of the Future with a Holacracy certified coach, whereby students are trained on self-organisation models and do simulations with Holacracy.
Faculty is also experiencing Holacracy as we started inviting them to our structure and meetings.
How do you decide the compensation in a self-organised institution?
Holacracy provides an operating system but various companies apply it differently and can build their own applications. For example, the compensation and hiring elements are not defined by Holacracy but decided by the institution’s governance. At BSL, we have a coordinator and committee for hiring and firing and it’s a very collective exercise. However, for compensation we kept the former dean with the compensation role and so she manages that directly - according to the budget.
This year you experienced the lowest student intake in your recent history. Do you know why?
There’s more than one why - market factors, currency exchange and competition. Also, from our side we’re more clear and transparent about the type of education that we offer and some people are still attracted to the more traditional business schools. However, I feel that we’re living in a transitory time and I believe that students will soon be looking for more innovative business schools.
Last year, BSL introduced the gap frame weeks. Can you tell us more about that?
The gap frame weeks are probably one of the best representations of what we believe at BSL. Our research team has come up with this powerful tool - gap frame - a framework that looks at the 24 major world problems in different countries and how badly these countries are impacted by these problems. In the gap frame weeks we invite our students to look at these problems and find business solutions.
The gap frame weeks are probably one of the best representations of what we believe at BSL."
It’s a highly innovative week that starts with the students exploring these issues and then envisioning the word without that problem. Students will then prototype business solutions that are sustainable and financially viable and then present these to different stakeholders. We do gap frame weeks every three months with all programmes, from bachelors up to doctoral, as well as faculty. As a result, we end up with 40 to 50 business prototypes per year and some students have even decided to pursue with some of their ideas.
You’ve recently introduced the Millennial BBA where students are co-creators of their academic experience. What does this involve?
The BBA is a three year programme and in year one, the preparation year, students are allocated core courses but can also choose from quite a large range of elective courses. The students then work with a mentor to design their journey for the second year where they have to go outside the classroom. This can take the form of volunteering, an internship or travel - as long as they have learning goals and present a journal of their progress.
The goal is to take the second year to learn in unconventional way. We also offer a portfolio of options from partnerships that we have including music, art and film schools, NGOs and exchange study opportunities, but the student can also go for their own experience. Year three is the consolidation year where students return with a much clearer perspective on what they like and what they want and they pick their elective courses based on what they have learned.
We are also conducting intensive faculty training and are moving away from ‘traditional teaching’ methods into a more ‘facilitating’ approach, allowing students to become active learners and focus on the areas that they want.
What are you most excited about for 2018?
I look at 2018 as the year where students will start seeing responsible and sustainable education as an exciting rather than extreme proposition. On a personal level, I’m excited to work with our marketing role here at BSL to even better communicate what we are trying to do for business education.
My job in higher ed is a monthly series. Read the rest of our interviews.