August 2023

The Story of Arowana's Circle of Leadership

dirk linkedin

A long-standing tradition of growing people, growing companies, and growing value, Arowana's quarterly Circle of Leadership has evolved into an open space for inspiring teams and orchestrating synergy.

As I'm sitting here pondering the rich history that the Arowana company has gone through since its inception, I cannot help but notice that what we introduced as a corporate heartbeat in 2011 has become essential to the success of growing our people and our company throughout our journey in the past 12 years.

For many companies, the main heartbeat is a yearly performance management system through which managers and staff communicate around objectives and key performance indicators that need to be achieved over the year.

Often, alongside the system sits a yearly get-together at which management converge to look at the year ahead.

With the introduction of the Rockefeller habits in 2011, Arowana decided to make the heartbeat not a yearly, but a quarterly, one. We called the quarterly leadership meeting the Circle Of Leadership (COL).

As a company that is versified across a number of industries, it has been difficult to find common parameters across all its businesses. We have solved that problem by introducing a number of segments into our quarterly COL.

The components I will describe below were not started on Day 1 but have gradually emerged as being the most effective components to keep a diverse group interested, motivated, and challenged, as well as informed and educated.

Synergy Building Blocks

Today every COL has five clear building blocks:

1) Building cultural alignment through consistency

This is the top-down communication of important themes and insights, as well as corporate messages, for the whole group. In this section, a senior member of the management team speaks about Arowana’s purpose, philosophy, values, and characteristics and restatement of the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal – a Jim Collins term).

The topic heading are the same for each quarter, but the accents are slightly different as this segment is introduced by a different member of the senior management team. The constant repetition ensures that no matter who you ask in the organisation, they will give you a similar answer. This segment is followed by a check-in with our 10-year plan and Arowana’s achievements of the quarter past.

2) Learning & Development

The second building block of our COL is made up of a strong Learning & Development component which provides the latest state-of-the-art insights and knowledge. This is covered under four groupings: operational literacy, financial and investment literacy, technological literacy, and the just recently introduced impact and sustainability literacy. The latter further embeds Arowana’s drive as an established B Corp for continual improvement in everything we say and do.

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3) StratEX workshops

This is a quarterly check-in on Strategy & Execution (StratEx) with our portfolio companies. These workshops are based on the Arowana-specific premise that strategy cannot be presented without execution and vice versa.

Each company that lives in the Arowana ecosystem presents a set of OKR (Objectives and Key Results) updates from the past quarter, together with an overview of what went well, as well as a list of obstacles that have been encountered.

Next, each company presents a set of smart numbers which are standardised and normalised, followed by a battle plan for the quarter ahead, which includes a new quarterly theme – alongside a risk-adjusted plan of attack and defence plays. All of this is presented in the context of a five-year moving strategic plan for the business under discussion.

4) Building Rhythm / Cadence

For those who work in the enterprise office, there is an internal StratEx meeting that encompasses an overview of what happened over the past quarter, a look forward in detail of the OKRs of the upcoming quarter as well as a no-nonsense, no-holds barred forum debrief of a number of operations, projects and activities that have been conducted over the past quarter.

All our OKRs are based on the quarterly COL rhythm, with the annual OKRs set at the quarter just before the financial year.

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5) Fostering Connection and Camaraderie

Finally, the most critically important element is the social bonding around the two-day meeting. Since our first COL in September 2011, through to our 33rd in December 2019, we have gathered everybody into one location to enable this social interaction.

As people go in and out of the presentations and workshops, there are many touch points where chatter happens, ideas are exchanged, and business insights and suggestions are discussed across the various Arowana industry representatives present.

Each COL culminates with a group dinner, which is the perfect backdrop that fosters the cross-pollination of teams from different businesses, backgrounds, industries, and seniorities to mingle and exchange thoughts and ideas.

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Sadly, this aspect went missing during the pandemic when we had to pivot to a 100% virtual COL.

Since COVID, the whole corporate world has changed. And, for us, a ‘new normal’ has emerged in which we have the March and September COL online, while the June (think: end-of-financial year) and December COL (think: Christmas party!) are held as hybrids. Each Arowana global region hosts its hybrid part of the global COL.

I will spare you the global event logistical challenges this presents, but our staff are very flexible and understand that, sometimes, they will have to be on calls as early as 6:30 a.m. or as late as 11:00 p.m.

A special shout-out to a few individuals who attend from the US and often are called in to be online throughout the night. Heroes.

What’s next?

On a personal note, I'm honoured to have been involved in all of Arowana's 47 Circles of Leadership over the past 12 years, and it has been a pleasure to have been the conductor behind the scenes of all the various activities, presentations, documents, logistics and marketing activities associated with these.

As I retire from Arowana, it is my personal pride to hand over the role of conducting this process to no other than my son Patrick, who has been working with the organisation for the past 2.5 years and has been my understudy to help run this corporate heartbeat.

I'm convinced that with the help of the senior management team, he will be able to continue the process and keep the concept growing bigger and better as the organisation becomes more global in nature and even more diversified in its corporate membership and participants.

Thank you to Arowana’s founder and CEO and my personal friend Kevin Chin and to all who have been walking alongside me to make the magic of this organisational synergy a reality.

I know the magic of the Arowana Circle of Leadership is not in any of its individual components but is clearly a result of the synergy of all the pieces of the puzzle coming together on a quarterly basis.

I wish you all the best in the next 47 COLs. Thank you and Godspeed!

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