This is a story about the leadership of today. Based on deep, rich, sometimes unexpected insights from the group of inspirational senior leaders and Board members we met.
This leadership study has been undertaken by 6 senior women from various organisations and backgrounds, as part of the Next Generation Leaders Program 2016 run by Women on Boards. It is the culmination of 6 months of an extraordinary opportunity for us, gathering leadership insights from 23 senior leaders and Board Members covering corporate, government, not for profit and start up communities.
Our study focuses on four key areas to illustrate some of the key elements of leadership today. These include the characteristics of a successful leader, personal philosophy and style, taking risks and creating opportunities, and the and the role of diversity and inclusion in teams.
There were many views on the characteristics of a successful leader that we have grouped into the key themes of authenticity, having a collaborative mindset, an ability to inspire, having courage, creating a flexible workplace to align with expectations of today’s workforce, and the criticality of recruiting the right people.
When asked about personal leadership philosophy and style and how this has evolved over time, our interviewees provided some rich insight into their personal journeys. There were commonalities around being true to who you are, taking feedback and having a willingness to change. Many leaders also noted the importance of staying current due to the increasing pace of change, and the need to adapt in a world of globalisation and social media.
The role of mentors and sponsors has been key in career journeys, but interestingly these were almost always informal relationships connecting on an as needed basis; and were not part of the formal mentoring programs prevalent in companies today.
When asked about risk taking in their careers or roles, the responses tended to be around moving countries or states versus changing roles.
Finally, diversity and inclusion was a topic all our interviewees talked about passionately. Most interesting were the views on diversity being about different ways of thinking, with an acknowledgement that it’s very hard to see and measure. The leader or chairperson is the critical person to initially create a diverse team but that’s not enough in itself. They must be able to bring the best out of their diverse team and create an inclusive environment.
We were inspired by the people we interviewed, their insights, openness and generosity. We were also surprised at times with statements that challenged us and forced us to think differently! We share some of these in the report. Our individual reflections are also shared along with what we have learnt from the leadership program.
We hope that you, like us, will find this study useful as you continue your own career and leadership journey.
What does it take to be a successful leader?
Leaders of today are very different to leaders of 20 or even 10 years ago. This reflects the context of the environment they lead in. The pace is faster, decisions are expected to be made more quickly, competition is global, customers and suppliers have greater expectations, employees and employer loyalty has shifted, social media has exploded and there is a greater need and demand for workplace flexibility.
Our syndicate gained and analysed key insights from 23 leaders of today – CEO’s, Board Directors and Senior Leaders – who revealed 6 characteristics for success: Authenticity; Collaborate Mindset, Capacity to Inspire, Recruit and Retain, Flexibility, Courage
Authenticity was consistently quoted as an imperative. It is a characteristic that is highly regarded but it may not always be possible to walk the talk. Authenticity demands no difference between what you say, and what you do. This can be very challenging when the speed of communication and change is great and time for self-reflection is minimal.
It was commonly agreed that to be an authentic leader, you must allow others to see your true self, rather than trying to project an ideal image. People will see through you if you fail to be open, honest, transparent and trustworthy. It is important to provide more information than less, particularly when you’re driving change. This makes the difference for garnering trust and building a better culture.
Leaders of today are expected to be human and to live by the motto ‘What you see is what you get’. Authentically being yourself is now considered a strength rather than a weakness of character.
Many of the leaders we interviewed spoke of the importance of sharing who you are with your team as well as your vulnerabilities. This demonstrates authenticity and enables honesty for the whole team.
“Be authentic – people see through you very quickly if you are not authentic. You need to find a way to relate to something your audience believes in”.
Collaboration was seen by all leaders to be an essential component of the toolkit. The days of the CEO making decisions in isolation and delivering commands have passed. Leaders now expect to be challenged and correctly demand this of their senior team.
“When you’re paid a good salary you need to be ready to contribute and give your view
The benefits of collaboration are vast and far outweigh single-decision, autocratic leadership styles. Command and control leadership is generally a style of the past although it is sometimes enacted in critical situations. Being collaborative allows you to be open to diverse perspectives, creates more discussions, engages people in a debate and allows you to make better decisions. And in the end better decisions are made that lead to greater company success. There is no doubt that working collaboratively is more time consuming and requires skill to reach decisions.
All leaders interviewed believe it is important that everyone has a voice at the table and the opportunity to listen, discuss and engage in the debate. Many leaders noted that someone will often say something from left field that wasn’t considered. As a result, strategy and risk mitigation are more sophisticated. Most powerfully, decisions have greater buy-in because they are seen as team decisions.
Leaders saw their role was to ask people for their view and consider all possibilities. As an example one executive starts with a hypotheses and suggests the best solution or even provides the answer.
“I clearly state my view then ask for other people to present their argument and to challenge my view. You need to be open to persuasion and you need to be able to change your view if someone else can demonstrate a better view
This approach works most effectively if there is a will to listen and be persuaded.
A collaborative environment is ‘killed’ by the presence of a person who is arrogant, pushy or who bullies and argues badly.
“If you have people who argue to promote new ideas, or who debate, that is good, but if they are pushy and a bully, it won’t work. It also won’t work if your leaders have fixed views and are not prepared to change, they will just be an obstacle
Capacity to Inspire
Being able to inspire people is the key to driving successful outcomes for your organisation. Our executives agreed you must set the vision: Start with a seed and nurture it to grow so that everyone is engaged in becoming part of the new environment. If people have clarity and understand why they are doing what they are doing they will be inspired.
Keeping people motivated is founded in demonstrating real care and concern for your people, customers and the shareholders. In order to support teams to do their best work executives noted they need to provide the tools, avoid micro managing, get out of the way and let leaders lead. As one leader said: “As the CEO I manage at 30,000 feet and just scan the organisation. It is only if I am uncomfortable with a situation I will get down to 5,000 feet to see what’s happening and when I am happy I go back to 30,000 feet
Inspirational leaders are those that motivate their people to be the best they can be and inspire them to do more than they think they are capable of doing. Treating people with respect and trusting people to do the right thing is essential. Inspirational leaders today have a fundamental belief that people need good leadership.
“We are all human, we are just doing a different job
Recruit and Retain
One of the surprises of our research was that in some cases leaders continue to hire replicas of themselves and are oblivious to their ‘similarity bias’ in recruitment decisions. One executive interviewed shared a story of reviewing top candidates for a role. He was presented with 4 males and no females. He said to his leadership team “you have just done what you told me you wouldn’t do
” (that is, favour male applicants) and sent them back to re-evaluate their candidate submissions. He told us that he couldn’t believe his senior executives were still biased, and that “this is the reason it is so important to set quotas
” to create change and make leaders challenge their biases.
All of the leaders we spoke to agreed that recruiting a team that has a diverse range of skills, experience, gender, cultures and generations is one of the most important things you can do.
“Hire the best people you can and let them do what they do best
Great leaders in successful companies were not scared to have good people around them. They noted the key is to start by hiring the best, and then provide them with full accountability, creating the conditions they need to be successful. As one leader said: “Give them the trust they need and back them
It is also important to identify talent in your organisation and provide the right opportunities. Failing to do that leads to lost opportunities for the business. One executive admitted “I had a female manager who was identified as talent sitting in my organisation and we didn’t do anything to promote her. Leaders need to take ownership of talent
Great leaders take more risks on people. They take interest in people outside their own areas and look for talent across the company. One leader told us that “I look to save great talent from bad leaders. Great talent should not be influenced by bad leaders
It was agreed that today’s leaders need to be flexible with their teams and be more focused on outcomes rather than watching the clock in a 9 to 5 office environment.
“The world no longer has borders, working across the world in a mobile environment requires flexibility
Many of the executives work flexibly and understand the vast benefits it provides to both the individual and the organisation. It is difficult to attract and retain talent without the willingness to be flexible.
“Good people are in demand and if your organisation is not flexible then you will lose them to an organisation that will be flexible
Flexibility allows employees and leaders to balance their responsibilities at work with their home life, enabling them to work anytime, anywhere.
Courageous leaders inspire people to think in different ways. Many of our CEO’s, Board Directors and senior leaders have been pushed by their mentors to take new opportunities and work outside of their comfort zone.
“Every new role has been a risk and it is these moments when it is your greatest time of learning and growth. It is fear that helps to generate learning
Almost all leaders we spoke to who were given an opportunity to do something different questioned their own capability and asked themselves ‘Why me?’ and ‘Can I do this?’, and then sometimes in the new role ‘What have I done?’ One leader said: “I still have feelings of doubt and concerns of failure. You need to trust your people you are working with and back yourself. You need to realise you have a bank of knowledge, systems and tools that you can rely on to get you through
Leaders highlighted the importance of pushing teams out of their comfort zones and encouraging them to be innovative and courageous. There is a need to take away their boundaries and see what they can do. Try new methods and freely admit if it doesn’t work.