By Nic Pearce and Seamour Rathore
Business leaders today are judged not only by the financial markets, but also by their employees and customers. Sites like Glassdoor give a forum for current and former employees to review employers and leaders. Meanwhile, Twitter and other social media channels expose customer complaints to the world, throwing a spotlight on how they are handled.
So, how does a leader please all these players? They need to be clear about what they communicate and what their mission is. But that isn't enough. It’s how a leader behaves and acts that is more important than anything else. What they say they’ll do and, crucially, what they actually do is what matters.
A leader needs to give as much thought to a modest team meeting in Croydon, Surrey or Austin, Texas, as they do to a filmed keynote speech in front of 300 industry leaders. That’s because how a leader acts and behaves is just as important - if not more so - for the people in the regional meeting than at the industry forum.
So, if communicating isn’t just about getting your keynote right, what is it about?
So, the problem “visionary leaders” have is that the more “visionary” they are, the more likely it is that they’ll be damned as full of “bulls**t” by many others.
So, what’s the answer? It’s all about recognizing the fact that they are walking a very thin line. It can be easy to lose credibility unless they inject a generous dose of truth and authenticity into their communications. They may be labelled as a “Pinocchio” because they fail to acknowledge the big picture or discuss the negative. But in external communications they are likely cautioned that if they address the negative, newspaper headlines will focus on that.
So, they need to find ways to communicate with their people in an open and honest manner, and one that isn’t at odds with their external message.
Many believe that alongside an employee’s commitment to an organization, there is also a psychological contract between an organization and an employee. If they feel the organization understands and supports them, they respond with increased trust in management and greater commitment to the organization, as Peter Boxall and John Purcell noted in "Strategy and Human Resource Management."
When the structure of any business is flattened, to a greater or lesser extent – by giving a voice to employees beyond the leadership team – then history has shown that the benefits accrue. This flattening has often taken place in the context of time and motion, six sigma or LEAN/agile processes. But as these dogmas have come and gone, the constant has been richer communication between leadership and the frontline.
From Toyota Motors in the 1980s and 1990s, to HSBC today, many organizations are implementing global structural changes that mean from the customer to the CEO there are no more than eight layers of people. With fewer layers of hierarchy comes the promise of swifter decision making and leaders being closer to their customers.
Any initiative that engages frontline workers in improving processes is likely to reap dividends, and is an essential part of the toolkit for today’s leaders.
Many leaders talk about agility and trying and failing fast, but very few have the courage to embrace it. For example, if they’re going to empower their frontline workers to use their knowledge to improve the processes they are working with, not everything will work first time. Leaders and teams need to learn to accept that failure. But the same is true of a major change in direction or new product – not everything will fly.
Virgin’s Richard Branson talks about accepting failure as a valid part of business life. He says: “Even when something goes wrong, we continue to search for new opportunities.”
The great thing about failing is that it can help in many ways. When viewed through the lens of analysis and feedback, it can clarify the right (or better) way to go forward – moving us closer to success. It also teaches us to take responsibility.
We can now measure so much that we rarely trust our gut instinct. Even market research is sometimes used as a prop that absolves us of the requirement to innovate.
But pure free-flowing listening can be wildly instructive. Decades ago Charles R. Schwab took this to an extreme by spending all of his time with his customers finding out, through conversation, what they wanted. This insight enabled him to build one of the world’s biggest financial intermediaries.
Schwab said recently: “We have the right kind of client-relationship people who really have the interests of the client at hand first – not second, but first. We are willing to risk short-term revenue to do the right thing for the customer and ensure long-term success.”
Similarly Carolyn McCall, CEO at budget European airline Easyjet, explains the business’s recent success is down to listening to customers and delivering what they wanted. This included seat reservations, honesty when planes run late via a mobile app, and staff who smiled and were helpful. When she flies she also canvasses flight crews on improvements they would like to see.
Since McCall took over in 2010, Easyjets’ profits rose 10-fold and its share price tripled.
It’s important to understand the cultural component of leadership – in order to better manage the relationships and communicate with diverse audiences – from operations in countries with which they’re unfamiliar, to attracting and retaining generation Y.
Key to developing global leadership skills, according to one study, are things like innovation and continuous learning, but they also include values such as personal vision, integrity and the desire to seek harmonious relationships with stakeholders.
This works for Gen Y too. They value a collaborative culture, exposure to a variety of roles and a focus on leadership development and coaching as key.
Part of this effort should be focused on diversity in the workplace: 85 percent of CEOs whose organizations have a diversity strategy say it has enhanced performance.
Apple’s Steve Jobs was never afraid to expose his feelings and motivations to the world. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, Jobs explained that dropping out of college allowed him to follow his curiosity and intuition; his sacking from Apple at the age of 30 was the best thing that ever happened to him as it led to the most creative period of his life; and how important it is to him to live each day as if it was his last.
But, many more leaders are still afraid to give an insight into what makes them tick. Very often that’s because they realize that they will have to assume different faces for different audiences and that’s something they believe is at odds with authenticity.
In their excellent Harvard Business Review article "The Paradox of Great Leadership," Goffee and Jones offer a suite of advice for leaders who want to be authentic.
They suggest leaders get to know themselves and get honest feedback, as well as removing barriers between themselves and others on a personal and organizational level.
As one leader puts it in the article: “I want to be me, but I am channeling parts of me to context. What you get is a segment of me. It is not a fabrication or a façade - just the bits that are relevant for that situation.”
While we’ve talked about walking the line between being viewed as a visionary or a “Pinocchio,” it’s more about realizing there’s no straight line but an ever-moving, and flowing set of choices.
There are conundrums here, but a start can be made by ensuring those around you are able to help you develop a path that incorporates an understanding of what makes people tick and a realization that any organization is just a collection of people trying to do their best. The leader’s job is to ensure that can happen.
Image credit: Flickr/Michiel Jelijs
Nic Pearce is a global managing partner of engagement for Instinctif Partners.
Seamour Rathore is senior consultant on engagement for Instinctif Partners.