I said in my article a couple of weeks ago that the list of traits that I felt were important to leadership when times are tough, wasn’t complete and my in-box has been bombarded since with messages from readers suggesting additions. So I guess I was right!
There have been some great ones too yet, I’m happy to say, also a few common themes that lead me to believe that maybe the broader business community understand what it takes to lead a business in the digital economy after all. All we have to do is spread the word.
Pride and humility
There has been quite a discussion around pride and humility, which might be evidence of aloofness among our leadership. I remember a while back when I asked the CEO of a large retail business I was working with to sign an all-staff letter that I’d written on his behalf to announce the new initiatives we were planning. “Ask one of the managers to sign it” he said “I don’t write to shop staff”. I thought this kind of attitude was a thing of the past, but maybe not?
Of course, there are businesses that are, right now, reaping the consequences of this kind of hierarchical approach to leadership. We all know that a lot of businesses will be lost because of the Covid-crisis, but businesses that have continued to work to re-strategise and re-build to meet the demands of the post-Covid marketplace will, at least, have a chance survival.
However, this will only have been possible where employees were fully engaged and that’s never the case when there is a command-and-control culture.
I was talking this week with a consultant in Spain and I mentioned the differences that I’d witnessed over the past few weeks of different nations’ response to the current situation. One thing that has stood out to me has been that businesses in some countries seem to have completely shut down. I’ve been unable to reach some of the senior executives I had been dealing with in organisations in Spain and Portugal for example, while their counterparts in other countries have just switched to home-working.
Of course there could be any number of reasons for this. Poor broadband infrastructure for one. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to find decent bandwidth at an affordable price in parts of Spain, but this by no means explains things.
My consultant friend suggested that because a lot of Spanish and Portuguese businesses are small and privately-owned the people at the helm in many cases are not trained managers and if they are, they were probably trained in the old-ways of doing business. Apparently “this is the way we’ve always done it, so why should we change?” is a question still asked by these business leaders.
He also confirmed something I have noticed, that the employees in a lot of Spanish and Portuguese businesses aren’t really engaged and that’s probably because their leaders haven’t encouraged them. I’m sure this isn’t a characteristic only of these countries, but to succeed anywhere in the world a business has to have the full engagement of their internal stakeholders and that includes all their workforce. Without this, for all kinds of reasons, you simply won’t compete in the digital economy.
It’s a shame too, because many small family businesses in countries like these are diamonds which, if they would only adopt contemporary processes and models would polish up spectacularly. When consumers worldwide are calling out for artisan, ethnic or simply “different” products and characterful solutions it seems such a waste that these small businesses will be lost to us, along with their products, simply because their leaders were stuck in the mud.
Pride comes before a fall
I raised the matter of “pride” in my last article on this subject. It has a lot to answer for. This out-dated philosophy of legacy leaders that persuades them they have to be all-powerful, infallible, is still killing businesses across the globe if my mailbox is any measure.
Terry Dickerson an IT consultant who among other things runs DFW Professionals in Transition from his Houston base highlighted that pride has many facets. Time and again I have received messages on this subject and I find myself asking for the umpteenth time why people who have been successful to date fail to see the reason for their success. It’s not because they were right all the time. Everyone makes mistakes and even if you were in the habit of fooling yourself into thinking you were the “font of all wisdom” you aren’t fooling anybody these days. As one of my contacts put it “No leader here ever admits to a mistake for fear of looking weak or vulnerable”. If only they knew how weak they were really looking by insisting on being right all the time.
I’m sure by now you’ve spotted the theme that I’ve seen emerging from my mail. Of course, like everything else, there are degrees of aloofness and it’s nothing we all haven’t encountered at some time. It’s also recognised as one of the 25 most commonly-quoted reasons for transformation failure and if your transformation fails because of it you aren’t going to make it in the digital economy anyway. Whatever you call it — command and control, top-down management or just plan pig-headedness — there’s no place for this kind of leadership in the new order of business.
This doesn’t mean that all legacy leaders are obsolete of course, it’s just that they have to recognise their strengths and play to them. In fact, I dread to think what a lot of young start-ups will end up like without the wisdom of the grey haired leaders that have paved the way for them.
This is where the executive coach comes into play. I often bring coaches in to work with me to encourage senior executives into the right mind-set. It takes a rare combination of special skills to be effective as a coach and like many other areas of consultancy, there are a lot of people calling themselves “executive coaches” who are just plan bad news, but a good coach can make a great deal of difference to the pace and ultimate success of a transformation.
Know where you are heading
The initial meeting with many of my prospects starts with me asking a simple question “What are you trying to do here?” All too often the answer is something like “We want to transform” or “we want to become a digital business”. When I ask why they invariable don’t have an answer beyond “That’s what everyone else is doing”.
The truth of the matter is digital technology nor transformation are the solution. What they need to do is deliver what people want. Now, this may sound obvious, but its surprising how many businesses are really delivering only what they can produce and trying to persuade end-users this is the best they can get.
Going back to my list of leadership traits, a number of my correspondents pointed to great leaders having a clear objective. This is undoubtedly right, but like so many of these suggestions I remember really awful leaders who believe they have this nailed. There’s a fine line between being focussed and dictatorship and it takes a great leader to understand this.
Never stop learning
Jean-Yves Laguillez wrote to me from Paris to remind me that great leaders are always ready to learn. In a way that’s part of the humility thing, but I know what he means. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the new economy is that nobody is ever the “full package”. The reason innovation and Rolald Heifetz’s “adaptive managers” are important to contemporary businesses is that the landscape changes every day, new challenges emerge and organisations have to respond and adapt. That usually means adopting processes or taking on lessons that are completely new. Once you stop learning in the digital economy you stop being relevant.
Agile minds and foresight
Lee Gibson who leads ANQ a very innovative digital retail solutions business in the UK, suggested mental agility as a requirement of a good leader and I agree. Maybe if you have that agility you will already be on-board with some of the other traits, but businesses have to be agile these days so if the leadership isn’t there’s not a lot of hope!
I don’t know if you have ever considered your own traits. I don’t mean skills or experience, although, I guess your traits are the product of your life/business experiences. We all have something that we do instinctively and I believe my ace card, if you like, is the ability to take a birds-eye view of a situation. I know I’m visually orientated (They say we are either orientated to text or verbal communication or images). I instinctively think in plan view and draw a mental map of a situation. This enables me to understand the long-term consequences of short-term actions and I’ve avoided a lot of traps that way. I was particularly pleased that Lee also suggested “foresight” as a usefiul leadership trait too.
By the way, if you want to see my Brand-Led Business Transformation programme set out as a diagram there’s a version you can download here.
Ibad Ahmed also flagged some interesting points. He suggested that great leaders are happy to lose small battles in order to win the war, which I guess goes back to the matter of infallibility. I particularly like his suggestion that great leaders have “grit and resilience” In Ibad’s own words “Shoot them and they’ll get right back up”. So true! However, it’s not a “terminator” approach he’s talking of, it’s more good, honest grit with no ego attached. They just get on with it.
Nothing beats a little luck
I’d like to close with another of Ibad’s suggestions that I’m particularly sympathetic to. Great leaders are “lucky”. Yes, I guess there’s no getting away from it, luck is always part of the formula for success, you just never know what part, so you simply have to get on with the other stuff and hope luck finds you.
Thanks for everyone who sent me their thoughts, I know I’ve not mentioned everyone, nor quoted everyone’s suggestions — although, as I said, the underlying themes were strong — so apologies to all. I hope you’ll all stay in touch though and contribute to future themes.
I’m also always happy to chat and explore ideas, so look me up and if you need any help with your marketing, brand development or transformation you can be sure I’ll be delighted to hear from you.
May 15, 2020