Last month, I had the humbling experience of being named the national AIM Leadership Excellence Award Leader/ Manager of the Year. It took me by complete surprise! And was one of the proudest moments of my career. During the selection process, I needed to give a lot of thought to my leadership style and reflect on the type of leader I am today, and the type of leader I aspire to be in the future. Of course, there’s a plethora of resources around leadership which offer many other suggestions on what it is, and what constitutes great leadership.
This blog is my personal view, crystallising some of my recent reflections into 6 key principles that to me, are the essence of what leadership is about.
As an Organisational Psychologist, I’ve spent a lot of time understanding people’s behaviour. I don’t think it’s possible for us to engage, with as much time as we do with the people we work with, without caring about what’s going on in their lives, so that’s really important. So as a leader, my job is to try and understand our people. I care what they think. I care about what they can contribute and their individual needs. What motivates me is going to be quite different to what motivates somebody else, so my job as a leader is to understand that across my team. If somebody likes public recognition, then it’s important I give them that. If somebody else just likes extra challenge and reward in terms of their task allocation, I need to provide that. My job is to understand what works for them, not just assume that what works for me, will suffice for those that I work with.
There’s a little example I’d like to share with you. At Revelian, we provide lunch every day and sit together and talk about things in our lives. One of our team members was talking about a new store that had opened at the airport that was selling an ice cream sandwich. According to him it was the best ice cream sandwich in the world, and he revealed that he and his partner had especially driven to the airport on the weekend, not to board a flight but to buy ice cream sandwiches.
Now I thought that sounded pretty impressive. So the next time I went to the airport, even though it was 7am, I made a point of getting an ice cream sandwich. And I took a photo of it and I put it on our Intranet with a message to Chris to let him know that I care about him, and what’s important to him. That was a major sugar high, early in the morning, but you know what? I loved it. So, thank you, Chris for teaching me something different, and I hope to learn more from you as we go forward.
The second principle I believe in is to be a good role model. I need to behave in the same manner that I expect the people I work with to behave, and that is a balance of being professional, reliable, and credible, but also human. I need to be approachable, I need to be grounded, and I need to be authentic.
And I have to hold myself to account if I’m not demonstrating those behaviours consistently.
But it is about accepting that, when you take on a leadership role, you’re taking on the behavioural expectation that comes with it. As humans, none of us are perfect and we will all have some ‘off days’, however we need to set the tone and standards for how we should all engage. Things that are inappropriate need to be called out immediately, and we need to be clear in saying that they’re not an acceptable practice within our workplace. And each of us should be held to the same level, the same standards, to ensure we’re fair and equitable.
The third principle is about setting clear expectations. I believe it’s important to explain to everybody what the outcome and the objective is, the timeframes, and importantly, the context. People perform the best when they connect to the strategy, and understand their role in delivering it.
However, we don’t have to spell out the full recipe on how to get there. A lot of leaders fall into the trap of prescribing the what, when, how and where of what needs to be achieved, leaving their people with little opportunity for individual input. To me, that’s hubris. Every individual has their own ideas, their unique concepts, potential, and talent to contribute to a solution, and a good leader harnesses and encourages that.
I really think if we can get that balance of expectation and individual contribution right, there’s a way we can mobilise our workforce to not only achieve those objectives together, but very often exceed our own expectations.
The fourth principle is about being collaborative, yet accountable. This underpins all of my decision-making. I will never have all the answers on my own. I will never attempt to solve any problems solo, but I do believe if we spend the time together, everyone’s ideas, feedback, and contribute different perspectives, we can solve any problem together. But at the end of the day, I’m accountable to make those decisions.
It’s a responsibility, at times it’s a privilege, and sometimes it’s a burden, but it is part and parcel of being a leader in any organisation. Sometimes in hindsight, we might get a different view. We might change what we would’ve done. But if in the moment we make the best decision we can on the information we have available to us, that’s the best we can hope of each other.
I think it’s also really important as a leader that we keep perspective. Yes, this job’s important, and yes, the business is important, but it’s not my whole life. And I don’t expect that it is for any of our employees either. I know there are high profile CEO’s out there who seem to take pleasure in the long hours they work, and measure the commitment of their people in terms of the hours they spend on the job. That’s not me.
One of the first things I did when I was promoted to the role of CEO was to request that my team provide me with a whole bunch of pictures – pictures of places they’d been to, places that they wanted to go to, places in the world that were special to them. I have plastered a wall in my office with these pictures, and it’s created the most amazing mosaic of inspiration – while also helping all of us to keep our priorities in check. We work to live. We work to strive to get out amongst new adventures, to spend time with our family and friends. And yes, we spend a lot of time at work and we need to optimise that. There’s no doubt what we do is important, but it has to be in balance with the rest of our lives.
Another really important foundational principle of leadership is feedback. Every single day, it’s important that we pause and gain formal and informal feedback around how we’re tracking. We need to be connected with the business, connected with the team, connected with the market, connected with the broader social context to understand what we’re navigating in. And I need feedback around how I’m going. Am I meeting objectives? Am I not meeting objectives? I can choose how I then use that feedback to take a step forward, but I absolutely need that feedback loop constantly to ensure that I’m bringing my A-game every single day.
This process of going through the AIM Leadership Excellence Awards has been quite an insightful one. I don’t think we take the time very often to pause and reflect about what we’ve achieved and what we’re striving for, and definitely not about how we’re necessarily impacting others as often as we should. For me this process has been really useful and equally, very humbling. I would encourage everybody to take the time to reflect about what they’ve achieved and how they’re going every single day, whether it’s part of a formal process or otherwise. It’s something I’m going to take time to build in moving forward, and try and listen a little bit more to that positive feedback that I think we’re all too quick to dismiss.