The true test of leadership in business is how CEOs and senior executives deal with pressure situations. When faced with delivering complex transformation, responding to business model disruption or some black swan event, do they have the ability to stay calm and communicate in a way which galvanises different stakeholders?
A chest-thumping, directive style of leadership seems increasingly out of step with the times. Phillippa Crookes, Senior Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, says: “People skills and emotional intelligence are what differentiate the best leaders today, particularly as so many organisations continue to navigate complex change.”
Here, senior executives identify the top qualities of a successful leader.
The ability to keep a level head in the more heated moments of a leadership role has always been important, but it’s arguably more so given the multiple lenses through which stakeholders now view an organisation.
Jane Furniss, NED of the National Crime Agency and former CEO of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), says: “I certainly have experience of critical scrutiny of my organisation and challenging press stories about it. This is when keeping calm is both really difficult and absolutely essential.”
“There have been some really high-profile situations when senior leaders have made the mistake of saying things under pressure in public that actually make the situation worse. This is often a mixture of poor judgement and not thinking about your role as a leader from the point of view of the people you are leading, whether that’s staff in the organisation or customers and clients.”
The biggest mistake, observes Jane, who is also a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, is “when people get something wrong, they often dig in and get defensive”. She adds: “The best thing you can do is apologise and explain what happened as quickly as possible. The crisis itself isn’t usually the biggest problem, it’s how badly the organisation responds to it.”
There are going to be tough times when leading a company. Reece Donovan, Group CEO of Nomad Digital, recalls that when he was first promoted into his role, having previously been COO, he accepted that he was going to have to confront some gnarly issues. “I knew it was going to be difficult, but it was really about facing up to the challenges, preparing and just getting started dealing with them one at a time.
“Not finding the courage to accept the challenges and to get things done limits people unnecessarily. If you want to be a leader, you need to identify and tackle the most important business problems, and do that quickly.”
In this instance, Reece says that knowledge can only take you so far: “It applies to so many different areas of business. A restructuring, an acquisition, getting into new geographies and market segments – all of these require listening and analysis, but then it is about having the courage to act.”
With this comes an element of resilience. You cannot be afraid to make mistakes; you need to be able to “take the knocks when things go wrong, then pick yourself up and continue to move on”, says Reece.
He draws on an example in his career where “we took on a major cost restructuring that involved seven core business changes. About halfway through the programme we realised that one of those changes wasn’t right for the business at that time. So, we had to reinvest time to analyse and adjust our plans, and still delivered against our overall savings goal”.
Clarity and communication
You must have a really clear focus on what you are trying to achieve, and then be able to communicate that throughout the business. Peter Blausten, Senior Advisor at Alvarez & Marsal, emphasises the importance of keeping the line between management and the rest of the organisation as clear as possible.
“The management team should be thinking through what their strategy needs to be, what their business plan is going to be, and then how that business plan gets converted into targets. You’d expect to see that clarity flowing all the way through the business and not getting distorted at different steps.”
He also says he’d “want to see that clarity in the way a company reports and reacts to shareholders; the way it relates to customers in its brand promise; and the way employees are communicated with and motivated”.
A leader should be confident, but not to the point where a personality shuts out other opinions and tries to dominate the room. Samantha Barber, NED and Chair of the Corporate Responsibility Committee of Iberdrola SA, and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, suggests that strong executives will recruit a “cognitively diverse” team to support and challenge them.
“I have seen a leader who was very fixed in their own beliefs and ended up blocking out wider perspectives that weren’t within their natural frame of thought. What happened is they isolated other communities and stakeholders, because they became so focused on the key things they were interested in.
“If you want to see what kind of leader somebody is, look at the immediate team around them. Those who aren’t confident tend to want to have people around them who think and behave like them. Actually, leaders who are strong and confident want that diversity of thought and outlook in the team surrounding them.”
Alice French, Editorial Assistant, Criticaleye
Next week's Community Update will look at how and why businesses should undertake a second wave of integration post M&A.