For any CEO or senior leader the ability to inspire others comes as part of the job description. In practice, not everyone can do it. The reality is, it’s hard to find leaders who have that mixture of confidence, belief and emotional intelligence which enables them to galvanise and motivate those around them.
James Boot, Senior Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, says those at the top need to earn respect rather than assume it will be inherited along with their job title: “To be an inspirational leader you need believe in what you are doing and speak and act with authenticity – this will encourage trust.
“People don’t expect you to be infallible, and an inspirational leader will be able to admit their mistakes and even acknowledge self-doubt,” he comments. “Employees need to be able to relate to you on a human level.”
We asked a range of business leaders to explain how they have inspired or been inspired.
Rethinking Leadership Traits
Mark Whitby, NED, Totalmobile
People don’t work for companies, they work for people. I was inspired to want to work for ICI because it was led by John Harvey Jones and since then I have worked in companies with other very inspirational senior leaders.
Leaders in the tech industry – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, for example – have been conspicuous in recent years, but these people don’t always display the traits that we have historically associated with great leadership. A lot of these tech leaders are more technologists than commercial entrepreneurs.
It’s a mistake to think that all leaders, in all contexts, need to be extroverts; an understated CEO, who leads by example, can be equally effective. Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel, whom I saw first-hand, was not what I would call an extrovert. He certainly wasn’t a chest thumper; he just had this absolute focus, vision and clarity, along with the ability to transmit that.
As your responsibilities grow the demands on your leadership skills increase, and the success of what you’re managing becomes more dependent on your ability to inspire, communicate and lead. This can be a burden for some but fulfilling for others.
Setting a Vision and Communicating
Nigel Howell, CEO, FirstPort
For me, leadership is about having a very clear ambition for your company and then expressing it directly and consistently with real integrity.
I picked up FirstPort in the early stages of a turnaround, so I had to get rapid alignment across 3,000 people throughout the UK. I created a simple but ambitious goal, with a clear route to achieve it. We were to be the leading UK residential property manager. We would all aim to be the best, based on customer, competitor, contractor and industry feedback.
Then I chose to communicate simply and directly with staff through a monthly e-mail from me. I write it and try to put over how genuinely I care about our customers and FirstPort.
Now, building on that, after each monthly board meeting, a couple of my directors and I record a video blog describing key milestones and projects. It’s a chance for the troops to hear from the whole leadership team directly. And each autumn, the whole exec team go on the road and present to our staff. At the end of these conferences we aim to shake everyone’s hand and say a genuine thank you for their efforts.
In any complex business things go wrong, but when you have great people, who are all aligned and ambitious, you can move mountains.
Inspiring in a Global Organisation
Hugo Patten, Former CIO, Global Solution Delivery, DeutschePost DHL
Real engagement with people is critical to inspirational leadership. My senior team was distributed globally: Prague, Germany, the USA and Malaysia, but today communication can be enabled using many different technologies. I use telepresence every day to meet and engage with my teams; it’s not as good as face-to-face but it’s close.
I also physically get out and about: for example, while at DHL, I used to go to Kuala Lumpar almost every month and I’d organise 20-minute sessions with each team. We’d use a whiteboard and they’d explain their priorities and what the issues were. There was also a CSR element – so things they were doing in the community – a mixture of work and fun. I’d also ask each of them what I could do to help them meet the plan.
Having a clear and easy-to-communicate strategy is a key part of engagement. I didn’t focus on multiple different messages, just one clear one, and in this case it was to do with software. Committed to quality: everybody, every day, everywhere.
Leading in a Crisis
Yetunde Hofmann, Board Mentor, Criticaleye
When things are going wrong that’s the time employees really need inspiration. When things are tough you need your people to step up, but often that’s when people become most resistant to change.
An inspirational leader will make employees feel that they are there, in the middle of a crisis with them. There is a lot to be said for the ‘we’re all in it together’ mentality. You have to make people see that you are there for the long haul, and you do this by being clear and consistent.
Don’t hide anything and don’t keep information from people, because your attitude, and the way you behave in a crisis, will inspire them. Encourage people to be concerned, but then help them to direct and channel that concern into something productive.
You must be out there among the people and visible. You have to be down on the shop floor and your lieutenants should be doing the same – so brief them to make sure you are all speaking with one voice.
Rob Leeming, Editor, Criticaleye
Next week’s Community Update will look at how to create a fail-fast culture in your organisation.