I've been lucky to have worked with and alongside some great organisational leaders in my career. I still do, and this week I've been thinking about the leaders I work with, their characteristics and what organisations need to do to get the best out of them.
Today, I work with private sector tourism businesses, universities and I'm a non executive director in the NHS and of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The latter is a big organisation, well-led by the experienced and unflappable Carole Souter, and one that has working relationships with a huge range of organisations and their leaders. This week, for example, I met Sir Michael Dixon (no relation), Director of the Natural History Museum.
What then, are my reflections on leaders, leadership and their role in organisations. I'll break this up into thoughts on the role, the personal qualities of leaders and what organisations need to do to get the best out of their leaders. This Blog focuses on the role of leaders in organisations.
Leaders need to be able to
Vision and visualise the future: to me, this is a really important role. Few organisations in the private, public or third sector face certain stability, usually there's a lot of change and leaders need to be able to think in different timescales (running the business this week and planning for the future). Creativity, inclusive strategic skills, communicating vision, handling lots of information and uncertainty and synthesising that into plans are key attributes of good leaders
Make things happen: change and responsiveness in a myriad of ways are important for leaders. Sometimes, this will be about taking a surgical and structural approach to an organisation - describing and then engineering its future size and shape, making decisions about what to do and what not to do. These can be lonely and tough decisions, but often are the make or break actions that allow organisations to survive. Sometimes, a more collaborative style is needed to co-create the future with staff, stakeholders and your senior team. Making the judgement call about what mechanism to use can be difficult and the success or otherwise a determinant of great leadership.
Lead by values: leaders need to be able to visualise the future, physically create it and role-model the values of the future organisation. I'm increasingly struck by just how important value-led leadership can be and. The power it has in creating success and cohesion. Authentic leaders know what the values are, believe in them and are effective role-models. When communicating with people, those values are uppermost in a great leader's style. Important values are fairness and objectivity, customer or service-user focus, quality and ethical positions. The blend of values defines an organisation and alignment of leaders with those values is vital.
Problem-solve: I admit that I found this hard when I was a CEO, but I developed a set of tools for solving problems. Defining a problem, getting to the root of it and getting a consensus is important and participative, non-judgemental discussion techniques help here. Data and externally- gathered analysis is often key here too. Learning from how others tackle similar problems can be helpful and quick ways of resolving issues as are the technical inputs of specialists. Often, time to reflect, once all the information is on the table is valuable and poor leaders rush quickly to answers. Great leaders manage groups of people to come up with the best solutions.
Be resilient: this is an over-used word, but a key role of a leader is to manage organisations for resilience, to have personal reserves of resilience and ensure that when faced with change, challenges and opportunities that each day, at each key moment for decisions and at each milestone, people are fresh, level-headed and intellectually ready for engagement. Nothing saps the effectiveness of organisations more than over-tired, emotionally fatigued leaders. Time on the golf course, with the fishing rod or the family can be pretty effective leadership tools. Doing work off-line, through reflective learning, supporting other organisations or study visits can be very powerful.
It follows from what I've written above that organisations need to be effective at appointing, performance-managing and supporting leaders. Generally, great Chairs of Boards can do this and when appointing or voting for these posts, their management abilities should be uppermost. 'Holding to account' a CEO is a big job and one that a good chair will do with the support of other Board members and external support where necessary.
I will write more in the future about the role of Chairs and Boards and about senior leadership teams. If you would like me to work with your CEO or Board to develop their performance and the effectiveness of their leadership, please call me for a confidential chat. My contact details are here.