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Why leadership is not all about YOU

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When, in 2012, US businessman Arne Sorenson became the first ever head of the Marriott Hotel chain in its 88-year history to be appointed from outside the Marriott family, he had a surprisingly modest vision of how the company would succeed. “It’s possible to glorify the position of CEO,” he said, “but it’s important that they should not be the only one making the decisions. Nobody is that brilliant.”

What Sorenson had spotted was that to be a good boss you don’t have to shoulder all responsibility, make every call and have all the answers. In short, leaders: it’s not all about you.

“There is a misconception of what leadership is,” says Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management, Sucheta Nadkarni. “In many situations the idea of a leader standing on a pedestal to be looked up to may not be the best way to lead. Leaders should not be afraid to shine a light on those around them. In many cases it’s the most effective thing to do.”

Professor Nadkarni, who is co-hosting a debate on the subject at this summer’s CJBS alumni reunion, adds that leaders should be confident enough to use the greater specific skills and knowledge of those they lead.

“The most effective thing is to connect with and understand others,” she says. “Listening is as important as giving motivational talks. See what is happening, keep your mind open. And don’t just seek advice or information from your usual suspects. Ask for help or ideas from those you’d least expect to contribute.”

But it’s not enough just to ask for your team’s input. Most successful bosses recognise their staff will only be truly free to express ideas if given “psychological safety” – which means you lead by being bold enough to withdraw and let them get on with it. One reason Sir Richard Branson was recently voted by fellow CEOs as the most admired business leader of the past 50 years may be that he described an effective boss as “somebody willing to delegate, someone who doesn’t try to do everything themselves and is willing to let people make mistakes”.

Professor Nadkarni agrees. “You as a leader can’t possibly know all the answers. Successful leadership comes from knowing when to lead, and when to let go. Innovation comes from many sources but you need to give your team the confidence to come up with 10 foolish ideas. 10 foolish ideas can lead to a genius solution.”

Diana Verde Nieto, founder of UK-based global sustainability communications consultancy Clownfish and latterly brands website Positiveluxury.com, is another leader who says allowing your staff to do their job is vital. “I look for a diverse team,” she says, “and people who know more than I do.

“I think the principles of managing a football team are perfect in the office,” adds Nieto, who was nominated as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and now sits on the Forum’s advisory board. “Everyone has a different strength and skill set, but is united by a common goal – the hunger to score and win.”

To do that you need a team you can trust, says Dr Andreas Richter, who is co-hosting the debate with Professor Nadkarni. “Leaders need the confidence to step back, to manage that urge to control. That is more straightforward if you have a say in the composition of your team. Sometimes you might be heading up a two-month project and you can handpick your colleagues – on the other hand you might be inheriting a team you need to manage for the next 10 years. But in both cases you need as a leader to know the individual strengths and weaknesses of your team members – and of yourself.”

Acknowledging, even celebrating, the fact individual team members know more about specific aspects of the business than you do, is key to effective team decision-making. Brad Smith, CEO of financial software giant Intuit, follows a brief and simple mantra for any leader: “Get out of the way!”

Smith, whose collaborative approach means he famously insists on drawing a fraction of the salary he could get at rival firms, adds: “Regardless of whether you are leading a large enterprise or a small team, you need to remove barriers to innovation. We operate like a company of start-ups. We create and foster a culture where our 8,000 employees have unstructured time, giving them the opportunities to collaborate on new ideas to solve customer problems.

“They have the courage to take risks and grow by learning from success and failure,” he adds. “At the end of the day it’s about empowering individuals to contribute ideas and make a real impact.”

Rachel Bell, CEO and founder of London-based creative communications agency Shine, goes further still. She has no qualms about being outshone, as it were, by her staff: “The absolute pinnacle of success for me would be if I was made redundant by my senior management team.”

Bell is very clear about the special ingredient that has seen Shine land such diverse clients as Peroni, Paramount and eBay. “Look after staff and make sure you hire the best people in the industry,” she says. “We teach people how to run a business at every level. Everyone has a business objective and everyone is involved in putting those plans together.”

No wonder Shine placed sixth on a recent Sunday Times list of the 100 Best Small Companies To Work For. Bell even allowed two of her staff to shine so much they quit – with her blessing and support – to set up their own agencies. She explains: “My own personal ambitions are only ever delivered through other people achieving their own ambitions.”

Handing the decision-making over to staff has also proven hugely popular at online bank Tangerine (formerly ING Canada), where employees have no job titles and no permanent desks. Such lack of structure, believes CEO Peter Aceto, means staff are uninhibited in sharing ideas, suggestions and even very candid criticisms of the company.

Aceto, who doesn’t even have his own parking space, was so keen to use ideas from his team he published a blog giving them what he called “the right to bitch”. In the post he wrote: “I want to know what you think sucks, doesn’t make sense or makes your day harder than it needs to be.”

Forthright comments and discussion duly flowed, prompting Aceto – whose company recently beat 14 other Canadian banks to top a JD Power customer satisfaction survey – to conclude: “My senior team is reminded of the power of real conversations, honesty and open debate. I strongly encourage leaders to take the initiative, be an active listener and provide safety for your employees’ honesty.”

Dr Richter believes the key for aspiring successful leaders is to examine and understand exactly what the role of leadership means. “What are the leadership functions? It’s a high likelihood that leaders will have specific expertise in their own field – finance, marketing, sales – but it’s important they empower their teams according to their skills. By leaving many of the decisions to their teams they foster a sense of joint ownership in the overall goals.”

And there are signs that shining a light on your employees is not merely good for staff relations, or for the bottom line, but that increasingly, staff actually expect it. “In the West, many of the younger generation believe they should be given that responsibility,” says Dr Richter. “It’s the zeitgeist in which we live – a young, skilled workforce expects to be empowered.”

Arne Sorenson clearly has no problem with that. “As a leader, you need to be curious, and you need to be doing more listening than talking,” he says. And delegating, it seems – one of his first acts as Marriott CEO was to devolve powers to four regional presidents around the world. Within a year of doing so, the company’s Wall Street stock price had risen 90 per cent and this year the company expects to open its one millionth room.

So the message is clear, says Professor Nadkarni: “Don’t be afraid to shine a light on those around you. Lots of research suggests that showing vulnerability is a very powerful aspect of a leader – and a very good way of showing that you’re a human being too.

“If you are determined that your team must look up to you, they may follow – but out of fear, intimidation or intense respect. All of those inhibit employees and they don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas. Many leaders strive to show strength but this just highlights the gap between the leader and employees.”

But maybe, after all, leading by knowing when to step back is not such a new idea. The notion was neatly summed up 2,500 years ago by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “When the best leader’s work is done,” he said, “the people say, ‘We did it ourselves’.”