The Highs and Lows of a Leader

Comm update_25 FebrYou’ve navigated the floods to make the 06:30 flight to LA, then 24-hours later you’re hot-footing it to snowy New York to hammer out the details of a new acquisition. By Thursday you’re back in London for a video link-up with the European heads before sticking on your black tie for that dinner speech to your industry peers. Welcome to the high pressure world of the senior executive.

“It’s fairly relentless,” admits Martin Grieve, Senior Vice President of Corporate Business Planning at FTSE 100 consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser. “We’re always on our toes having to think agilely and there is a lot of pressure that goes with that. But it also means I’m always doing something different.”

Those who don’t enjoy a little pressure need not apply. Richard Prosser, Chairman of car rental distribution provider CarTrawler, who was a divisional CEO at TUI Travel until 2010, comments: “I find that pressure creates momentum and it’s a characteristic of most of the types of businesses I’ve enjoyed being in… If you look at the world of sport, music, business, anywhere where there are high achievers, you tend to find all these people thrive on pressure.”

Andy Blundell, Chief Executive at outsourced customer marketing supplier Communisis, says: “However pressured you feel you must always appear calm and in control, because as soon as you appear panicked or stressed then that is a very bad message to send out across the organisation…

“I’m going to spend quite a lot of the next 24 hours in a shop floor environment and later… I’ll spend time with one of our top investors. So, you’ve got to be comfortable with a guy on a machine versus a guy who owns a substantial shareholding in the business, and everything in between.”

Peak performance

If you’re going to thrive in a leadership role, then communication is increasingly regarded as a key skill. Brendan Walsh, Senior Vice-President of American Express’s Global Corporate Payments division in Europe, says: “Each week I spend a good amount of time talking to and meeting with our customers. There is a great deal to be said for meeting face to face. I learn more from a half hour meeting with a customer than I can from ten hours reviewing customer satisfaction scores on a Powerpoint deck.”

Added to this, is the need to know when to let others do the heavy lifting. Martin comments: “When I’m working on potential acquisitions it will take priority over most other things, so I’m then into quite brutal delegation… In December, for instance, I had to delegate [to my team] even more to give the right attention to a big acquisition project.”

The constant travelling is something that takes getting used to. Daniele Sacco, Chief Operating Officer for HR at mining concern Rio Tinto, says: “The tricky thing with this job is coping with the time zones. Being a global job and having fifty per cent of the business in Australia, it means when you have to do global video calls you have eight plus hours to Perth, while on the other side of the world you have Montreal and Salt Lake City.

“It’s very difficult to combine the two things and requires calls at tough hours of the night or day. There’s a lot to juggle and I’d say it’s more of an art than a science. It’s about choosing what to prioritise.”

Sue Kean, Chief Risk Officer at FTSE 100 financial conglomerate Old Mutual, which operates in South Africa, Europe and the US, comments:  “As we’ve moved into new territories, the nature of the risks around business conduct and regulation are different at the coal face, and they are often a bit more difficult to aggregate than, say, the financial risks… [so] I’ve needed to monitor how regulatory issues are evolving globally by using my wider network, in order to really understand the context.”

Pragmatism and a sense of humour will certainly help. Paul Hearn, NED at financial provider Orbian and formerly CEO of European investment bank Mizuho International, comments: “On my first day as a CEO I made a speech where I said I had three mantras: teamwork, honesty and fun. I’ve always been of the belief that you’ve got to laugh in the face of adversity… [of course] in the financial services industry, where regulatory and other pressures are so enormous, it’s been a bit harder to laugh one’s way through things.”

Tom Taylor, Chief Executive of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, comments: “[Pressure] is not something that really bothers me and given that I currently hold down all three roles as a chairman, a chief executive and a non-executive director it would be impossible if it did. My GP recently asked me to undertake a twenty-four hour blood pressure monitoring test and he could not believe it when it [turned out to be fine], despite all the pressures.”

If you’re going to keep control of multiple deadlines and the fact that everyone will be looking to you for answers, the general view from those speaking to Criticaleye is that you need to be ruthless about time management, have a good PA and be disciplined enough to actually relax.

Paul says: “I was always a great believer in getting into the office early because if you get in at half six, by the time the world starts to whir into motion at about eight thirty you’ve already done a day’s work. That helps you deal with any unforeseen events that crop up and therefore you can manage the pressures of the day.”

According to Daniele, he’s never lost one night sleep in his life because of work. “I’m quite able to switch it off because the weekend must be devoted to family and friends,” he says. “A good friend of mine at HP [Hewlett Packard] once told me that there’s always more work than you can do, and so it’s important that you set up some boundaries and form some rules.”

Andy comments: “The real key is to be able to switch off from what you’re doing very quickly. So, for example, I might work from seven to nine on Sunday morning but after nine o’clock I then have a completely normal Sunday. I think when people have issues [it’s when] they can’t define that boundary and therefore the whole thing becomes merged.

“So, people would say to me jovially, ‘You’re a workaholic.’ I don’t accept that because I think workaholic has got a negative connotation, whereas I absolutely love what I do.”

I hope to see you soon.

Matthew

www.twitter.com/criticaleyeuk

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