How I Changed My Leadership Style

Guiding people and situations is not a one-size fits all game; leadership styles must evolve to suit the environment and people around them. As such, a good leader will be responsive, adaptive and open to feedback, all of which takes excellent emotional intelligence.

“Leading a team largely comes down to engagement. Get people inspired enough and they’ll follow you on whatever journey you wish to take them,” explains Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Management at Criticaleye.

“Of course, complexity comes when leading teams of different personalities, cultures or geographies – but it’s your job as a leader to read the room. Regular feedback on your leadership style can help with this.”

Here, we ask business leaders how, and why, they’ve adapted their leadership styles over the years:

Caroline Rainbird
Director, Regulatory Affairs
Royal Bank of Scotland

I reflect a lot on the styles I come across in other individuals, and try to incorporate those I have an affinity with into what I do. For example, I’ve been influenced by leaders who have listened to me and adapted their approach.

I try to have a very open, inclusive and affiliative style. I want to make it clear to people that while I have views and opinions, I don’t know everything and want to hear their ideas.

When I took on my current role, I was not a subject matter expert and had a lot to get through. I needed to engage with the experts around me but they didn’t work at the pace I wanted. I realised I had to slow down in order to go faster and modify my approach in an engaging way.

As a leader, it’s really important to role model behaviour but also to show that you’re adapting and learning yourself. I choose people in the organisation who I trust to get feedback on how my leadership style lands, because if it’s not working I need to know and to modify it where I can.

Across the bank, we’re rolling out a new and consistent approach to leadership. One great part of this is continuous observational feedback and coaching, under which I locate the skills I can work on to improve my leadership style. I then work on that skill until it becomes authentic and sustainable. It’s being rolled out from the top, throughout the organisation.

Alastair Lyons
Chairman
Admiral Group

Early on in my career, when I was a CFO, I asked my then Chair of Audit whether I was capable of stepping up to the role of CEO. He told me yes, but only if l learnt how to leave the office without checking if the windows were open. I was known for my detailed approach and had to learn to let go.

My leadership style as a chairman has also developed over the 16 years I’ve held the role across different businesses. I now have a much greater focus on the strategic, rather than operational,elements. I’ve also developed my ability to communicate both internally and externally, and understand the importance of really knowing the mindset of all stakeholders, including what is not said as much as what is.

In my view, a good chairman needs to be a chameleon and able to adapt their leadership style to fit the particular situation. I enjoy deciphering how to work with people, understanding the person, what their strengths are, what their fears are, and how they like to interact so that I can properly engage with them.

Those I’ve found hardest to work with have very set ideas on how to get things done and resistance to input, mixed with a strong belief in their own importance. That kind of person I find difficult to relate to.

Gary Kildare
Chief HR Officer, Europe
IBM

If there are aspects of your personality that you don’t like, you can certainly make adjustments to them. However, it’s important that you’re natural; don’t spend time trying to be something you’re not.

I think the same is true in leadership – being a leader can be tough enough without trying to fake it. Also a message often has more impact when delivered in a natural style.

There are many examples of people having to behave in a particular way because circumstances or situations demand it, but it’s not something they can do long term. Ultimately your true mettle will show through and it’s often at points of high pressure.

What you should focus attention on is changing your unproductive or negative habits, such as micro-managing, inspecting, checking and reviewing. Over time this will change your behaviour.

We all need feedback but it must be constructive, just being told what you do wrong won’t help. You must also decide how much stock you take in others’ opinions, while being open to change. I’d hate to be like an actor on opening night who celebrates the good reviews but completely ignores the bad.

Margaret Rumpf
General Manager, Hong Kong & Macau, Emerging Markets & Asia Pacific
GlaxoSmithKline

Everyone has comparable expertise by the time they are in a senior executive role, but what distinguishes someone above the rest is their ability to communicate, inspire and engage different people across the organisation. That means being able to adapt ones leadership style to suit the relevant audience.

I think it is incredibly important to know – and adapt to − who you are influencing, their perspective and the reason why they would buy into your message. It sounds really simple, but I see too many people trying to drive their own agenda and then asking why people haven’t followed in their direction. This takes time and effort.

I ensure the key message is clear and consistent no matter who I speak to, but how I frame the idea will be different depending on the audience. I also look at my circle of influence to ensure I cover everyone, not just those above me.

By Mary-Anne Baldwin, Editor, Corporate

Would you like to share your thoughts on changing leadership styles? If so, please email maryanne@criticaleye.com

Don’t miss our next Community Update, which will deliver highlights from Criticaleye’s Non-executive Retreat 2016, held in association with Santander.

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4 Tips on Improving Performance

Improving business performance takes strong leadership and immense effort, but neither will have impact if the company’s customers, staff and other stakeholders don’t believe in its future. A good leader will be able to create buy-in from everyone involved and use it to drive change.

When looking to bolster the performance of a company or division, Matthew Tait, Business Restructuring Partner at BDO, emphasises the value of communicating a clear strategy to all involved.

“One risk to recognise about businesses in distress is management’s tendency to lock the doors to the bunker. Despite the evidence, they can believe that no one sees what’s going wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Staff, customers, competitors, will know what is happening,” he says.

“A good turnaround plan needs to be agreed by the stakeholders as opposed to being imposed on them. You must understand what you need from each stakeholder – it could be time, funding, or a change in work practices. You also need to understand what the turnaround offers them; if it doesn’t give anything to key stakeholders then the turnaround won’t work.”

Change can be worrying for anyone, but the greatest fear comes from not being informed about where it will lead. As Joe Berwick, Business Development Manager at Criticaleye, highlights: “A clearly communicated strategy is the cornerstone of any successful change programme, and it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure it’s well-received by all stakeholders.”

We spoke to a range of business leaders, each of which have been through a restructuring, to find out how they managed their stakeholders. Here’s what they had to say:

  1. Reassure Your Customers 

When Vanda Murray, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Non-executive Director at Bunzl, led the turnaround of conservatory provider, Ultraframe, where she was UK MD and Group Marketing Director, she knew all key stakeholders had to be involved. “You must engage with them on a meaningful level about what they need, what their issues are and how you will work together,” she says. “The core of the turnaround story should always be the same and it should be based on reality, but you will clearly want different messages for different stakeholder groups.”

One move Vanda made early on in Ultraframe’s turnaround was to reassure customers that the company was reacting positively to market changes.

“The competitor had copied the product and halved the price, the product wasn’t quite as good but it was good enough. Our customers were leaving us in droves; it was a critical situation and action needed to be taken very quickly,”Vanda explains.

“I spent a week on the road speaking with all of the top customers to really understand what was happening. I spoke to most of the senior people in the company and then modelled how it could survive. We made it very clear what we hoped the timeline would be and we told them about our milestones to show we were on track. That was really important for them.”

  1. Build the Right Executive Team

When Andrew Richards took over as Managing Director of Britvic’s newly acquired Irish operations, recession had just hit the country. “We saw a procession of poor numbers, poor productivity and a poor marketplace performance across almost the entire spectrum. The business was failing,” he explains.

Andrew realised that he needed a team fit to take the business through Ireland’s recession; that meant very honest conversations with his executives, culminating in five of the seven leaving the business.

“In my first 90 days, one of my goals was to assess the nature of the loadbearing team,” says Andrew. “When I arrived, the Britvic Group Chief Executive had confidence in the Britvic Ireland executive team we’d inherited, but as we spent time pressure-testing the plan it became apparent that a lot of people weren’t capable of making the journey.

“The first person to exit the executive team, which was within three or four months, was the HRD. He was very well intending but not capable of managing a progressive HR agenda, and he recognised that.”

This process needs to be maintained throughout the change programme – while it’s common to make initial changes to the executive team, continued assessment will ensure the team still carries the skills it needs as the business evolves. “Those who initially feel they’re engaged and involved can begin to lose the energy to continue,” Andrew explains.

  1. Restore Staff Morale 

Low morale will take its toll on any business in decline; it can blight productivity, stain your company culture and lead your best staff towards the door. While emotions are bound to run high, there are ways to improve things – the most important of which are openness and clarity.

“People know when you are being straightforward with them. I talked to the staff in small groups of their own teams, so they felt comfortable enough to ask questions. I was as honest as I could be with them about the changes that would happen,” explains Vanda.

The greatest fear for many employees will be redundancy, so it is important to ensure it is handled properly. “We allowed people to leave with dignity and their heads held high, as much for them as the people left behind,” says Vanda.

It’s also important to understand how cultures vary across regional and international operations. Bryan Marcus, now Chairman of JBR Capital, recalled his experiences while being CEO of Volkswagen’s Latin American financial services division, VWFS.

Tasked with the turnaround of loss-making businesses, Bryan says: “I was a Brit leading a turnaround of German-owned banks in Brazil and Mexico, so the cultural, regulatory and operational challenges were numerous. From my experience, the critical success factors were openness with shareholders, consistency with local stakeholders and to ‘walk the talk’ with the local management teams.

  1. Communicate With the Board

Having led the turnaround of an international division, Bryan is familiar with the complexities of dealing with a distant board, as he explains: “Having worked in a local corporate, one of the challenges I faced was being part of a global corporation with global standards. You need to manage the pressure from headquarters and meet shareholder expectations while creating the time and space for the transformation to take root locally,” he explained.

Andrew faced similar issues at Britvic Ireland and found face-to-face communication was the remedy. “Some of my group executives and board colleagues had less sympathy or understanding of the situation I was in,” he explained.

“One of the ways I tried to work through that was to get the Chairman and a couple of non-execs over to explain what we were grappling with, that’s how I tried to manage my stakeholders back at the group level. Once I’d got them on the ground to see the situation first hand, they started to understand the challenges better.”

Whether you meet your stakeholders in person or build a rapport from afar, it’s imperative that you earn their confidence. As Matthew explains: “You need to have a trusted starting point otherwise people will hear the same messages reiterated but never believe it.”

And as much as you may want it, widespread improvements won’t happen without the belief of others.

Read more on managing your staff through a turnaround and rebuilding a business.

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Where do CEOs Turn for Help?

Fractious board dynamics, disgruntled shareholders and poor performance will put enormous pressure on a CEO, especially if they’re new to the role. While solutions may not be easy to come by, it can be difficult for a leader to openly admit they don’t have the answers. That’s where a mentor can make a big difference.

A mentor can be particularly useful when starting a new role, says Matthew Wright, CEO of utility company Southern Water: “The value of a mentor is that you can draw on their experience in times of change. You might be entering a dysfunctional team, or the board might not be as supportive as you thought it would be.

“There are myriad issues that you can’t anticipate until you’re in the role. By speaking to someone who has been there, you can prepare yourself for what’s to come.”

Tom Taylor, and former Chief Executive of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, says: “My mentor got me to realise that as a new CEO, it was not my job to solve every problem as I had first thought.

“She got me to understand there’s a huge difference between leadership and management, which I think is one of the most common issues facing a first-time CEO. You can manage a team but you need to lead an organisation.”

Lonely at the top

Tony Cowling, Criticaleye Board Mentor and former CEO and Chairman of market research company TNS, agrees that mentoring helps new CEOs develop essential skills for the role. “Chief executives are often anxious when they’re new because there’s nearly always a part of the business they know little, or less, about,” he says.

He explains that one of his mentees soon realised they required a wider skillset for the role: “They’d come up through finance… suddenly they were CEO and had responsibility for the company’s marketing, sales and online presence. They thought: ‘The company needs to change in these areas, so I need someone with experience that’s different to mine.’”

While some mentees have come to Tony for his specific expertise, which in his case includes marketing and international expansion, he says much of it is about having the freedom to speak openly to someone, which often you can’t do within the company.

Agreeing with this sentiment, Julia Robertson, Group CEO of outsourced HR services provider Impellam, explains: “I worked with a mentor when I was first promoted from Divisional to Group CEO. The job is lonely. You’re unsure of what you don’t know until you’re there, and sometimes you won’t want to explore that with your chairman.”

It’s for similar reasons that Tom’s chairman recommended he took a mentor: “She realised there was benefit in the independence of a mentor, recognising there is always a line management relationship between a CEO and chair.”

Tony illustrates the issue of relying solely on boardroom support when he describes helping two CEO mentees through difficult relationships with their chairmen. One, who was a first-time CEO, had to manage the chairman off the team. “We discussed it in his very first meeting and he came to the conclusion that he had to do something. He feels much more confident having resolved the issue.”

It’s something that cuts both ways. Sir Michael Lyons, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of the English Cities Fund and former Chairman of the BBC Trust, who has acted as a mentor both formally and in his role chairing a company, says: “It’s quite possible for a good chairman to provide challenging support to their CEO, but there are inevitably performance judgements to make and it’s critical that the chairman does not get so close to the CEO that they’re unable to identify a failure or act upon it.

“The mentoring role is quite separate. It gives the mentee a chance to explore things that could be difficult to discuss with immediate colleagues, or board members.”

Mentoring in action  

While mentoring can provide considerable support in managing these relationships, its benefits extend beyond the boardroom to cover other issues including shareholder expectations, performance, remuneration or change management.

Penny Hamer, Criticaleye Board Mentor and former Group Human Resources Director of telecommunications company Energis, explains how she has provided mentoring through the restructure of an executive team and encouraged a female MD to put herself forward as Group CEO. “Her appointment has been a great success,” she adds.

The issues will vary with each CEO, which is why the mentoring relationship should follow a pathway defined by the mentee.

“This is not a place for blueprints,” says Michael. “In some meetings people might want to discuss the challenges immediately in front of them, on other occasions they might want to look further forward, or may even discuss something completely outside their working life. Addressing the whole person is very important but doing that in a way that doesn’t feel artificial or pre-programmed is key.”

Highlighting the different approaches, Tom describes how his mentor shadowed him through a variety of meetings: “She pointed out how much I adjust my behaviour to different settings without realising it. ‘There is more than one Tom Taylor,’ was her phrase. I was doing this unconsciously but once I realised that I could develop this approach as a tool, it made me a better CEO.”

Another pivotal aspect is the relationship dynamic. “Finding the right match between mentor and mentee is essential,” says Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Management at Criticaleye. “There needs to be the right chemistry and respect so that conversations can be open. Also, mentoring sessions need to be prioritised during what is inevitably a busy time for a new CEO.”

Mentoring relationships should evolve with the mentee’s needs and it’s important to be fluid. For this reason, a mentee should not be reticent to move on, indeed their mentor will have benefited too.

What does the mentor gain? Penny explains: “Exposure to different business sectors, which helps keep me up-to-date with current business challenges. Plus there’s the buzz of seeing someone develop in a challenging role.”

By Mary-Anne Baldwin, Editor – Corporate

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