Holding Up the Mirror

The criteria for what makes an effective leader is changing. If senior executives are serious about sharpening their leadership skills, they need to be open to receiving constructive, candid feedback from colleagues. It may be an uncomfortable experience, but taking the time to evaluate and assess personal performance is increasingly important.

According to Charlie Wagstaff, Managing Director at Criticaleye: “Leaders should not be precious when receiving challenge from their peers and colleagues. They need to welcome honest, open critique from those around them and factor it into their approach – ego and a reluctance to adapt are damaging traits.

“Openly discussing vulnerabilities and promoting frank dialogue will help you determine how to improve performance and engage your teams.”

Failure to do this could lead to stagnation, says Judith Nicol, Director for Leadership Services at Warren Partners. She explains: “If as an individual or as a team you don’t reflect and continue to develop self-awareness, you can’t improve your effectiveness. All you do is produce more of the same and it becomes your default position.”

360-degree feedback

At Land Securities, Chairman Alison Carnwath uses 360-degree feedback for the leadership team, including the CEO.

“If you want to provide a balanced view to a chief executive about how they are doing, beyond simply saying: ‘You’re doing a great job, keep going,’ you have to find tools to help you,” Alison notes. “My CEO absolutely wants to hear what his direct reports think about him, cogitate on that and talk to me about it. It gives him some hints as to what he could do better.”

As well as providing the chairman with a fuller picture on leadership performance, using such tools can make a good impression further down the organisation. “Most people say ‘yes’ to CEOs the whole time, so the opportunity to receive frank feedback is great. It also sends a good signal that they are willing to learn and be challenged,” Alison adds.

Handling sensitivities

Adopting this kind of approach requires a mature and open attitude. Alan Armitage, CEO at Standard Life (Asia), found that encouraging his leadership team to critique one another has helped them assess their own style and characteristics, as well as understand how they can best work together as a team.

The executives have to trust each other for this to work. “It’s easier to do when the team has had some successes and you’re wanting to take it to the next phase,” Alan says. “If there are conflicts or issues this could just antagonise the situation further.”

Last year, Alan introduced 360 feedback to his leadership team on a more regular basis. “I felt the team was mature enough to take direct feedback from others,” he explains. “We even managed to take into account some of the cultural differences they have versus a Western organisation.”

There has to be clarity on why you’re introducing new forms of appraisal. If it’s not implemented effectively, it can easily backfire and result in suspicion and unwanted politics.

Nicky Pattimore, HR Director at Equiniti, says: “I’ve seen organisations introduce it for development purposes but then suddenly it’s built into performance assessment, which creates distrust.

“There is often nervousness around these kinds of tools if they have not been used before. Being clear on why you’re using it and ensuring it’s done in a safe environment is important.”

It’s a point echoed by Judith from Warren Partners. “A lack of transparency is a killer. Right from the off you’ve got to be very clear about why you’re doing this, what good looks like, and crucially what information is going to be shared with whom, as well as what support will be given.”

While the success of using frank feedback in leadership development hinges on the attitudes of the chief executive and chairman, a strategic HR director who can guide its implementation is key.

By Dawn Murden, Editor, Advisory

Do you have a view on 360-degree feedback for leaders? If you have an opinion that you’d like to share, please email Dawn at: dawn@criticaleye.com

Don’t miss next week’s Community Update on how to create an effective audit committee.

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Why Leaders Need Mentors

Comm update_1 OctoberExecutives in high-octane roles can easily suffer from tunnel vision. That’s why good mentors can be priceless, as they can draw on years of experience in business to make suggestions and impart pieces of advice which are untarnished by hidden bias or personal agendas. Indeed, those executives that use a mentor to free up their thinking rarely regret doing so.

“It’s not about passing judgement or even giving directives, it’s more about being a sounding board in an open and trusted manner, so that the mentee feels completely comfortable in discussing any of the challenges he or she may be facing,” says Stephen Chu, Philanthropist and former CEO of the Hong-Kong based Hui Xian Real Estate Investment Trust. “I find it very useful when a mentor gives me feedback with a number of options, not just a: ‘Do this or do that.’ Rather, it’s more about asking: ‘Have you considered this or have you tried thinking about it from another perspective?’

“Nobody knows a particular challenge or situation better than the mentee, so it’s ultimately up to oneself to make the final decision… [but] simply having a chance to look at things from different angles is what I’ve always found very useful and enlightening from a mentor, and very helpful in making a decision.”

Vanda Murray, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Senior Independent Director at engineering company Fenner, comments: “Most people will need different mentors at different stages in their career. At a senior level, it’s more likely to be a conversation to talk through key issues and get advice from those who have been through similar circumstances.”

It’s that broader perspective which is invaluable. Herminia Ibarra, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, says: “[One trait of mentors] that nobody talks about is the ability to articulate a point of view – what’s important in leadership and why. This helps the mentee not just emulate the behaviour of the mentor but instead work to assimilate the thinking behind it.”

Wise counsel

For Neil Stephens, Managing Director for the UK and Ireland at food company Nestlé Professional, being assigned a mentor was pivotal in his transition to becoming an MD: “[My mentor] focused on leadership qualities, how to manage in a matrix organisation, and what skills and competencies are required to go from functional leadership to general management leadership.

“It was brilliant for me, because I was able to have that conversation in a confidential way, communicate hopes and fears, and he was able to either confirm them or, more importantly, give tips and techniques to actually manage that change, and what to do beyond the job to help me get there.”

A similar point is made by Tim Kiy, MD of Operations for Marketing, Communications, Citizenship and Public Affairs at Barclays Africa Group: “About five years ago, I had an opportunity to work with a mentor who helped me tremendously in terms of career management…

“[He] was able to bring objectivity… [and] had enjoyed a long, successful career. That was incredibly helpful because all too often you get lost in your own thoughts, so it’s important to get perspectives from other people.”

Rebecca Lythe, Chief Compliance Officer at retailer Asda, comments: “When I moved into my current role it was a big change and required an adjustment in terms of my style… I could have spoken to somebody else on the team, but it wasn’t the same as asking somebody independent. I needed someone objective, who didn’t know any of the other characters to bounce my questions off: ‘What is it like being a junior member around the board table? How do I tackle certain things? How do I react to certain things? How can I do things differently?’ It has really helped to stretch me and has given me greater confidence.”

Trust plays a big part in the relationship between mentor and mentee. Jane Furniss, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Deputy Chair of homeless charity Crisis, says: “When I was CEO of the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission], I remember telling my mentor about things that were happening that I would not have told anyone… I knew that I had to be able to tell her things that, if repeated, even to another trustworthy person, would have been extremely damaging to me personally.

“That’s why I always remind my mentees of the trustworthy nature of our relationship when we are talking about sensitive issues, so that they feel confident in talking to me… You have to establish it and re-establish it on a number of occasions.”

Sense of purpose

The structure of meetings and frequency will vary, but the rule of thumb is to have an agenda of sorts to frame those two-way exchanges. Tim comments: “The important thing when working with a mentor is, right at the outset, to understand what the relationship is there to do.

“As you would do with any other activity, set goals for that and understand whether that is a six-month horizon or a lifetime co-relationship. The point is, what are you trying to achieve and over what period? You can all too quickly fall into: ‘Well, let’s get together once a month and just chew the cud.’”

Jane says: “It helps if someone comes along and says; ‘I’ve got a problem that I really want to work through with you and here’s the definition of the problem’, because that can make for a very active session which is useful for the mentee.

“But quite often, and I know I was the same, you don’t actually think about the mentoring session until two minutes before the person arrives because you’re just too busy. In those circumstances, what I find is that getting someone to talk about what’s front of mind actually gets to the problem anyway.”

As for mentors, if the relationship is to work they need to enjoy getting to the bottom of what their mentees need. Herminia notes there has to be the ability to empathise and connect with people who are different, whereby mentors can demonstrate they are able “to remember what it was like when one was younger, less successful and less clear about one’s leadership, so they can identify with the person going through all the challenges of transitioning from a much more clear-cut technical or functional role to leading”.

Angus Fraser, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of The Caldecott Foundation, a charity set-up to help vulnerable children, says: “I’ve never had a problem being enthused about other people’s challenges and I get a big kick out of actually getting under the skin of things and relating them to my own experiences.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring and it’s easy to overcomplicate it. But, increasingly, executives are realising that having a mentor is a vital part of their toolkit for leadership development.

I hope to see you soon.



A Meeting of Minds

Comm update_3 SeptemberLeaders that spend some of their valuable time on networking never look back. They’re willing to meet a mix of people, are keen to share their own experiences while also taking advice that could inform their own thinking on how to tackle business dilemmas. Fundamentally, they understand that a diverse network, where there is mutual respect, can only be a good thing.

Sir Ian Gibson, Chairman of supermarket chain Morrisons, says: “Networking is useful because it opens people’s minds and stops them becoming too internalised. It’s also good for appreciating what you’ve got, because every company [and]… management team will have challenges and issues to overcome and, seeing the way it works for others, provides an external reference which can be useful to validate ideas and ways of working.”

It forms an important part of leadership development for directors who are curious, always on the lookout for fresh insights. “The real purpose of networking has become clearer in recent years,” says Dominic Emery, Vice President of Long-Term Planning for BP. “Certainly my experience of it, in terms of understanding how other companies do strategy, which is primarily what I’m involved in, I’ve found extremely useful… [and] I’ve learnt an enormous amount from real practitioners about what works and what doesn’t.”

Paul Withers, Senior Independent Director at engineering concern Keller Group, comments: “What it does is give you other people’s perspectives. So, like I did, if you spend a lot of time in one company, there’s a danger that you get a particular perspective on how things are, how things might be and how things should be.

“But if you see different companies run in different ways, in different styles and you meet a mix of people who have their own particular approaches, you’re more flexible in terms of how you see possible solutions or ways through situations and that is good to have.”

Code of Conduct

If you’re to extract the full benefits from networking, there’s some basic etiquette to follow. Jeremy Williams, Chairman of design agency Assembly Studios, says: “For me, people selling their services at a networking event, particularly at the outset or in an insistent way, is a big mistake. My approach to networking is to look for opportunities to help others, be that by making connections, further introductions or recommendations.

“If you focus on the needs of other people rather than yourself, then you will add great value for them at networking events. I feel this approach is much more likely to develop into mutually beneficial, two-way relationships in the future.”

Neil Wilson, CEO of recruitment concern Stanton House, agrees: “When you’re networking, you have to go into it with a feeling of trying to help people, whichever way that might be, because then it could be reciprocal. But if you just go in and think: ‘What can I get from this personally?’ and don’t give anything back, that’s when I think it can go wrong. It’s a case of striking the right balance.”

A transactional attitude will be damaging, both for the person trying to sell and the organisation they represent. Liz Bingham, UK&I Managing Partner for Talent at professional services firm EY, says: “You can’t expect an immediate outcome, like another meeting, a piece of work, a job opportunity, whatever it may be. The problem with that approach is that the whole thing becomes more tactical than relational.”

According to Liz, it’s a misunderstood skill. “One of the challenges is that people view networking as standing around with a glass of something fizzy in your hand chatting, whereas the true value really does need to be better understood,” she says.

Quality, rather than quantity, is frequently cited as vital when building a network. Mike Greene, Chairman of online education company Bolt Learning, says: “I would rather meet one person a year who was hugely beneficial than a thousand of no value.”

In its purest form, knowledge, learning and diversity of thinking are what high-value networking can provide. “It works in a rather diffuse way,” explains Dominic. “You’re never quite sure what you can potentially offer until you get into the conversation. So you may have a superficial view that you’ll be able to exchange ideas about how strategy gets created in your company, but until you get to the conversation it’s not obvious where the giving and taking will be.

“So, I think if you go in there with some sense of what the purpose of the conversation is and then allow it to evolve, often it will result in a lot of common ground emerging very quickly.”

Not everyone is a networking natural but that shouldn’t be an excuse to shy away from it. With a little planning and effort, the benefits, both personal and professional, will soon become apparent.

I hope to see you soon.



A New Model for Leadership

Comm update Faces - 20 augustTraditional leadership and development programmes are dead in the water. In order to identify and nurture individuals with real potential, a heuristic approach is required that is driven with passion and commitment by the top team and tailored to a company’s specific needs and values. It’s surprising how many organisations have failed to grasp this and remain hopelessly out of date in their thinking.

Howard Kerr, Chief Executive at standards and training provider BSI, comments: “Time is always the biggest barrier, but it can be about budgets too. The question might be: ‘Can we really afford to invest in another round of leadership development, where we’ll have managers off on a half-day course or taking time out for coaching others?’

“When the desire is to meet quarterly targets it’s very easy to get mired in the short-term and therefore lose sight of the bigger picture… [But] it’s the role of the CEO to make sure the organisation takes time to look further forward and develop its people, not just for the next job, but to ask instead: ‘Where could those individuals get to?’”

Mike Tye, CEO of Spirit Pub Company, has no doubts over who should be driving leadership development: “One of the few prime accountabilities of the role of CEO should be that there are enough good quality leaders in the organisation.”

A similar point is made by Craig Donaldson, CEO of Metro Bank: “CEOs should absolutely be at the heart of leadership development. That means being part of the programme, working with people that are identified on it to make sure they understand what is being put in place, challenging where necessary and making sure it’s all fit-for-purpose.”

New direction

Given how organisations are radically changing, what are the leadership traits needed to be successful?

“To me, what defines a leader is somebody that’s prepared to embrace a challenge,” says Howard. “Of course, it’s important that an organisation supports that person but it comes down to people accepting increased personal responsibility.”

For Craig, a strong character is essential. “I look for intellect, interpersonal skills and grafters. If you’ve got the skills and the right work ethic, you get on. That means people who are driven, challenging, and who are willing to push themselves and the business forward, but also people who’ll bring others with them – it’s very important that leaders have that ability – as once they’ve set the vision, others will follow.”

So the task is to devise programmes that bring these qualities to the fore. Ella Bennett, Human Resources Director for the UK and Ireland division of global IT systems and services provider Fujitsu, says: “We have a young entrant graduate intake which we see as having high potential at that point, then we have a group called Future Leaders, who may be in their first really challenging role, through to development that is focused more for senior leaders, who we’d expect to be sponsored by more [experienced individuals] within the organisation… The more senior you are, the more tailored the development.”

There’s also the question of understanding what works country by country. Anne Stevens, Vice President of People and Organisation at Rio Tinto Copper, says: “There is no point in trying to take someone in Indonesia, for example, through a formal… [UK] business school programme because it may not make sense to them. You need to be tuned in to the environment they are working in and there are very different requirements based on what the people need and what you need your leaders to deliver…

“The key point is knowing what it is you’re looking for. What is it that your business needs and how do you help your people identify with those competencies and develop them to build their leadership capability?”

Time and patience will be needed before the results can be appreciated. BB Roy, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at American Express, comments: “Some people are of the opinion that immediate and obvious successes will follow after rolling out [leadership] programmes. Developing a leader is not just sending someone on a course – it is a journey that combines many forms of coaching, so getting the content right is crucial…

“Once the goals are agreed the development team needs to clearly understand what the content and approach should be and ensure that this forms part of a continuous roadmap.”

Ruth Cairnie, Executive Vice-President for Strategy and Planning at Shell, says: “Historically there’s been a lot of focus on just going on a type of ‘sheep-dip’ leadership training programme for a couple of weeks, but you need a more experiential element to your development as a leader to really practice those core skills…

“The challenges that leaders face are ever more complex, so the set of skills that are needed must be honed. You can’t build strong collaboration skills, both internally and externally, in a classroom, you have to learn by doing. Whether it’s with customers, regulators, governments or suppliers, to really drive breakthrough opportunities and change you need to be able to build those relationships.”

Mix it up

A common theme to emerge is that individuals who show promise should be thrown into a range of different situations. Nandani Lynton, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Adjunct Professor of Management at China Europe International Business School, comments: “Overall, cutting-edge programmes need to be experiential and hands-on, exposing the participants to contexts, roles, information and interactions that are unusual for them.

“This engages their hearts and guts as well as their heads. It then needs plenty of reflection time and extremely good debriefing for participants to distil learning, apply it to themselves and their current challenges and – hopefully – to do a trial application of the learning.”

It’s about taking people out of their comfort zones. “One of the big things we do is involve [potential leaders] in critical business issues,” says Ella. “We’ll stretch them by putting them in cross-organisational projects, where they are involved in some of the nuts and bolts of the real issues that face leaders in the organisation…

“For example, there might be a particular issue around how we learn lessons both from bids that we have been successful on and where we were unsuccessful: how do we integrate those lessons back into the organisation? We have a group taken from across the business looking at those issues and thinking about how we might solve those problems differently.”

Gary Kildare, Chief HR Officer for Global Technology Services at IBM, says: “Our Corporate Service CORPS programme takes our leaders and potential leaders out of their day jobs for six weeks, puts them in groups of 20 and moves them around the world to work on a specific pieces of work, whether that’s commercial, charity, or with NGOs in emerging markets… It’s experiential leadership alongside their international colleagues, working with them in a locality to solve a real problem in the time that they are there.”

For the most part, a programme has to be practical as it’s the only way to discover how somebody reacts and adapts under pressure. Craig says: “You need to allow people to grow and put them into environments where you know they are going to be stretched and you can support them through it.

“For example, we’ve just made a 31-year old a Regional Director, which is pretty senior… We took him out of his day job and put him into a six month role where he received intense development in commercial lending. After three months, he’d done really well so we gave him the region to manage.”

Peak performance

Running a business would be easy were it not for people. It’s why the best companies invest and see the value in putting a structure around nurturing high performers. Others lag behind, losing employees and spending heavily on ineffective recruitment. They fail to see how putting time into individuals, so their business and people skills are set on a foundation of values-based behaviour, is a recipe for long-term success.

Yvonne Sell, Director and Head of UK Leadership and Talent at consultancy Hay Group, says: “One issue in many organisations is the availability and consistency of feedback that people can get on their leadership behaviours. It’s a lot easier to have a conversation about whether or not you met hard objectives, like delivering on sales targets, rather than assessing whether you managed your team in the right way…

“Organisations that do this well give a broad range of people the capacity to engage in leadership roles early on in their career. They understand that not everyone strives to be a leader and help people to recognise where they are going to be most satisfied and can do their best.”

Programmes have to come from the top, be customised, collaborative and embedded so that what’s learned doesn’t get forgotten once immersed in the day-to-day of regular work.

As Gary says: “Developing and having the right leadership talent remains one of the hottest challenges facing organisations today. It’s critical to have the full commitment of the senior leaders so they can be the role models of behaviour, to offer their time to be coaches and to be personally invested in the future of the business through the development of new leaders.”

I hope to see you soon.