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.




Why Mentors Help Leaders Grow

Community Update Faces - 16 July 2013To keep improving as a leader you need to find the time to pause and reflect on how you’re making decisions and what you might do differently. That’s where a mentor comes in; a good one will know when to speak, when to listen and be able to share their views based on years of experience in a way that is free of any hidden agenda or bias.

Mark Castle, Deputy Chief Operating Officer of international construction and consultancy concern Mace Group, was interested in having a mentor as he wanted to tap into the management experiences of other individuals who came from different organisations and industries. “I see my mentor four times a year and I guess I am sucking information out of these individuals as at various points in the cycle there are areas that I will be interested in talking to a mentor about,” he says.

It’s all part of the healthy desire to widen knowledge. Geraint Anderson, CEO of TT Electronics, comments: “It’s been tremendous for me. To have someone who is truly independent who you can discuss issues with and talk to is superb. The chief executive position can be lonely and having an external mentor who has been there, done it and more, can add significant value just through occasional conversation or discussion.”

Paul Staples, Head of Corporate Finance at BNP Paribas, says: “I was fortunate to have a mentor at an early stage of my career in banking. The relationship was similar to that between an apprentice and a master craftsman; it helped me greatly in learning my trade. More recently, I have actively sought mentors from different walks of life, mainly outside my own professional sphere, to broaden and deepen my perspective on issues such as effective leadership.”

Two-way street

The saying ‘you get out what you put in’ certainly applies to mentoring. Leslie Van de Walle, Chairman of building materials supplier SIG plc and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, likes to set clear objectives over a six to 12 month period so results can be measured. “If a mentor makes you stop, pause, reflect, but you do nothing about it, then that’s not helpful,” he says, adding that executives need to be honest about their motives, such as whether they do really have what it takes to step up to the role of CEO.

Katherine Innes Ker, Senior Independent Director of transport concern Go-Ahead Group and also a Criticaleye Board Mentor, argues that it isn’t essential for an executive to have a mentor but it can certainly be useful. “It’s important that mentoring mustn’t be seen as a criticism but is part of [an executive’s] training and development which helps bring out even more of their qualities,” she says. “It isn’t about teaching you what to do and how to be. It’s more of a sounding board where you have someone to whom you can turn to and say: ‘This is what I’m doing, is there anything I haven’t thought of? Have you done this before?’”

While there has to be chemistry between the mentor and mentee, or at least mutual respect, this can’t just be about cosy chats. The mentor, where appropriate, should be able to steer the conversation into taboo areas and tease out insecurities and concerns, plus the tactics to address them, in an open, non-dictatorial fashion.

“The challenge dimension is really important,” says Bryan Marcus, Regional Head for Latin America at Volkswagen Financial Services. “The chances are that if you have been doing things in a certain way and they’ve been highly successful, you’re going to repeat them [so] somebody who has a slightly lateral or alternative view is very useful.”

Geraint says: “It’s good to be challenged in a different way to how the board challenges you, which is all about the business. This is more a personal thing about the impact you make and I think a mentor does that better than anybody else. I also think you can leverage their experience in working with boards.

“As a chief executive, it’s one thing running a company – and most of us have the skills to do that well – but how many of us really understand how to operate and work with a board? How to keep that board informed and the dynamics involved?… Having a mentor who has been in that chairmanship position and a chief executive too, who has that degree of experience, there’s nothing they haven’t seen before.”

Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the English Cities Fund and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, says that “for anyone who has a big, complex job, the key to improving performance is finding the time to reflect on what you’re doing, why you do it, how you might do it differently and how you might do it in the future.”

He recalls how, when Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council, he himself had a mentor who helped get to the heart of what needed to be done: “It was useful for me back then as my mentor at the time told me not to be snagged by issues which were not immediately relevant to the challenges at hand… He was very much about focusing on the immediate challenges and freeing yourself up from the baggage we all carry around – easier said than done, of course.”

Each mentor will have their own style and approach, with some preferring targets and goals while others will be more free-flowing. Likewise, there are executives who will switch mentors every year in order to keep the input fresh, whereas others are content to allow the relationship to develop over a longer period of time.

It’s a case of whatever works in order to be better at what you do. “You’re never too old to continue to learn and develop,” says Geraint.

I hope to see you soon.



Tomorrow’s Leaders

There is a distinct lack of imagination among many businesses when it comes to developing the next generation of leaders. All too often, when the best and brightest minds get their chance to lead, their lack of preparation for the top job leaves them unable to see the bigger picture, lacking the perspective necessary to be effective in the role.

Serious competitive advantage is being lost, not to mention talent wasted, as bad habits and shortcomings are allowed to become ingrained over the years. Rudi Kindts, Former Group HR Director of British American Tobacco, says, “The ideal development for the C-Suite begins early in a manager’s career. Through a mix of experiences (strategic, commercial and leadership challenges), hard-nosed performance feedback and coaching combined with a willingness to listen and learn, future leaders understand what it means to transition from one leadership level to another.”

It’s unwise for those managers who are destined for greater things to be left for too long as masters of a particular channel or area of operation. They should be tested and challenged and, importantly, encouraged to question themselves, meeting new people through networking, so they are consistently seeking to improve their knowledge and ability to inspire others.

Gary Kildare, Vice President of Human Resources for Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific at IBM, says, “It is evident that the level of global thinking and citizenship required from leaders today is absolutely unprecedented. They can help to provide a view of the future through their creativity and vision; it is they who will encourage collaboration through teamwork and open access… Leaders must be able to shift from strategy to operations swiftly to ensure they can execute regardless of the business environment.”

Match fit 

In practical terms, a manager who is moving to an executive or even non-executive role has to accept that a different approach will be required. Fiona Briault, Retail Director for George, the clothing chain of Asda, says, “I thought long and hard about how I would flex my style and behaviour as I moved to a board position… The focus required a shift from [resolving] business challenges to asking the right questions to stimulate others to debate and find solutions.”

Executives need to have their horizons broadened. Mark Phillips, SVP for Medicine and Process Delivery at GlaxoSmithKline, comments, “You have got to be able to provide insight and context and that has to come from a broader understanding around the company. That means the environment you’re operating in; what you’re trying to achieve as a business and from customers and business partners.

“The bottom line is that, as you go up the corporate ladder, it’s not about you doing it but getting other people to do it. A lot of that comes from understanding where to make the connections and how to unlock things – if you think you’re going to do it all by yourself then you shouldn’t be in the role as you’re restricting the bandwidth of the organisation.”

Nandani Lynton, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Adjunct Professor of Management at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says that it’s a case of putting talented individuals into various front line situations. “Senior execs should be allowed to experience the day-to-day reality of another market… You don’t need a structured development programme to organise this – one day a year would make a huge difference.”

In addition to this, she suggests that “high potentials” could take responsible positions within voluntary organisations for a year. “They will learn how to influence without power, how to deal with egos in a different setting and gain experience of the NGO (non-governmental organisation) view that can be extremely helpful in the future.”

Support mechanisms

This level of commitment is notable by its absence in the majority of companies. Jacqui Grey, Managing Director of leadership and executive coaching company, Transition Ltd, comments, “Whilst [individuals] are happy to present and go to conferences, the idea that they may need any form of development is often overlooked. There is a tendency to do this outside of the organisation either by attending a top business school ‘one off’ course in an exotic location, or by engaging an executive coach where human frailties may be discussed in private.”

A business must have clarity about what it wants from its designated ‘special ones’. Neil Braithwaite, Managing Director for Specialist Retail at the Co-operative Group, comments, “In looking to develop their current and potential business leaders, organisations should first ensure they have the right foundations in place. This means having a clear definition of the leadership model that is right for them, such as what are the behaviours that define a good leader in an organisation.

“There should also be a strong performance management system that clearly identifies high performance and potential, allied to a mature approach to succession planning, matching gaps and potential exposures to the development needs of key individuals.”

If this is to work effectively, it must have full endorsement from the existing leadership team. Neil explains, “For development programmes to succeed, not only do they need to be built with solid foundations but also, and probably more importantly, they need the demonstrable commitment of the CEO and the most senior management in the business.

“This can take many forms, but fundamentally it requires them to take some risk in pushing good people to stretch themselves away from their comfort zone to ensure they really broaden out as leaders.”

The consensus from discussions with Members of the Criticaleye Community is that sound leadership qualities are created by:

•    Effective communication – From being able inspire all levels of staff to engaging with the media, clarity and visibility are expected from leaders

•    Networking – Future business leaders aren’t afraid to leave their comfort zones. They are keen to meet new people and, in addition to this, they will be eager to gain experience by shifting to different areas of the business, taking on secondments elsewhere and being assigned challenging projects in order to develop agile thinking and problem solving skills

•    Personal awareness – Invariably, businesses make the mistake of teaching technical expertise first, while people skills and emotional intelligence are deemed secondary

•    Mentoring / coaching –  Whether they’re inside or outside a company, having someone as a sounding board can lead to invaluable insights

•    Walking the ‘shop floor’ – Diversity of experience is invaluable, but the best executives are also in touch with customers, products and the services of a business

None of this is to suggest that technical expertise and training programmes are not to be held in high regard. Of course they are but in the competitive global markets that companies operate in today, it is simply a fact that this is no longer enough and that the best leaders need a more rounded set of skills and qualities to be successful.

Gary Browning, Chief Executive of HR consulting and people performance company Penna, says, “Good leaders must communicate with inspiration and passion, building trust, belief and engagement throughout the organisation. Engagement is one of the closest factors correlated to organisational performance. This, I believe, is harder to develop but it’s not impossible to get improvements.”

The fact is that anyone aspiring to a position of leadership within an organisation cannot be one dimensional. Mark comments, “If you have only achieved in a particular area and dabbled in another, I struggle to understand how that is going to make you capable of being a senior leader. There are very few senior leadership positions where your value depends purely on the expertise you bring in one area.”

Excellence is a given. Leadership requires something different and a large number of companies continue to misunderstand and underestimate what is required to forge individuals who can drive and deliver outstanding results.

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

I hope to see you soon