DON’T WAIT for leadership opportunities to present themselves . . . here’s how to make them come to you.
Once individuals were tapped on the shoulder and singled out to step up to a leadership role, but the days of waiting to be asked are gone. Flatter organisational structures mean – hierarchically at least – fewer roles to go around. Simultaneously, the velocity of the age of disruption and uncertainty is demanding more true leaders who spot opportunities and trends, and galvanise others into action. Those keen to stand out in an organisation or industry today must show their worth and be proactive. “There’s no point in waiting for someone to notice what a great job you’ve done,” says leadership facilitator Dr Maree Harris AIMM, founder of Empowered Leadership. “Make a plan and figure out how to go there.” Leadership Matters sought the advice of experts and insights of young leaders to discover the essentials for moving into leadership in 2017.
1. Mentoring and networking: It’s who you know.
“You can’t think of something new unless you are being pushed to think in new directions, and you can’t do that unless you are engaging with people who have a different viewpoint,” notes Harvard professor Linda Hill in Janine Garner’s book, It’s Who You Know: How a Network of 12 Key People Can Fast-track Your Success.
Ambitious individuals start early – often ahead of stepping into a new leadership role – by finding mentors both inside and outside their organisations. “There’s no way people can go it alone today,” advises Maree Harris of Empowered Leadership.
The right mentor will take the time to help a new or aspiring leader identify abilities, talents and strengths – and deliver aha! moments.
More readily accessible than coaches (and without the hourly fees), mentors who work for the same organisation also may become sponsors and speed the progress of new leaders with the right stuff.
Why stop at one? Look for several who can help with different career aspects. It may be as simple as picking a leader who’s been in a role you’d like to step into and asking if they have time for a coffee once a month.
Becoming a connector is crucial, says Harris, and that means not only seeking mentors but also signing on for networking, online and off. Pick the mode and style of network to suit you. In an era of instant gratification, be mindful that networking is not an opportunistic activity – “What can you do for me?” – but a long-term pursuit for building “reciprocal, rewarding relationships with people and, importantly, helping them”, Harris says. “Over time, people get to know, like and trust us and then will do business with us.”
Of course, true leaders are self-starters. Serial entrepreneur Gen George, 26, has grown her own network. In her early 20s, George founded OneShift, a recruiter that uses an algorithm similar to dating sites to match employers and staff, and more recently [job matching site] Skilld. for SMEs. After she and fellow entrepreneur Jane Lu of Showpo [shopping site] lamented the lack of people to be candid with about the good and bad times in business, the pair started a Facebook page, unapologetically called “Like-minded bitches drinking wine”. Today 33,000 business women across the world have signed on to collaborate, share advice and connections, with monthly face-to-face events now running from Shanghai to Sydney, Tel Aviv to Cambodia and more.
2. Planning and strategy: Plot the way forward.
You aren’t born with technical management skills, but you can learn to plan effectively and develop a strategy, assures Gina Brooks FAIM of Adelaide consultancy Training x Design who’s been teaching leadership and management at AIM since 2004. The topline skills may be taught in a classroom, Brooks says, but are embedded on the job.
Luke Higgins, 35, who stepped up to become one of consulting firm Accenture’s youngest managing directors last December, has enjoyed a remarkable career as a young leader riding the crest of technological innovation. Higgins started as an electrical engineer at Sydney’s Lucas Heights nuclear reactor before switching to Accenture 13 years ago after being told IT was the future career hotspot.
He’s since worked on the advent of mobile TV, vast e-commerce platforms, electronic payment and wagering systems, managing teams large and small.
Higgins’ rapid progress has come from spotting the opportunity of the next innovation and having the good fortune to work for a firm that was happy to back him. He has worked with around 20 to 30 Fortune 100 companies along the way.
Most recently, Higgins and team – now 60 people in Australia and 50 offshore – have built an operating system that uses machine learning to identify and fix mistakes far quicker than humans can, which Accenture is rolling out to larger clients globally.
The world is moving too fast for just one strategy, Higgins believes. After a 2016 stint at Harvard Business School where he learned from disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen, Higgins found the terminology for what he’s long practised.
“We run two strategies within the team, an emerging strategy where we develop and innovate. We have an ecosystem to love and play with technology, to build solutions and solve problems. We build product and apply it to the client, then we harvest it back in, ‘productionise’ it as deliberate strategy,” Higgins says. “About 25 per cent of our work effort runs on emerging strategy development.”
Smart strategists learn from mistakes. “We used to start with the technology, but we’d lose focus,” says Higgins. “Now we start with the job at hand and the problem we’re trying to solve, the experiences we want our customers to have.”
On the walls of Accenture’s Melbourne office, big posters spell out the team’s key goals. “When we manage our team we ask: What job are you actually doing? It helps us focus on what’s important,” Higgins says. “We write our goals yearly, then team members all anchor around that to define their own contribution. [But] every week our team leads have to say this is the job we did, and this is what we managed to accomplish.”
3. Time management: Is it an oxymoron?
“When you manage yourself properly, time takes care of itself,” insists leadership consultant Maree Harris, who focuses her clients on managing energy rather than hours. “Leaders who follow the rules for good living – exercise and eat well, take time to step back, reflect and recharge and take their holidays, are high energy people who tend not to have problems with time,” she says.
Getting the hang of it, however, takes time.
It took Irene Fernandez AIMe, site manager of two chemical manufacturing plants – one in Morwell, Victoria and the other in Haybridge, Tasmania – 15 months to get a grip on time management when she first took on the role in May 2015. “My plans always did a 360. I was constantly time-poor,” she recalls.
No handover and constant cultural and operational change after her employer was acquired saw the former engineer on a non-stop problem-solving quest.
With a working day that began at 7.30am, Fernandez was home by 4pm, but on her laptop considering solutions until 9pm, and then not sleeping as she dwelt on how to resolve issues.
Putting in place systems and processes and making others accountable at the sites, with a total of 30 employees, went part of the way to plugging her time drain, Fernandez says.
Learning to delegate was key. “Previously I’d only ever had work delegated to me,” says Fernandez, 30, who also barely took any annual leave in her first 18 months on the job. “I was worried it was all going to fall apart. Whenever I was at the plant in Tasmania, I’d get lots of calls from Victoria.”
Then she discovered when she didn’t answer, and called back five minutes later, the urgent problem often had been fixed.
“A way of empowering people was letting them figure it out themselves,” she says. “Usually they come up with solutions far better than mine. Most of them have been there longer than me and have the knowledge and experience.”
4. Personal development: Your first project is you.
Self-leadership is the name of the game, with expert agreement that emotional intelligence is the No.1 must-have quality. After testing more than one million people, TalentSmart found top performers have a high emotional quotient – and earn an average of US$28,000 more than others. That’s why many big employers, including the Big Four professional services firms, are nixing academic qualifications from hiring interview schedules to focus on interpersonal skills developed via volunteering and other activities.
Self-leadership starts with you and encompasses developing self-awareness, emotional intelligence and resilience.
“It’s about what makes you tick and how you come across to people,” says Empowered Leadership’s Maree Harris. “Soft skills are not just people skills, but those that impact on our personality, attitudes, behaviour and mindset. Every soft skill can be learned. The first step is acknowledging you need to learn it.”
Feedback from mentors and others .
“My leadership style is very 360 – I get feedback from all my staff,” says entrepreneur Gen George. “I have one-on-ones with my team weekly when I will ask for feedback.”
Get constant feedback whether it’s from the person who opens the front door or a board member – and be prepared to take it on the chin, George says.
She found “it takes time to figure out your own management style”. As a new leader, George had to keep reminding herself that “no” may be the right answer. “Don’t be afraid to follow your gut and call it like it is.”
For people with technical backgrounds stepping into leadership roles, awareness of their impact on others is particularly important in the move from wrangling their own daily workload to managing others.
Aptly, Accenture MD Luke Higgins takes to the Internet for fresh ideas on teamwork and effective leadership. “Each weekend, I spend four to five hours playing with technology, and watching YouTube or TedX to learn about new management styles,” he says.
Last year Higgins coalesced his tech pursuits and management learning with gamification, and applied it to the way his team works. “We lifted productivity by 10 to 15 per cent.” “Once we gamified what they were doing they were much more effective. We learned the intrinsic motivation of the job is good because you enjoy it more and get into the flow of doing it, as opposed to the extrinsic kind, which is about money and accolades.”
5. Building relationships: Manage up, down and sideways.
A leader needs to focus on their personal brand as well as their team brand. “How else are you going to promote the good work your team is doing, unless you’re out their talking to the right people and building relationships with other departments and senior executives?” asks training and development consultant Gina Brooks, who has worked with hundreds of leaders from CEOs to rookies. “You need to promote your team’s results and yourself as its leader.”
Don’t wait for a casual encounter at the watercooler, make a conscious effort, she urges. Make a list: Who do you need to work well with, in particular in departments with direct links to the team’s success? It’s about deliberately seeking the person you need to form a relationship with – stakeholders in the wider business, major clients and suppliers included – and organising a meeting to get to know each other’s needs and share information.
Solid team relationships are built by celebrating wins, according to Daniel Flynn, co-founder of Thankyou, the social enterprise that directs its profits from sales of water, food, body care and baby products towards ending global poverty.
In a first catch-up with mentor, former Young Australian of the Year and investment banker Simon McKeon, young Flynn got the third degree. “Do you celebrate the wins?” McKeon asked. Flynn nodded. “Okay, what was the win; how did you celebrate and what day did you celebrate?” McKeon pressed.
Embarrassed, Flynn recalls: “I had nothing. I am so driven by the future and where we need to go, the next opportunity, the impact we can make, the markets we could and should be in.”
With the benefit of McKeon’s insight, Flynn recognised he was leading others to burn out. “I’m still not perfect at it but I’m trying to get better and we’ve certainly stepped up celebrating because it builds team morale,” the 29-year-old says.
On a weekly basis Thankyou now celebrates small things teams and individuals have done.
“On the bigger stuff, we do beach days, dinner or a movie – things that aren’t really team-building exercises, although they do build the team. I wish I’d know that earlier because I think it would have changed our early years’ story,” Flynn says.
6. Macro vs micro management: Competing interests or a little each way?
Daniel Flynn, Thankyou co-founder: “Natural strengths for me are always big picture and vision – there will be a little strategy and enough of a plan to get people excited. I have to discipline myself not to zone out when people start talking detail. I’ve really had to work hard on people management, holding people accountable, building in systems and processes to manage a fast-growing organisation. I’ve just got off the phone from a board member, and it’s continually about refining me as a leader, to manage our organisation, manage the finance side, the systems and processes and, ultimately, about making tough decisions, which sometimes mean you have to move people on or shut down parts of the organisation – the things I didn’t want to sign up to are more what I find myself doing now as we continue to grow.”
Luke Higgins, Accenture managing director: “A mix is required. It’s sometimes hard to get [macro vs micro] right. I like the big picture and I’m attracted to what could be. But I also need to micro-manage to some extent – people need direction to specifically understand where you’re trying to go, so it’s more detailed task management. When you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of people, if you don’t have a defined process for getting there you can get a lot of interpretations. If you get too micro, of course, you lose innovation because people just do what they’re told.”