Kevin & Sue are #EverydayLeaders.
What are you passionate about? And what are you doing to deliver on this passion?
Helping people at work learn to be a better learner. If you are good at learning you can figure most things out.
Whether I’m consulting, coaching or running a workshop I take clients through a learning cycle every time we come together to think — we reflect on an experience, analyze it, understand what can be learned, how the learning is connected to other things they already know and how lessons can be applied in the workplace. This enables clients to build their capability and gets them into the habit of thinking well which feeds directly into decision making and complex problem-solving. It is also a habit they take out into the workplace and use to help the people they work with think well and become better learners.
How do you go about leading? And how do you use your passion to align people with your vision?
I love new ideas and am constantly engaged in seeking out the latest thinking and practice to integrate into my own work. We are disruptive in our thinking and love sharing these ideas with clients that are ready to try something bold and new.
This is how we lead as an organization. We take thought leadership and turn it into something pragmatic clients can leverage to make the workplace a more diverse, inclusive, collaborative place to be.
We also make sure that the way we think shows up in how we work. For example, if we are enabling an organization to learn to be more agile, we do it in an agile way — the model we employ to enable clients must mirror what the client is trying to learn for themselves.
Is there anything in your background not directly related to being a leader that has had an outsized impact on the way you lead?
I’m a gardener and love spending time creating beautiful spaces for people and wildlife. Gardening requires a long-term vision that is achieved by attending to one season at a time while having an eye to what is coming up in the next few months. It is fraught with unexpected problems, disappointments and of course with the delight when hard work pays off.
At times you are down in the detail, clearing the ground and at others, you have to contemplate the whole and just notice what is going on, what is working and what needs moving because it is in the wrong place and not thriving or is choking out the plants either side.
Gardening helps me be mindful that leadership requires a lot of thinking and reflection but then you have to get into action, having prepared the ground first. You must keep an eye on what is coming up and what isn’t, then revise your strategy accordingly.
What’s your philosophy on building a team? What do you search for? How do you go about selection? And how to do you approach managing performance?
My philosophy on building a team is not to try too hard — you can put a lot of effort into selecting people who can do the job and fit in and the team still ends up dysfunctional. I think it is much better to select people based on their basic ability to do the job required of them, not necessarily the best at it but good enough, then focus on their ability to ask questions, listen attentively and encourage others on the team to do the same.
Individual achievement is less important than collective performance. Although you may undertake annual, half-yearly or even quarterly formal performance reviews, they are less important than the frequent and informal communication and feedback sessions you have day-to-day with team members.
What data do you use to ensure you are leading effectively?
I rely on qualitative feedback from team members, colleagues and more senior people, plus whatever quantitative data is available and seems relevant. I also think personal reflection and review is a useful tool in assessing effectiveness.
What are some of the biggest mistakes today’s leaders are making? And how would you go about fixing it?
The single biggest mistake leaders make today is their determined focus on ‘talent’, say, the top 5–10%, to the detriment of the other 90–95% of their employees.
The term the ‘war for talent’, as first coined by McKinsey in 1998, has driven a lot of what organizations do in terms of recruitment, development and succession planning over the last twenty years. Whilst there is no doubt talent is a key issue, in today’s networked organizations, where collective performance is more important than individual achievement, the almost obsession with finding and holding on to ‘talent’ is an out-dated approach.
The trouble with the war for talent is that it basically describes the process of chasing after the 5–10% highest performers in an industry. Clearly, there will never be enough talent to go round and yet companies can spend an excessive amount of time, money and resources, not to get the best there is, but to get the best they can, constantly at the risk of losing them to a competitor.
It would be much better to focus on the other 90–95% of employees who, although not top talent, probably have a lot more to offer than most organizations get out of them. This is because, with the focus on talent, most organizations are geared to enable high performers to call the shots and lead the way, and to require the rest of their people to support them in doing so.
This approach has worked in the past but organizations are changing and it can’t work going forward. Things are far too complex for individuals to know all the answers and make all the decisions, however talented they are. Organizations, therefore, need all their people learning as they go, thinking critically, contributing to solving complex problems, making decisions, taking risks and collaborating fully — all capabilities that most people could develop relatively quickly if required and supported to do so.
In the new organization, traditionally high performers will have to adapt to the new way of working. The other 90–95% will have to adapt to move into the space created for them by the high performers not being able to do everything. Basically, organizations need to move from 5–10% of their employees leading the way, to all their employees leading the way.
I don’t think leaders today recognize this as an absolute necessity and, even if they do, many aren’t at all sure their employees are capable of making the shift.
What do you see as the 2 or 3 greatest opportunities for leaders over the next several years?
Organizations are changing and much of the knowledge and know-how that applied to working in a hierarchy is becoming obsolete. Leaders need to learn how to operate in a flatter, networked organization where collaboration is the key to success. Three opportunities are:
Many organizations are asking how they can become more agile and more responsive to customer needs. The traditional method of rolling-out a corporate initiative from the top, treating all parts of the organization as needing the same approach, at the same time, doesn’t work. Leaders need a new way to mobilize their people and for enterprise agility to get established companies need to take an agile approach to becoming agile.
Agile ways of working need to be designed, tested and refined locally, on the job, in real time, around live initiatives. Target early adopters to lead initiatives and start with the parts of the organizations that are ready to engage. Provide support as well as the time and resources to make it happen: a team without bandwidth will struggle to innovate.
Reconfigure the middle management role to become that of ‘Integrator’. Senior execs set the direction and middle managers adopt the role of Integrator who act as the interface between strategy from the top and well-aligned execution on the ground. They have the power and autonomy to work with other Integrators, across the organization, to collaborate and agree on priorities, solve problems, continuously coordinate effort to connect initiatives and resources across the business. Working in this way Integrators use fewer resources, and save time and money.
Ensure they have oversight of how the business is operating, monitor progress, course-correct and feed upward on business performance based on clear KPIs. Finally, make them responsible for people development, to act as coach and mentor to help employees improve performance on the job.
Introduce a new brand of collaboration in and between teams. As teamwork becomes more complex, working across disciplines, geographies, cultures, incorporating more stakeholders and customers the capabilities workers need are changing. To be successful teams must be able to create and operate in a diverse and inclusive culture.
Integrators can intentionally and gently disrupt and dismantle the prevailing culture of teamwork. They introduce and embed a new brand of collaboration to change the teams’ habits and help them adopt new ways of working.
Teams learn to anticipate who might be impacted by changes, consider the potential disruption and find ways to avoid or minimize it. By thinking ahead and proactively reaching out to others connected to the work they are doing, which improves communication, breaks down silos, reduces errors, improves quality which means teams use less time and resources to get things done.
With the right capabilities and the opportunity, employees can dismantle the established culture and replace it a learning culture that is more nimble, responsive and adaptive. This kind of change takes time to get established, requires sustained effort and bold leadership. Executives at the top of the organization need to be on board and prepared to help when things get tough.
Do you have any final words of wisdom for Everyday Leaders?
In marketing our services I have learned that it’s not about telling people what you do, it’s about asking them what they do, what are their challenges, what do they want. It’s about finding out as much as you can about potential clients, to help them understand their situation and how they might move forward. The same goes for Everyday Leaders. It’s not about telling people what you think, it’s about asking them what they think, to help them find out as much as they can about their situation and how they might move forward.
If in doubt, have a team meeting and ask team members for their thoughts and develop a solution collectively. The role of the leader is not to know all the answers, but to facilitate the process where you come up with an answer that your people are able to work with.
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