COVID-19 has caused a profound shift in the way we work, changing the way that employees interact with each other, bringing virtual platforms to the forefront and at times straining our interpersonal skills.
Whilst the learning curve was steep (as all learning curves naturally are!) what is now clear is that some of these changes will remain in place for some time, if not permanently.
One of the most prominent observations has been around leadership. Much has been written, said and critiqued with examples aplenty of both great and poor leadership during the past year.
Like sitting down to watch Netflix there is content overload in the leadership arena. From sports, to politics to finance it seems everyone is an ‘expert’. But as the old proverb goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Ultimately, it’s about understanding your challenges, how that fits into the DNA of your organisation and focusing on what you need to do. Are you a manager, a leader, both, neither? No matter, there is much to be learned by observing the skills of others.
Are we missing a trick?
I often wonder if we are at the danger of trying to run before we can walk. In other words, is there a precursor to leadership, namely management? Are they mutually exclusive, interdependent or something in between?
Are we too overly focused on leadership to the detriment of developing great managers, who should naturally then go on to lead?
What is management?
Often management has been considered functional in its nature:
- Employee stuff (hiring/firing, performance management…)
The move to a first time manager is the hardest transition you will make. It involves new responsibilities, new ways of relating to your colleagues and new ways of looking at the world. Many new managers underperform in their first few years on the job.
Such individuals are assumed to know or taught (in some instances) to manage not lead.
Once upon a time, new managers were placed on training programmes, focusing on the necessary skills needed to be a good manager, and given sight of the pathway to leadership. Good programmes would canvass feedback from managed employees, developing management weaknesses and formalising expected competencies. As with many areas, commercial pressures have led to cost reductions resulting in the ‘accidental manager’ evolution.
How many of us have found ourselves in a management position through accident rather than design? Someone moves on, a new functional re-org results in the creation of a new team, and hence a new manager is needed. It’s assumed X has the qualities to be a good manager, or they are the least bad choice. Being technically gifted does not always translate to being a good manager, on the counter, being a great manager does not mean you need to know everything either.
For anyone who is a football fan, you can take your pick from the failure of many a top footballer to make the conversion to manager.
The same is true in finance.
I’ve recently been re-reading this book, which I thoroughly recommend! If you are unfamiliar with the book it is a non-fiction, semi-autobiographical book by Michael Lewis (he of the big short fame) describing the author’s experiences as a bond salesman on Wall Street during the late 1980s.
Without the obvious plot spoilers, although I think we all know how it ends up, ahem… savings and loan scandal and years later financial crisis and subprime lending blah blah blah it shows the calamitous impact of traders (producers) becoming managers and eventually leaders. Suffice to say it’s not a smooth trajectory.
Leadership vs Management
There are many differences between managing and leading, and we could spend this blog and more debating the relative merits of each.
Equally, those organisations that can smooth out these differences position themselves for success.
The FCA offers an interesting take here, consider their approach in terms of conduct and culture. They have moved from the tone from the top, to the mode at the middle and more recently the engine room, i.e. the do-ers.
This highlights that whilst culture and leadership may ultimately cascade from the top, the execution occurs throughout the firm. The best managers are therefore those that get this and execute on the leadership vision.
Are such managers then leaders? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we need not consider each as such binary terms. Equally as lockdown has shown, you need not hold the title of leader to lead.
When lockdown initially happened, people turned to those leaders sitting at the top for clarity on ‘what’s next?’ But since then, leadership is no longer exclusive to those with a ‘chief’ or ‘senior’ title. It’s about every person throughout the organisation to step up and lead themselves and others.
Mission, Vision & Values
As a manager, the traditional view would suggest it’s all about inputs and outputs. You are there to run a team/department, to maximise output, whilst also minimise inputs, i.e. costs/headcount.
Consider the simplistic analogy of a machine, the manager is there to ensure everything runs as it should, the team are the components that keep the machine running. The overarching assumption that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts alone, the machine is ultimately more important than the person that runs it.
Leadership may suggest otherwise. Taking the same machine and encouraging innovation, changes, making it do something new. A leader is less about the steady running and efficiency but more about the vision. The leader needs to get people onboard with that vision though, a good leader’s vision is like a book with a beginning, middle and end. A manager might work in annual cycles, a leader looks beyond.
Leaders must join-the-dots. If too far removed, managers and indeed employees will not connect and contribute. Leaders must have lofty but realistic visions. No great organisation was developed aiming for mid-tier obscurity. By the same token operational objectives at the coal face must also align and resonate.
Managers help translate leadership and vision.
Take an example like company financials. How many of us really enjoy grabbing a cuppa and sitting down to sift through 100+ pages of an annual report (just me then?!).
Distilling and explaining key components from the financials is a fundamental way for managers to link leadership visions to their teams. A high cost-income ratio is more than just a number, when considered relative to peers or past performance it could explain why efficiency savings are needed and how they translate and impact teams. Rather than ‘oh it’s just more cost cutting’, managers must show the critical path and explain the steps.
Of course, this is not just on managers. It’s a virtuous circle, good leaders do more than pass this down. They equip managers to understand, to communicate, to feel connected and to strive towards the common goals.
‘’Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.’’
At least according to a quick google search, which places Wiki’s definition at the top.
Strengths are good, weaknesses are bad, and capability is binary – right?
What if the story we’ve been told about strengths and weaknesses wasn’t true – that those things we’re “bad at” are a necessary by-product of being good at something else. In fact weaknesses and self-awareness have a crucial role to play in being successful.
This quote by Vendee sailor Pip Hare sums it up perfectly
“I’M NOT SCARED – I’m not scared at least I don’t think I am. I am just anxious. I’ve addressed every one of my concerns – rationalised them – and am logically happy that the boat is strong, well prepared and doing what it was designed for, but my mind is still having trouble…This is the start of 6 or 7 weeks of the toughest sailing I will ever have done in my life. Of course I should be and will be anxious, but I hope it won’t last too long. I need to give myself time to be reassured that me and Medallia are up to this. We will get things wrong, but we can cope with those moments and those challenges. I’m going to accept my anxiety for now, park it, get on with life and then review how I feel in a week’s time. Accepting this rate of travel and this level of pressure as the norm”
A leader is someone who can get out the way of themselves and take a step back from being controlled by emotions and fears.
The recent pandemic highlights this is easier in theory than practice.
Uncertainty and fear of the wrong decision can result in delays, seeking clarity and downplaying the threat. By the time such elements are clear it’s often too late, you are behind on controlling the crisis and the narrative, slow leadership can cause fear.
Leaders needed to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, noting that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course when they occur.
If you have time, please stop and read this: HBR article What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic
It highlights, among others, the example of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic back in March 21. It was bold and engendered public support. Ardern delivered an eight-minute televised statement to the nation in which she announced a four-level Covid-19 alert system. Modelled on fire risk systems already in use in New Zealand, this familiar approach set clear guidelines for how the government would step up its response — and what would be asked of citizens as infection rates grew.
Importantly, Ardern’s explicit step system meant that people knew in advance that escalation was coming. They knew what would be required of them and they accepted the challenge.
By contrast command and control style management is often crippled by fear, focused on the minute details and at times finding trust difficult. How many of us have experienced a micro manager?
Leaders need to acknowledge they will not always be right. That might sound counter intuitive but it’s true. They have the self-awareness to listen to others, to see the bigger picture and to change when needed. Inaction is no action.
The HBR article concludes with a useful a four step approach:
- Act with urgency
- Communicate with transparency
- Respond productively to missteps
- Engage in constant updating
The Next Generation of Leaders
Leaders are the intellectual capital of their organisations.
They set and drive the agenda, implement the strategic vision and actively manage ongoing change, but…being a good leader is about more than just your capability. Today’s leaders must also be agile, resilient and charismatic. They must work with managers on a shared vision.
Yet, we no longer sit next to each other, observe behaviours and overhear conversations. Leaders need to be far more autonomous and self-led, taking more ownership for asking questions and sharing their thoughts. Finding ways to improve motivation, engagement and maintain culture are critical to getting back to the new norm.
The challenge is to share tasks, bring a diversity of opinions and insights, and yet work with a singularity of purpose.
Stay safe, stay curious and keep learning!