It begins with the desire to lead. Leadership is both a drive and a calling. We talk a great deal about what leaders do, but far less about the drivers that cause them to take on the task. For some, leadership is an appointed role, sought as the pinnacle of a good career, providing personal challenge, excitement, status and money. It is a formula that underpins many financially sound companies.
For others it is the task that matters and they are willing to put themselves forward, believing they have something to offer. Do not mistake me: this is not entirely altruistic - any leadership task will lead to personal challenge, excitement, and sometimes status and money, but that in itself is not enough. The work must be worthwhile and have a strong purpose. Followers are a high priority, so a healthy, interesting environment is crucial: no one yet built a dynamic and thriving business or project on their own.
Great company leaders come into the latter category. Driven by the personal and business challenge, they also need to achieve something of value. To do this they take their place in the team, serving those who follow, in order that the work is completed effectively. Isolation and deference will not work, nor would they want it.
Take Mick Kent, CEO of Bromford Housing Group. An ambitious man, he became CEO at the age of 31. He describes himself as ‘young, naive, pretty incompetent and starry-eyed'. He was running an organisation with 29 people that owned just over 1,000 homes. Now it has 520 people, over 14,000 homes and was named as the fifth best company to work for in the UK in 2003. What was it that drove him to stay there for 19 years, rather than seeking bigger and better - after all, he has many CEO years ahead of him.
For Mick, part of his ‘call' has been to lead in a different way. Reflecting on his learning over the years he realised, ‘All of my bosses, bar one, have been women, which was fairly exceptional in the late 1970s.' As a result he has made a point of recruiting women at all levels in Bromford, including senior management.
This hasn't happened by accident. It's by having an open mind about the qualities and strengths they bring, both in terms of the hard stuff, and communication, sensitivity, awareness, appreciation of people and teamworking. Personally, I think one of the key strengths of this organisation has been its teamworking. I would say that generally speaking, openness, trust and teamworking are traits and characteristics that, all other things being equal, women do better than blokes.
What impact has that had on his style of leadership?
I actually think you could argue a pretty convincing case for a CEO who does nothing else other than be positive and just encourage people, because out of that comes self-confidence and self-belief.
The same holds true for those leading any process or task - supporting and enabling your people is the main way to achieve the desired outcomes.
The ability to connect with people at both head and heart level is one of the key strengths of high-performing leaders, according to Daniel Goleman in his work on Emotional Intelligence, and it is true that women tend to have high levels of EQ. The importance of people skills in effective leadership is born out by Mick.
I believe it makes a difference to the business, but judge me on what we have achieved. We have grown well and the wheels haven't come off. We are measured as one of the best-performing associations in the UK. And we are making money.
Mick may sound a touch extreme, but he is in line with leaders at all levels in great companies. The first time I asked how much time was spent with people, as opposed to doing ‘the leadership stuff ', I was amazed to hear the reply ‘50 per cent.' I have continued to be amazed as that figure has varied from 50 per cent to 80 per cent. These are leaders who really believe that ‘people are our greatest asset'.
It is a statement that makes clear the difference between management and leadership. As manager, the task is most important - to understand how it needs to work, who is to take which role, tracking progress, ensuring the outcomes. Once you move to a leadership stance, the emphasis moves to the people. A leader must still be ready to jump in and work with everyone else when the need arises, but there is a mindset shift - the job is to serve those committed to action on the task. To help them see the purpose, to keep their energy high, address their problems and concerns, and generally to care for them so that they can move forward.
Being available to talk is a major component, leading to open-plan offices, regular walks around the building, including satellite offices, instigating and taking part in fun events, working alongside people, and being on the end of the phone. In the traditional top-down command-control mindset it is strange to consider going for a chat with the ‘royalty' CEO - it is such a palaver, why would you bother? Great company leaders are at work changing that mindset. Some even do all their own support work - Gary Hogan (of FC) looks after himself entirely. If you want an appointment with him, you call his mobile and arrange it with him direct, as you do with everyone else at Flight Centre.
This style of leadership takes the emphasis off the title - it is just another job in the team. As Mark Davies from Honda said, ‘If I left, it would take six months for me to be missed. Others in the company would be missed immediately.' Everyone has their role and each is important to the well-being of the company. Leadership is not a matter of ego - or at least not just that: it is a matter of partnership, coupled with a desire to see other people fulfil their potential.