The people I met all lead in their own way, yet are remarkably similar in philosophy: listen to everyone, pinch ideas from anywhere, trust those who do the job. In Honda it is ridiculous to tell people how to do their jobs. They are the ones who know. Having a conversation and looking for the way forward together is the only way to go. Asda had already pinched the best ideas from Wal Mart before they became part of the empire, and Wal Mart have now pinched some back in their new form. Timpson will always listen to ideas - in fact, they encourage everyone to try new ideas and pass them on when they prove effective.
We are looking at leaders who lead for their own sake and for the sake of those who follow. It sounds high-flown, and they have probably never consciously thought of it in that way - this is the magic of the outside view. Their high EQ is fundamental to their success, taking the organisation forward to bigger and better things. So how does this work?
Take Gary Hogan at Flight Centre. He and his colleagues have lost none of the entrepreneurial approach they used to create the company. ‘Common sense before conventional wisdom' is the rule: if something is not working, they fix it. ‘We've never had an original idea in our lives. Everything that works well we pinched.' Underpinning the success of the company is the belief that others will access that entrepreneurial energy if the environment is right. So Gary's job as leader is to enable people to discover and develop their potential, while having a great time and achieving what they want in life. Taking his own experience, he has built a way of leadership that brings out the best in FC people.
Understanding yourself and how you function is the starting point of EQ. We all see life through our own experience. It forms how we interpret the world and creates the mindsets that give order and meaning to life. The wise leader recognises that their view is just that - a view. No one else will see things in exactly the same way, so building an understanding of their mindsets, how they formed and how effective they are is the first step to being sensitive to the needs of others.
Common to great company leaders is this drive for learning. Personal development, coaching, feedback, benchmarking, reading, exploring new ideas are all ways of understanding how they influence the environment for good or bad. There is always more to be done, always the desire to move forward in a positive way. These are people who know they do not have all the answers. The moment I hear someone say that they do not need personal development, I know I am not dealing with a great company leader.
Tony DeNunzio had to find his own style of running Asda when he took over from Archie Norman. He knew he could not be the same, so it was an exploration to discover his own way of being CEO. He describes himself as
conductor of an orchestra. I can tell them when they are out of tune or out of time with each other, and I can say when they are playing the wrong movement for the time. But they could play the symphony without me. I keep them on track, but they could work anyway.
However each person chooses to lead, there are common themes. Relationships sit right up front; understanding what makes people tick, what matters to them, what they want from life; taking the time to chat and find out about the recent holiday, how the kid's birthday party went and whether mother-in-law is feeling better. Frequently colleagues talk about the time their senior came and perched on the desk for a chat. Walking around the office with Bob Henry from CORGI, it was obvious that he was just one of the team - no one turned a hair. James Timpson has the phone numbers of his managers at his fingertips with no need to look in a diary. Such commitment builds self-esteem and trust - their behaviour states clearly that the person is important.
And this dovetails into another theme - that of being ‘othercentred'. Personal development builds understanding and then enables attention to be turned outward to the rest of the team. Providing a nurturing, stimulating environment that develops self-esteem and confidence will open up ideas, exploration and progress. Seeing people grow and blossom is a major perk of leadership. And when that also leads to a positive change in the process or a new line of business, it is also a perk for shareholders.
Working so much with people will bring up all manner of personal reactions. How do you cope when:
the person you believe in and promote is just not up to the job?
you are sympathetic about time off and the person takes advantage?
you arrange a celebration and most of the team do not attend?
the piece of work you delegated goes to your own boss in a poor state and you are hauled over the coals?
However good your intentions, sometimes it will not work. That is to be expected and will provide huge learning. So you have to pick yourself up and look at the mitigating circumstances and your own contribution to the problem. Unless you take the learning, the same things will happen again.
Talk with your HR department about personal and leadership development.
Look at external courses so you can benchmark against other leaders and other companies. This will show where you can improve further.
Take on a coach to help you understand your own behaviour in relation to your people. Couple this with 360-degree feedback to clarify your impact.
Work out a specific plan of action to be tracked with your coach over the next six months to a year, and then repeat the 36-degree feedback to determine success.
Keep some form of development going over time to ensure that you are making the best of yourself and those who work with you.
Mick Kent at Bromford sees the leadership development undertaken by the top team as a major factor in their success. That they are always stretching is a strong statement and role model in the company.
You must stay up to date with new thinking and changes in your work area, since this is constantly driving business forward:
Choose an appropriate newspaper with a strong business section and read it each day or go on the Web each morning to find out what is happening. Read articles as well as the daily news.
Subscribe to a relevant magazine that will keep you up to date with new ideas and company case studies - your HR department will have back copies you can choose from.
Find out about interesting conferences and attend at least one a year. This will give you direct experience of new thinking, while building a network of contacts from other companies. You will learn a huge amount over coffee discussions, so do not sit on your own - go out and chat with people.
Stay in touch with your network. Arrange one lunch a month with someone from another part of your business or an external in a similar job. Use it as a learning opportunity through swapping ideas and thoughts about the work.
Find out about your local chamber of commerce or business forum and attend breakfast briefings with speakers who interest you.
Ask HR if they know of leadership forums you could join - this is an excellent way of learning with a consistent group of people.
Being a strong role model is the main tool of servant leadership - behaving as you would have others behave and as the principles demand. However, it does not mean being a paragon of virtue. Servant leaders are as human as the rest of us. The difference is that when they mess up they acknowledge it and apologise, which is in itself a contribution to great company culture. Using themselves as an instrument, as a model of what is right for the work community, is a powerful tool. Words can go so far in persuading; what is actually done is far more influential. So demonstrating care of self, care of others, self-development, creativity, excitement and enthusiasm will have the greatest impact of all.