Australian View

by NICK FORSTER, Director

Leaders and Followers
For many years people have attempted to get to grips with the essence of effective leadership. Is it innate or can it be learnt? What constitutes effective leadership? Is it a set of skills? Does it have something to do with that mysterious quality called charisma? Is it contingent or are leadership competencies universal? Decades of research and thousands of research studies have only partly answered these questions. We do know that leaders are intelligent, but not too intelligent. They often possess outgoing and ascendant personalities. They have a genuine interest in people, even if this serves Machiavelian purposes. They are very self-confident, often to the point of arrogance. They possess a high need for personal achievement and success. In the late 1990s they were expected to have long-term visions and an ability to manage constant change. In many countries they are, still, usually male and tall.

Another way of thinking about leadership is to ask this question: what kind of leader do you want to follow? Barry Posner, Director of the Centre for Creative Leadership, in Greensborough, California, has been asking thousands of employees from around the world exactly this question for several years. He presented his findings at the World Conference on Management and Leadership in Perth, November 1997. What he found was that managers typically pick on a set of five core competencies and attributes that their “ideal” leader should possess. The first was communication skills. This included the capacity to listen, to inspire, to reach hearts as well as minds and the ability to “touch” everyone in the company. The second was honesty, signifying a lack of engagement with destructive office politics, professional trust, reliability and high ethical standards. Third, was vision, signifying the ability to think the “unthinkable,” to be creative innovative, adaptable to change combined with a high capacity to embrace new ideas and learn new things. Fourth came competence, referring to technical expertise, professional know-how and the ability to take tough management decisions. Fifth came equity, meaning the ability to avoid favouritism, giving fair rewards for a job well done and treating all subordinates as intelligent human beings who want to make a contribution to the organization.

Thinking about leadership from the perspective of followers is useful for three reasons. First, the only undisputed definition of a leader is, “one who has followers.” So, if you really know what inspires them, you will be a better boss. Second, almost all of the skills listed above are not “innate.” They are behavioural and can be learnt and developed throughout life. Third, Posner’s research showed that these desired competencies are valued in many different cultures. So, if you can learn them, you will become a more effective leader in the fast changing and globalised business world of the future.

Clothes Maketh the Man?
“What to wear today?” As we crawl out of bed looking forward to another cut and thrust day at work, the choices for women seem to be endless. Skirt and blouse? Dress? Trousers and shirt? Dress suit? Dress with jacket? Blouse or shirt? Stockings or socks? Which earrings? Hair up or down? Muted, power or sexy look? For most guys the options are limited to, er, combing the hair (short), donning a shirt (white), tie (preferably with a “wacky” motif to show what rebel he is), suit and shoes (dark). That’s it. The definitive, dull male uniform of the 20th century. But unless they are really well made, by say Armani or Paul Smith, suits all look pretty much the same and most companies dictate “sober” colours and “traditional” styles. Corporatus clonus exemplified. But, why do we persist so slavishly with this dull, bog-standard male uniform?

Companies will argue that suits “create uniformity” (there’s that word again), “our clients expect it,” “the public expects it” and “other companies expect it.” Really? Has anyone actually bothered to ask any of these groups, which include you and me, if it really concerns us what managers and professionals wear – as long as it is clean and presentable? My last GP in the UK, for example, sported two earrings and a pony-tail. I never saw him in anything other than jeans and T-shirts. He did not alarm the older people at his surgery and he was an exceptional doctor. It’s also worth recalling what extravagant and varied clothes men used to wear, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries!

Peter West, Managing Director of BP Manufacturing Australasia, commented in a talk to my MBA students that he rarely wore a suit and tie to work. When asked why, he said, “The suit alienates me from the engineering staff. All a tie does is separate my neck from my head. It serves no other useful function.” When I first met him he was in jeans, T-shirt and a leather waistcoat. You forgot about this fact one, or maybe two, nanoseconds after meeting him. Some American companies have introduced “dress as you like days.” But, most men, confused by this new found freedom and their historical lack of dress sense, soon reverted back to the old uniform. But, in the growth companies of the moment, no one bothers with the old suit and tie format. Staffed by predominantly young people who are obsessed with ideas, innovation and growth, this is the last thing on their minds. So, let’s at least loosen the reins and allow men to experiment a bit with their working clothes. They have nothing to fear but their bad dress sense. Now, where’s that bright purple retro’ suit with the lapels modeled on the wings of a jumbo jet…?

The Right Stuff
Browsing through the thousands of job advertisements in The Australian recently, I was struck by the very high caliber of senior managers that companies seek to attract. Frequent references are made to the need for “exceptional communication skills,” “the ability to work in teams,” “the ability to motivate and mentor staff,” “highly developed people management skills,” “exceptional leadership abilities,” etc. One might reasonably conclude from this that Australian public and private sector organisations are stuffed full of senior managers who exhibit these admirable qualities. But, are they? All recent studies indicate that most Australian managers fall well-short of these ideal “soft” management skills (e.g. Karpin in 1995 or Arthur D. Little in 1997). Or, try this test. Get a piece of paper and write down the names of senior managers you know who possess the competencies listed above in abundance. I tried it recently and arrived at a list with two names on it! Having worked in academia for over ten years, this was a rather disappointing tally (or, sadly, indicative of the quality of senior management I have worked under during this time?).

Job advertisements are so predictable – a repetitive, stale shopping list of ideal competencies that seem to have little connection with the skills that many candidates posses. One has to search very hard to find adverts like the Roc Oil Company advert in 1997 that ended with the memorable line, “Doom merchants, office politicians and prima donnas need not apply for these positions,” or the Apple Computer advert that sought “raging, inexorable, thunder-lizard evangelists” to work for them in the early 1980s. One essential factor missing from every single advertisement that I have seen is “having a good sense of humour.” Research, presented at the BPS Annual Conference (UK) in January 1999, indicates that staff give far greater credence to humour in their senior managers than they do to intelligence and are more productive than staff who work for humourless managers. Common sense also tells us that a sense of humour is an important but often overlooked personal attribute.

Humourous people often have the skills cited above in abundance because they are psychologically healthy, don’t take themselves too seriously and have a real interest in other people. Humourless people are usually “toxic” to some extent. Funny people are also good to work with and humour is one of the best on the job stress relievers we know about. So, why not ask job candidates to tell a few jokes or cite instances when they have used humour to diffuse tense or difficult situations? These two simple questions will help to sort the “doom merchants, office politicians and prima donnas” from the people you really want to hire and work with.

Growing Big Ears
It has been estimated recently that Australian business loses at least $500 million a year because senior managers in companies do not listen to their employees’ ideas and suggestions.

In old, reactive and bureaucratic organisations, senior managers sit on the top of the pile and don’t really have to listen to anybody (e.g., BHP over the last few years or much of the Public Sector). In the new information age, leaders have to listen to the ideas of everyone, regardless of where they are in the company. This is because change is endemic in organisations. Innovations have to be developed quickly and it is often younger employees who have the best ideas. Organisations also have to be very close to and responsive to their customers.

Leaders of cutting edge companies spend a great deal of time listening to their staff. Here’s a few examples, David Hearn, CE of Goodman Fiedler has lunch with at least 20 junior staff each week. Jerre Stead, CEO of the Legert Corp spends 60% of his time talking with junior staff.

Motorola holds regular “rap sessions” between top executives and shop floor workers every three months. The seven directors of Viking Freight Systems in California spend at least 25% of their time visiting the company’s 4000 employees in eight states. Peter West, of BP Kwinana, spends 40% of his time with his junior staff.

Andy Grove of Intel holds at least six open question and answer forums at different company locations each year. Noel Goutard, CEO of the French auto parts maker Valeo expects all his employees to make at least ten suggestions for improvement each year (25,000 suggestions annually). The best ones receive bonuses liked to the success of the changes.

Lincoln Electric, of Cleveland: elicits 2-300 new ideas every month from its employees. These are linked to profit sharing. Even suggestion boxes are passé now. The Communication Corporation in California has replaced these with “screw-up” boxes where junior staff can point out management failings. Senior managers have to respond to these within one month.

So, if you don’t already have one, maybe it’s time to subscribe to a DODGI (The Body Shop). If you want to make more money, your company’s senior managers could consider subscribing to Sir Jack Cohen’s SOYA principle or to MBWA (Hewlett Packard) or MBCAL (Microsoft). So, either grow big ears or perish!