· 9 min read · Features

Leadership: The bland leading the bland? Time to get radical

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Is leadership a procession of passing fads, or a rare bird HR can never capture? From Sony to Yell, companies are seeking to create waves

Forming their rock bands from scratch (and in just 48-hours) was probably the easy bit. It was promoting them online and then trying to secure the most Facebook followers that really tested the skills of people you would least expect to be doing such a task: Sony Europe’s 250-strong ‘future leaders’ talent pool.

"This challenge demonstrates what we are calling 'innovation leadership'," says Tom Verbeke, general manager, strategic HR business partner Sony UK and Ireland. "It is using more flexibility to spot and train leadership skills - such as developing fast decision-making and creating collaborative cultures." He adds: "Since we introduced this two years ago, we have spotted leaders who would otherwise never have come to light, because this new way of thinking relies less on top management's perception of what leadership should be, and more on the views from the bottom up. These are the people who know what skills Sony will need to move forward."

According to Verbeke, this view of leadership is just that - one he fully expects to be temporary: "We are in a constant journey to define what leadership should be," he admits. "We knew our traditional talent pool was not impacting on the organisation in the way we wanted. Innovation leadership is more flexible and reflects that our leadership style constantly needs to evolve."

The problem is, he is not alone in searching for new ways of defining and developing leadership. HRDs constantly cite leadership as one of their most pressing priorities. Last year's 'Ready To Grow' report for the CBI revealed 48% of firms say improving leadership and management skills is essential for success, up from 39% in 2009 - yet it remains a stubbornly elusive concept to execute.

According to research by the Corporate Leadership Council, which questioned 291 European HR departments, 70% of them increased investment in leadership and talent development last year. Yet damning research by the Kenexa Institute reveals UK spend on it, at least, was in vain. The UK's latest Leadership Effectiveness Index Score stands at an embarrassing 47%. It lags a full 25 percentage points behind India (72%) and well below the global average of 55%. Top of the gripes: leadership programmes are simply starting to resemble (and therefore be dismissed as) a procession of passing fads, each replacing the one before, each new one professing to be the improved way to go forward.

"The mumbo-jumbo around leadership is staggering," blasts Anthony Holmes, author of Managing Through Turbulent Times (Harriman House) and the forthcoming A Time to Lead, A Time to Manage. "No-one in HR," he says confidently, "has ever found a way of identifying leaders in advance of needing them. The fact HRDs run more leadership programmes than ever before, yet still they say there's a dearth of leaders, proves they have failed to get a handle on it."

Holmes argues leaders only emerge from turbulence, from left-of-field, and that they are fundamentally disruptive people. "HR will typically try to reject these people, because they tell them things the organisation doesn't want to hear," he says. "It's why HR-constructed talent pools are simply a waste of effort," he argues controversially. "They confuse management - which wants to create equilibrium - with leadership, which is the opposite. There is," he insists, "no way of identifying leaders."

Rejecting established norms threatens HR, but experts concur that the HR department's essential role in moulding leadership conversations should be more about stepping back and being confident enough to acknowledge this is a fluid process.

"Leadership doesn't have to be complicated," says Jean Gomes, CEO of consultancy DPA, which works with companies including eBay and Allianz. "It's about delivering value today; building value tomorrow and aligning people to that value. Leadership development is really just about bringing in some of the 'tomorrow' thinking into the today. HR can sponsor this conversation, but that's it. The minute it tries to do more, by introducing academic-speak, people switch off, because it looks like self-verification. That's always the end of it from a buy-in point of view."

According to experts, far from marginalising HR, this subtle shift in mindset is actually a source of empowerment; giving them freedom to create discussions about what really needs to change.

"Most business leaders actually lack confidence in their leadership abilities, because they still see themselves as technicians," observes Graeme Yell, director Hay Group. "Trying to command credibility by introducing complexity and jargon, has gotten in the way of solving this. HRDs have forgotten leaders simply need time to 'be a leader' or 'think about being a leader', rather than leading being something they do in their spare time." Adds Ken Starkey, professor of management and organisational learning, Nottingham University Business School: "Leadership is contextual; but when framed so, more useful notions such as sustainable leadership emerge.

"Time can be allocated into coaching and thinking about bigger things - such as what Harvard Business Review calls 'shared value' leadership - maximising organisational, economic and societal gains. This contemplative space is what leadership needs to occupy, not who can we pick to fill our talent pools."

Yell says this should materialise as HR organising potential leaders to "learn new habits", rather than identifying traits that may or may not be useful or may or may not come to the fore during a crisis. "One exec I discussed this with said he'd wished he'd been told this 20 years ago," he recalls.

Scott Johnson, CEO of management software provider AtTask says new thinking around leadership is around "one that creates a sense of meaning for a new tranche of needy employees that crave recognition; while leaders will also have to be more willing to give up control because they are no longer the experts anymore, their wider workforce is." He says: "Collaboration will be comfortable for new leaders, and HR can teach these things. But it is the leaders themselves who will have to make decisions about trends that are about to happen. The role for HR is protected though, because there is no inborn predisposition that fights against this that cannot be retrained."

Confusingly, experts argue, leadership surveys tend to fixate on the specific traits leaders 'must have'. But, they argue, these only serve to muddy the waters further and create a market for faddism. Last year's Ashridge Management Index: Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century found, for instance, that 'leading change' was the most in-demand skill and that HR was worrying itself because only 41% of those surveyed thought leaders in their business were developed to lead change well. "This is just messy," retorts Neela Bettridge, sustainability coach, and founder of CSR lobby group, Article 13. "All this really means is there is uncertainty, but this has always been the case," she adds. "What HR really needs to do is engage with the embodiment of leadership [Roffey Park is taking a lead on this] - by promoting leadership as a reflective discipline."

Reflective leadership requires HR to be confident, not rely on the rulebook. Some HRDs seem to be buying into this. "There is so much pseudo-science around leadership, but what I see leadership as is more about giving people confidence," says Sinéad Trudghill, HR director at law firm Harvey Ingram, and formerly HR manager at Volkswagen. While Trudghill says she does have leadership talent pools (internally called 'Stars'), they are identified regardless of status, but instead by how they constantly prove they have ambition.

"We define leaders as doing the right thing at the right time, being mindful of the common strategy - not 'yes' people but people who are astute in themselves," she says. "It's about finding people who are not 'brand-me' but 'brand-business.' When we find these people - they stand out a mile - it's a case of inspiring them to be leaders, which means giving them a high level of coaching and lots of self reflection time."

It might not sound 'strategic', but the aspirational role HRD can play should not be overlooked, argues François Moscovici, co-author of 'Coaching Women to Lead'. "The biggest problem we face in leadership is actually the fact we won't have enough of them," he says. "If you plot employment and GDP growth for the past 20 years, and project this average figure 20 years into the future, the UK will be short of 1.3 million leaders by 2030," he says. "This fact alone will change the nature of leadership conversations. HRDs have to fundamentally analyse where their pipeline of leaders will come from, and included in this, they have to answer why, at all stages in their careers, businesses lose women."

Moscovici believes HRDs need to provide more 'stretch jobs' to, in his words, "help women help themselves". He adds: "There is a deficit of ambition, which if not addressed, will create leadership gaps. I ask women leaders what they think would have helped them all when they were rising through the ranks. They don't say they completed leadership development programmes, just mentoring, women's networks, but also mixed networks so that they know the 'rules of the game'."

What is clear is that for every backer of one new theory of leadership ['authentic leadership'; 'devolved leadership'; 'transformational leadership', you name it], another wants to debunk it, arguing it is quite a lot simpler than it's made out to be. All this really means is that HRDs need to nail their sails firmly to one mast -and then stick to it.

This won't be easy: at Sony's European leadership conference in June, 30% of the programme was dedicated to defining what its leadership is or should be. But that difficulty doesn't mean HRDs can't try. Leadership is arguably the most written about HR topic out there. "And some things really don't change," comments Carole Fox, senior contract operations manager at security firm G4S, which has just imbedded the Investors In People standard on leadership into the business.

She says: "Occasionally, leaders have different audiences they need to win over, but their fundamental skillset remains the same." She adds: "I don't subscribe to the notion that things are dramatically different just because we have a particular economic situation. The biggest difference that can be made is having an open mind about who potential leaders are, embedding a coaching culture, and role-modelling what inspirational leadership is."

Case study: Asda

New CEO, new leadership style, new leadership code needed. It's not exactly revolutionary, but neither was it knee-jerk - often a criticism of 'new' leadership programmes. When Andy Clarke took over as Asda's boss in 2010, he saw a leadership structure (managers and above - some 10,000 staff) that had become task- and metric-focused, but was inspiring neither staff nor customers. What has now been developed, and is just rolling out, is a leadership framework that has growing internal capability at its heart, but which has been mapped out against the requirements of a five-year corporate plan.

"By mapping the skills we needed in the next three to five years, we found we needed to see leadership more broadly than just managing people," says its head of learning, Amanda Cox. "Working with partner Cirrus, we developed three main themes: leading people; leading to win; and leading with passion. Each of these then has three unique behaviours - such as good judgement or spotting and acting on business opportunities."

Cox adds: "The real departure is that we are operating against a set of written values and principles - what Cirrus senior partner Simon Haywood calls "a heads, hearts and guts" concept. Before, stores went off in all different directions, but this is probably the first new style of leadership since Archie Norman launched his 'Gung-Ho!' programme ten years ago."

Day-long launch workshops for the first 300 leaders have just been run, and in time the project will be supported by a Leadership Academy and a toolkit around desired behaviours. Individual development plans will be created for leaders out of each one-day workshop and performance will be judged against them. Although Asda already hires for attitude rather than skills, the programme will also be embedded into recruitment practices too, although significantly, the project is not going to be accredited by bodies such as the Institute of Leadership and Management.

Cox adds: "Leadership attrition was already just 5%, and it could be argued we didn't need to do this. But what became clear was that we couldn't just have bumbled along with our five-year plan so much at the forefront of our future plans. We are now identifying what people do in their day jobs and drawing the link between how their behaviour is relevant to putting customers back at the heart of the business."

What makes a good leader?

At the recent Institute of Directors annual conference, the subject of what makes a good leader was top on the agenda. So what do the captains of industry think makes good leaders?

Jeremy Darroch, CEO, BskyB

"Leadership is about innovation, change and renewal. It's a mindset and a willingness to embrace risk. In a way, though, everyone is a leader, because anyone can say to their boss - 'this is not good enough, we need to do better'. Leaders here don't follow rulebooks. By living our value-sets, these will themselves be the rods for their backs."

Lord MacLaurin, former CEO, Tesco and former chairman, Vodafone

"Leaders listen to customers. At Tesco, mums told us not to have sweets on the tills, so we removed them. It cost us a lot of money, but it showed we were a company that listened. Leaders also talk. I may risk sounding old, but emails flying around is short-sighted. You don't understand people's values this way."

Richard Noble, entrepreneur, land speed record project manager

"Leadership is risk! It is a quality corporations try to avoid like the plague. But risk is good; it's very, very good. Everyone in my company is empowered to the point where they could cause the failure of the company. That's exciting."

David Gold, chairman, West Ham United

"At West Ham, leadership is about how you motivate your staff to do their best under difficult circumstances. I've been saying this all season, though…