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A Lesson In Leadership
Helming an organization is a tall order, so what attributes separate the wheat from the chaff?
There are many different types of leader. Just look at world leaders; from the charisma of JFK to the laissez-faire of Ronald Reagan, the stoic determination of Winston Churchill to the servant leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
Business leaders use different approaches too; the innovative leadership of Steve Jobs, the pace-setting of Elon Musk and the transformative approach of Mark Zuckerberg.
Yet, despite the widely different styles, do effective leaders share certain characteristics and capabilities? And if so, can we all learn to develop them?
Authenticity is at the core of all great leaders, says Celeste Warren, VP, Human Resources and Global Diversity and Inclusion Center of Excellence at Merck.
“An effective leader is authentic and that is all about inspiring trust. Being authentic means being yourself and being true to yourself, speaking truth to power, and not being phony. An authentic leader offers people a vision, offers hope and a path forwards. But to be authentic, you have to be a good servant leader – they have to think about the people they are leading above all else.”
A key element in authenticity is transparency, says Warren. “It is about following through on what you say you’re going to do. There’s nothing that breaks the bonds of trust more than a leader saying they will do something and then not doing it, and not following up on why. In this day and age, there are many reasons why the things we want to get done don’t get done, but an effective leader is always truthful, saying, ‘I know I promised you A, B and C but for the following reasons C didn’t happen’.”
Leaders also need to inspire, she says. “When I am coaching, I say that leaders must look ahead at the challenges facing an organization, and they must lead the people through these challenges, but when you’re going up that hill you also need to look behind you. What you don’t want is your people still at the bottom of the hill looking up at you, saying, ‘You go right ahead. We don’t trust you to take us through this’.
“People do not expect their leaders to have all the answers on how they’re going to get there – and that’s when you rely on your people who are the real experts – but a leader needs to exude and demonstrate authenticity and trust, so that people will follow them and work with them.”
For Nolan Townsend, Regional President, Rare Diseases, International Developed Markets at Pfizer, the concept of leadership has a strong ethical component.
“I view leadership as applying a set of principles as you look towards the future, principles that guide you through unique challenges to achieve an objective, whether a business objective, social objective or any other,” he says.
“There is a fundamental ‘true north’ that a leader should possess, based on their own personal values and experiences in life. This compass is shaped and influenced by the culture of the company or companies you spend time in, but if you leave that company, you take it with you.”
The culture within Pfizer is based around ownership, says Townsend. “Our culture really encourages colleagues to take their own decisions and to own those decisions, it gives them the chance to take appropriate risks in order to meet their goals and objectives. It is vital that leaders model these behaviors because, over time, that behavior becomes modelled throughout the organization.”
Leadership takes many forms. “There are different types of leadership depending on what is required. Early in my career, I held highly matrixed positions, where I was an individual contributor but was managing very broad cross-functional matrix projects across a number of functions. I didn’t have a big organization reporting in to me, but you still had to get things done.
“Later, as I moved into commercial roles with more people management responsibility, that matrix leadership helped me to become the type of leader that can manage a very diverse team across a number of functions. Finding a way to align the organization in a way that doesn’t require direct reporting responsibility was something that came out of those early experiences. So, I think that responsibilities of different types are an important factor for any leader.”
Developing leaders throughout the organization is essential, so what steps can companies take?
“It starts at the very top,” says Merck’s Warren. “It is having a leader who demonstrates a strong role model and who puts into place processes and practices that reinforce these behaviors. Talent management, succession planning, hiring and development, all these levers are important in creating the kinds of leaders you want to see.
“Organizationally, you want to pick leaders, managers and people that demonstrate particular capabilities, so defining those capabilities is crucial. We’ve already discussed authenticity, but collaboration is also important, as is effective communication. All these characteristics need to be embedded into your processes to ensure that you’re bringing onboard and promoting those kinds of leaders.”
For Pfizer’s Townsend, companies must create and offer potential leaders many different opportunities. “The pharma industry is an immensely complex industry; we’re in a business that has economic, social, fiscal and political implications in almost every country in the world. Industry needs leaders that can understand and manage these challenges; yet, every leader cannot have encountered every single one of these challenges in their careers, so you need people who can respond to new challenges.
“The key here is diversity in experience – across different functions, in different regions, some with line responsibility, some matrix. This breadth of experience allows leaders to develop the tool kit they need to achieve the best results and become the best version of themselves.”
There’s no I in team
Companies can open the door but, in the end, it is up to individuals whether they step through, so what can we all do to develop our leadership potential?
“The most important aspect of developing effective leadership skills is by seeking ongoing feedback from your people, your peers and your boss,” says Warren. “Through 360-degree, ongoing feedback you can not only hear what you’re doing well but what you’re not doing so well, as It is these areas that prevent you from being the effective leader you desire to be.”
Careers are never developed alone, she adds. “We actively encourage mentorship and sponsorship – any research will tell you that having a mentor, someone you can talk to about the challenges you’re facing, is a powerful aid to a career. However, the notion of sponsorship also plays a very important role. The difference between sponsorship and mentorship is that mentors talk with their protégé about the various challenges and decisions to be made in a career. A sponsor is someone in a position to advocate for you in closed-door sessions.”
Finally, she sounds a warning for the overly ambitious. “If you aim to be an effective leader simply to rise through the ranks, then that’s the wrong motivation. If you are looking to punch your ticket and climb the ladder, to me you are not an effective leader. You’re not thinking about your people, you’re only thinking about yourself.”
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