Learning to lead
by Heike Dieckmann
As people move through the ranks, chances are they will have proven themselves in their particular area of expertise. But what of their leadership skills? OPI finds out…
At the top of virtually every company’s list of priorities stands innovation, preceeding all other factors such as revenue, profit, customer service or supply chain efficiencies.It’s often said that the main challenge with innovation is finding enough talented people. In a recent McKinsey survey on How companies approach innovation, top managers agree that identifying the right people and involving them in innovation is their single greatest struggle. They also say that the most important drivers of innovation are the organisation’s culture and people.
Much of this debate is down to leadership. At the heart of a genuinely innovative company often lies a true leader, somebody who inspires, leads and communicates and enhances the quality of an organisation and the position that it holds in the marketplace.
The term innovative can be used loosely here, which means that in no way does it just relate to companies that ‘make’ products. Of course, Smead’s Sharon Avent, Fellowes’ Jamie Fellowes and Hewlett-Packard’s Mark Hurd are among our industry’s inspiring leaders, but a glimpse at the reseller channel quickly shows that great leadership can be found throughout the industry. From Irwin Helford, Jack Miller and Tom Stemberg in the past to Ron Sargent, Eric Bigeard and Leo Meehan today, these people have moulded companies that are not only financially sound, but are also inspiring to staff – people want to work for good leaders.
As Simon Hollington from UK-based consultancy Values Based Leadership says: "People choose the company they work for as much as the company chooses them and today they are looking for more than merely the hygiene factors such as pay, conditions, pension, share options and private health care when they join a company. They also want the option of developing themselves as much for their own as well as for the company’s benefit because more and more people look for the whole life experience. Nobody wants to be treated as a mere ‘resource’."
What defines a real leader is emotive as well as subjective. And can you learn leadership skills or are people born to be leaders? According to Daisy Vanderlinde, EVP of human resources (HR) at Office Depot’s Florida headquarters, it’s a bit of both: "You can learn leadership skills, but there is also something inherent in individuals that make them good leaders."
She adds: "As far as we’re concerned, there are a few character traits that define great leaders. The first one is the ability to be inspirational, to set a vision for the team and the individual. Secondly, a leader should be a good listener and be open to feedback. Lastly, it’s helpful if leaders are open and capable of disclosing things about their own style and personality. Whether they are extroverted or introverted, technical or creative leaders is less important, I believe. It’s these three things that you can see in really good leaders, plus the fact that they can admit when they’ve made a mistake."
But while technical expertise is a given – that’s why people get promoted or appointed to senior positions in the first place one would assume – leadership skills are more vague. And with time pressure mounting all the time and leadership training frequently in short supply in organisations, many turn to external companies for help.
The aforementioned Values Based Leadership is one such company. Hollington says: "We typically work with people at the senior manager/junior executive level who have been asked to step up to a level where the leadership aspect would be a stretch for them because a lot of them have come through the technical route. And that’s the conundrum. Often companies promote people because of their technical ability, but they don’t invest in managerial and leadership training. There’s also less traditional leadership development in companies today simply because people are less inclined to take time away from their desk. As a result there has been an increase in demand for outside coaching."
Executive coaching represents a tailored development strategy with the aim of building management flexibility as well as skill. The purpose is to develop key leadership capabilities required for attendee’s current role as well as the next level. It is not, however, intended to tell people how to do their jobs, Hollington is quick to add.
"Part of my job," he says, "is to make people question how they do their job, not because I know better but because I want to challenge them to view things from different angles. Coaches are not there to train in any particular way, they’re there to release thought processes and provide guidance. A lot of the time, people are stuck in a hamster wheel and have to come of this unquestioning ‘that’s the way things are done around here’ way of thinking."
Many companies use a variety of leadership tools that evaluate certain personality traits. That may seem pretty basic, but these tools clearly have a role to play, says Hollington: "You can only lead well and understand other people if you understand yourself. Self awareness tools make people conscious of who they are, what their strengths are, their weaknesses, what areas they need to work on, etc."
Executive coaching doesn’t come cheap and companies can expect to pay between $7,000 and $8,000 for a one-to-one coaching contract that would typically entail half a dozen coaching sessions over a six-to-eight month-period with a review after three.
Small change for some, a considerable chunk out of the HR budget for others.
A recent survey of over 100 executives primarily from Fortune 1,000 companies revealed that executive coaching yielded ROI of almost six times its cost.
Among the benefits to companies were improvements in:
• Productivity (53%)
• Quality (48%)
• Organisational strength (48%)
• Customer service (39%)
• Reducing customer complaints (34%)
• Retaining talent (34%)
• Cost reductions (23%).
Andrea Davis, CEO of Fellowes Europe, believes the result is worth the expense and says: "I used a leadership coach in the first few months after I took over as CEO and I regarded it as a very positive experience and took a lot of value from it. It’s still a relatively new trend at Fellowes, but certainly for our senior people in transition roles we would be looking to providing leadership coaching in the very general sense of how to be a leader rather than how to technically do your job."
Lyreco’s Eric Bigeard has different views. Often commended for his own leadership style, Bigeard firmly believes in on-the-job learning, albeit at a very demanding level. He says: "What we do is move people in executive positions outside their comfort zone. And in an international company that’s fairly easy to do. If you take a look at some of our senior executives – Anders Kristiansen, Steve Law and John Watson – they’ve time and again been given challenging projects that have moved them outside their comfort zone and exposed them to challenging situations and projects. They have learned on the job and they’ve made mistakes. But that’s absolutely fine as long as they learn from them and only make them once."
Proven track record
Office Depot’s position is somewhere in between, but the company also puts great emphasis on encouraging potential leaders that in their previous career – within or outside of the company – have already encountered some significant management challenges where they had to be innovative and take action. Vanderlinde says: "When we have an opening in a particular area or a responsibility that we have identified, we would firstly look at our internal talent at Depot. If it concerns our global officer coalition (the top 100 positions in the company), our executive committee of eight would typically discuss this during our weekly meeting and see who might be on the roster for that particular position."
Once in a new position, leadership training is tailored to the individual’s specific needs. Says Vanderlinde: "We believe it’s important that our senior executives can influence strategic processes [from an early stage], but at the same time develop their skills through external coaching, if necessary."
Along the same lines, but still somewhat of a giant leap away from consultancy-based leadership courses are education programmes offered by business schools. Perhaps the best known international business faculty in the world, together with London Business School and Harvard Business School, is France-based INSEAD. With campuses in Europe and Asia and research centres in Abu Dhabi and Israel, INSEAD is now one of the most prestigious graduate business schools in the world.
Bjarne Mindested, VP of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe at Avery Dennison, attended one of the INSEAD courses in 2006. Run over a period of six weeks, half in France, half in Singapore, this high level management course called the International Executive Programme (IEP) aims to prepare senior functional managers for general management roles.
The key goals of the programme are to build and broaden a holistic view of the delegate’s organisation that integrates the major management disciplines; to develop a personal management style that allows delegates to make a quick and successful transition into general management; and to grow leadership skills to increase confidence and managerial impact.
Lyreco’s Anders Kristiansen also took part in an INSEAD programme in a rare departure from Bigeard’s on-the-job training philosophy, but entirely in line with his focus on presenting future leaders with extreme challenges and broadening their mindset.
Both Mindested and Kristiansen took great value from the course. Says Mindested: "We were taught in a group of people from 20 countries and industries. It was a fantastic experience and completely appropriate to what I needed at that time of my career."
But while there are plenty more learning programmes that organisations such as INSEAD offer, the costs are not for the faint-hearted. The IEP programme, for example, costs about $40,000 and as such represents a considerable commitment from the company that makes it.
It’s also entirely outside the remit – and budget – of the average independent dealer where leadership training remains a rare occurrence. But while Carsten Marckmann, managing director of German dealer group Büroring agrees that by and large executive training is not high on the list of priorities of independent dealers, it’s not completely off their radar either.
In fact, dealer groups are increasingly helping dealers in their professional development efforts, and not just as far as the usual suspects of product, sales and marketing training are concerned.
Marckmann says: "OfficeStar is a marketing group within Büroring and now has its own professional development programme called OfficeStar University. This learning forum provides a varied training schedule for its members that includes anything from sales and customer service coaching to leadership programmes specifically aimed at company directors. A coach from a consultancy looks after this progamme and, in order that training can be tailored specifically to individual’s strengths and weaknesses, familiarises him/herself with every company and participant."
The University, which is currently available to OfficeStar’s 20 dealer members, has only been running for 12 months but, as Marckmann says, it has already proven to be hugely popular and clearly points to a gap in this particular segment of the market.
Every little helps.