Andrew White, Saïd Business School Senior Fellow, reveals the skills that every leader must possess
Leadership is undergoing a profound evolution, says Saïd Business School’s Andrew White, ahead of his appearance at the upcoming CA Summit. Those who are politically savvy, and can show empathy and speak out on social issues, will thrive in the years ahead
He’s the lion who found his roar. That’s how the Economist recently described Volodymyr Zelensky, the comic actor-turned-President of Ukraine who has changed what modern leadership of a war-torn country looks like. With his inspiring blend of dignity, bravery, first-rate communication skills, daily visibility and social-media savvy, Zelensky has galvanised fellow citizens to take up arms and won the admiration of millions across the globe.
In the past two years, many CAs may feel as if they too have discovered their roar. When Covid forced the UK to abruptly shut down in March 2020, many finance professionals suddenly found themselves catapulted from back-room operations to the C-suite, tasked with the not insignificant feat of helping their companies stay afloat. Long-term strategy was shuffled to the back of the pack, relegated behind the demands of existing in a constant state of agility and adaptation.
As anybody who has led a team through these unsettling times will attest, being a leader in 2022 is radically different to anything before. Gone are the days when industries enjoyed stability, with the CEO only showing their face at the annual AGM. Today’s leaders still need to ensure their businesses remain profitable, but they also have to manage hybrid workforces, focus on ESG considerations and safeguard employees’ mental health – while the round-the-clock judgement of social media means one tiny misstep could see their entire careers collapse. Their roar needs to be simultaneously loud and quiet. It’s time to forget everything learned in business school: here are the seven skills all leaders will need in the years ahead…
1. Compassion is strength
For much of the past century, the tough leader – the type of boss who ruins employees’ weekends by making them dread coming into work on Monday – ruled the world of business. It was simple: to be successful, you had to be scary. Think General Electric head honcho Jack Welch, nicknamed Neutron Jack for his ability to wipe out people like a neutron bomb but leave the building standing – he helped to spearhead the trend for downsizing and would annually rank his managers, firing the bottom 10% of them.
Of course, Covid-19 changed all that. With so many workers undergoing mental stress, whether caused by financial hardship, the rigours of lockdowns or the pain of losing loved ones, even the hardest taskmasters needed to re-evaluate their leadership style. To get the most out of their staff and win their trust during this abnormal time, a softer, more empathetic type of leadership characterised by clear communication, encouragement and listening to their concerns via daily Zoom check-ins, was essential. It’s no coincidence those countries which registered lower Covid death rates and better compliance with restrictions were run by leaders who struck a similar sympathetic tone, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern or Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen.
Some CEOs who couldn’t shake off their old disciplinarian ways found themselves out of a job. In February 2021, KPMG UK Chairman Bill Michael stepped down after staff protested about his conduct during an online meeting in which he told them to “stop moaning” about the pandemic and called the notion of unconscious bias “complete and utter crap”.
“If you want to transform your organisation and take people with you, it’s important to listen to them,” says Andrew White, Senior Fellow in Management Practice at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, who also explores modern leadership in his Leadership2050 podcast. “Emotions come up when organisations transform. The good leaders know how to listen to that emotion and use it as energy. The bad leaders ignore or suppress it, leading to corporate underperformance.”
Indeed, there’s a strong business case for caring CEOs, with the World Economic Forum recently describing empathy as “a must-have business strategy” that “helps create a sense of belonging, reinforcing the belief that employees’ perspectives matter”. It’s become more important during the Great Resignation’s global fight for talent. “In today’s hot employment market, those employees who aren’t treated well will leave,” says White.
2. The rise of the corporate activist
When Western brands scrambled to suspend Russian operations following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, it was voluntary; while governments did impose sanctions on trade with Russia, they were not ordering businesses to withdraw their goods from Moscow shelves or shutter Siberian offices. Some firms stood to lose millions, but the alternative – being a pariah business blacklisted by consumers and publicly shamed on social media – would have been far worse.
It’s part of a growing trend for corporations to share public statements on social issues, whether it’s sustainability pledges before Cop26, or racial justice during the Black Lives Matter protests. “Companies can’t take a neutral position on certain issues anymore,” says White. “Big businesses have come to realise that they are critical parts of infrastructure in society. And society isn’t getting a lot from them.”
Staff now assume their leaders will speak up. Three-fifths of employees say their CEOs should take a lead on societal issues according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of 36,000 people in 28 countries.
However, suddenly having to be an advocate on social issues is a skill many new leaders may find difficult, White notes. “Many leaders have got to the top of their organisations by being good at delivering profitable growth sales,” he says. “The further up they go, the more they need to deal with the complexity of the world. They now have a fine line to tread between still having to deliver performance, as well as speaking up for something. The best CEOs lean into this and embrace it; others [struggle] to bring uncomfortable conversations into the boardroom.”
In January, some of the UK’s most senior business leaders launched an app-based platform, vocL, to encourage executives to speak out on social issues. “I cannot see a way in which we can solve the challenges we’ve got without a much, much stronger relationship between business and society and the public sector,” said Juergen Maier, former CEO of Siemens UK (and BBC Question Time regular) who helped to launch the app. “I think business has to take responsibility and leadership for some of those issues.”
White believes the public have had enough of robotic bosses communicating in corporate-speak. “People want to see the real person [and a leader] who is honest,” he says. “They want to feel they’re being listened to. None of this comes from speeches or interviews mediated by PR companies. It comes through honest conversation and personal interaction.”
3. Tread carefully - the whole world is watching
Today, social media provides a giant megaphone for the public to expose or complain about companies, as the viral videos and photos from queues at British airports this spring have reminded us. Just one simple mishap – a tweet sent in haste, a rude customer interaction – can generate a consumer backlash, damaging sales and careers in the process. Social media’s call-out culture and 24/7 spotlight can lead many bosses to feel as if they’re running their business in something akin to The Truman Show.
“Nothing’s hidden anymore: social media amplifies everything, [enabling] the public to get more insight into what the real picture is,” says White.
4. Embrace change
The CAs and other finance professionals who stepped up to help navigate their companies through the darkest days of the pandemic know all about exhibiting agility in times of adversity: with their companies’ business models pivoting on a regular basis, they’ve had to develop a protean, multi-faceted skillset.
“When transformation happens within companies, rubber hits the road. KPIs, capital allocations and power structures all change, along with discussions about how resources should be allocated,” says White. “Finance people are in the midst of this mix. They’re walking a tightrope: they can’t ignore risk or prevent change from happening either.”
5. Encourage diverse voices
Groupthink can be dangerous for businesses and other organisations. When bosses with “Mini-Me syndrome” populate their boards and teams with people from the same background and experience as them, fresh thinking is stifled, along with the ability to challenge bad practices. Systemic groupthink has been blamed variously for the failure to forecast the 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal and – most lethally – President Putin’s recent decision to invade Ukraine, which went ahead relatively unchallenged by the Russian establishment.
By contrast, inclusive leadership drives productivity: McKinsey research has shown those companies in the top quartile for ethnic and gender diversity on executive teams were, respectively, 36% and 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than businesses at the lower end of the scale.
As White says, tomorrow’s leaders will need to “bring in diverse voices and create a safe space for them to speak up. That’s particularly important during times of change when the status quo needs to be challenged.”
6. Have a personal sense of purpose
Today, businesses are seemingly tripping over themselves to communicate their “purpose”, whether it’s the plant-based food in the office canteen or banning all-male shortlists for jobs. But this means nothing if the person in charge isn’t imbued with a similar passion to change things.
“[Having personal purpose] is important because it acts as a north star when businesses go through disruption and change: people follow it,” says White. “On a personal level, it gives you more energy, drive and commitment, while it will also guide decision-making and resource allocation too.”
7. It's still a great time to be a leader
Leadership today comes with a fistful of new skills that may seem foreign for many executives: being responsible for staff welfare, speaking out on geopolitics and tiptoeing around the social media minefield. With these added stresses, it’s a wonder that anybody would want to get the top job at all. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…
White disagrees. “This is a great time to be a leader,” he says. “We’re living at a point where pretty much every industry is undergoing disruption – the [most profound shift] since the Industrial Revolution. However, history tells us when industries go through disruption, it triggers a wave of innovation with new businesses created. Yes, it’s a difficult time, but it’s also a great opportunity to be part of winning organisations that will give the world the products and services needed to change it… There’s a positive wave to ride here.”