Senior leadership requires skills for 3 fundamental tasks

I’ve just been involved in a selection panel for a very large senior role and this has caused me to reflect on the role of a leader. 

When I was asked many years ago by my then young son what I did as a CEO, I explained it as managing Strategy, People and Risk. Today, that’s still correct, other than perhaps I rename “risk” as “governance”. A leader needs skills to accomplish these three broad tasks. First to the tasks. 

Every organisation needs leaders who can lead Strategy – guide, cajole and push and pull towards the strategic goals of the organisation in their environmental context. 

Every organisation needs leaders who can lead People – every relationship from staff, to their bosses, to customers, to suppliers, and where relevant, to their board and even to politicians. 

And every organisation needs leaders who can get the grunt done – the Governance, budgets, KPIs, deliverables, regulatory requirements. 

A quick Google search brings up a multitude of skills or competencies for a senior leader. These include great communication skills, honesty, self-motivation, confidence, humour. When I think of the three main tasks to be delivered, what are some key competencies you can’t do without? 

1. To lead a strategic direction (whether for a team or a whole company) requires the ability to be facilitative. You may have great ideas, but you need to take other people’s views and the environmental context into account. You don’t have all the answers. In fact, sometimes the best you can be is the person encouraging the questions. Your role is often to facilitate openness. Consider implementing what I referred to as Good, Better, Best. First, encourage idealist, blue sky thinking to outline “Best”. Hopefully since you’re already at “Good”, start the thinking of “well what’s Better?”. Make it known that on the way to “Best”– to nirvana, to ideal, there might be many iterations of “Better”. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s about promoting that we’re okay with iterations, a practice of Gen 1, Gen 2, Gen 3. Don’t overlook small things to facilitate freer thinking. For instance, change the logistics of a strategic meeting compared to a business as usual meeting (e.g. consider holding the meeting in a different room). 

2. To lead people, it’s about courage. Courage to bring your people along with the expectations of those who judge your organisation and you. For instance, every day your customers judge your organisation. Your boss or shareholders judge you. I have more than once struck people who wanted to shield their teams from reality. These managers had such amazing leadership skills with their own teams to the extent that their teams treated them like a Messiah protecting them from the nasty world. But these managers weren’t managing up. Courage for them only went one way. It was about leading a siloed team into battle. Ultimately in an organisation, courage requires that you understand your responsibility to love and grow that organisation. You need to speak up if you disagree, and speak up again. Courage is about dealing with reality. 

3. To lead governance, you need accountability. The buck, in whatever job you are performing, stops with you (at the very least) to the limits of your job description. Know what you are accountable for and get on with it. When feedback came that decision making was too slow or bottlenecked, I coined a phrase “Is it law or is it lore?” Often people got hung up on what was truly just folklore when they actually had more latitude than they were aware of to make decisions themselves. All of the grind that needs to happen like budgets, KPIs, regulatory requirements etc, make sure it gets done and it gets done well, whether by you or whoever is best placed. Understand every job has that mix of fun and grind. If you don’t do the grunt work well, things go pear shaped and suck away all the time for fun work! 

So as far as recently being part of a selection panel, I wanted someone who could facilitate strategy, lead people with courage and be truly accountable for a big role. Until next time.