Along with about 50 guests, we were delighted to welcome a fantastic panel of leaders:
Major Andrew Todd MBE, who led a Gurkha expedition to conquer Everest; Emmajane Varley, Global Head of Communications, Private Bank at HSBC; Sharon Barraclough, Pepsico’s Transformation Director; and ex-New Zealand rugby captain Anton Oliver, now Head of Equities at M&G Investments.
So, what did we learn?
If you want to know how to be a leader, don’t just ask other leaders
Looking at her fellow panellists and the dozens assembled in the audience, and referring to the plethora of peer-to-peer leadership forums, Emmajane said, “I think we need to be a little less incestuous about what makes good leaders.”
Her advice? Talk to your teams, find out what motivates individuals and how they want to grow. Only then can we as ‘leaders’ give people the right sort of help, guidance and development tools.
“I’ve got two Gen Zs in my team…and this generation even reject the word ‘leader’,” said Emmajane. “They don’t want to become it and they don’t want to hang out with us…They want to start the movement and own it and be the face of it.” These newer recruits to the corporate world often want to construct working arrangements on their own terms, according to Emmajane, perhaps securing flexible hours to allow for voluntary work and other personal pursuits.
Although Andrew waspishly put forward the theory that Gen Zs might therefore not make the best frontline soldiers, the point was well made.
Resilience can be damaging. Be vulnerable
Sharon told a story from early in her career when she’d asked a senior person something. In front of her colleagues, this individual tutted and dismissed the question by saying, “Youth of today.”
This kind of deliberate belittling of ‘juniors’ is less likely to happen today, said Sharon, with leaders far more willing to show themselves in a vulnerable light. [None more so than Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório]
Thinking back to his time on Everest with the Gurkhas during the Nepal earthquake in 2015, Andrew echoed that sentiment. Indeed, for him, it was a vital component of truly effective leadership. “It’s perfectly acceptable to be scared in that environment,” he said. By “acknowledging your fear” your team would be more likely to “trust the decisions you’re making [because they’re] not just being made with needless courage.”
“You have to model trust,” Anton asserted. “So you have to give people both ends of the rope. I’ll give you some sensitive information, and you know it’s sensitive, and we’ll see how that goes. And I might even be vulnerable with you and share something about my personal life.”
“It takes courage to admit vulnerability,” said Emmajane, who also wanted to question the extent to which industry values independent people who ‘just get on with it’ no matter what. “Resilience is important,” she continued, “but it’s experienced in silence…it has diminishing returns…and can mean a lack of empathy… the impact on wellbeing is damaging.”
The trick is to create an environment of what Andrew called “psychological safety”, in which all parties can talk openly and without fear, and where it’s OK to challenge and be challenged.
Just plain you
Sharon recognises a shift in leadership styles over time, with some of the most senior folk at PepsiCo being more willing to open up than in the past. “They do start [team sessions] with the human parts of themselves and what’s going on in their world,” she said. “Showing a little bit of vulnerability, what’s important to them as a person as well as to the organisation.”
A healthy dose of authenticity can go a long way, it seems. Be careful if you’re thinking about bluffing any of this, though.
“Millennials are bullshit detectors!” said Anton.
As James reminded us on the day, and in the words of Field Marshal Bill Slim: “Leadership is just plain you.”
A few nuggets, then, from some of the best in the business (and military and sport) about how to be a better leader, and how to encourage the next generation of leaders.