5 ideas for successful leadership

It was an honour to present at last week’s inaugural AFR BOSS Leadership Summit amongst an impressive group of highly successful leaders and inspiring emerging leaders from across the Australian business community. I also used my speech as an opportunity to share my view on the importance of inclusion and social equality – following the previous day’s ‘Yes’ result in the postal survey on marriage equality. What a historic moment for Australia!

My allocated topic was “ideas for successful leadership and workforce expectations”. I realised in my preparations that there’s a powerful link between the two – successful leadership and workforce engagement. As someone who’s passionate about both learning and sharing insights, I’m summarising my reflections and the key points I spoke about here. I hope you find them interesting and useful!

My leadership perspective

My leadership experience comes from my 30-year Deloitte career, especially the last three as CEO. I’m often asked why I’ve stayed with one firm for so long and there are two main reasons:

  • Exposure to valuable insights: In a professional services environment I’ve been given the unique opportunity, through our clients, to engage regularly with businesses (and their leaders) from across industries and government to understand their business models, strategies, challenges and outcomes. This experience has been valuable in developing my own leadership style.
  • Being surrounded by inspirational future leaders: Ours is a ‘young’ organisation. Deloitte is one of the top graduate employers – both globally and in Australia – last year we hired 20,000 and 550 grads respectively. By 2020, 50% of our workforce will be Millennials. We need these highly talented, creative, motivated individuals to help solve our clients’ most complex challenges. And let me tell you, the expectations of this workforce are very high!

Between my client exposure and our workforce’s growing expectations, I’ve been able to continually learn and grow as a professional and leader every day, year after year, for more than 30 years. That’s why I’ve stayed.

Leadership in business

Achieving success in business requires leaders to balance the need to deliver results today, with the need to invest in and transform their businesses to be future-ready.

Obviously, leaders must generate growth, profitability and outcomes for their stakeholders on a consistent basis. Especially for public companies. No-one’s sitting around thinking, “we’ll just keep doing what we’ve always done and everything’ll be fine”.

The pace of technological change, globalisation, and the rise of new competitors is rapidly driving the need for organisational transformation to ensure sustainability. Many great leaders are navigating these challenges successfully and getting the balance right.

I’m keenly focused on achieving this balance and have five strategic priorities – leadership ideas, if you will – that drive me each day.

1. Being purpose-led

Why do we exist and do what we do? Leaders need to be purpose-led and inspire their people to feel a sense of purpose, a commitment to the collective cause, and a strong belief that what they’re doing matters. Not just to the organisation or themselves, but to society.

What’s more, an organisation’s purpose isn’t just a ‘CEO statement’ that’s blindly followed. I’ve found purpose to be more ‘bottom up’ than ‘top down’.

A great example was Deloitte’s recent storytelling campaign which invited all our people to share their stories of how they’re living our purpose of making an impact that matters. The level of engagement, from the bottom up, was just phenomenal! 78% of our people (close to 4,500) shared their story over six months and it was truly inspirational.

It’s great to see Millennials are more purpose-led than previous generations. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey (which polled 8,000 Millennials across 30 countries), 74% believe that “business has the potential to solve the challenges that concern them most”. And they want to be part of a workforce as an active participant to make these changes happen, not just as a passive bystander.

It’s our job as leaders to inspire all our people – especially Millennials – to find meaning in what they do. Being purpose-led, individually and collectively, is number one for me.

2. Bold strategy

This is all about direction, where you’re going and the choices you make to get there.

I use the adjective bold deliberately. Same old, same old doesn’t work! To be future-ready, transformational change is inevitable. Not only is a bold strategy important, so is the ability to drive the changes necessary to execute on it. Being an agent for change, and rapid change, is one of the most challenging things leaders face today. It certainly is for me.

As leaders, we don’t just need to share a compelling vision of the future, but we also need to remain committed to getting through what I call the ‘valley of death’ – or the point on the change journey where many good ideas and strategies fail because leaders can’t take their people towards the desired future state.

I find people’s first reaction to the idea of change is often a knee jerk and overly negative. As a leader, you may think it’s just easier to give up at this point, but our job is to persevere. Listen to all the concerns, empathise and involve your colleagues in the change – so you all get through to the success that lies on the other side.

So my message here is that change is hard but worth the effort to ensure you execute on your bold strategies!

3. Empowered team

Everyone talks about the importance of teamwork. And it’s true.

Having an empowered team is a ‘must have’ on my list of ideas for successful leadership. Without sounding arrogant, one of my greatest strengths as a leader is ‘building and leading through my team’. I think the reason I’m known for this is because I’m very aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. And I’m comfortable with both.

In the same way that I am relied on, I rely on others for their strengths. For example, my CSO John Meacock is a trained strategist and a master at strategic thinking. I rely on him to help me develop our firm’s bold strategy. In the same vein, my COO David Hill is an M&A specialist who has 20 years’ experience in analysing businesses and understanding the operational levers to pull to achieve maximum returns, so I rely on him to ensure the firm’s operational excellence.

My colleagues are leaders in their own right, and I believe in constantly shining a light on their skills, creating space for them to grow, and amplifying their impact as leaders. In fact I like to think of my purpose, and a way of making an impact, as being a leader of leaders.

Empowering teams isn’t limited to my executive, it’s about the broader team too, so I try to send visible signals all the time about the importance of teaming. A small but important example is how I address my emails. I don’t start with “Hi everyone”, but with ‘Team Deloitte’.

4. Open-minded

This priority is about the mindset successful leaders need. For me, being open-minded and encouraging this mindset in my colleagues is an imperative for several reasons.

  • Global awareness and connectivity. Despite a rising sense of nationalism and populism, businesses and the way we live and work is becoming increasingly global. Capital flows – whether financial or human – aren’t constrained by geographic borders. Growing businesses are looking overseas to expand their customer bases, improve their supply chains and delivery models, and to create new investment or venture opportunities.Our workforces are becoming increasingly culturally diverse and leaders need to be open minded and understand the value their unique cultural backgrounds and perspectives bring. Being globally aware and connected can be a competitive advantage for businesses and for Australia.
  • Creating an innovative spirit within your team and organisation. People need to be encouraged to try new things, fail quickly and grow and improve. Innovation isn’t about coming up with the latest new product idea. For me, innovation is about staying relevant – individually and as an organisation. Innovation is best embraced when it’s embedded in an organisation’s DNA. For Deloitte, it’s our responsibility to innovate! We’re never content with the status quo and always explore what’s possible
  • Being open-minded enhances decision making. Over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly open-minded, rather than becoming more set in my ways. As an auditor, I was used to making fast, informed decisions. As my career advanced, the decisions I needed to make become more complex with broader implications – many impacting people in major ways. Some decisions were unpopular. In fact, making difficult decisions is one of the most stressful and uncomfortable parts of being a leader. When people ask me what keeps me awake at night, this is it! Hard

People care about the decision you make, but they care even more about the process you use along the way – I believe you need to respectfully engage people affected by the decision and seek their input and ideas; explain the process, criteria and thinking that underlies the decision to inspire confidence; and, once your decision is made, clearly state the outcome and the new rules of the game and the way forward. I use this process extensively, and it has left me feeling more confident with the difficult decisions I have to make. I probably still lose sleep during the decision making process… but I’m more at peace once I’ve made my decision knowing I have followed a fair process.

5. Inspiring culture

This fifth and final priority is all about creating an environment in which people are enabled to reach their full potential.

It reminds me of that old adage of strategy vs. culture: Which eats which for lunch or breakfast?! Neither! That’s why I have bold strategy and inspiring culture on my successful leadership list.

A few things strike me about culture. When I became CEO, I felt Deloitte had a very strong culture so wanted to build on it, rather than change it. It’s been interesting to see the impact of some initiatives I’ve championed on our culture and subsequently our performance.

For example, a recent national wellbeing program for our people. This was very personal to me. It came from knowing that I’ve always performed better, at work and in life, when I have a sense of wellbeing. I thought if I perform better when I’m well, it should stand true for the 6,500 people at Deloitte.

I define the term wellbeing broadly – it’s not just about being physically fit – it’s about having a sense of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual strength.

Another contributor to creating a supportive and caring environment is by creating a culture of inclusion. And I don’t mean just the push we have to increase the diversity of our workforce, which Deloitte continues to drive with improved diversity policies, programs, targets with teeth, etc. I am talking about fostering an increasingly inclusive workplace where diverse teams can thrive. Diversity without inclusion is just a number.

I’ve learned that you can’t take culture for granted. It takes deep commitment and constant attention to get it right and this remains a key priority for me.

Measuring the ROI on building an inspirational and strong culture with hard financial metrics is difficult, but I can confidently say we’re outgrowing our competition and delivering highly profitable results; we’re attracting talent at unprecedented rates; and we’ve just been named the 6th most innovative company in the country. There’s no doubt in my mind that our success is in a large part the result of our focus on creating an inspiring culture – one where people know we care about their wellbeing and where they feel a sense of belonging.

What’s more, our workforce expect this.

In closing

I wish I had understood some of these things 20 years ago! If I could write a letter to my younger self, I would tell her:

  1. Think about your purpose! Reflect deeply on why you’re doing what you’re doing, then live your life in pursuit of that purpose
  2. Challenge yourself to be bolder in your strategic choices and push harder for change
  3. It’s not all about you, empower your team. Be comfortable with your own strengths and weaknesses; rely on and amplify the strengths of others in the team
  4. Be more open-minded, push yourself constantly to see different opportunities, take on new challenges, connect globally, grow and improve
  5. Create an inspiring culture, don’t focus just on the numbers, an inspiring culture is a key driver of financial performance.

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