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Leadership Matters: “Switch the tribalism button off” – Dr Simon Hayward

30 July 2021

Story by
Sarah Rice, Editor and Director, The HR World

Leadership Matters: “Switch the tribalism button off”

Dr Simon Hayward, author of The Agile Leader and Connected Leadership, is honorary professor at Alliance Manchester Business School.

Here in our new series “Leadership Matters”, he provides his insight on what great leadership is, what it means – and how to achieve it.

Challenge is essential to growth:

Early in my career, I was a divisional managing director of a plc and had a lot of autonomy. Then a new executive chairman was brought in who had quite an old-school, controlling style of management.

This jarred with my natural sense of independence. I challenged his views quite a lot, which led to clashes. It reached the stage where I could either give in or leave, so I chose to leave. I embarked on a career in consultancy, where independence of mind is more valued.

This was a formative experience for me. It influenced how I work when I’m advising other leaders. I am a firm believer in building relationships of trust and devolving responsibility.

Finding purpose gives you belief when the chips are down:

I have been very fortunate during my career in consulting to work closely with leaders all over the world. The most inspirational leaders I’ve seen have a very clear sense of purpose.

They create belief in the future. People inside and outside their organisations buy into what they are doing together and understand why it is significant.

Be driven by values that inspire commitment:

Linked to this sense of purpose, the most effective leaders I’ve worked with are authentic, driven by values that inspire confidence and commitment from others. They have open and transparent relationships with colleagues to build trust and a positive culture around them.

Be an enabler:

Successful leaders work hard at empowering their people, giving them confidence to respond effectively within a coherent framework, so that decisions are made as close to the customer as possible.

They are ‘enablers’, building a connected organisation which can move as a whole with ease, responding quickly to changing economic conditions, customer demands, and competitor behaviour.

They coach others, empowering them to get on and do a great job, and to collaborate with people across diverse areas. They are also socially adept, able to engage others on a transformation journey, using their natural curiosity and compassion to create a strong personal connection with a wider group of people.

And be a disruptor, too:

The Covid pandemic has created huge disruption, which has accelerated more agile ways of working in many organisations. Many successful leaders seek out opportunities for disruption. They are skilled at identifying the need for pivotal changes that redefine the foundational elements of organisational identity.

Disruptors like to cut through bureaucracy and reimagine the operating model, busting silos and challenging tribal thinking. They are often creative, bold and optimistic about the possibilities the future holds, and expect colleagues to adapt quickly to changes in the external environment.

They also often have a determination to achieve a breakthrough, to achieve the mission in hand rather than be limited by the constraints of what they would see as ‘old ways of working’.

Encourage experimentation and risk taking:

Disruptive leaders also tend to be good at inspiring others to take risks and achieve real innovation. We have the discretion as leaders to create a climate where people feel confident and supported to speak out and take intelligent risks.

We can lay a foundation of psychological safety, creating an environment where people feel safe and supported to experiment without fear of failure. Our behaviour will largely determine whether our teams feel empowered and able to take decisions or nervous about getting it wrong and the consequences of error.

I see this play out in practice at the most senior levels in some organisations, where well-paid executives defer to the chief executive rather than taking the risk of deciding in their own teams.

Learn and move on (by learning how to move on):

When our experiments don’t work out, we can learn from them. A helpful mantra that has become popular in recent years is ‘fail fast and learn’ or ‘test and learn’.

It describes how we can try new things and experiment with different approaches to solve problems. Learning from both successes and failures helps us to create more innovative solutions. By regularly reviewing progress, learning, and putting that learning into practice, we can create a cycle of insight and progress. 

Be a ruthless ‘prioritiser’: I see leaders everywhere struggling to prioritise in a world where we are bombarded with new ideas, issues and innovations. Multi-tasking is inefficient, whether it is at a personal level, in teams, or across a whole organisation.

Having too many things on the go at the same time clogs up the time available. Focus on the few things that make the biggest difference. It will reduce wasted time and resource.

Let go of control – develop capability:

In my experience, many leaders find it difficult to let go so that others can take responsibility and act with autonomy. Too often senior leadership teams bemoan the lack of capability at more junior levels of the organisation, which means they cannot empower as much as they would like.

I remind them that this is their responsibility, to develop leaders from within, to build capability, to coach their teams to step up, to nurture talent across the business to drive growth and performance improvement. I ask boards to identify the decisions only they can make, and to delegate the rest.

Switch the tribalism button off:

As leaders our job is often to switch the tribalism button off, to enable our people to embrace cross-functional collabortion, removing silos and accelerating processes. We need to encourage regular communication between teams, and repeatedly reinforce the shared purpose and accountability for outputs across teams.

And as leaders it is often our responsibility to make the first move, to encourage teams to reach over boundaries to seek out ways to make the overall customer experience better. We can be the catalysts for accelerating collaborative achievement.

Dr Simon Hayward is also CEO of Cirrus.



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