Leaders may be lucky enough to stay in their roles for long stretches of time. But if they are trapped in a perpetual present, rather than eyeing the future, they will no longer be relevant
Before I get into the meat of this topic, I just want to drop off a quick phrase that encapsulates what I’m about to discuss: What got us here, won’t get us there. Keep that in mind… you may see it again very soon – and all will become clear! And with that, here we go…
It probably wouldn’t have escaped your attention that Robert Mugabe was recently deposed as leader of Zimbabwe. That watershed – which could easily have been a lot nastier than it was, but miraculously played out within reasonable boundaries – had occurred because, for all his love of power, and his Herculean efforts to keep it over the decades, Mugabe was no longer relevant.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been buckling under the strain of fiscal mismanagement for as long as anyone can remember. And when one considers the headway that is being made in other parts of Africa to kindle the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that thrives in the developed world (see here, here and here), Zimbabweans could be forgiven for feeling more than a little envious.
Robert Mugabe may have been an effective force when it came to fighting his own, personal corner – but he’d ceased to be relevant in an Africa that is changing, becoming more tech savvy and wanting a slice of the economic action that can flow from innovative habits. While Africa was striving to move with the times, Mugabe was stuck in the past.
One sign of whether or not a leader is relevant is whether the solutions they are throwing at particular problems are taking effect. One case where that proved not to be so was the final stretch of Andy Clarke’s tenure as chief executive of Asda – a torrid time for the retail chain, in which Clarke launched a turnaround plan on the back of a £1 billion investment to slash prices. Fast-forward two years, to June 2016, and Clarke was clearing his desk. By that point, Asda had suffered seven quarters of falling sales in a row. On that kind of timeline, it’s clear that the medicine isn’t getting to the pain points – and is therefore no longer relevant.
Interestingly, before he stepped down, Clarke had achieved the distinction of being the longest-serving CEO to have led any of the UK’s Big Four supermarkets. However, while it would no doubt be encouraging for any business leader to achieve that kind of record, staying in place for a long time is not, in and of itself, an ideal goal. If it’s going to happen, then it should preferably be a symptom of your achievements – not something that plays out despite your firm’s performance.
Another test of whether leaders are relevant is whether they can spot threats that go to the very heart of their firms’ business models. Back in the summer, Benny Higgins stepped down from his role as CEO of Tesco Bank, following a large-scale cyberattack of November 2016, which siphoned off £2.5 million from 9,000 customers. In a Financial Times report on the attack, security experts suggested that senior figures at Tesco Bank had ignored warnings about their organisation’s cyber weaknesses for several months up to the hack, providing wrongdoers with a clear opportunity.
One of the most critical tasks facing any leader is the requirement to keep watch for threats that could shake customer confidence in their organisation’s core functions. On that basis, it’s easy to understand why, in the wake of the attack, Higgins’ leadership was no longer relevant. After 10 years as CEO, he moved on.
Undoubtedly, a huge chunk of personal pride encourages leaders to hang on to their roles for as long as they can. It’s only natural – and, of course, there’s an argument to say that it suits organisations from the perspective of continuity. But in the long run, that will only work with the aid of two qualities: critical self-reflection, and self-evaluation. They are the assets that are most likely to help a leader keep their sell-by date at bay.
You see, the thing about leaders is that they reach certain professional milestones, and bring their firms with them, by overcoming challenges. But what worked for the challenge you faced yesterday is not always what’s going to work for the challenge that’s coming tomorrow. And the danger that looms over each and every leader is that those who don’t put in the groundwork now to prepare for the challenges that are rolling towards them will start to underperform without even knowing it.
In other words (and I can feel you knew the phrase was on its way back!): What got us here, won’t get us there.
While most of us tend to think that competence is the deciding factor in advancement, that notion was fiercely contested half a century ago in Dr Laurence J Peter’s landmark piece of workplace scholarship, The Peter Principle. The book’s title became the name for Dr Peter’s theory that people are promoted to the point where their competence drops off, and turns into incompetence – so for a leader, there’s actually quite a lot of fear attached to being in a senior position, tasked with steering an organisation through test after test.
If Dr Peter is to be believed, leaders are operating on the outer fringes of their abilities. You may have just blitzed a hefty challenge this week, but will your skills and talents be enough to see you through the one that’s on its way? Will you remain relevant?
It’s a similar story when, following a spell of success, a leader moves to a larger organisation, and is tasked with applying the talents they’ve demonstrated to a whole new working environment. Of course, a leader who has transferred from one organisation to another would be tempted to do exactly the same things in their new surroundings as they did in their previous milieu, because those things got them noticed in the first place. Why wouldn’t someone have that psychological reflex?
But what was relevant for their previous firm may not be relevant for the one they’ve just joined. Its challenges may be very different – and the reason the leader has been brought in is because the board is counting on them to have the required intellectual and imaginative flexibility to plug into what the organisation needs, in order to fulfil its business goals. That puts a responsibility on the leader’s shoulders to be as adaptable as possible.
The only way that can be achieved is through development – and the type of self-awareness that will help you understand why you need it. Whether it’s through coaching, training or being mentored, you will only be relevant for what is coming tomorrow if you keep yourself fresh, and open to new ideas.
Look at Rafa Nadal. Early in his career, he made a name for himself for being the greatest clay-court player on the circuit, which was fabulous – but experts said he was restricted to that surface and wouldn’t do well at Wimbledon. But then, all of a sudden, he started to get really good at playing on grass. What changed? It was his adaptability, rising to meet the threshold of his ambition, ensuring that he would be relevant not just in one type of tennis – but across the whole game. He was using the foundation of his skillset, but was taking it to new places and adjusting to the demands of his new surroundings.
If you do the same, then you’ll hit a few aces in your career, too.
In the interests of friendly familiarity, leaders may be tempted to hire people they trust over more competent candidates. But this may not always make for a smooth path
Amid the pressure of running a dynamic, ambitious organisation, one of the greatest comforts that a leader could have is the confidence to be able to say, “Someone has my back.” Often, the types of people that a leader wants by their side in a senior management team are those they have become accustomed to and grown to like – to the extent that those individuals are no longer merely professional associates, but bona-fide friends. And these will be the people in whom a leader will be happiest to invest their trust.
A leader cultivates friends across an entire career, throughout numerous organisations. Those who are most likely to be remembered are the people among whom the leader feels most excited, inspired – or possibly even challenged, if the leader happens to relish the more positive end of the conflict spectrum. Alternatively, these friends may represent a collective comfort zone, from which the leader can expect reliable, safe feedback and the bare minimum of friction.
Whatever the case, a leader’s most trusted friends will fall into one preferential bracket or another – and being preferred is always a handy shortcut to securing someone’s trust.
That trust dynamic can have an enormous influence on a leader’s hiring habits.
“Getting the old gang back together”
For 99% of the time, a leader who is going to a new organisation is required to sign a ‘restrictive covenant’, or ‘post-termination restriction’, in which they will agree with the firm they’re about to leave that they won’t recruit from its staff pool once they have moved on. That type of recruitment, commonly known as ‘poaching’, is generally viewed with distaste in business circles, as it encourages dishonesty and unfair competition. Indeed, in some industries, it can even incur regulatory sanctions, as this Financial Conduct Authority statement from early 2014 demonstrates.
Covenants and restrictions – and other measures, such as strict, internal advertising of vacancies – can place limits upon a leader’s ability to “get the old gang back together”. But there are still workarounds: the leader may be able to hire friends they trust from two companies ago, or perhaps encourage a more recent, trusted colleague to go freelance and then scoop them up once they are ‘out in the wild’, so to speak. However. While I fully acknowledge the tremendous importance of trust, I would urge leaders to take great care before they lurch wholeheartedly down this particular road. Because there are some potentially destabilising dangers in betting the entire house on trust, and taking focus off another crucial value: competence.
For example, one such danger may be that you recruit a trusted friend into a new role, and that person’s hitherto impeccable performance drops off because they are unable to get to grips with that position amid a wave of additional newness – eg, a new organisation, with a new culture and a whole new set of targets. Therefore, whether or not they have your back becomes completely irrelevant, because they’re not hitting the mark and are actually making you look bad. To your other senior colleagues, it may even feel as though you have misled them with claims that the person you’ve hired would be a genuine asset.
Taking a gamble on whether that person you trust is actually capable of doing the job that you have in mind for them – a job that, in and of itself, may be untried – is a significant risk.
Also, you need to examine that scenario from the perspective of the person you’ve hired. Expectations go horribly sour overnight if shared dreams somehow don’t work out. If you recruit a trusted friend into your new organisation and the plan hits the buffers, then that could be very hurtful for both of you. You wanted that person to come in so they’d have your back. That person answered your call because they wanted to have your back. There are some rather moving emotions behind those objectives. But if your hire’s approach to the actual job runs aground, then it is not just you who has been exposed – you have inadvertently exposed your trusted friend to a whole storm of criticism, embarrassment and perhaps even hostility from the other people around you.
There would definitely be a “That wasn’t in the script” feeling of deflation in the wake of a scenario like this. But even worse, that overarching aim of harnessing trust would have completely backfired, sowing distrust in its place.
Ever-decreasing inner circles
I myself can completely understand why a leader would be tempted to prize trust above all other factors… and yet, I can also grasp the drawbacks inherent in that line of thinking. I can draw upon examples from my own career to illustrate each side of the coin:
Once, I was headhunted into a leadership role, and everybody I was managing had applied for the same position. In that environment, it would certainly have been handy for me to have someone alongside me who was a friendly face and who’d have my back – because for all the time I was there, I just had a sense that people were waiting for me to fall. There was so much bitterness over the fact that the company had decided to bring in an external figure that no matter how good I was, I would never have been accepted. There was a great deal of pressure as a result. So, based on how I felt while I was in that role, and how it made me wish for an ally, I can see why a leader would be motivated to hire on trust.
On the other hand: in another example, I once restructured a department at a client company and created two associate manager vacancies. A very good manager who I worked with – and trusted – applied for one of the roles… but I didn’t offer it to him. The person I decided to offer it to did not have my back. In fact, much like the previous example, I think that she was waiting for me to come a cropper so that she could assume my responsibilities. But I hired her because I thought that what she had in terms of competence and experience would fit with how we had structured the new-look team. Strangely enough, a few years later, the guy who I didn’t offer the job to ended up getting another job that was quite similar to that role – and he told me that my decision to reject him on that occasion was the best thing that had happened to him, because it made him really step up and work harder.
So, we can see from these examples that trust is not always to be… trusted. There will definitely be biases at the heart of a leader’s decision to recruit primarily on trust – particularly confirmation bias – but those inclinations will not always bear fruit.
For the grimmest insight into where trust goes wrong, we need only refer to cronyism – and for a major example of that, look no further than the Trump administration. We’re just about a year into his Presidency, and many of the allies he initially brought into his inner circle have fallen away – gradually proving themselves less and less worthy of the confidence and trust that he, and others, invested in them.
Trust is a wonderful value – but it must always work in conjunction with a broad, and holistic, set of other qualities.
Promises are a double-edged sword for businesses – and evidence shows that simply keeping them works better for customers than surpassing them.
The dangers of a business stockpiling its promises and over-committing itself have been thrown into sharp relief by the traumatic collapse of infrastructure giant Carillion. Following the 15 January announcement that the firm was going into liquidation, the finger pointing began in earnest. No wonder: as the UK’s largest supplier of municipal facilities for a host of different public services, Carillion had instilled in its primary customer – the government – a major dependency, becoming pivotal to the fulfilment of numerous policy programmes.
Its failure bodes ill for the delivery of projects in both the near and long term – and for the health of the public purse, should the taxpayer be required to step in.
Among the reams of analysis that have stemmed from Carillion’s predicament, this piece at the Financial Times reveals much about the risks that the company shouldered by making too many promises and overselling its capabilities. For example, it points out that the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital, a Carillion project that was due to open this March, has been plagued with setbacks – the most concerning of which is that cracks have begun to appear in its concrete beams. As a result, it is experiencing severe delays.
The article then notes: “Carillion was not only suffering problems on the Liverpool project but other flagship developments also over-ran, adding to a burden on the company that helped bring about its collapse. Analysts estimate that Carillion may have lost as much as £150 million after more than six months’ delays on a £745m Aberdeen bypass – while the £350m Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick, near Birmingham, has been heavily delayed by engineering problems.”
It adds that a pattern of over-reach at Carillion was detected by hedge funds as early as 2013. “After noting that Carillion took 120 days to pay its subcontractors,” the piece says, “short sellers decided the company was built on fragile financial foundations.”
There are many lessons that leaders can take away from the Carillion debacle. But the one that covers the greatest ground is akin to the warning that blares out at train platforms across the land: MIND THE GAP – between your promises and your ability to bring them to fruition. Making bold claims for what you’ll be able to deliver is, of course, part and parcel of the salesmanship process that any organisation must navigate in order to win new business. In that milieu, moon-on-a-stick promises are the order of the day, and in some cases are almost weaponised in order to fend off industry competitors who are thronging and drooling around particularly juicy tenders.
However, once you’ve gone through that rite of passage, you have to immortalise your bending-over-backwards patter into something altogether less fanciful: a contract.
It is here that the cold light of day intrudes, and perhaps highlights the first tinge of regret over promised ways of working that were dreamt up pretty much on the spot. For example, tales of clients being promised one, dedicated executive for their workload when, in reality, that person will also be managing another three or four existing accounts, are legendary in the business world. Those sorts of promises are made with painful regularity, and one can hardly be surprised if the employee in question – and the work they’re attempting to battle through – start to suffer.
So, what are ambitious go-getters to do?
For many experts, the way ahead lies in entirely the opposite direction. This piece at US personal-finance and business advice site The Balance advocates that under-promising and over-delivering is the most effective route to a customer’s heart – quite reasonably noting: “Over-promising is a wonderful way to set yourself up for failure. It is also a great way to put your company and customer support teams in a no-win situation. When you over-promise, you are essentially telling your customer that you can do something that you either know you can’t or don’t feel confident that you can fulfil.”
It adds: “Simply put, when you deliver more than what you suggested to your client, and more than what they were expecting, [your] perceived value increases. With increased value, you are much more likely to get referrals and additional sales.”
Sounds marvellous. But does that ethos hold up to evidence-based scrutiny? Well, er… no.
I know – it doesn’t sound right. But a couple of workplace scientists have looked into this, and it’s well worth paying attention to what they found out.
In 2014, University of California San Diego (UCSD) associate professor of marketing Ayelet Gneezy conducted a thorough study of what she termed “promise-exceeding” behaviours among individuals, and how those traits were reflected among the beneficiaries. As Gneezy told online science journal EurekAlert!, her research was sparked by thoughts of how Amazon had routinely delivered packages to her much earlier than expected – and yet she’d never actively bubbled over with appreciation for those outcomes.
Working alongside Booth School of Business behavioural-science specialist Professor Nicholas Epley, Gneezy carried out a series of experiments to gauge levels of gratification following instances of over-delivery. In one such exercise, a group of test subjects was split into equal numbers of ‘promise-makers’ and ‘promise-receivers’. Each receiver was required to solve 40 puzzles. Each maker, meanwhile, was paired with a receiver and tasked with promising that they’d help out with 10 of those puzzles. Under Gneezy and Epley’s directions, certain makers were asked to assist their receivers with either five puzzles (five less than promised), or with 15 (five more). In the latter cases, the over-delivering makers barely even moved the needle on the receivers’ sense of gratitude or appreciation – a result that shocked the researchers.
As Epley explained: “I was surprised that exceeding a promise produced so little meaningful increase in gratitude or appreciation. I had anticipated a modest positive effect, [but] what we actually found was almost no gain from exceeding a promise whatsoever.” The other experiments supported that finding. What did it all mean?
Epley said: “Keeping a promise is valued so highly, above and beyond its ‘objective’ value. When you keep a promise, not only have you done something nice for someone. You’ve also fulfilled a social contract and shown that you’re a reliable and trustworthy person.”
With that in mind, he advises business leaders: “Invest efforts into keeping promises – not in exceeding them.”
It may seem counterintuitive – against the grain of received business wisdom. But there’s a great deal of sense to it. Thanks to the disjunctions between people’s (and companies’) online and true selves, not to mention the war that’s being waged against empirical facts by certain leadership figures around the globe, we live in a world where it’s often hard to tell who deserves our trust. In that environment, when we discover that someone’s word is truly their bond, it is a real pleasure.
And the simple requirement to keep promises should encourage leaders who are jostling for tenders to pitch from a place where ambition and resources are working in harmony, rather than butting heads.