The Agile Leadership Mindset

I find myself talking about mindset a lot these days. In board meetings, with founders, with CEO’s, with Senior Leadership Teams and in one on one executive leadership coaching sessions. Why? Because it seems being intentional about your mindset is not common in the business leadership environment.

In elite sport & in military leadership mindset is all important and actively part of the coaching agenda. Those with a growth mindset, who can learn from and build on mistakes tend to progress to excellence and certainly are more resilient to set backs/failure.

Common mindsets to challenge in the business environment;

  • Being Reactive. The feeling and frustration of being constantly reactive. This is usually created by a lack of a structured framework for leading. Regular strategic thinking time, time with the team in the field, time with strategic customers and relationships of the business, one on ones with direct reports, professional development and reading (and many other important things) are not locked down in calendars. When well meaning team members look to bring you in on meetings there is nothing blocked out. You become reactive yet you are the only one who can change this.
  • The founder mindset. Most understand that what has got the company to this point in time won’t get it to the next level and despite investing in governance, professional advisers and management leaders they continue to stick to the familiar/ original narrative. By holding on too tight, conversations are shut down, new ways & opportunities are discounted before being explored fully and either adopted, adapted or discounted. The frustration of never getting a return on those investments grows despite knowing a return to status quo is not the answer either.
  • The new Team Leader Mindset. New team leaders are promoted based on merit and then are not mentored to understand that not only do they set the example for behaviours, their role now includes some really high value and critical tasks. Things such as planning ahead, anticipating problems, contingency planning, front footing conversations about poor performance behaviours etc are often never taught, prioritised and therefore don’t get done consistently.
  • The “backward” looking governance mindset. Boards start with and prioritise the historical performance of the business instead of being curious about the future strategic objectives. Supporting the CEO and executive team to break through key blockages and to wrestle down the big challenges to ensure the future success of the business is the most impactful and key role of directors.
  • The “I don’t read books” mindset. Reading books is just one way to absorb information in a world of audio books, video content and digital tools. Most things in business have been done before so a learning and inquiring mindset allows anyone to access excellent tools, ideas, tips and experience often at no cost.
  • The “I’m too busy to take time out to reflect mindset”. Never reflecting on why things keep happening in a certain way. Reflecting and learning lessons from each key projects, staff interactions etc is key to ensuring a leader gets better and better each time. Many leaders never reflect on why they keep getting the same results and often because they are too busy.
  • The “we are different to any other business” mindset. Some leaders and founders feel that their business is so unique, technical, or challenging that business lessons from other industries cannot be applied to their situation. In fact every business on the planet involves leading clever teams of people to deliver great product/services to paying customers with the intent to make some level of profit. So it stands to reason there are many similarities and therefore ideas and tools that can be explored and applied no matter what you do.

A growth mindset allows failure but all importantly also to learn from those mistakes and to have the resilience to carry on. New ideas can be kicked around without egos being bruised whilst trying some new ideas, tools, opportunities and ways of delivering a better future outcome. Business is not static, in fact it is a constantly changing and complex environment that requires a growth mindset. New ways of learning, consuming information, banking the stories and lessons of others (so you don’t have to learn it first hand) allow leaders to stay at the top of their game.

How do you constantly challenge your mindset? Do you choose it intentionally based of the many situations you can face across a day or week?

The Impact of Establishing an Effective Advisory Board

I recently spoke in Christchurch at an Institute of Directors event on the impact Advisory Boards can have for businesses who choose to implement them. There was then a panel discussion that further explored the topic.

I currently have four independent directorships (currently chairing two boards). In my consulting role I work as a strategist, high performance leadership coach and adviser to a number of Boards of Directors. At any one time a number of our client companies are restructuring Advisory Boards or establishing them for the first time.

In my opinion establishing an Advisory Board is a great way to add some real value to a business. It is a safe way to test the waters as to whether a formal board structure is the right course of action and a safe way for long term business owners to get their heads around this option. Interestingly founders having had an advisory board and then going on to establish a full board often reflect that they wish they had established the formal board from the get go. That said there is usually a healthy desire for an Advisory Board as a logical stepping stone.

The purpose of an advisory board is to allow the directors of the business to access regular strategic advice from a group of trusted advisers familiar with the business who can contribute to the future success of the business. It’s also a robust platform for working on the business rather than in it. 

The IOD 4 pillars book (starting page 80) has a chapter on Advisory Boards and I point this out it as a very good reference. I particularly like very first headline bullet point – “Advisory Boards provide advice but do not make decisions and have no authority to govern.”

Legally an Advisory Board offers advice which the directors of the Company can choose to adopt or not. The advisers are effectively operating in a consulting capacity and the minutes must be careful to note that these conversations are such. This prevents those advisers from being deemed as acting in the capacity of a director. 

In my experience the key advantages of establishing an effective Advisory Board are;

  • They allow the shareholder, director and management discussions to be separated often for the first time. This adds structure and clarity. Shareholder expectations can be discussed in a separate meeting allowing the directors to focus fully on governing the business.This then starts the process of allowing the MD or GM to drive the business day to day.
  • Different Advisers can be engaged come for certain pieces of advice or thinking which changes the discussion and allows deeper/broader consideration of advice.
  • The Advisory Board is a stepping stone for succession that allows founders to get out of their business day to day. They can begin to see and understand how they can govern their business without being in it day to day. If run effectively it allows a discussion that rises above the day to day operations of the business……to give that valuable helicopter view of the business.
  • A strategic agenda can be discussed and a focus put on the execution that creates momentum.
  • The way decisions have traditionally been made is challenged and creates different outcomes.
  • Trust is built as to how to listen to advice and take advice. Many businesses seek advice but don’t adopt that advice. In my view when a business starts to value the advice and implement it the business starts to grow up. There are break throughs as the important things start to get addressed.
  • If the business is coming under management it allows a platform that supports the CEO/GM to be given the autonomy to lead. It helps the founder get out of the way whilst providing the confidence that there is still accountability and transparency. It can allow founders to have a management role that may not be making the key decisions day to day.

There are a number of ways to approach the implementation of an advisory board and certainly every situation is subtly different. Getting this right can really allow a business to get key break throughs and to realise their potential.

The future of Governance

Governance is an important component of any business. All companies have directors but not all place an emphasis on its importance nor the value it can add. It is a key part of succession (allowing owners the transition or sell), accessing external funding, maximising value to shareholders and reduces business risk as the organisation navigates change or challenge. On top of that it supports talented CEO’s to thrive and reach their potential.

The Fog of (War) Business

Out of Chaos comes Clarity

On the battle field the fog of war refers to the fact that it can be very hard to see the full picture of what is happening let alone how you are progressing your part of it. Smoke, dust, noise, reactions of the enemy, weather, other friendly forces in the area all contribute to a situation that can be hard to navigate, easy for clear communication to fail & difficult to make clear decisions amongst.

So too in the current business environment. How do you as a leader get the clarity and confidence needed to make good solid decisions when the future seems full of uncertainty, technology change, economic disruption, challenged supply chains and changes that require rapid responses?

A few proven big ideas to consider;

  1. Invest in your team. Continually building trust, close relationships and digging deeper in the “self” awareness and “other” awareness space builds support and empathy. Teams who have each others back can have robust discussions, align and then roll their sleeves up and get the mahi (work) done. Now is a very good time to invest in your team collectively and individually. Little bits regularly on an ongoing basis creates confidence and helps with alignment & effective communication.
  2. Bring the outside in. It can be too easy to be inwardly focussed within your own business and this increases your risk profile. Share insights, information and seek to understand the bigger picture across the market. By taking a much broader approach it will allow you to make better informed and timely decisions. Engage broadly with trusted advisers, collaborate with like minded professionals & constantly ask your clients for feedback. There has never been more collaboration between organisations including competitors.
  3. Schedule and prioritise regular reviews, strategic updates and industry scans. If things are moving fast increase your meeting rhythm. This means scheduling more reviews (not less) and opportunities to pause, take stock of the situation, make clear decisions, review previous decisions and execute change in an aligned and coordinated way. It can be too easy to cancel these important reviews and become consumed by immediate challenges. Sadly this creates confusion, increases the workload, levels of frustration and chaos. Plan, plan and plan.
  4. Make good clear decisions with the best data and information available but be prepared to adapt and iterate the plan as things change. It is important to execute through a series of reviews and decision points. Data wins arguments and moves a discussion away from strong opinions so it is always worth looking at the key numbers and the patterns that are emerging.
  5. Bank the valuable lessons learnt. Reflect regularly on what is working, what isn’t and ensure the same mistakes are not made time and time again. Success breeds more success and confidence.
  6. Take regular breaks, have fun and celebrate the wins. Keep across your team and ensure they take time out, look after their family and recharge. This period of change will be ongoing and a marathon (rather than a sprint). Teams who make it a priority to celebrate the key wins regularly have a sense that hard work is paying dividends. It is just as important to acknowledge what is going right than to constantly focus on what isn’t. Celebrations don’t have to be huge in fact most don’t need anything more than setting aside some time to acknowledge people and achievements.
  7. Ask for Help. Seek help from those in your team, your mentors, coaches, members of your board, others in your peer group. You don’t need to know & in fact can’t have all the answers, rather seek to build a network around you from whom you can seek expertise, experience and information.

Without a doubt the current environment an exciting time to be leading in business. As professional leaders we owe it to those within our team, company and their wider families to be at the top of our game. The fog of (war) business can be challenging and even overwhelming at times and we can all learn from how others approach it.

How are you leading in times of uncertainty?

Staying on Track: Leaders are Adapting Fast

There has never been a more exciting time to be leading people in business, in fact leading people in any organisation. 2020 has delivered more change in the last 7 months than we’ve seen in the last decade and there will a lot more to follow. Although most of the change is being driven by the global pandemic, most of the resulting trends are not new ones……they have simply been brought forward a number of years.

This has created a massive wave of change & combined with the other impacts on the economy (caused by close downs, stay at home orders, restrictions on travel & limited physical access to markets) is changing the way we execute business. Leaders are adapting in order to win in this new environment.

“We are in a flexible period of humanity”

I work as part of a Christchurch based team that works alongside prominent and experienced leaders of mainly New Zealand companies but also some Australian & US businesses. Many of those based in New Zealand are exporting globally &/or operating nationally. My own clients range across the agribusiness, science, manufacturing, health, processing, technology, education & both civil & vertical construction. I work mainly with Boards of Directors, CEO’s and their Executive teams. Most are established businesses with revenues ranging from $10m – $500m. We also support New Zealand Trade & Enterprise clients for expansion and Tourism NZ clients seeking to pivot their businesses.

Across the experienced leaders I work regularly with here are the trends;

  • There is an interesting tension between the need to survive as an organisation & the opportunity to thrive. Moral courage is increasingly important. There is a need to do the right thing, in line with the purpose and values of the organisation, at a time when there are also a lot of business continuity decisions.
  • Most CEO’s are cautiously optimistic about the immediate future but are concerned about the medium term (12 – 24 months). Many are asking “what does the latter part of 2021 look like?” & are actively seeking to make some assumptions as a basis for continued contingency planning.
  • There is more empathy & connectedness with employees & clients. That human connection is critical because leadership is a team sport. Many employees are facing challenges with family ie child care, spouses losing jobs, mental well being. There has been a need for more pastural care, more access to counselling & support services. This has made restructuring even more challenging than before as leaders balance the human capital needs with the businesses survival needs. Retaining clients has never been more critical.
  • There is a much lower tolerance of those who are non performers. Poor performance is being addressed very quickly. On the flip side those that are being hired are bringing a different set of skills, often more experience and higher levels of expertise & diversity. In many cases the skillsets within the staff are changing to meet the need of the new environment. In some cases new hires cover multiple disciplines.
  • Leaders are actively seeking peer groups, individual coaching and access to information about how others are dealing with similar issues. We have never seen more individuals seek leadership coaching from our company. One such General Manager summed it up when he said “I’ve been winging it for years but I don’t think I can do that any more. I need to get better as a leader to support change and to support my team.” Some seek coaching to ensure they deliver within their role and in doing so provide security for their ongoing future employment.
  • Bigger, bolder decisions are bing made faster. There is streamlining of structures, clarity on the composition of teams & overall there is more contingency planning.
  • Leaders are much more conscious of the things they need to do to remain effective & reduce stress. There is more emphasis on taking time off to rest, to be with family, to relax & many seek to have fun.
  • Many are too inwardly focussed and know they need prioritise time to look out into the market to scan for risk & opportunity. This can be challenging because there is less trust & confidence in the mainstream media. Many to validate what they are seeing in the media.
  • Business and leader succession is a big issue. Many of those in the latter stages of their careers are asking whether they have the energy or the skills to lead through a number of years of change and economic uncertainty. This is leading to some life changing decisions, a focus on more effective governance &/or the desire to exit.

“By all means run with the wildebeest but remember it is important to pause & look back occasionally to remind yourself what you are running from”

  • There is a huge awakening about the importance of having skilled people leaders in place. Leaders lead people while managers manage things or resources. The skills of the “generalist” leader have never been more highly valued & there is more investment in coaching, training, leader & team development.

These are both challenging and exciting times and as with any change there is a lot of opportunity presenting to those leaders and organisations who are reflecting, planning and who remain agile enough to take advantage of them.

What are you seeing in your leadership role?

Leadership Lessons form 200 CEO’s: 2018/19

Annually since 2013 I have surveyed over 200 CEO’s across the USA, Australia and New Zealand to seek feedback on two key questions relating to what they have learnt and what challenges they feel they face over the coming 12 months. This creates a huge amount of information which takes some time to distil down to the key patterns that show up across all the replies. It is also a very interesting document to read because these busy business leaders have taken the time to reflect and answer the questions.

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The trend over the last five years has been leading in constant change, the challenge of developing teams who have the resilience to thrive in uncertainty (created by constant change) and who can still achieve growth and a solid bottom line profit. There is much more awareness of the importance of a good culture of engagement and the need for governance, mentors and coaches to stay ahead of the crowd (competitors). I do note that the CEO’s surveyed tend to be those leading high performance companies that perform year on year despite market conditions and competitor moves so they are adaptable and already good at execution.

Question 1: What are the three biggest leadership lessons you have learnt in 2018?

  1. Culture & people have the biggest impact. Their skills, behaviours, diversity, ideas. The ability of our team/s to work together and to keep the clients at the centre of what we do in terms of high value products and services. No one can steal your culture.
  2. There is a need to move fast, make clear decisions & Execute. Know your numbers, focus, iterate the plan based on a good review process but stay the course to achieve success. Its less about the smartest ideas/plans and more about making important things happen i.e. executing.
  3. Trust yourself and your professional judgement. Back yourself to know the industry from your years of experience but be open to new ideas and ways. Make the big decisions, sleep on them, seek the best advice from those you trust & don’t over think it. But make good clear decisions, tell people why and then focus on making it happen.

Question 2: What are the three biggest challenges you will face as a leader in 2019?

  1. Finding the right people to allow the company to scale for growth. Recruiting, inducting, training and then being able to lead them well and retain the top people. It is tough to find the people with experience you need in many industries.
  2. Hitting growth targets in a tougher economy/market environment. There is a lot of change and uncertainty and in many markets there is more competition. Economic outlooks over the next 12 months are for a tighter market. The challenge of continuing to grow is very real.
  3. Taking time out to recharge. Finding time to rest, learn, study and have a good life balance when things move so quickly. There is more pressure to work longer hours and more days a week. The smartest leaders know it is a marathon and not a sprint so being balanced is needed to stay focussed, fresh and at the top of the game.

You can see the results of the 2017/18 survey here.

You can look back over a summary of the last five surveys here.

The lessons I personally learnt as a leader in 2018

I thank all those CEO’s who took the time to reflect and provide feedback.