Cutting through the mystique of leadership

Renee Quinn knows a lot about leadership. As Business Manager for Northern Ireland’s public sector Chief Executives’ Forum and overseeing the Women and Leadership programme, Renee sparks some refreshing ideas about where great leadership really lies…

What has been your own personal experience of seeing inspiring leadership in action?
A leader who I met quite recently, talked about improving the standard of quality control within his organisation and how his leadership skill drove that change, but what was most obvious to me was that he handled it in a compassionate, evidence-based and empathetic approach. He won over hearts and minds by approaching change on a small scale, which built trust, then he widened the scope, and over time systems started to change. Now, that particular organisation is an exemplar within the UK for quality control. I don’t think the term quality control does it justice, because what it actually comes down to was the vision that inspired that change and the leadership style used to achieve it.

The leader, in this particular case, transferred leadership to team members. He didn’t keep it within his own confines. He put himself into that vulnerable position and empowered his staff. You can tell the difference when you go to a meeting with any of his staff. They all display individual leadership; they absolutely live and breathe the strategy and the corporate values. Every decision they take will come back to that. They are very confident in their conversation about what will fit with their strategic aims and they are empowered to take decisions, which is fabulous, because they will come to a meeting trusted to be able to make that decision, so it doesn’t have to go back up the hierarchy again.

Obviously, this leader has said, ‘Listen, we’ve employed you to do this job; I’m going to trust you to do it to the best of your ability….now just get on and do it’. It’s the autonomy to act ethically within the corporate structure and his transference of power to front line staff that was very visible to me. It really did change the culture of that organisation in a relatively short space of time. So, I would say that he was a shining light and an exemplar of inspirational leadership in action. To me the key learning that I took from that experience was the trust and autonomy he bestowed on his staff and his demonstration of compassion when things didn’t go as planned, you knew he had their back. To me that empathetic leadership style gets the best from colleagues.

With your work supporting leadership development, which types of skills or leadership approaches need developed most?

Authentic leadership: I think there is a façade and a mystique around what leadership is. It’s not helpful when people see it as some mystic, god-like influence that they can’t grasp or aspire to achieve, when in fact it’s about recognising the leadership qualities in all of us.

I firmly believe there is a leader within every single one of us just waiting to be discovered and that’s where there is a responsibility with current leaders to spot those ‘glowing’ individuals and nurture them towards leadership positions.

Leadership is just not one thing and as a society, we need to recognise that leadership is not all about whether you are ‘Personality A’ type person or ‘Type B’, its more nuanced. I would like to see a conversation around leadership that values the more difficult parts of leadership skills, those softer skills, which is a misnomer in itself, because they are the hardest to achieve and they are not in the least bit easy to master. Rather than the dominant, autocratic style, which is still so widely evident, it’s around Emotional Intelligence and servant leadership. It’s about having empathy, showing vulnerability, being authentic and warm and not forgetting to have fun.

Some of my most productive work has been with teams where we’ve had a blast working under pressure, so fun is an all-important leadership ingredient as well. People come to work for eight hours a day and they want to enjoy what they do. If it feels like a grind, people become stressed and won’t enjoy the experience and they won’t give you the outcome your organisation desires and so not to have an eye on those skills, in my view, is folly.

I think that there needs to be a loosening of those 1950’s Taylorism leadership styles of command and control. That style does not work for the generation of workers that we have now or indeed the generation coming next. It might have worked in the industrial age but we now have knowledge workers who demand more from their work; as many treat work as an extension of their social networks. If you could unlock more emotionally intelligent traits it would go some way to address the mental health crisis that is sitting beneath the radar.

Allowing people to embrace their own projects and giving people the freedom to do so is very important. Those organisations which allow their employees to try new things and fail without consequences, I believe, are the most successful.

Creating the type of culture that allow employees to be creative in finding solutions is vital. It shouldn’t be about an organisation driving hard on innovation, I believe a leaders role within an organisation is to provide the optimum environment for employees to flourish, to allow employees to genuinely feel empowered to try something and fail and having the passion to give it a go without fear of repercussions.

It’s back again to structures: the rules and regulations of how things are done in an organisation. There needs to be more openness and honesty about the need for some rules. We need to have a conversation about what the rules and regulations are supposed to achieve and do they work for the majority of staff? There needs to be more honesty about the structural set-up of an organisation.

A great example of a leader turning an organisation on its head is Ricardo Semler from the Brazilian firm, SEMCO. He empowered employees to decide amongst themselves about how they worked, their time and environment were all decided by the staff. Staff were able to make informed decisions about their work because they were expertly trained in understanding the budgets and financial statements, so they could see the effect of their work on the bottom line and their job security.

I believe there also needs to be more bravery around challenging the status quo and asking those hard questions; such as why is it done this way? Could we do it better? Is it demotivating staff? Is it actually improving productivity or making a difference? Does it really matter where someone works or what times they work? The focus should be on the output and that’s what we should measure, otherwise you get presenteeism setting in.

Having worked across all sectors, what could each sector learn from each other in terms of leading effectively?

Having worked in each of the sectors and as a small region, I have found that’s there is such passion within each sector, enthusiasm and goodwill and I believe we are not harnessing that and pulling our intelligence together to make this a better region. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to develop a cross sectoral leadership programme with CO3. I recognised that the siloed approach to work needs to be debunked and I wanted leaders to walk a mile in the other sector’s shoes to be able to understand the commonalities that exist. I think you need to be able to get under the skin to understand what makes a CEO in the third sector tick compared to a CEO in the private and public sector. From my experience, what you’ll find is they are all coming from similar places of wanting to do the best for their organisations. So why don’t we therefore focus more on breaking down those barriers that hinder this process? In my opinion, it just requires a will to want to do so and to possibly relinquish some control. I think if we can get over that, there could be great things which could happen for the region and our citizens.

It’s also about leaders being curious, taking time to lift their head from the day-to-day grind, looking around them to see who they could collaborate with to help for the betterment of their organisation or society and this is where I think the draft Programme for Government has really helped to spark that conversation. The Programme for Government has given us the framework to work towards, so now the challenge is how do we do this? And who do we need to work with to make great things, that matter, happen?

Leaders need to recognise that power doesn’t just rest with them. They have to be curiously vulnerable to a certain extent and relinquish that power to achieve greatness. It’s a little bit about putting yourself into a more vulnerable position and acknowledging that you don’t know it all.

There’s also the possibility that you might lose power. You may not have the budget to do this type of work but as I see it, when you understand people’s values and they want to make it better, that’s as good a starting place as you’re going to get.

I believe values are what drive you to do a good job. If your job aligns closely with your values, it doesn’t seem as if you are going to work and that’s where passion is derived. If you truly and passionately believe something, you can convince people from a place of passion and that actually hooks people in.

What would be the most exciting or innovative step we could take to shape our local leadership for the future?

I would like to see leaders taking their sons or daughters to work for the day showing them what they really do, and how they are making a difference to their children’s future, or else what is the point of work? I would like to see them opening up their office environment to kids from underprivileged areas and for leaders to go out to schools and talk to children about self-esteem, resilience, believing, failing and talking about their leadership journey. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if leaders could go out and talk to children about what they think leadership is, what it looks like, and inspire each child to recognise that they have leadership abilities within themselves; daring them to dream ! This also helps to break down this concept of leadership being some ethereal skill that is unachievable for most.

I think this myth-busting is important because a lot of our society looks upon leaders as an elite that cannot be challenged and a leader is someone who just wields power. This is so vitally important, particularly, for our younger female generation who don’t see themselves as leaders and don’t recognise themselves as someone who could lead an organisation.

There is a well-used phrase: “You cannot be, what you cannot see” and it’s certainly one that has resonated with me. My personal goal is to change that concept for my children. I have endeavoured to make changes within my own work, by making gender equality a personal priority and have created several strands of new work to help address this trend.

I am currently very passionate about delivering the first pan-island conference on ‘Budgetary Impact Analysis: A Catalyst for Economic Growth’, which is really about making financial decisions based on what the evidence tells us; so I am excited to bring over leading experts so that we can learn from them over the year. Also over the year I have organised several round table discussions with senior female leaders to discuss how we can make more progress on women’s positions within Northern Ireland’s leadership levels and am currently very excited about the launch of a new, year long, Women’s leadership programme. I hope these initiatives go some way to addressing an increasing area of concern and I’m hopeful that my small part will assist in that improvement.

Another area which adds to shaping our future and which leaders can impact is when organisations are commissioning services, creating policy or in control of a budget, you need to go out and meet with those who are going to be affected by your decisions and have a discussion on the issue.

Getting out of the office and speaking to service users, say, in a mental health charity who are going to be affected by a certain approach is critical. That does not mean that you are going to shy away from taking those hard, budgetary decisions, but you have to leave your office and walk a mile in their shoes. If you can convince service users of your well-reasoned argument, you will have a group of people supporting your changes.

People don’t like things being done on them, they like to feel a genuine part of the decision-making process, which develops the trust that is required to make effective change stick and generally garners greater buy in. You need to convince society that it is the right approach. It’s back to your values again. If your values align to what you are trying to achieve your passion will shine and you can create that persuasive argument more readily. Your litmus test for that is going out to the people who are going to be affected and explain your rationale with passion and integrity. That type of honesty shines through and once you win people around, they can be your champions. It’s again about transferring that leadership to people within communities to transfer and actively champion that message more widely.

What leadership legacy would you like to leave behind?

I would like to be considered as an empathetic and understanding colleague who has the well-being of colleagues at heart. I would like to be seen as a compassionate team player and someone who is energetic in delivering on things that matter. I thrive on being curious and listening to others; I don’t have an ego about knowing everything. In fact, I am quite happy to admit that I know very little about some subjects; but I am always eager to learn and listen to those that do know and I enjoy listening to diverse opinions, which, I think helps me form better opinions and decisions.

Where my strength comes from is by listening to other people, learning about them and what they can bring to the table. I am there to get people around the table and connect them; I get a real buzz from collaborative work. Any of my previous colleagues would say that when I get involved in a project, I really give everything and get very passionate about it. That overspills then to connections with other people.

It’s also about not knowing everything, that cliché that ‘every day is a school day’ gets me up in the morning.

I think about what today is going to bring and what am I going to learn: what little gem or nugget can I learn from my next encounter and put into my treasure box? Ultimately I would like my legacy to have made a difference in some small way to make society and my children’s lives better. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m eager to keep discovering and trying.

Leading your life, what sparks a sense of real personal fulfilment for you?

My family is my first true love. I have my husband, my two girls and my mother. My mother has always been a strong and supportive woman who really helped me to see from a young age, the art of the possible. She taught me to see the future as something better than what she had come through in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 70s.

She painted a picture for me very early in life, that education was the pathway to success and diversity of thought was something to be embraced and to take pride in; she firmly believed that was the road to greater and better things.

She was my first encounter with a true leader and I think that’s an important point for parents to realise; that caregivers in those crucial early years have a strong influence on their children. The poem praising motherhood, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World!” by William Wallace expresses this sentiment more eloquently, than I could ever do and is so appropriate for caregivers today.

With my family then, and especially with my two young girls, I am trying to recreate that for them. To always strive for better, to be curious, to not be afraid and to reach out for better things. The spark for me, is whenever my kids turn around and they inspire me with their work and the things they think, they are at the stage where they are forming their own little opinions about what they think. So it’s inspiring me, as I am now learning from them.

My husband is very supportive in everything that I do. When I went back to university and studied for my MBA, I had baby at 18 months and another one at three-years old, studying would just not have been possible without the support of my husband and my mother. So, they have always had my back and facilitated my escapades. So they would also be my spark, as I explore more ambitious adventures.

What also drives me is to try and make society and life easier for my children in the future. I want to try to improve things for the next generation coming through. So, I really put my heart and soul into breaking those barriers which exist for my kids and to try to make it, well not necessarily easier for them, but to make society kinder. That’s what I would aspire to change, to try to make society kinder for my two children.

How do you think coaching could assist in leadership development or living your life authentically?

Coaching to me is the person who has your back. Coaching helps you to find that little piece of quietness amidst the storm of work life, helping you to take stock and to lift your head above the trenches and stand still in the moment; they help you to recalibrate back to your values.

The coach is the person who helps you keep the equilibrium in your life, to bring you back when you are losing your head in a project or work environment.

They are a sounding board to actually bring you back to ‘why are you doing this?’ and bring you back to your values. They are integral to any great leadership journey.

Look at any sports athlete; they are surrounded by nutritionists, doctors, coaches and psychologists. Equally we have leaders in our region who really are athletes within their sector. We don’t, however, give them the same latitude to make mistakes and improve. We seem to think that once you are in a leadership position, you have all the answers and therefore why do you need to be surrounded by the right people. In our current culture it is seen as a sign of weakness to have a coach, whereas in top performing countries, it is an anathema to not have a coach.

This is back again to myth-busting about leadership. We seem to think that they should know it all or that they shouldn’t need any extra input. But if you look around at athletes or Olympians, there is acknowledgement that they need to be surrounded by good people. This helps keep your leader and your athlete healthy and well.

To my mind, our leaders are corporate athletes and they need to be surrounded by experts to help them and keep them performing at tiptop levels. It a lonely place, they can’t do it all and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that.

It’s about society recognising that leaders can be fallible. It’s also about leaders acknowledging and being vulnerable and seeing that they need to be surrounded by the right people to help in their quest. It’s about having a coach who challenges you, stretches your abilities and helps you to unpick the issues and repackage it and to go forward with energy.

One of the big things a coach can give you is energy, to know that you are on the right path and to continue doing what you are doing and to be your champion!

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

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