Braver decisions and bigger leaps forward

Whilst at Cannes Lions this year, I had the pleasure of hosting a panel where I chatted to the inspirational Eleanor Harrison OBE, CEO of GlobalGiving UK, and ad industry guru David Bell, about leadership in the digital economy.

The first question I posed to both Eleanor and David was around leadership of the future, and what they thought this will look like in an increasingly digital world. The key thoughts and agreements were the need for speed, agility and adaptability. Leaders of the future need to be open to change, adapting their leadership style to meet the new and changing landscape, with a level of openness and vulnerability. Eleanor believes that it is important to understand the algorithm of your business in the digital economy and “even if you have had a certain style of management approach in the past you have to be willing to change that”. The key is being “really open and value led, because if people understand your values and buy into your values, when you make mistakes, which you are absolutely going to make mistakes when you are working at that pace… then you take everyone on the journey and thrive as an organisation”.

For David, the leadership of the future needs a new type of courage with “the ultimate courage being a willingness to be vulnerable, to address reality, to call garbage ‘garbage’ and to move on from that”. This means openly acknowledging when you make mistakes and are wrong, as “the truth is, being wrong is how you learn, and you need to celebrate winning from losing, the same way you celebrate winning.”

As the world becomes increasingly digital, the pace of business also increases, along with the need to be fleet of foot and flexible. This brings with it the need for a kind of start-up mentality, particularly within large organisations. This poses a challenge for many established businesses; how can you make a start-up culture integral of your business’ culture? Eleanor believes the key here is to be guided by your company’s values, which should sit at the heart of your decision making.

There are valuable lessons to learn and adopt from start-ups, according to David Bell. “Successful start-ups are passionate about the end user. Successful start-ups create a place of psychological security where people understand the framework and are free to act. Big organisations can learn how to distribute leadership, how to create frameworks where entrepreneurial behaviour can happen. But too often big organisations operate with a dog leash rather than a kite string and that’s not the way to move quickly and get the most out of the organisation.”

The ability to allow and even celebrate failure in order to learn, is a quality few organisations have the courage to adopt, but can facilitate a more agile and brave business. For Eleanor, this means having an open culture where it is ok to admit when things go wrong, including your own ideas; placing a focus on learning why it didn’t work instead of on the failure itself. This does not mean “waiting for recognition and appreciation from the big boss”, but on a regular basis taking the time to “appreciate someone in your team for some specific work that they did”. As a leader this means stepping outside of “building your personal brand and really thinking about how you can help people build their expert brand”, to drive more fulfilled staff and greater retention.

David believes the key is to “create a framework that everybody understands; where the framework is not clear enough or the right things aren’t celebrated, the fear of taking risk and failure is endemic.”

Managing scalability and globalisation at pace, is another issue large organisations face in the digital economy. The key here is to “enable true local economy as you share” according to Eleanor. “Centralise your tech, but give true autonomy and ownership, because in a digital economy your employees want to have responsibility and they really want to learn things”. Without this “you end up with a bureaucracy and you can’t act quick enough to capitalise on the bigger players. That’s what you do in a start-up, you know the bigger players are slow, so you have to act super-fast so that you can take advantage”.

Trust and transparency are central to growth, as businesses deal with multiple stakeholders; it is absolutely critical to building partnerships. However, building that trust is not always easy, so I asked Eleanor for her perspective on this. At GlobalGiving this starts with their ethics and values; these govern the business direction and therefore it is important partners/clients understand these. It needs to go beyond this however, to action. This includes being open and “communicating what you are doing on a regular basis, allowing people to comment on it in a public way and public forum”. GlobalGiving is one of the only organisations in the UK that holds a public AGM, with the belief that taking the time to talk to people personally and explain, is important. Eleanor commented that “technology at the moment only enables us to enhance the number of connections that we have, but if you can use tech to further personalisation you can have better trust”. Finally, she believes clarity is critical, “being clear is really helpful for employees and for your clients because it means that they don’t think the playing field is biased”.

So the business landscape of the future is one of multiple transformations with many elements for leaders to navigate. The pace and what is being asked of leaders is ever increasing, so I asked David for his thoughts how leaders can deal manage this, not only today but in the future as well. He believes that great leaders can empower small processes within multi-functional teams to own important parts within the organisation, without having to get approval from the top.” The most important thing for a leader to learn is to “change the headset of thinking about yourself as an individual performer and begin thinking of yourself as an ignitor of people”. He added that empathy needs to always be a focus for the leaders of the future, “never stop putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing the world as they see them”.

What I took away from our discussion, is that there is an enormous amount of opportunity, but we need to make sure as leaders that we are embracing and focusing on that opportunity, as opposed to focusing on the risk. We must ensure we understand the algorithm, that we bring people along with us on the journey, ensuring that we make the time to do this and move at break neck speed, with agility.

You can watch this panel session on our YouTube channel here.

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