Brian Eagar

Today’s business environment is dominated by increasing geopolitical chaos and technology-driven interconnectedness, highlighting the need for partnership and agility as essential means of navigating these new levels of chaos.

I often engage with my executive clients on their role as a custodian of their organisation, emphasising that it is their imperative and duty to leave the organisation in a better state than they found it. For me, there are three key facets to guardianship which bolster the role of the CEO in ensuring a healthy bottom-line return to shareholders whilst benefiting all stakeholders in today’s chaotic, interconnected and global market:

  1. Continuity of a healthy performance-driven culture

In a healthy culture, people have a sense of identity and belonging because they are respected and their contribution is valued.

  1. Engendering resilience, flexibility and innovation in the organisation

From a behavioural aspect, this includes the ability to build psychologically safe teams where discretionary effort is encouraged and everyone feels free to raise concerns and ideas.

  1. Grooming a pool of high-potential leaders who positively engage the next levels of management and ultimately take over the reins.

The old Jim Collins adage of “grow your leadership from within” is a timeless concept. Recruiting, grooming and promoting future leaders is too often focused on the “What” (functional capabilities) and not enough on the “How” (behavioural capabilities). I see this imbalance in how leadership is measured and held accountable as a massive blind spot in building a sustainable organisation.

Fundamentally, all three of these facets hinge on partnership. Leaders who guard a healthy culture, encourage innovation and groom future leaders have the ability to encourage disparate viewpoints and new ideas, recognising that everyone has something to contribute. Furthermore, they influence through transparency and information-sharing rather than command-and-control.

Research shows that leaders who favour “power-over” vs “power-with” relationships, and who have low consideration for their employees, produce the lowest levels of employee engagement, significantly undermining the organisation’s ability to grow and innovate (Mercer 2019). In contrast, leaders who establish empowering relationships with their followers based on trust, respect and autonomy (i.e. Partnership Leaders who “show” the way by example vs. “telling” others what to do) create a culture where employees feel significantly more confident in the future of the company.

We know from neuroscience that a leader who adopts a partnering approach is able to engage people in a manner that puts them in a toward state and switches them on (i.e. open and supportive). They do this by exemplifying the culture in a way that builds a common sense of identity and belonging. They advocate shared goals and encourage everyone to challenge and contribute to long-term success.

What this means is a rebalancing of leadership from just focusing on shareholder return (the “What”) and spending significantly more effort on building a positive employee experience and shaping an engaged workforce who are trustworthy and committed (the “How”).

But how do leaders generally stack up against this currently? In the multiple feedback assessments we do with our clients, we find that the “hard” behavioural dimensions of role clarity, accountability and results-drive score the highest, followed by decent efforts in driving collaborative teamwork. In the “softer” dimensions of personal growth, cultural alignment, innovation, and aligning to long-term direction, we find that although leaders are rated highly in their personal capacity, they are often poor at cascading these behaviours through the organisation.

Essentially, organisational effectiveness is rooted in the top levels of leadership, with little autonomy and agency passed through to the operational levels who execute the strategy. Meaning, we trip at the frontline, where it matters most.

So, how do we change this?

Consider these core behaviours that encourage partnership and solidify trust relationships. Do you have good meeting rituals with clear goals where it is safe to challenge and contribute? Are you approachable and able to give constructive, honest feedback? Do you make decisions with (not for) your people? Do you respond to problems by exploring root causes and asking your team to identify possible solutions? Do you encourage them to create the same environment in their teams?

Be mindful of the adage of the “rule of four” which states that in any group only about four people speak out. A partnering leader will ensure the conversation is not dominated by the outspoken four but is able to draw out the quiet voices and ask for their ideas and opinions (which are often the best ones). People support what they help to create. If everyone’s voice is respected, those who have creative ownership will go the extra mile to ensure the idea is executed.

Besides being heard, leaders and team members also have to be empowered and trusted to operate effectively at the level they are responsible for without infringing on the responsibilities of those who report to them. We need to ensure those who report to us are competent and confident to perform at their very best. I challenge you to ask yourself what new behaviours you can implement on a daily basis to adopt a partnership approach to how you lead your organisation.

I leave you with two thoughts: (1) Behaviour is contagious, and leaders are the source of that contagion. How you lead, how you engage, and how you build relationships sets the baseline for how your leadership team guard the culture, and (2) All people have needs, fears and aspirations. A leader who can positively tap into and support someone’s ability to do more and be more will harness potential they never thought possible.

To quote Ken Blanchard, “Leadership is not something you do to people, it is something you do with people”.