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Best Companies, Leadership in a Changing World session at Best Companies Live Q1 2022 event
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Leadership in a Changing World: How to achieve success in challenging times

Leading and managing people is hard at the best of times but throw in the challenges of the last two years and it becomes particularly difficult. So just what are the hallmarks of great leadership in a changing world?

In the following article, we share the highlights from the discussion at February’s Best Companies Live, where our panellists discussed what aspects of leadership helped them achieve success in challenging times and, crucially, how they managed the impact on their employees. If you would prefer to watch the full session, please click the video above.

The effect leadership has on how employees feel about their workplace cannot be underestimated. It is one of the three driving factors of engagement – that is to say, those most influential – along with management and personal growth.

Confidence in leadership comes from having both an inspiring leader and a cohesive senior leadership team that has a clear vision for the future. This vision, if communicated to staff clearly and regularly, and feedback solicited from staff at all levels, will ultimately deliver success for an organisation.

But just how do you instil confidence in your people during times of unprecedented change? And how do you mitigate the impact of great uncertainty on your employees?

“It’s about being someone that aims to do the right things for others”

For Michael Brodie, Chief Executive of the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), creating confidence as a leader comes down to being authentic and compassionate.

“It’s about being someone that aims to do the right things for others, for society, for their organisation, or for their people, rather than for themselves,” he explained.

Brodie demonstrated his commitment to authenticity and compassion last year, when, alongside his position running a vitally important part of the NHS, he was also appointed to lead Public Health England (PHE) as its interim Chief Executive, overseeing its closure as part of the transition to the new public health landscape.

A difficult position to be in, Brodie explained the challenges of leadership at PHE were starkly different to those at NHSBSA.

“NHS Business Services Authority is an organisation most people haven't heard of, but it's trusted to look after about £70 billion worth of NHS money. During the start of the pandemic, we had 50 new services using our digital capabilities, our contact centre workforce and at-scale transactional expertise. In many ways, handling that was an easier challenge, because at the time we were an organisation that ran towards the fire, and people thanked us for that."

“The leadership challenge at that time was creating a shared sense of purpose, getting people to coalesce behind what we were trying to achieve, and getting everyone to row in the same direction and I think we achieved that, as far as our Best Companies engagement survey suggested,” he said.

“In contrast, at PHE, you had people who’d been working relentlessly since the turn of the year, 24/7, without holidays, without weekends, and who were giving everything to fight the pandemic, only to be told their organisation was being disbanded,” he explained. “They were tired of what they perhaps saw as unfair criticism, and on top of this they had the ambiguity of knowing they would have to find new jobs."

“So, the leadership challenge there wasn't about creating ambition, or creating excitement about a strategy. It was about helping people get through the day, through the week, through the month and providing the resources and the support and – hopefully – the honesty and integrity to show them that that this was doable.”

Brodie demonstrated true empathy for his colleagues at PHE by refusing to take a salary during his time as Chief Executive, in a showing of selfless leadership that cements his commitment to doing the right thing by people.

“I could [have taken a salary], but it just didn’t feel right to me. What was important? For me, it was caring passionately about the NHS, caring passionately about public health, its profession, and the people in it, as well as caring about the public’s health. And I guess what mattered was making sure that I didn't get any advantage out of a difficult time that people were going through."

“Through the disbanding process, we managed to successfully transition just about everyone from PHE to somewhere else in the new public health landscape and, in doing so, create quite a quite a bright future for public health. So, ultimately, that was what mattered to me more than any recompense.”

“Feedback is your friend”

Another panellist who expressed a belief that empathy is a hallmark of good leadership is Jo Malone, CEO and Founder of VetPartners, who said that a genuine interest in understanding how people feel – and relating to that – has helped her to grow in her role.

“I'm on a constant journey to learn and be better,” she said. “I try to pick up everything I can from people along the way and continually think ‘how would I feel if I was in their shoes?’ I think this, inevitably, contributes to being a better leader because you’re open to continual growth.”

Malone’s organisation has acquired over 150 veterinary practices, and it is this empathetic approach she says that has contributed to their successful integration into the VetPartners portfolio. This includes taking the time to gather feedback from every business joining the group to understand their individual needs.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learnt is that feedback is your friend,” she explained. “I used to find it much harder to listen to feedback. But once you get your mindset into the view that, unless you properly listen to it, you can’t actually improve anything and work towards something better.”

“You have to accept that you don't have all the answers”

Alison Atkinson, CEO of AWE, acknowledges, too, that leadership is a continual learning process, and that the path forward during challenging times can be far from clearly defined. She explained that sometimes, when the answer is unclear, vulnerability as a leader, and a ‘we’re in this together’ message, can be powerful.  

“People expect you to have all the answers,” she explained. “Yet when things are constantly changing around you, you have to think yourself as quite vulnerable. You have to accept that you don't have all the answers but be able to explain the way you’ve chosen to go and the reasons why. It’s all about context, being honest that it may not work, but telling people the logic behind giving it a go.”

This context and explanation, she added, is something that has worked well for AWE over the last two years. However, Atkinson says the biggest change has come from the organisation’s approach to communications.

“Two-way communication has been fundamental to getting through the last couple of years, which is something that a lot of organisations, certainly my organisation, haven't actually been very good at. We didn't necessarily have the tech to do it, or the right culture to engender that two-way conversation,” she explained.

“And of course, when those mechanisms are in place, as a leader, you don’t always like what you’re hearing, but you have to be prepared to do something about it. And I think that’s the fundamental part – if you’ve got a willingness to listen and really hear what people are telling you – then you’re actually able to make changes in a leadership position.”

And despite the vulnerability she felt opening the conversation with her colleagues, Atkinson says the benefits of the approach outweighed all else.

“I did feel personally vulnerable, opening myself up to all sorts of questions,” she added. “But it was the best thing we ever did, because we actually understood how people were feeling, what they needed from us and what they wanted to do.”

“Ultimately, we’re all just normal people”

Antony Chesworth, Founder and Managing Director of e-commerce platform, EKM.com, believes, too, that an honest approach to leadership, combined with a passion to want to be better, has been crucial to his organisation over the last two years.

“I think most of us [leaders] are trying to improve. We’re trying to do the best thing we possibly can do, as well as doing the right thing by our people,” he explained.

“Ultimately, we’re all just normal. I think when people think of inspirational leaders – people like Steve Jobs – they think they’re different, but they’re normal too."

“It’s just that leaders like that have found something they love to do. They’ve practiced and got better and better at it and permanently learn from that practising. So, the only thing that any leader can do is to find the thing they love, practice, and then share that with the team around them.”

To enjoy this session in full, see the full recording here.

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