Leadership for real

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Written by Stuart Walkley on 1 July 2013 in Interviews

In the fourth of an occasional series, Stuart Walkley talks to Kate Marsden about what leaders need to control

Far too often leadership has been reduced to series of complex models and smug consultant-speak. It's time to hear a more authentic voice. I captured the direct words of leaders in the UK today during a series of conversations, posing them a simple-enough question: "These days, what do leaders need to control?"

Kate Marsden (pictured), managing director of Ventura from 2005 to 2008 and now running her own company, Ignition Key, said: "There is a lot of talk about the difference between leadership and managers. It often builds an image of leaders as larger-than-life characters who spend most of their time developing long term, radical visions for their business or delivering rousing speeches at large staff conferences.

"I think the reality is very different to that. Of course there is a time and place for that but the implication, wrongly, is that successful leaders don't do detail, delegate control of most things and are almost just a 'figurehead' for the business.

"The reality is that, to be a good leader, you need to know your business inside out and backwards. Yes, you run the business through a team of people but, when the chips are down, you have to understand what is having an impact on your business. Ultimately, you cannot dump the responsibility for critical business areas (sales, profit, customers, staff and so on) entirely onto someone else - no matter how good they are.

"So, you have to find ways to be in control of critical things.

"So what are those things? The first thing to say is that one skill of a good leader is being able to work out what the right things to control are. Every business is different, and it would be a mistake to think that what needs controlling in one business can be lifted straight into another business and still guarantee success.

"As a general rule, the focus of control for a good leader (rather than manager) should be on output and results, not input and process. You need to absolutely know the key metrics for your business (and the right ones, not a list of dozens) and be in control of those elements completely. That doesn't mean doing the doing, but it does mean understanding what has an impact on these things and how they are being managed by other people.

"Most good leaders will also tell you that you need to be in control of how money is spent. That does not mean signing off every order for stationery, though, far from it. It means understanding where the revenue goes and whether the investments that are being made deliver a proper return. That can be unpopular with some of the 'softer' functions such as HR but I think the onus is on them to demonstrate that value and return.

"You also need to be in control of the business risks. This isn't about endless risk meetings and managing tiny issues - it's about knowing what the potential showstoppers are for your business. I think the Financial Services Authority demonstrates this well (and I have run an FSA accredited business) - tonnes of activity on minor things when the big risk issues went unchecked.

"Finally the leader has to be in control of the style and the way that the company is run. The leaders set the tone for this - and it is a reflection of your own set of values. The 'strategy' for how you will deal with customers, clients and staff is set from the top - it should never be a culmination of internal processes and must always be on your radar.

"Ultimately, to be successful, I believe leaders have to be able to switch many hats very rapidly. The best ones are those who can hover above the business and take the helicopter view but, somehow, have that sense of something going on down below that they need to watch before it has an impact on the bigger piece. It's a bit like having a zoom lens that you can use to drill down quickly into the detail of something, but also be able to pull back quickly and not get dragged down into the control level.

"That's always easier said than done in the real world!"

About the author

Stuart Walkley is a director of Oakridge Training and Consulting. He can be contacted via www.oakridgecentre.co.uk



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