8th Jun 2020
3 Min Read

Building a leader brand. Interview with Charlie Sampson

Kate Went
Kate Went
Strategy

The Leadership Cult emerged as a unique topic when we wrote our World Changers report at the end of 2019. Unlike the other nine chapters, that raise key issues leaders need to have on their radar, this was about those leaders themselves, and the budding trend to create leaders out of everyone.

In the months since publication, we’ve seen the spotlight on leaders intensify. From Presidents to CEOs, we’ve watched people with power and influence handle the sorts of challenges few have come close to experiencing. And with mixed results and responses.

Charlie Sampson, executive coach and founder of the Business Coaching Academy, originally contributed to the report, and now considers the impact of the last few months and the lessons leaders can learn.

The last few months have taught us a lot. What have you observed?

I have never before seen so clearly the contrast of situations than right now. Some businesses are struggling to keep up with demand, while others are stymied by the inability of their organisation to adapt faster, just to keep the lights on.

While the factors affecting this are manifold, a prevailing reason is due to the leadership decisions that have been made – or not – since the crisis began.

Survive, stabilise, revive and reinvent – these are the four stages all organisations go through during a crisis – we explore these in the Academy. Each stage has its own challenges, but the speed of progression through these stages is what will determine any company’s future. With each client I work with, this is their world right now, trying to plot their way through the stages and emerge in the best shape possible.

What have those four stages looked like?

Most organisations are shifting away from the survival mentality we saw much of back in April and are now urgently focused on resurrecting traditional revenue streams, while looking for new markets and opportunities they can tap into.

Big, traditional and often more bureaucratic companies are struggling here, as even minor changes to the monolith take time. Smaller, more nimble companies are adapting faster, addressing the ‘revive’ and ‘reinvent’ phases simultaneously, which gives them an edge on their competitors.

Digital transformation has been at the heart of most strategies for some time, but the pandemic has strapped this to a rocket! Ecommerce is booming and adapting fast for this reason. App based nutrition and fitness services have exploded. Logistics, alcohol, streaming services (even sex toys!) have seen a huge surge in demand. Amazon can’t recruit fast enough and Ocado has to continually suspend deliveries in order to catch up with itself.

Because of the actions of their leaders, some brand reputations have been badly damaged. What lessons can we take from this?

We’ve all felt a sense of fragility but also a greater sense of community in this time and those organisations that have acknowledged and done what they can to support this, have strengthened their brands and built tremendous goodwill. Think of Pret and Café Nero offering free drinks to NHS workers

But when companies put profit before people and leveraged the pandemic for financial gain, they were quickly demonised – customers’ memories are long.

During a crisis leaders need to cool heads and get teams focused not on what needs doing right now, tomorrow and the day after.

Have you seen any great examples of leadership?

Yes! New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo understands that what people want from their leaders in a crisis is honesty, but they also want hope. He builds this by constantly outlining the plan in the near term – what will happen this week, then the next, and how everyone can be involved and help. He draws people in and focuses them on getting from point A to point B, then point B to point C. He doesn’t allow himself to get drawn on what point H or I or J might look like, because it’s unknown and therefore unhelpful.

Closer to home, the senior partner of a global law firm I work with has put the firm’s tremendous, collective brainpower to good use during the crisis. One week into lockdown, the partner set every single employee the challenge of how they could achieve the firm’s new service-oriented strategy. Everyone was invited to create a seven-minute panel presentation, which could be done individually or as part of a team. The winning presentation’s creators were awarded £20,000, and any great ideas harvested from other presentations during the process, were awarded £1,000 each.

This may sound generous, but compared to engaging a consultancy it’s a drop in the ocean, and is a great way to keep people engaged, positive and enjoying a few laughs along the way.

The lesson for all leaders here is to make sure your people are focused on what you know and can therefore influence. This creates a sense of control, which in a crisis is an absolutely critical commodity.

In the World Changers report, we talk about our growing obsession with making everyone a leader, how do you think the crisis has changed, or emphasised, this?

A crisis puts a huge magnifying glass over an organisation and quickly exposes the very best and very worst bits. So when the reality of the pandemic dawned, asking for ‘leadership’ from everyone sounded good.

But for many organisations this quickly became confusing and unhelpful, as people didn’t understand what was actually expected of them. I know well from my coaching work over the last few months that some have realised a huge appetite and skill to lead, while others (often in senior roles) have shrunk away, and discovered very quickly it’s not for them at all!

If an organisation expects everyone to be a leader, then that suggests that if they’re not leading they must be under performing. This is clearly nonsense.

For too long, many organisations have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development, throwing everything into the same bucket. But more often than not, most of what seems to go in that bucket was once considered good management – driving team performance, managing stakeholders, mitigating risk, motivating others and so on.

You could argue that’s just semantics, but if an organisation loses sight of what great leaders do that’s different, then it will lose sight not only of how to develop those qualities, but how to best harness them during a crisis such as this, and that could literally be the difference between the survival or failure of the organisation.

So there’s a big difference between leaders and managers?

Absolutely. A further consequence of the obsession with leadership is that good management seems to have been dumbed down and it’s importance forgotten. Every business has an engine, and it’s the managers who maintain and monitor the performance of that engine. Without good management the engine will begin to stutter and stall, and before long there isn’t much left to actually lead.

Leading in business is bloody hard. It requires courage, persistence, and consistency when what you’d rather do is curl up in a ball and sob. It will make you unpopular with some, as you continually challenge the status quo and push others out of their comfort zone. You’ll have dark days, when you feel isolated and lonely, and your belief in what you’re doing will be severely tested.

Quite simply a lot of people don’t have the energy, courage or appetite for it. Leading is a choice and can leave the individual feeling exposed. So while I believe anyone can demonstrate leadership qualities, many simply don’t want to and most importantly, need to. People can be exceptional and critical and hugely successful in their roles without the need to lead. And more organisations need to recognise this.

How do you think the current situation might change leadership styles in the future?

One of the ironies of this pandemic is that so many leadership programmes, seminars and away days have taught leaders to avoid an authoritative approach – “I’m the boss and will tell you what needs to happen” – and instead develop their collaboration skills and ability to effectively delegate responsibility.

But when a crisis hits and organisations are thrust into survival mode, the first instinct for most is fear. When we’re afraid what we want is someone to stand up and tell us they’re on top of what’s happening and here’s what they’re doing about it. At this stage we don’t want to be consulted, we just want honesty and action.

What this crisis has exposed is that many leaders have not developed this ability, largely because they’ve never had to. Early in the crisis I worked with a number of leaders who were paralysed – they were terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing, and as a result were doing nothing. Part of this comes from the misguided perception that leaders should have all the answers. People don’t expect them to know everything, but they do expect them to have a plan.

Developing this confidence and ability to quickly step up and take ownership will be a huge area of focus for leaders, as organisations reflect and learn the lessons from this crisis.

Fascinating. So confidence and ownership is a must. Anything else?

Many leaders have recognised a need to get much better at dealing with human beings, not just professionals in a role. Something I often say to leaders I work with is, ‘you are not your job’. Yes, many of us derive tremendous significance from what we do, but there’s far more to all of us – our hopes and dreams, anxieties, fears, passions, hopes and insecurities. These things make us who we are, and if we can learn to harness these in a positive way and apply them to more of what we do, it’s extraordinary what we are actually capable of.

When we teach these skills on the Academy, delegates often make comments like “this feels like therapy” or ask what they should do if a person shows emotion or becomes upset. This reveals a lot about our discomfort dealing with things that don’t fit in the ‘professional’ box.

So that means we’ll also see a considerable shift towards developing more humanistic leadership skills. If a leader has the courage and ability to better explore and understand these elements within their people, it builds exceptional trust, honesty and a powerful insight into how to get the absolute best out of that individual.

This interview was inspired by our look at 'The Leadership Cult', one of ten trends covered in our 2020 World Changers report

The Future of Leadership in a Post-Covid World

Want to hear more about leadership in a post-Covid world?

Watch back our webinar with Charlie, co-founder and director Rachel Thornton and guest panellists from Prosus and Welsh Gymnastics.

Watch now

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