Be a people leader: part 5 – how would you define your leadership style?

During the month of December 2021, AMBITION will be highlighting its top 25 most-read articles of the year in reverse order, in the form of a thought leadership advent calendar. Here’s what is behind today’s door.

Once you’ve defined your personal values, your skills and your talents as part of your framework, you can start thinking about your leadership style and putting together the things you’ve learned about yourself, your experiences and your career history, says Eugenio Pirri

Originally published 18 December 2019.

In an earlier instalment, I mentioned that I was a team leader at the age of 15, working at a branch of McDonalds. This flies in the face of the popular perception of what a leader looks like: the older middle-class White male in an ivory tower, disconnected from day-to-day business.

Youth, race, sexuality, gender is not (and should not be) barriers to leadership. And regardless of whether you want to be a team manager or business leader you can, and should, adopt the personality of a leader.

Leadership and purpose

The one overarching thing I would say about leadership is that it has to have purpose. Once you know your purpose as a leader, that’s when you move from being an adequate leader to an inspirational leader.

Let me give you an example. I went into HR at the age of 23, and by the time I was 26, I was an HR director. I recall receiving a letter from a woman I’d hired as a room cleaner at the previous hotel where I’d worked. When I recruited her, she had just moved to Canada and her English was basic, but she was an excellent cleaner, so I offered her the job. I didn’t know it at the time, but the fact I’d employed her allowed her to sponsor her husband and children to join her.

I offered her husband a job as a cleaner as well and, over the years, he worked his way up and became night manager of  the hotel. The letter was telling me she was now in a position to leave her job and care for her children full time, something that would never have been possible had I not taken a chance on her.

This resonated with me and made me realise that, until then, I’d been looking at my job from a very functional perspective; I’d assumed I was there to hire people.

Instead, I realised I was giving people an opportunity to live: to raise children, buy homes, gain citizenship, receive opportunities. This was a defining moment in my career, because it completely changed the way I viewed HR and people leadership. I identified my true purpose. From this point on, I knew why I was there.

I was not only there to fulfil a job and affect profit and loss, I had a bigger purpose. This is what drives me and this is what helps me inspire others. It’s why I get up and go to work every day.

Purpose is becoming increasingly important to workers. Research, including the Deloitte Millennial Study 2016, has found that the leaders of tomorrow want to work somewhere that not only aligns with their own values, but helps them to achieve a greater sense of purpose. To  thrive in an organisation, you  need to take the values that you identified earlier in this book and use them to define your purpose. It may be a little hazy when you start your career; however, if you use these values as your guiding force, you can choose an organisation with the right values, performance, development methods and engagement for you. This will be an organisation that helps you change your perception of work from a ‘job’ to ‘a place where you can achieve purpose’.

Leadership without purpose is nothing more than fulfilling a function. We are not here to fulfil functions – we’re worth more than that. When your role is greater than a function, you can achieve so much more. Then, and only then, will you become an inspirational leader. Leadership is about ‘the things people see you putting out there’ rather than ‘what you think you’re putting out there’. I refer back to my example of the army.

Everyone has an opinion of what it’s like to be in the army, regardless of how it brands itself as an employer. Individuals may love it, hate it, feel proud of it, scared of it and so on. The same is true of leadership. Your style is how people perceive you, and for that reason, it’s really important to reflect on leadership. Too few people scrutinise their own style of leadership. They believe that, because they’ve won awards, achieved good results or are told they’re good leaders, they must be performing well. In reality, it is only the success of your team that marks you out as a good leader – how team members are growing and what they are achieving – and how this aligns with the organisation’s values and goals.

Great leadership is a combination of the following (and more):

  • Commercial acumen – understanding how business works and how the functions of the organisation operate and come together. This is also about going a step further and understanding how your strategy ties into the overall vision and how it will deliver sustainable returns to the company. To boost commercial acumen and ensure everyone is ‘on the same page’ you must focus on improving yourself and the people with whom you’re working.
  • Diplomacy – being able to deal with people and manage them sensibly, sensitively and tactfully. This doesn’t mean being reserved, your voice has to be heard. I always say “do your job like you’re not afraid to lose it”. It’s about having strength and the courage of your convictions so that you say when things are going well and also when things can be improved. It’s also about speaking up when things are bad or unethical, in a respectful way.
  • Leadership knowledge – understanding how to get the best out of people. There are two elements to this. There’s the commercial acumen which we have already discussed, and then there’s the ability to understand people on a more human level; becoming a coach who leads by listening; using your knowledge of their talents and their interests to take advantage of opportunities that have been presented.
  • Operational excellence –  making  sure  the basics are in place and laying the ground work before launching a complex initiative. This means knowing what the ‘game board’ looks like and how your scorecard is set up. You need to know where you stand, what’s important for you and what are you playing towards. It involves using external benchmarking in the right way, not just because you have access to it.
  • Strategy – being able to set clear plans that are straightforward to execute, rigorous and measurable. This is different to being futuristic and having foresight, although these skills are also important in leadership.
  • Impact – being able to set manageable targets and smash them (both for the business but also for yourself). First, you need to define impact, because it’s not always about the bottom line. It could be the number of customers through the door, the number of transactions carried out or the retention of your people. Understanding what you truly want to impact, and what you choose to measure, will show you how to achieve sustainable success.

    If you again liken your career to a painting, the qualities listed above make up the palette upon which the paints, your values, are mixed. But the purpose, inspiration and soft skills we discussed in chapter two are the difference between ‘adequate’ and ‘awesome’; they are the colours. The leaders who are inspirational are those who inspire others to be great. Inspirational leaders need the following qualities as well:
  • Kindness – taking other people’s feelings, needs and personalities into consideration and making them feel included and engaged; being able to relate to people. Empathy is a concept I simultaneously love and hate because it’s virtually impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
  • Openness – being honest and transparent, talking with colleagues, seeking opinions, and promoting inclusiveness. Openness is also about people seeing that you are open. Many businesses have an open- door policy, and the doors may be physically open, yet very few go in. That’s because what is being said isn’t translating into the culture of the organisation. So you need to determine what openness is to you and how you incorporate it into your organisation.
  • Determination – being committed to  the mission, culture and values of the organisation and believing in the strategy. Remember, though, that determination is personal to the individual. Therefore, you need to decide what determination means to you: how do you show determination and how do you make sure people know you’re in the race?
  • Ability to make tough decisions – being  decisive, even when you know your plan of action may be unpopular; having the conviction to stick by your decision, but having the empathy and transparency to communicate your strategy clearly.
  • Integrity – accepting nothing but the best. It’s about being relentless in the pursuit of quality, always aiming to go one better, pushing forward and making decisions that will enable long-term sustainability.
  • Accountability – being able to take ownership of both the good and bad. This involves taking calculated risks and responsibility for errors. This is really a question of ethics: are you accountable for the decisions you make? Are the people around you accountable? Do you and they follow the code of conduct – always? You wouldn’t steal a stapler outside of work, so why would you take one from your employer? Make sure your internal and external ethics are aligned.

And one more thing: in order to be a successful people leader, you have to be more than a little bit ‘crazy’.

The ‘ivory-tower dwelling leaders’ with a purely profit-driven mindset will view employees who bring their emotions into the workplace as ‘unprofessional’ or weak. But people are more than figures on a

spreadsheet. They are complicated. The growing trend of work/life integration, wherein people invest a large percentage of their time, energy and thought into their work, means that emotions will occasionally spill out.

Returning to the soft skills we discussed in chapter two, it takes an empathetic and understanding people champion to gauge which issues lead to loss of productivity and rectify them. If an employee cries at his desk, that doesn’t make him incapable. It exposes a problem that needs to be addressed with sensitivity.

An emotionally intelligent leader or director is more likely to be able to manage these challenges.

Emotional intelligence (EQ), equates to a soft skill missing from the job descriptions of many CEOs. This type of intelligence is a core strategic imperative in directing the intangible and unpredictable feelings of the workforce; it renders inspirational directors not over-emotional, but effective.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, according to Forbes at least, some of the world’s best leaders are psychopaths. Forbes explains that ‘psychopaths may be charismatic, charming and adept at manipulating one-on-one interactions. Unfortunately,  certain of these psychopathic qualities – in particular charm, charisma, grandiosity (which can be mistaken for vision or confidence) – are also qualities that can help one get ahead in business’.

These are not the people-centric CEOs for whom we aspire to work (or wish to become) but they do walk among us and we have to interact with, and influence, other business leaders on their level.

Disruptive, innovative leadership strategies that shake up businesses and position them in a sustainable growth trajectory come from a blend of common sense and (a dash of) ‘uncommon’ sense. Innovation, by its very definition, brings new ideas, so be prepared to come up with suggestions that will raise a few eyebrows in your business. Have the confidence in your plan (supported  by background research) to drive forward with it. This creativity, married with a healthy dose of pragmatism, makes for truly innovative practices.

After all, history tells us that some of the world’s greatest visionaries were perhaps not recognised in their own lifetime; for example, Gauguin, Monet and Kafka, to name a few from the worlds of art and literature.

Let’s describe the 21st century leader: ‘Emotional and soft, yet a strategic hardliner; creative yet pragmatic; managing the books and the board, yet raising the bar with surprising ideas.’

One could argue that a modern leader has to have a dual personality, to be multi-faceted, able to switch mindsets at the drop of a hat, expected to empathise with, and influence, every element of the business. This combination of qualities and approaches could drive anyone to distraction – but will not defeat the seasoned people professional.

So by ‘crazy’, I don’t mean “you’d have to be insane to do this job”. I mean crazy in the sense that the more ‘mentally interesting’ among us are the ones that will thrive in leadership positions.

My advice is to celebrate and embrace the things that make you and your role ‘weird’. These authentic qualities are what will differentiate you from the crowd, when the time comes to prove your worth.

Perceptions of leaders

Lots of books about leadership encourage readers to follow leadership role models. I believe this has led people to spend too much time trying to mimic others. I find it disturbing. I go to schools and speak at events and audiences seem to look up to me – and that’s lovely but unless you’ve walked a day in someone else’s shoes you’re only seeing their style from one perspective.

Any leader can say great things but you only see one side to them. My team has seen me on really awesome days and ‘not so awesome’ days and therefore would probably paint a different picture of me to those who have seen me on a stage with my pre-prepared presentation.

If you want to follow a role model, take them off their leadership pedestal and look at the things that make them unique as an individual, rather than considering what you do not have. Don’t think about a leader and decide “I want to be them”. Be cautious about that. Don’t try to emulate them – they might have talents and skills that you don’t have. They might have values that conflict with yours. They might be great at coming up with ideas but hopeless at executing them.

Over to you

Consider inspirational leaders you admire and focus on their USPs.

Jot these down. Next, take a look at yourself; flick back to chapter one and remind yourself of all the things that make you authentic.

Note these down. Think about the elements – whether operational excellence or EQ – on which you could work in order to take your leadership style from adequate, to inspirational, to awesome.

Eugenio Pirri is an award- winning hospitality stalwart with a career  spanning over 25 years; beginning in rooms division and then food and beverage, before making the transition into human resources. As a Chief People and Culture Officer for a global hotel management company, Eugenio is responsible for all aspects of HR, learning and development, employee and guest engagement, innovation and corporate responsibility, working with all functions in the business to ensure people are the cornerstone of every business decision.

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