Where leaders are going wrong

A guest blog post by Jolyon Kimble of APCO Worldwide.


Jolyon Kimble APCOLast week we held a discussion on leadership with two remarkable leaders. One was Lord Browne, former boss of one of the world’s biggest energy companies. As many people know, he’s white, and a man. The other was Alison Lowe, Labour Councillor and head of a mental health charity in the north of England. Alison is black, and a woman. She’s not as well known. You might think that this was the elite versus the forgotten. Yet it was nothing like that. Neither leader lends themselves to easy categorisation, both have felt like outsiders for long periods, and both have come to similar conclusions on leadership.

The title of the discussion was ‘How do leaders reconnect?’. Like ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Take back control’ that title presupposes that something has gone wrong somewhere. And that it can be fixed. Everyone has their own opinions on that, but what’s certain is that it’s never been a more important discussion to have, whether you are talking about business or politics. It’s also clear that expectations of leaders are shifting, and meeting these expectations is harder than ever. Even if you think you are doing it well, you may not be connecting.

These changing expectations are borne out by polling (trust us, this one’s reliable…) In a July survey by our research arm, APCO Insight, of nearly 200 business leaders, policy makers and influencers:

  • 89 percent agreed that today’s leader faces more demands now compared to 10 years ago
  • 90 percent said leaders must be more responsive to the concerns of external audiences
  • 87 percent told us they agree leaders should advocate for social – as well as business – issues

But while this sounds right where do leaders begin? It’s a tough road. Our speakers suggested companies are not very good at understanding how they affect people – you only have to look at companies that surround themselves with fences and then say they want to engage. And leaders are not good at engaging – they listen selectively, they are prone, like the rest of us, to confirmation bias, they can quickly treat stakeholders as enemies. Leaders talk about authenticity and the concept of inclusion, but these can be early casualties of fear. Both our speakers said they had had to learn to be authentic to themselves before they could become authentic leaders – journeys that were painful and full of mistakes.

The panel agreed there was little substitute for making mistakes. Mistakes are good – except when they are not. The problem comes when there is little retribution for mistakes (the banking crisis the worst recent example), and when every mistake is too easily explained away. That undermines public trust. And trust is important. As the saying goes ‘trust is the act of making yourself vulnerable in the belief that you won’t get hurt’, and our speakers suggested too few leaders were that brave. The most difficult act, as a leader, is turning round when you are going in the wrong direction. As most successful leaders are pushy and stubborn, turning around is against their core beliefs. That’s where we come in. Advisers have to be brave, and be pushy back. We have to remind leaders it’s not about self-aggrandisement, it’s about values. And it’s OK to fail to later succeed.

Aside from honest counsel, leaders more than ever want answers on how they need to be positioned in relation to all kinds of stakeholders, but there’s relatively little data out there to help. At APCO we have built our own methodology to tackle this, based on rigorous research and our own experience over many years. It’s called APCO Lead. This programme identifies a leader’s reputational assets and areas for improvement, classifies differentiators and establishes the leader’s personal ‘archetype’ – their strategic positioning. But mostly, it recognises that they have to be authentic, and builds that in.

Authenticity is not a compromise. It’s a competitive advantage. Lord Browne and his co-authors estimate that companies that connect effectively can enjoy a boost of up to 30 per cent of corporate earnings. Equally, the shares of companies which connect effectively outperform those of their competitors by more than 2 per cent every year. Imagine what leadership that connects can deliver.

 

Lord Browne’s book “Connect: How companies succeed by engaging radically with society” is published by WH Allen

APCO Lead contacts: Jolyon Kimble jkimble@apcoworldwide.com and Chris Levy clevy@apcoworldwide.com

The session was hosted by APCO Worldwide and moderated by Sean Trainor of Uber Engagement

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