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Leading through change

14th February 2022 Posted by

Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources and Health and Safety Officer, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

Are some people just born leaders? The question arose after our recent Wellness for All webinar on the theme of Leadership for Change. And the answer from our presenter – Dr David Pendleton, a Professor in Leadership at the Henley Business School – combined the common sense and insight he has shared with us in several highly popular webinars. This advice draws on his career as a business consultant, psychologist and academic largely devoted to this intriguing and highly important subject.

Effective leaders do tend to exhibit certain innate personality traits – in particular, curiosity and resilience – which are essential to their success. But the reality is that they will also have, through learning and experience, honed other skills that are needed in a leadership role. Key learnt attributes are persistence and teamwork – the determination and stamina to succeed, and the ability to work with people in a way that brings the best out of them and oneself. So, it’s therefore more accurate to say that leaders are made (self-made, if you prefer) not born.

Our webinar’s theme was ‘leadership for change’, but for David, there’s no distinction between the two. “Leadership is always about change, and change always requires leadership,” he noted, before going on to say that if nothing much changes in an industry or organisation, then the status quo can be administered by whoever’s in charge. You don’t really need leadership.

Few if any businesses find themselves in that situation today. Take SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, for example. The regulatory environment for our industry, the needs and expectations of our customers, the challenges of transitioning to the circular economy and net zero, volatility in the markets for secondary resources, and a host of other forces and factors – not least, providing our essential services amid a pandemic while protecting, developing and motivating our people – are constantly evolving and changing.

Darwin’s insightful conclusion about life and evolution is often misquoted, as David reminded us. It is not the fittest that survive, or the most intelligent, but those that are most responsive to change.

So, if our people and organisations are going to thrive, or in some instances, survive, they must be able to respond in a positive way to change. What do they need and how can we help them develop the adaptive mindset this requires?

Research by neuroscientist Hilary Scarlett points to six basic preconditions that allow employees and teams to thrive. The six are:

  • Self-esteem: It’s very difficult to function unless we feel we’re doing a reasonable job most of the time and have the potential to succeed.
  • Sense of purpose: Organisations and individuals soon lose their way without this. As discussed before, a personal and collective sense of purpose is more important than ever to employee engagement and business survival.
  • Autonomy: It can be demoralising if we only follow instructions and are never consulted or feel we have a say. Team leaders, in particular, need to be wary of micro-managing. David recommends doing a diary audit to check what proportion of your time is spent doing what could easily be delegated, as opposed to the things that only you can do.
  • Certainty: Total predictability is boring, and unrealistic in a changing world, but grappling with relentless uncertainty is stressful and undermines wellbeing. Clarity about our purpose is a compass amid uncertainty, as are values, which we explored in our December blog.
  • Equity: We all expect fairness in our dealings with the organisation and colleagues. This is one of the reasons why, like other organisations, we have focused more attention on inclusion and diversity, and our diversity networks and champions are raising awareness and celebrating the richness that difference brings.
  • Social connection: We are social creatures – having good relations with colleagues is as important to us as individuals as it is for teamwork.

It’s notable (and pleasing to me) how these six preconditions for people and teams to thrive overlap with our Wellness for All webinar programme. That convergence also helps answer the question that some readers may have – what has ‘leadership for change’ got to do with wellness? The fact is that at all levels of the organisation – from senior and middle management to supervisors and team leaders – we have to be able to cope with change if we are to be comfortable and confident in our jobs, and effective managers of our people.

And we’re also more likely to thrive if our workplace culture fosters a feeling of safety, as a psychological study of 180 Google teams showed. The most effective teams were characterised by:

  • dependability – they delivered
  • structure and clarity – clear goals and roles
  • meaning – the work mattered to them
  • impact – they felt their work made a difference
  • psychological safety – it was safe to take risks because members supported each other.

This last characteristic was the most important – a reminder to every leader of how workplace culture creates the conditions for their teams to thrive amid change. Which brings us back to the original question about leadership and David’s central tenet.

A leadership role straddles three domains – the strategic (focused on the future), operational (managing day-to-day delivery), and interpersonal (managing, supporting and motivating people). No one person is likely to excel in all the varied skills demanded by the diverse challenges and tasks these involve. Like us all, any leader will also have personal attributes that may hinder rather than help the development of this leadership skillset.

What effective leaders do is recognise these limitations and surround themselves with colleagues who have complementary skills. For example, a master strategist may need the support of someone who excels in driving operational activities, and/or a colleague who is a natural when it comes to interpersonal relationships and managing people.

The other takeaway – which is crucial for HR practitioners – is the importance of considering personality traits when recruiting for certain roles, especially those that may be more pressurised and exposed to uncertainty and change, which is when resilience and curiosity are at a premium.

More widely, David’s thesis on change chimes with our efforts to foster a culture where employees feel they have the support and psychological safety they need to make their full contribution to the greater good of the organisation and the society we serve.

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