Gavin Fenn-Smith is a Partner and Co-Founder of The River Group and Managing Director, International. He is based in Boston. Gavin has twenty years of experience as an adviser to CEOs and senior executives; and as an expert in leadershipand organizational development.
Diya Kapur Misra is a Partner at The River Group and is based in Mumbai. She is a leadership adviser, facilitator, and coach with over eighteen years of rich consulting as well as business HR experience, with Hindustan Unilever, Hewitt, Cadbury/ Kraft Foods, and Korn Ferry.
Q. 1 What is different about leadership now, as compared to the past?
One of the biggest challenges for leaders these days is to know how to lead in a digital and online world. How do you inspire others to act, when so many of people’s interactions are digital, rather than in-person? How do you show you truly care about others, provide meaning to their work and guide them when you are not in their presence very often?
The second difference from the past is the increasing prevalence of networks. Leaders need to be comfortable operating in partnerships and arrangements, often even with erstwhile competitors. It calls for quite a lot of humility and emotional maturity.
Technology has enabled doing business across geographical boundaries. So, finally, leaders today find themselves working with people from diverse backgrounds. Leading inclusively in diverse teams and cross-cultural environments is key to organizational success. When done well, it spawns a culture of risk-taking and innovation.
Q. 2 What is great leadership in the 21st Century?
This century, great leadership is about being comfortable that you don’t know all the answers. Every employee is likely to know as much as you do as a leader. The internet is everywhere and knows everything. Further, you need to be comfortable with a high degree of volatility and ambiguity because technology is breaking down traditional hierarchies and ways of working and business/industry disruption can come from anywhere. Increasingly, Learning agility is the key to leadership – ‘knowing what to do, when you don’t know what to do’; constantly learning and unlearning and applying yourself to new and different situations.
Leading with courage and conviction is also essential because leading a diverse workforce calls for taking higher accountability and making difficult decisions. Leaders need a strong moral compass to guide them.
Q. 3 Which aspects of leadership are everlasting?
The core feature of a leader does not change: to inspire others to do things they most likely would not be able to do on their own. Achieving this is about providing guidance, truly caring about others, being sure that people feel psychologically safe at work and unleashing the power of teams.
The task at hand is to adapt these to the demands of today’s workplace. The important point is to use the changing context of free knowledge, rapidly advancing technology and globalization as opportunities, rather than getting dragged down by the challenges they present.
Q. 4 Is it different in India from elsewhere?
Leading in India in the current context is an exciting journey. On the one hand, it’s about leveraging the same global market trends as outlined above – technology, diversity, ambiguity, and volatility. On the other hand, it’s about leading in a unique cultural context – one that embraces the Western avatar of strategic leadership (leading with the mind) and yet calls for equally strong emotional leadership (leading through the heart/emotional connect). The task from leaders in India is, therefore, a tall one. They need to straddle two worlds, transform and take along their older employees and attract and manage an expanding millennial workforce.
Q. 5 What would be the three key characteristics defining a great organization?
First, a great organization is one that has a purpose – a reason to be – that is highly motivating to those who work there and, crucially, does well in this world.
Second, one that balances the interests of all stakeholders, not only investors.
Third, one that is organized so that employees have meaningful work and autonomy in how they operate.
Focusing with as much rigor on building and measuring long-term organizational health as much as the P/L, will enable leaders to establish such organizations.
Q. 6 How do you enable the leaders to make their organizations great?
Are leaders only doing it for themselves or for the greater good of the organization? If they understand that being a leader is about the greater good, about taking wider accountability, then it is about advising and coaching them on their personal leadership, as well as enabling them to architect and lead change in their organization.
We ask questions, listen and say it like it is. We spend considerable time on understanding and diagnosing the business, the organization, and the leaders. Then we work with CEOs and their teams, to transform their organizations through themselves, other leaders, the structure, culture, and values.
Q. 7 Why do you say that leadership is the difference, all the time, every time?
Organizations cannot be successful without great leadership. A leader might be a teacher at a school or a nurse in the hospital. Or a CEO. But without someone guiding others, caring for others and sacrificing themselves, the organization is merely an aggregation of technology, processes, and things. We all want to be led, for some part of our lives. Our work and our research show us that the difference between average and good and good and great organizations always comes from the quality and effectiveness of the leadership at the helm.
Q.8 How should leaders be developed these days as compared to the past?
Leadership can’t be taught. However, it can be learned. So, the best way to learn how to be a leader is to have leadership experiences. The more diverse those experiences, the greater the development.
It used to be that developing leaders was about sitting in a classroom for a week. That is not effective. Learning to be a leader is about trying new things. It is about operating outside your comfort zone, stretching yourself and experiencing hardship. It requires making mistakes, learning how to draw insights from them, and then moving on. And it helps greatly to be guided by peers and experts who know about that journey and who can spot pitfalls, help you pick yourself up when you stumble, and offer lots of ideas.
The crux of leadership development is to build self-awareness. So leaders who are willing to look in the mirror, seek and openly accept and use feedback, and voraciously look for cues for improvement, grow and evolve effectively over time.