A leadership style that aims to maintain the status quo, manage the day-to-day operations and keep things neatly in order is no longer enough in the modern economy. Instead, the preferred style of today is one that upholds transformational leadership in order to create a better business and a better world. It is also a style that determines whether or not a company succeeds.
This was the message put forward by a panel of women leaders at the Rethinking the Future - Leadership in 2020 forum hosted by Women's Network on 8 March 2010. Organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, and supported by Canadian Chamber of Commerce, PrimeTime and Financial Women's Association of Singapore, the event was held in conjunction with International Women's Day.
Sound principles of trust and integrity
It stands to reason that a good leader must have sound principles, and these include integrity - a basic must have, and trust, said Tan Su Shan, Managing Director, Head of Private Wealth, Morgan Stanley Management for Southeast Asia. On July 1, she will start at DBS as Managing Director, and Head of its private banking unit.
Trust and integrity are not synonymous, though they are both basic building blocks of character, added Teresa Lim, Managing Director, IBM Singapore. Trust is more than integrity - it encompasses a certain credibility to assume a position (in a company), and the competency to do the job well, said Lim. Trust, in the marketplace, relates to relevant job skills, knowledge and experience. It also refers to the leader's ability to guard the trust shareholders have in you, and in the company. In a marketplace that demands instant action, once that trust is lost, the leader is immediately out of the game, she said, referring to last year's near-total meltdown of the US financial system, where management teams of many major institutions had quickly fallen out of grace.
A company leadership's efforts need to extend beyond internal stakeholders too. For one, there is a need to build mutual trust with strategic partners, so as to harness and synthesise the greatest value possible, said IBM's Lim, and these external partners include government bodies and regulators, as well as other interested organisations like industry groups and associations.
Also, according to Tan, a leader must have a clear vision, sound strategies that are do-able and practical, and be an effective communicator in order to convey the vision and strategies to internal and external stakeholders, so as to obtain their buy-in. In other words, he or she must be able to move from the planning stage to effective implementation. Communication alone is not enough -- the leader must be able to communicate with impact, a skill which becomes especially crucial in a crisis. In a war room situation, such as during last year's Lehman Brothers' fracas, people naturally look to the leader for guidance and direction, and the leader must show his or her mettle by communicating clearly, expeditiously, and with integrity.
In an era of 360-degree reviews, when everyone gets to review their boss's performance, respect for leadership is not a given, it has to be earned through action, communication and trust, she added.
Fire in your belly
Elim Chew, founder and current president of fashion and accessories brand 77th Street, is frequently lauded for her involvement and support for youth-related projects. A mentor for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Chew's leadership style has been described as one that is underlined by a deep passion for what she does - a passion that every good leader should possess, and be able to project on the people around him or her, said Associate Professor Annie Koh, Singapore Management University's Dean of Office of Executive and Professional Education.
Passion is the fire in the belly that fuels a person to be creative, innovative and constantly strive for success. Today, 12 years after the 77th Street brand has taken off, Chew still serves at her retail outlets several times a week, so as to feel and touch the ground, connecting with her staff and customers, said Koh. Therein lies another important characteristic of a good leader, emotional quotient (EQ) - the ability to connect with people at all levels. Chew also embodies salesmanship, a quality that leaders should develop - not merely for boosting the top line - but so they can win others over, adds Koh.
Nurturing a trusted second layer
A leader knows what he or she knows and does not know, and possesses sound judgement and the mandate to employ the best people to plug the gaps. This includes nurturing a trusted second layer which can assume the leadership in the future, suggests Koh. These people must be handpicked not for their similarity to the leader, but to fulfil leadership needs in the next 10 years.
More likely than not, this second layer is one that plays a pivotal role in the organisation's future. According to Koh, when a leader nurtures a second layer, you do not prepare them only for your organisation but for an organisational equivalent; you are literally going the journey with the people who trust you and have come onboard with you. And when a leader acts as mentor, he or she is walking the talk, which in turn ignites the fire in the belly and keeps it burning bright.
Leaders of today also have more complicated variables to consider - not just to measure the people under them, but also to peg themselves against. First, there was Intelligence Quotient (IQ), and then Emotional Quotient (EQ) - a soft skill - was added to the list of requirements. And now, in this borderless world and cosmopolitan workplace run by people who see themselves first as citizens of the world, Cultural Quotient, or CQ, is just as important as IQ and EQ, said Lim.
CQ, meanwhile, goes hand in hand with another principle that leaders of today's business need to embrace: diversity. As business success is underpinned by the collaborative and collective talents of its people, companies should focus on their abilities, and not be prejudiced by the individual's profile or preferences, such as gender, age or sexual orientation. Diversity is present in any global company, so the ability to adapt to different cultures is important, said Lim.
Finding the right talent and retaining it
In a sense, the challenge and responsibilities of leaders extend beyond the company premises. They need to calibrate their management style such that the desired work-life balance can be attained. No one is under any illusion that the ideal work-life balance, where work and life are perfectly proportioned at 50:50, is always achievable. Compared to the previous generations, workers of today do not always give their work the highest priority all the time. Rather, they are increasingly asking for space to prioritise their own lives.
With a new (and very distinct) generation of workers entering the workforce, business leaders have to make some changes to the set of human resource practices that has served corporations so well over the past few decades. Where traditional methods of hiring centred on finding the right person for the job, the practice today centres on finding the right job for the right person, and then seeking ways to retain this employee. The post-baby boomers - generations X, Y and even Z - are different from their parents and grandparents. By extension, companies have to manage them differently too.
Compared to the older generations, they are vocal, and will not hesitate to voice their opinions, give suggestions or question the way things are done, said Tan. They are easily bored, so you have to engage them, challenge them. Be prepared to give instant feedback - recognise their good work, affirm success. At the same time, where criticism is warranted, give constructive criticism. The feedback has to be almost instantaneous, or they would have moved on to other things. Multi-business conglomerate Tata Group, for instance, listens to its young employees by scheduling regular town hall meetings for the under-30s to tap on their ideas. Other organisations can take a leaf from Tata, on workplace inclusiveness.
Clearly, the role of leaders is not an easy one. Some cornerstone attributes never change but other skill sets have to. So what will be the face of leadership in 2020? In addition to the traditional depth that a leader should have, spanning vision, strategic direction, industry knowledge and track record, the top person is likely to display a T-shaped leadership that shows depth and width. The future leader will also possess a whole plethora of soft skills like effective communications, inclusiveness, care and compassion for staff, as well as an appreciation for differences - skills that are necessary and relevant to the new era of business.