Insights – Sharing the Burden of Leadership

“It’s lonely at the top” is more than a cliché, especially when the VUCA world we live in forces us to look at leadership to guide us through the chaos. Guest speakers Jan Bladen, Managing Partner, Governance Creed, Lina Kouatly, CEO, Luntas Marketing & Consulting FZCO, and Warren Bond, Co-Founder, Future World, shared their leadership journey and challenges with moderator Nathan Farrugia, Managing Director, Vistage, UAE.

 Key takeaways:

  • In today’s VUCA world, you need to become more self-aware how you evolve as a leader.
  • Implementing new strategies often fail when CEOs are unable to align the people, show the value and bring everyone on board.
  • Hire leaders who are not only subject matter experts but have the right ethics and attitude.
  • Surround yourself with advisors who have more knowledge than yourself.
  • Being agile is a much-needed trait for today’s leaders, so that they can pivot when needed.
  • A leader must always show strength vs. vulnerability is a strength.
  • Since 2020, leaders have had to increase the level of communications, give reassurance to teams, and learn to better understand how people are feeling.
  • How someone plays sports throws a light on character and how they would lead in business.
  • Create space outside the office to get to know your teams better.
  • Asking the right questions instead of telling people what to do gets a greater buy-in from teams.
  • Some ways that today’s leader can help lead Gen Z and develop them as leaders, is by focusing on purpose, projects, and customers.
  • Future ready leaders need to become native at digital tools

Some life hacks to cope with the burden of leadership:

  • Having a trusted peer group, outside the company, is vital to keep from being lonely as a leader.
  • Spending time with family increases inner joy and helps bring better value as a leader.
  • Playing team sports alleviates leadership pressures.
  • Taking time out to read different books increases knowledge and forces you to take a break from work.
  • Making lists of ‘what not to do’ and ‘to do’ and moving items from one to another.
  • Go for a run to decompress and take time out for yourself.
  • Spend mornings in daily prayer and exercise helps to set the tone for the day.
  • Go for ‘wisdom walks’ with someone you have built a trusting relationship.

Nathan Farrugia: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and the pressures of leading from your perspective.

Lina Kouatly: As a leader, I am very hands on, more like an operational person. I also believe in giving back to society and engage in the Rotary Club. Human capital is the most important asset of any business and I tend to get involved in reassuring and handholding my team. I need to step back more.

Nathan Farrugia: How do we evolve as leaders? How do we go from the CEO to the chairperson? How do we help the successors to grow themselves?

Jan Bladen: It is not easy. I am an old CEO, and I need to be able to develop leaders who can lead. I need to spend my time setting the right ethics and vision in place, getting the buy in, build trust and drive people’s performance. As a CEO, I have the responsibility and authority. However, when I am running a board, the way I influence people is quite different. Many times, new strategy implementations fail because of internal resistance from middle and senior management. Once approved by the board, the CEO needs to get the entire organization to align with the strategy. You must change people’s KPIs, reward structures, retrain them and make sure they see the value for themselves. I hire people who are better than me in specific areas of expertise and my role is more like a conductor of an orchestra, to make sure that everyone plays their part.

Leaders need to develop leaders and make sure everyone is aligned with the right ethics and vision. Communicate to everyone in the organization and develop loyalty by looking after your people well. However, watch out for the ‘rotten apple syndrome,’ where one wrong person could infect everyone quite quickly. You need to discern and be brave to fire somebody early, if needed. When I am involved at looking at potential new hires, I leave the skills judgement to the senior leadership, and I check the attitude – do they have the right ethics and behaviours that fit in the larger group? I can judge this in two minutes.

Nathan Farrugia: How do you manage the burden of running your organization and being able to plan for the future?

Warren Bond: The key ingredient is a purpose which the team can rally around. In my experience, the difference between average and great companies comes down to their purpose, and teams that go that extra mile to deliver what the company stands. When you look at the great resignation documented over the last two years, people are leaving organizations because they no longer feel they are aligned to their purpose. They are not leaving for financial reasons, but rather asking if the time they are spending working makes sense anymore with their core beliefs.

Jan Bladen:  As important as the vision and purpose of an organization, I find that people are loyal to a person. If a leader cannot generate loyalty, then he or she will not be able to push them to go that extra mile.

Nathan Farrugia: It is important to make sure that the values and beliefs are more that fancy vision statements on the wall in the reception but are being lived out. But how do we make sure that it is not all on our shoulders alone? How do we share the burden of leadership? How do you balance between continuing to do what you know well versus changing according to new pressures, like ESG reporting, for example?

Warren Bond: The need of the hour is agility. There is an amazing book called Firms of Endearment which reveals that organizations with strong purpose and look after all their stakeholders, do far better over a longer period than those that are solely focussed on shareholder value. The markets are dynamic and volatile, and you need to be ready to pivot. Being aligned to purpose and agile to adapt is key to today’s successful businesses.

Lina Kouatly: The last two years has all been about change, steer, change, survive. Being strong and showing that you are strong has been especially important for me as a leader…even if I am flapping my feet underwater like a crazy duck to not go under, on the top you look calm and strong. I oversee a large geography of 7 GCC countries. And I talk to my senior leaders every day for an hour in the morning over zoom. They would then cascade the communication to their teams. And then we reconvene the next day. Constant reassurance and constant communication. And we had to be very agile to change.

 Jan Bladen: One of the challenges of leadership is always giving the impression to the team that you know where you are going, even when you might not be too sure.

Nathan Farrugia: It is ok to let your senior team know that you do not have all the answers, and that we are going to have to muddle through… however, because there is enough trust built, we were able to muddle through tough decisions together.

Nathan Farrugia: As a leader, how many responsibilities do you take on and when do you say no?

Jan Bladen: When strategies are not line with my values, I would say no. And regarding time, I need to develop leaders and given them the responsibilities.

Lina Kouatly: How do you make sure you do not lose good leaders that you help develop?

Jan Bladen: I would rather train good people and see them leave than not train them and keep them.

Nathan Farrugia: What helps to alleviate the pressure of leadership?

Warren Bond: I think physical activity and exercising help tremendously. Being on a sports team is good for your headspace, and you take a break from thinking about work while you are playing a sport. You have a diverse set of teammates and learn what sort of levers to pull to get the key performances.

Nathan Farrugia: What do you look for in recruiting a senior person?

Warren Bond:  Attitude is the number one thing. And then personally, I look outside of the regular skills about what else have you done in your life? Have you climbed Everest? Have you travelled? Have you played sport? Once the skills are there, it is this that makes the team members exceptional.

Jan Bladen:  You can get a sense of someone’s leadership style by how they play sports. How close to the rules do they stay or bend.

Lina Kouatly: At our retreats, we can get a sense of the substance of leadership in people during team sports.

Nathan Farrugia: We need to create space where we can watch our teams outside of the work context to be able to understand their leadership potential.

Nathan Farrugia: Can you share some life hacks that helps you survive leadership? For me, it helps to have a trusted peer group outside of work and family who I can talk to and lean on. And I have a ‘to do’ and ‘what not to do’ lists. I like to move things from one side to the other. It is a simple hack, but I find it particularly useful. For what is yours?

Warren Bond: Having people that you can trust and bounce things off is great. The other one is reading. It is a wonderful way to learn by taking time off just to read. Another thing that helps me is to go for a run, give your brain a rest and decompress.

Lina Kouatly: Being a CEO is a very lonely place. Especially when you must show strength to your people. I spend time with God in daily prayer, go for walks and my husband gives me a lot of support.

Jan Bladen: The more time I spend with my family, the more value I can create in a shorter amount of time. I used to be on two hundred flights a year and did not spend that much time with the family. Because of COVID, I was able to spend more time with my kids and wife and realised it gave me immense joy. And I perform better when I am happy behind the scenes. And the other thing I learnt through zoom calls is that its ok to do standard meetings online and have in-person meetings when I want to know more about how you feel about something, which means I am doing a lot less and communicating a lot more clearly.

Audience 1: How are you leading Gen Z and creating future leaders?

Warren Bond: Purpose is key. Another is to put the customer in the middle and realise that you are solving problems for them. This motivates young teams to come up with innovative solutions. And they get feedback from customers, which they use to create new products, services, and businesses. You also need to be frank and communicate openly, and build trust, which includes letting them know what is unacceptable. From my experience, they work most effectively around different projects rather than for a company, and flexibility does get the best work out of them. We need to accept this.

Audience 2: What would be the right digital tool that could help you in your leadership of the next gen?

Warren Bond: We introduced Slack when it first came out and it changed the organization and the way we worked. For the CEO level, it was brilliant because you could see what was going on right throughout the company. Every evening, you can just log on and see what is happening in all the different teams. We now use Teams and Zoom. There are the fundamental technologies that allow teams to communicate with each other. Many technologies are being built around us which will keep changing our working styles. We need to adopt these.