Recently, I had the pleasure of connecting with Victor Perton, who served with distinction in the Victorian parliament for almost two decades, served as Chairman of various parliamentary Committees and also represented the Victorian Government overseas as a Commissioner for the Americas.
Victor remains extremely active in promoting Australian Leadership and is a regular blogger on the topic, drawing on his many years of experience working in the political and policy arena at both a national and international level. He was curious about my thoughts and experience working in the field of leadership development and he posed some questions to me –
1. Tell me a bit about your experience working in the space of workplace leadership
I run a consulting business, Performance Development, which I started more than twenty-five years ago that specialises in the tailored design and delivery of leadership development programs and executive coaching services. My early career was in Human Resources and I am a qualified psychologist by discipline. Recruitment is an area that I have continued to do some consultancy in – and hence the assessment of both leadership potential and leadership capability is an additional area in which I have some experience.
What do you think characterises Australian Leadership?
And as you well know, the required skills and capabilities for leaders to be effective will vary depending upon whether we are discussing frontline or senior levels of leadership. Technical competence and organisational skills still remain necessary and expected at frontline levels, although interpersonal capabilities around building and managing a wider variety of relationships start to come increasingly into play.
In the flatter organisational structures we’ve seen over the past ten years, frontline leaders must be capable of influencing not only in their relationships with staff and customers – but also interfacing and negotiating across departments with their peers, senior management and sometimes suppliers.
At the more senior level, analytical and conceptual skills are essential, together with capabilities in strategic thinking and forward planning. Because senior leaders are typically representing their organisations in wider industry and government arenas, they will usually have developed their public speaking capabilities. By definition, having progressed into a more senior level of leadership, the capacity to effectively delegate and manage the expertise of specialists must have been developed and displayed.
I cannot really make any informed comments on what might differentiate leadership in the Australian workplace to that of other cultures and countries. However, it seems to me that generally speaking, most of our workplaces that I have observed and experienced operate upon fairly egalitarian principles. In the vast majority of our workplaces, apart from the armed services, we call our workplace leaders by their first name – Rob or Julie – and to me this is illustrative of our generally egalitarian culture. Although there are obviously still incidents where inequity and discrimination occur in our workplaces, these are not the norm and I am personally of the view that we have much to be proud of. My coaching and consulting work brings me into contact with numerous leaders that have a strong commitment to continuous learning, growth and improvement.
Although having said that, a comprehensive study of workplace leadership in Australia conducted by Melbourne University and published earlier this year was more critical in its findings. Survey results indicated that many of our businesses were lacking in innovation and suggested that our leadership were also lacking in some fundamental capabilities around target setting and performance monitoring. The study also reported that there tended to be substantially more funding and resources being directed towards the development of leadership at the more senior levels compared to the frontline levels. This would seem to be a key issue that needs to be addressed by business – although interestingly the study suggested that this was an area where the public sector performed somewhat better than the private sector.
What are the qualities that Australians seek from their Leaders?
Many of us have had the experience at some point in our careers of working for a bad boss – however many of us have also had the rewarding experience of working for a boss that brought out the best in us. These typically have been the leaders that took an interest in our development, provided opportunities to apply our strengths and recognised and appreciated our achievements.
There’s an old saying in HR, to the effect that employees aren’t usually quitting their job, they are leaving their manager. A recent Gallup survey (admittedly conducted in the U.S but every reason to believe results likely to be similar here in Australia) confirmed that almost half of the respondents ranked the top reason for leaving a job as having a bad manager. In particular, factors associated with poor communication and unclear expectations from their managers.
Typically, I I have found that the almost universal qualities that we expect of those in workplace leadership positions are fairness, approachability, integrity and “walking the talk”. We are not forgiving of hypocrisy in our leaders.
What is an inspiring story of Australian leadership you have personally experienced?
That’s a tough question to answer Victor and I’d need to think a lot more about it. But what does come to mind is an early mentor in my career who shaped my approach and understanding of workplace leadership. In my first experience of leading a team more than 30 years ago, he taught me to avoid making assumptions about what motivates the different members of a team; he taught me the value of asking team members how to best use their skills and strengths and what resources and support they needed to get their jobs done.
His name was Doug McLaine and I never saw him lose his cool – despite provocation at times. So I’m hopeful that perhaps 30 years into the future, maybe someone that’s been in a team that I’ve lead might perhaps recall me and feel that I’d taught them something about leadership. I’m a great believer in that old saying “Good leaders don’t create followers, they build more leaders”. So for me at least, a good workplace leader will also have been a coach and teacher.
Thanks to Victor Perton, for encouraging me to share some of my thoughts and experience on this theme of the capabilities and qualities required for effective workplace leadership.