WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM?: First class coach


by MARGARET EXLEY, who leads Towers Perrin's European practice onchange and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is also adirector of HM Treasury's Management Board
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: I have recently been appointed as a board director. I am very capable and good on detail, but have never been someone to take centre-stage.

I am worried about my leadership style. How can I be taught to be more charismatic?

A: Promotion to the board can be daunting, particularly if your experience extends only to 'management'. Management is about running the show, planning, organising, resourcing, controlling and ensuring the short and medium-term success of the business. Board membership requires leadership skills.

As a leader, your role may include overseeing management processes, but you will also need to create energy by instilling a sense of purpose in your followers. Your focus will be on innovation and responsiveness.

Having charisma is all about having the ability to inspire trust and dedication. The good news is that a lot of this can be learned. Let's start with trust. To create it, you will need to demonstrate four things.

First, competence. Your track record will help. Do not underestimate the importance of making this known, particularly if you have been largely unknown in your previous role. Second, consistency of actions and words.

Trust will dissipate quickly if, for example, you preach empowerment but practice centralised control, or if you promote the importance of customers but never spend any personal time with them. So monitor what you say and do and adapt accordingly.

Third, constancy. People need to know you will stick with them, support and defend them and be on their side. This will take time to establish.

It does not mean that you should be uncritical of the organisation but, in making changes, you should demonstrate and communicate complete dedication to the long-term success and growth of the business. Finally, you need to care about the lives of the people with whom you work and in particular about the impact of decisions and actions on them.

When ICI dramatically reduced one of its major chemicals businesses, the managing director created an organisation to help those made redundant with career counselling, outplacement and skills-building. In this way, the business quickly moved to the new low-cost format and enabled those no longer required to move on with dignity. The morale of employees remaining in the business was sustained and 'survivor's syndrome' avoided.

It is hard to pin down what makes a leader. Certainly, that overworked term 'vision' has something to do with it, but Warren Bennis spent 15 years carrying out detailed interviews with a wide variety of outstanding leaders and his study showed that there is no one personality prototype.

Leaders come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions. Bennis found that some were natural introverts, some extroverts, but there was one thing they all shared in common: concern for a guiding purpose. They were highly oriented towards achieving results, with a vision that was compelling and drew people to them.

As Max DePree, chief executive of Herman Miller, put it: 'The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the leader is a servant.' How can you achieve this balance? Well, here are a few pointers. Develop your vision by focusing on a few key questions.

What is unique about your organisation, what are the features that give it its essential qualities of success? What do those you serve externally really need that you could provide? What would make you personally commit your mind and heart to this organisation over the coming years? What do you want the organisation to achieve in the wider world so that you will be proud of your association with it?

Working with a coach or a trusted colleague can help you to develop your ideas. Eventually you should be able to produce a succinct summary of your vision that will connect with your personal values and priorities.

It is this connection that will help you to convey that enthusiasm. Develop a plan for communicating your vision. Use meetings or group sessions as opportunities to share and refine your mental picture. Seek feedback and, above all, focus your actions and priorities on delivering your vision.

This is your chance to make a difference as a board member and as a leader.

Don't worry about your personality. Concentrate on building trust and promoting your personal vision of the future. Although you cannot learn to be like Martin Luther King or Ghandi, you can learn many of the capabilities that truly charismatic leaders have. I wish you every success in that important mission.

How to: Q&A

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