"Frank's skill in asking the right questions is un-mistakable, and is at the core of his leadership philosophy.

The power of these questions cannot be underestimated, especially if you want to lead and not manage."
—John Cave
Westhaven Worldwide Logistics

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Archive for the 'Stop Telling... Start Leading!' Category

Get Off Your High Horse

A response from the Co-CEO of one of Africa’s largest banks to the question ‘What makes a good Chief Executive?’ struck me as particularly apposite.

Sim Tshabalala, Co-CEO of Standard Bank, said that while being a good Chief Executive was ‘about knowing your industry’, it was also about ‘having the ability to lead people who know more than you’.

I liked Mr Tshabalala’s answer because of the implications it has for a successful leadership style.

I have always believed, for example, that there is no room for an arrogant approach that assumes because that you’re the leader you know best. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but a good leader has to have humility without this undermining his or her authority. You need to be able to seek the opinion of experts and then weigh up the best way forward.

A corollary of this is, of course, that you need to have the experts there in the first place! This means thinking hard about the knowledge capital necessary in your business for the right business decisions to be made. Compare what you and your employees have in terms of skills and expertise and what’s required. What are the gaps? If there are none, then that’s great… but if there are some, then your training/recruitment planning needs to plug these as soon as possible.

‘Having the ability to lead people who know more than you’ is a challenge. For some, knowledge is power and they might not want to share their knowledge with you willingly. Others might feel cowed by an overbearing leadership style and therefore afraid to suggest a more informed course of action. In the end, it’s all down to communication… getting amongst your staff, and putting in place devices like ‘two-way information sharing’ meetings.

Perhaps you’ve already adopted this style of leadership?

If not… then perhaps it’s time to get off your high horse?!


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Ethical and Moral Responsibility

I have just been watching online an extract of a speech given by Prince Charles to business leaders in London.

In the speech he says:

“The primary purpose of capitalism should surely be to serve the wider long-term interests and concerns of humanity rather than the other way round. So, critically, it would require the incorporation of environmental externalities. We would have to account properly for carbon dioxide emissions, the use of water and fertilizer, the pollution we produce and the biodiversity we lose. All of these would have to be comprehensively considered in our economic and national decision making because inclusive capitalism cannot be truly inclusive if our dependence on natural capital - what Pavan Sukhdev astutely describes I think as the economic invisibility of nature—is not also included in our calculation of economic worth.”

Prince Charles went on to say that:

“We stand at a pivotal moment in history. Either we continue along a path we seem collectively determined to follow, apparently at the mercy of those who so vociferously and aggressively deny that our current operating model has any effect on dangerously accelerating climate change… which I feel would bring us to our own destruction… or we can choose to act now before it is finally too late, using all of the power and influence that each of you can bring to bear to create an inclusive, sustainable and resilient society. There will of course be hard choices to make—and take it from me—in the short-term, you will not be popular with your peers—but if you stand firm and take the kind of action that is needed I have every confidence the rewards will be immense. Not least you will be able to look in the mirror and say with full confidence that you did everything you could possibly do to create the kind of transformation that would put the true long-term value of both nature and human communities at the heart of future economic and investment models, thus ensuring a social, environmental and commercial return that is truly resilient.”

A few thoughts struck me as I watched Prince Charles speak.

Firstly, all business leaders need to think carefully if their motivation remains simply about the pursuit of profit over and above any other impacts their organizations are having and could have. Because I believe those who remain so traditionally motivated could be heading for a big fall.

Secondly, as Prince Charles points out, those leaders who do choose to adjust their motivation will be brave given the pressure the cultural pressure there is in most organizations to put profit first and foremost above all else.

Thirdly… Prince Charles himself is exhibiting some good leadership qualities. Yes—the British monarchy might be simply titular without any actual power. But he is prepared to put forward opinions which might get him some flak. I like that.

For me every business has an ethical and moral responsibility.
And for you?

Note: Pavan Sukhdev is CEO and founder of environmental consultation firm GIST Advisory.


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Who Is Holding You Back?

A few blogs back I tackled the subject of the pre-eminence of extroverts in senior corporate positions.

Briefly, the theory is that extroverts get a better crack of the whip because their louder presence is associated with better capability—and that this is so strongly inculcated into corporate culture that it will take a monumental shift in attitude to be changed.

This is all about typecasting, of course—which made me think about the other strongly held stereotypical opinions embedded in corporate life which so many leaders are guilty of.

Here’s a few:
  • people working the longest hours are the most effective
  • cynical staff can’t be doing their jobs properly
  • marketing is the fluffy bit, the least important business function
  • women have no place on the Board
  • equal opportunities initiatives are a distraction we could all do without
  • anyone turning off their Blackberry in the evening isn’t committed
  • compliance is for wimps.

And here’s my view:
  • people working the longest hours are probably not doing their job properly
  • cynical staff can be a useful litmus test of your strategies
  • marketing is the important business function (without which your business will die)
  • women need to be in the Boardroom in every business
  • equal opportunities initiatives should be high on every leader’s agenda
  • anyone turning on their Blackberry in the evening risks burn-out
  • compliance is here to stay and should be adhered to (100%).

In other words, address your prejudices and stereotyping because they could be holding you back!


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A Thorn In Your Side

What should you do when you have a senior subordinate who’s a proverbial ‘thorn in your side’?

It’s a big dilemma and, I believe, more prevalent than you think.

Here’s an example. I know of a Senior Marketing Manager in a moderately sized organization who inherited a Marketing Manager from his predecessor. The first few months were ok, with the Marketing Manager assisting his new boss in getting up to speed.

The Senior Marketing Manager gained confidence and started to forge ahead in his new role, needing less direct support from his second in command. The Marketing Manager, who had been with the organization a number of years, then turned from helper to hinderer—seeking to undermine and thwart the Senior Marketing Manager at each turn.

The Senior Marketing Manager admits a number of mistakes on this issue. He had been too informal in his dealings with the Marketing Manager, compromising his seniority. And he tolerated the unhelpful behavior rather than tackling it.

This went on for nearly ten years! The Senior Marketing Manager also admits that the structure was wrong and I agree. You should never have a chain of command that does not immediately ‘open up’. In other words, there should only have been one role with the title ‘Manager’ in it, and then the organizational tree should have immediately branched out underneath to the troops. In other words, the Senior Marketing Manager should have made the Marketing Manager role redundant.

I was reminded of this story by the release of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoirs. Entitled ‘A Journey: My Political Life’ external, it was clear than Blair had a pain in the ass passenger in the shape of Gordon Brown, Chancellor in Blair’s Government. Brown, disaffected by Blair’s success in becoming PM, made life difficult for his boss. Very difficult indeed.

Yet Blair put up with it, worried at the political and other repercussions that removing Brown would bring.

See… I told you it was a prevalent problem. And though it’s difficult to generalize, putting up with a ‘thorn in your side’, day in and day out can be very debilitating—so it might be worth biting that bullet and getting rid…

After all, you are there to lead, not to be everybody’s darling!


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Deadly Sin: Favoritism In Business

Someone asked me recently for my views on favoritism in business.

I said that any leader guilty of it could expect the same result as holding a hand-grenade with the pin out, i.e.:

Something very nasty about to blow up in your face.

I have more than once in this blog looked to sport to provide an analogy. With favoritism as my subject, I didn’t have to look very far.

One of the greatest motorsport categories in the world is Formula One. Different teams tend to prosper from one year to the next, of course. This year it’s the Red Bull team.

One of the biggest events of the year is the Grand Prix held at Silverstone in the UK. At this year’s event, the Red Bull team driver Sebastian Vettel’s new-design front wing failed in qualifying. There was only one other new wing available—on his team mate Mark Webber’s car.

Now—Vettel was marginally in front in the driver’s championship. For this reason the team principal (boss) decided to take Webber’s wing and give it to Vettel for the race.

The outcomes of this crass decision (crash decision!?) were many and damaging:
  • one disaffected Red Bull driver wonders openly at a press conference why he’s signed for another year at the team
  • the press reception is very hostile
  • the disaffected driver wins the race with the old front wing… and with the comment ‘Not bad for the number two driver’
  • open hostility between the two engineering teams within Red Bull
  • difficult media questions
  • damaged brand?

I put a question mark after the last bullet point because that outcome is not yet known. But it is possible that the sponsors will not like an association between their brand and unfairness.

So… my question to you is…

Are you guilty of unfairly preferring one of your direct reports or key personnel to another?

If so, what problems are you storing up for the future?


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What Do You Pay?

A fundamental tenet of business activity in general and marketing in particular is that the products or services offered by a company match customer needs.

Few if any business leaders would argue with this. No strategy based on launching a product and then chasing the market is ever going to be as effective as understanding the market and then developing the right product.

A personal frustration I have, however, is the number of business leaders who fail to apply the same principles internally.

By this I mean… why treat your internal audience (your staff) any differently when it comes to motivating them? In fact, how can you properly motivate them if you don’t understand their needs?

This is the point where a lot of business leaders get their checkbook out… or their stick. But motivating people need not cost money—and it certainly shouldn’t cost good will.

So, what do your staff want?

You’ve probably come across the concept of ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a theory in psychology developed by Abraham Maslow in the early 1940s.

Maslow suggested that once basic physiological (food, water, shelter and so forth), security (employment, health, property and so on) and love/belonging (friendship, family, intimacy) needs were satisfied then humans were motivated by things that bolstered their self-esteem and confidence and ultimately, things that allowed them to self actualize (be creative, problem solve and so forth).

Subsequent theorists have taken Maslow to task with some of his thinking… but I still believe a lot of his theory holds good.

So, once you’ve paid people properly (and not all leaders do) and sought to protect their sense of employment longevity with you (not always possible, particular in the current climate, I know) what can you do?

Well, you can listen to them (and listening really is an art) and act to show that you’ve listened. You can encourage them to use their knowledge and creativity. You can empower them, so they feel they have control over what they do and outcomes.

And you can recognize them in ways other than financial.

What Do You Pay?


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Leading: Nature or Nurture

Nature or nurture is one of life’s great questions.

Is there an inherent disposition in individuals to think and behave the way they do?

Or is behaviour influenced/learned?

My view? Well, I think the jury’s still out. What I will say, as far as leadership is concerned, is that there are some qualities that make being a leader ‘easier‘. I mentioned one of these—a thick skin—in an earlier blog.

Sensitive personalities can make great leaders, but can also find the criticism that inevitably comes with the job, from inside and outside their company, at best a burden and at worse a source of depression.

And as well as a thick skin? An ability to listen and take other opinions on board, but also to be autocratic when necessary, helps but does not sit easily with some personality types. A willingness to trust desired outcomes to others is also a useful trait (those who cannot loosen the control reins risk crash and burn) provided people understand the parameters and report back.

And leaders who recognise that you cannot run with the hare as well as the hounds (ie: want to be everyone’s friend) will benefit from distinct demarcation lines.

So, from this you’ll imagine that my ideal leader is insensitive, autocratic, delegating, stand-offish and unfriendly.

Not at all.

But I’ve known good and capable individuals falter at the leadership hurdle because of the dissonance between their personality and the demands of the job.


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Are You Prepared To Lose Your Top Performer?

Some 75% of all companies are in desperate need of highly qualified employees. With baby boomers starting to retire this is an ever increasing challenge for business owners. Losing the talent—to competitors or retirement—can become a question of survival, especially for smaller companies.

In addition too often talent isn’t used properly: The strong negotiator whose income is based more on their negotiating skills than their working skills. (You do understand that those people are in the wrong position at that company, right?)

Your way out of this dilemma?

Manage your talent

While most companies understand the value of mentoring, there is rarely one with a standardized process for it. And talent management is rarely existent.
  1. Plan ahead!
    Do you have a plan B when one of your top performers heads off? Most companies don’t!
    • Is your top performer already mentoring someone?
    • Do you have at least two candidates that can replace a leaving star?

  2. Focus, Focus, Focus!
    Reduce the number of key positions; create clear job descriptions. Too often nobody has a clue what the top performer really does and when she is gone chaos sets it.
    • Do you really want to be in a position that your business’ success depends on the goodwill of a former - maybe even fired - employee?
    • How can you choose the right person for the job, if you can’t even tell what the job is?

  3. Develop a talent pool
    Most companies neither have one nor have considered one. Is it a surprise that they fall behind?
    • Remember your plan B?
    • How do you know who to mentor when you do not have a talent pool?

  4. Transparent and disciplined hiring process
    • Is it clear who does the hiring and who has a saying?
    • Does your talent pool help to decide if the job can be filled internally?

  5. Review it!
    It is good to be prepared for a loss. It’s better to have measurements to predict one!


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