Executive Education

Being Connected: Why connection is a key leadership quality

I had arrived in Singapore to facilitate a three-day offsite for a newly formed regional leadership team within a global organization. Historically, the CEO, Pam, had enjoyed a tight team wrapped around her within the region. However, the organizational model had evolved, and Pam found herself leading a team where over half the team were spread across the AMEA region, which was a very different proposition.

In my diagnostic interviews with team members to set up the meeting, it was clear that there was excitement about the opportunity to work in a joined-up way, coupled with genuine concern about how the team would keep up to speed with the amount going on across different locations, time zones, cultures and ways of working. I agreed with Pam that creating the conditions for genuine connection would be the most valuable outcome emerging out of our time together.

The starting point to create connectivity is the creation of shared outcomes to drive

In the absence of having concrete goals with mutual accountability, collaboration and connection become overused words causing frustration all round. With Pam’s team, my starting point was to explore what they wanted to be famous for. We settled on a three-year timeline, which would give them enough time to make considerable progress, but not too far out that they could lose momentum.

Real connection requires everyone to have an equal share of voice, which is often hard to achieve when you are blending different personalities, ways of thinking and motivations. In order to create the three-year picture of fame, we ran an inclusive process where everyone had equal time to share their initial thoughts based on the question: what do you want the team to be famous for in three years? We synthesized the output and eventually distilled it down to five big themes: brands, people, service, products and growth.

Aligning ways of working

The next step was to align on ways of working, as covering 64 countries was not straightforward. Everyone recognized that they were going to need to adopt a different mindset and set of behaviours because business as usual was not going to cut it. I asked the team to reflect upon what they thought would make the difference to stay connected and they landed on four simple concepts:

  1. Have clear direction: ensure clear priorities, roles and accountabilities
  2. Get on with it: everyone is free to lead and deliver in their way
  3. Be open: take ideas from anywhere
  4. Communicate: engage through multiple channels

The team then constructed a meeting cycle which resulted in them meeting four times a year in different locations to maximize their visible leadership. They had monthly video calls with ad hoc calls if required. Pam sent out a weekly blog to keep everyone up to date with what was on her mind and she had individual meetings when they were together and monthly calls. The frequency of touch points ensured the team stayed connected.

Leadership is connection

Without connection there is no followership. In an interview with Paula Stannett, Chief People Officer Heathrow she said:

In today’s age of radical transparency people connect better with someone they experience as real. As a leader, you need to be yourself, as being genuine creates an authentic reality. People do not respond well to someone who pretends to be something they are not, for instance if they continuously speak management jargon. People who build connections tell the truth about what’s going on, they appreciate the differences everyone brings and invest in building trust. 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to foster genuine connectivity in the absence of trust

Think about it. If you don’t trust someone, why would you connect with them? You might transact with them out of necessity, but it won’t unlock the power of connection, such as provoking new ideas, working across an organization to drive alignment or delivering for the customer. If you are not able to be vulnerable with someone, how will you feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, be honest, learn and try something new? If your ego gets in the way preventing you from being humble it will limit you from moving fast because you cannot be an expert in everything.

In an interview with Laura Miller, Chief Technology Officer, IHG about how she delivers the complex technological requirements for a global company, she immediately pinpointed connection as a critical factor:

If you want to move fast you must have trusted relationships to connect and foster collaboration. Unfortunately, I have had times working in low-trust environments where people should have been out there pulling together to get the work done; however, due to lack of trust everyone spent their time micromanaging situations to cover themselves.

Another interesting point she made was:

I have found the peer relationship the hardest to manage in any company. You learn how to manage up and down. However, due to the natural competition that exists at the peer level, it requires a higher level of focus to be able to connect effectively. I have found that recognizing the wins at a peer level makes a big difference. We tend to spend too much time focused on what’s not working, rather than showing what is working and leveraging it. I can’t make people change, but I can show what’s going well and bringing success.

Being connected is the currency for getting stuff done

I wholehearted endorse this idea of recognizing connectivity in action so that you can reinforce what you want to see more of. Being connected is the currency for getting stuff done. It demands that people work in iterative ways because no one person, team or function can have the answer to everything. Working iteratively allows solutions to emerge while being flexible to change direction if required.

I worked for an organization who had the enviable task of making massive cost savings, smashing the budget and accelerating growth. Traditionally leaders and functions had worked in silos, in fact the expression ‘success by silo’ had been used with pride to demonstrate the apparent effectiveness of different parts of the business. I brought the executive committee together for an honest assessment about the organizational prospects to deliver the plan. It was clear in my original diagnostic from speaking with executive committee members that connection was a big theme to address.

The question I pondered was how to unlock the power of connectivity given the legacy issues and current dynamics within the team. I started by focusing on a higher purpose. Although the team leader was cynical about exploring a collective purpose, they recognized that they needed something to lift them up and unite them. We had a challenging conversation focused on the value they wanted to bring to the company and the impact they wanted to have. What surfaced was a shared purpose that they described as “leading and inspiring a better future.”

The next steps

Taking this as the unifying factor we then discussed supporting elements, like guiding principles to support connectivity. They identified seven essential ingredients:

  1. Assume good intent
  2. Call it out
  3. Have each other’s backs
  4. Share the load
  5. Ask for help
  6. Play to strengths
  7. Take cabinet responsibility

They believed that if everyone demonstrated these behaviours then it would unlock their connection.

‘Assuming good intent’ is one of my favourite principles for building connections

It is rare to come across anyone who deliberately shows up with bad intent. I see many examples of people demonstrating competitive behaviour in the form of dominating agendas, building empires and taking individual rather than collective credit, but I make a distinction between these forms of executive immaturity and deliberating trying to sabotage others (although this does go on).

Calling it out is a great principle for advocating transparency, which is a critical element of being connected because we all have a tendency to be slightly protective or defensive about our work, and yet there is always room for improvement. Having each other’s backs is a powerful way of putting connectivity into action because knowing someone will sweep up your mistakes gives you room to manoeuvre.

Sharing the load helps people to feel that they are not on their own and ensures people ask for help. Playing to strengths is one of the best ways to connect because it taps into the power of the collective and avoids duplication. Connectivity comes to life if people take cabinet responsibility and keep agreements once made. There is no quicker way to destroy connections if a team or group buy into a shared approach only for one or more individuals to break the commitment.

One leader who has a remarkable ability to connect is Andy Cosslett, Chairman Kingfisher plc and England Rugby Football Union. When I asked him about the power of connection in our interview he said:

It’s very important to remember who people are. Once you’ve connected make sure you keep in touch. The higher up you are in an organization the more significant it becomes to genuinely connect and show you are interested. You need enough brain power to lead an organization; however, I have worked with people who were incapable of connecting emotionally with others and it let them down. People get confused when they can’t connect with you. I would like the epitaph on my tombstone to read: ‘Everything that was achieved was achieved together.’

Being Connected Toolkit

  1. Create shared outcomes. Work together to clarify joint outcomes with those you need to connect with.
  2. Agree ways of working. Establish a set of guiding principles between collaborators to show what good looks like and to manage expectations.
  3. Be selfless. Build upon ideas without taking credit. Don’t try and control others or use their position for your own personal benefit.
  4. Recognize others. Celebrate others success to reinforce the value of being connected and to build momentum.

Commentary by Ben Renshaw. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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Ben Renshaw
Ben Renshaw is one of the world’s most sought-after leadership coaches and speakers, working with C-suite executives in FTSE 100 companies including Coca-Cola, Heathrow, IHG, P&G, Sainsbury’s, Sky and Unilever. Previous popular books are Purpose, LEAD, and SuperCoaching. Ben is also the author of Being, Purpose, Lead!, and SuperCoaching, and you can visit his website here. Ben Renshaw is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.