HR expert Q&A 3: Leading others’ growth and communicating purpose

This is a third and final excerpt from the discussion of “The leader of the future” organized online by BMI Brussels with high-level HR consultants and executives, including moderator Jean-Marc Benker of Profiler Consulting in Luxembourg, Christina Aon of CERASP in Canada, Aad JCM van Vliet of Avvartes in Switzerland, and Marie-Pierre Saint Viteux of Volvo Construction Equipment in Belgium.

Jean-Marc: One of our participants asks how do leaders ‘give voice to vision’? How do they point to the future and create space for people to participate in building a new world?

Christina: A shift has happened, and needs to continue, towards a philosophy of ‘I trust my people to make the right decisions. I‘m there to support them, to open doors when needed and to help take decisions.’

You need to let people be truly engaged. You need to let them lead. You give the why and then you build the what and the how. Let everyone have their space – the researchers, the business development people, and so on. Your role is sort of the glue. You also have a role to upskill and help develop your team, to look for opportunities where you see somebody has real potential for something or somebody is missing something that would really give them a boost.

Aad: It‘s a cool question, putting companies in the perspective of building a new world rather than just making money. Doing something meaningful. This is important. Leadership is finding space for purpose. Research shows companies that work with purpose do well. First, we’re not here just to make money but to add value to society. Second, as human beings we really want to excel, so leaders need to give people space to become good at what they do. And third – autonomy. When people tell me what to do, I‘m demotivated.

The leader of the future leads for energy. An agile organisation doesn’t just distribute problems, it looks for the people who have the energy to solve those problems. The company says: ‘It‘s up to you and your team, take a holistic view, decide what is necessary’. A large organisation can function as many startups. There are some interesting experiments underway.

In any case, a core part of leadership is building teams you trust to delegate decisions to. In a world of increasing complexities, successful organizations are going to be networks of agile teams. The role of a leader will be to build strong teams that can learn fast and really move forward, innovate.

Jean-Marc: We’ve spoken a lot about ‘soft’ aspects like empathy, relationships, motivation, and little about technologies, efficiency, quality, market fit. Business has always needed the ‘hard’ management disciplines and always will, but now change is so fast that you can’t maintain an advantage there without the help of the soft skills to stay aligned with the future. Your thoughts?

Aad: Yes, so I say just be hard on the soft. I‘ve worked a lot on developing startups within large global organizations, and entrepreneurship or innovation is all about people basically. It’s about emotional intelligence, learning, persistence.

Innovation often means learning repeatedly how not to do something. If my company has a culture where when something goes wrong the leaders stand up and ask who is to blame, that‘s not helpful. I need to create an environment where solutions can be developed for the very complex challenges we have nowadays. The human side of the enterprise is where the difference is being made.

You know, companies on average live a lot shorter than people do, right? So if we want our company to be around in 10 years or in 50 years, we should listen to Darwin, who said it’s not the fastest that wins, or the strongest, but it is the one that can adapt the best that wins. It‘s really about adapting, which is also why resilience is so important – being able to bounce back from problems and bounce forward to possibilities. To turn problems into opportunities.

Q: How important do you think it is for employees to be aware of global issues and to want to build a sustainable future?

Marie-Pierre: I think a company simply cannot do without sustainability. No company that ignores it will survive. It‘s important for the notion of sustainability to be well understood and accepted by every single person working at the company and that the whole business be influenced by it. You need empowerment here, where everybody at all levels has a say and a role to play. It‘s also important to know what the world wants, and what customers wants, and here we have a lot of information and the answer is absolutely clear.

Aad: I agree with Marie-Pierre. It‘s a big consumer trend. Customers are seeking brands with strong purpose and good values. So, while I have to think about sustainability as a company, my customers are making absolutely sure that I think about it. This is a reality. To me, then, the question is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’ we are going to engrain this into the DNA of our company’s culture.

Read HR expert Q&A part 2: “Learning to see the big picture and know all the options”


HR expert Q&A part 1: “The best executive job description is no description”