The top three commitments made by highly effective leaders

March 2017

Jack Welch, of GE fame, said, "Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others."

One of our clients, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of a regional grocery business, identified a growing problem with shrinkage - the loss of inventory due to damage, employee theft and shoplifting. She was frustrated because she couldn't get her colleague, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), to take responsibility for it. He saw it as a finance problem and she saw it as an operations problem. The trouble was, she believed the only way to tackle it effectively was by involving operations.

However, she didn't let this lack of enthusiasm stop her. She went to the COO and got him to agree to co-sponsor a shrinkage committee with her. They got people from three or four areas of operations to sit on the committee as well as one of the senior financial managers. She persuaded her COO that this committee should be an ongoing project. She further persuaded him that they should both attend the meetings but that their managers should jointly spearhead the work. After a year, she was able to step aside as sponsor and the COO, now comfortable with the scope of work of the committee and proud of its achievements, carried on.

What made this powerful was, firstly, that she used her influence where she didn't have direct authority but where she could see a business issue that needed solving. Secondly, she was able to create an opportunity to develop managers at the next level and give them cross-functional experience. In doing so, she ensured that an important challenge got tackled by the people most able to make the changes happen.

In 2016 we, at Big Tree Strategies, conducted research into the practices of highly effective leaders. We interviewed leaders from many different industries and in many different roles, including CEOs, COOs, CFOs, and HR leaders. We asked them:

  • What challenges are you facing in the exercise of your leadership?
  • What approaches are you taking in solving these challenges that you have found to be the most effective?
  • How are you developing your people? And what is most effective in making that happen?

The top three challenges that the leaders spoke about were:

  • Impact of technology and Big Data - keeping up with the amount of information and taking advantage of the right technological tools
  • Shifts in generations and aspirations - the baby boomers retiring and the younger generations having different expectations from the workplace
  • Disruptions to traditional business models - everything from Uber to Airbnb and the impact of how these new models are changing the face of business.

In meeting these challenges, there has never been a greater need for leaders to do the right things and to do them well. What emerged from the research was that these leaders are committed, in their quest to be effective, to do three things:

Commitments highly effective leaders make Why it's important
Highly effective leaders commit to creating a secure environment in which their people can do their best. Highly effective leaders know that making a safe and trusting environment in which their people can grow and develop their skills leads to the growth of leaders and the success of the business.
Highly effective leaders commit to articulating the meaning of their work and living by their core philosophy. They create meaning in their own lives and in that of their team members. When asked, these leaders can articulate the philosophy that guides them. They communicate to their people the reasoning behind the work that they do. They provide a clear vision of the desired objectives. And their people work harder because they are enrolled in the vision.
Highly effective leaders commit to their own accomplishment and that of their teams. They have a systematic approach to keeping people on track. They recognise the importance of developing leaders who develop other leaders. This leads, in turn, to higher productivity and effectiveness.


As a result, we created a list of three questions for business leaders to ask themselves:

  • What is your core philosophy as a leader? If you can articulate this, then you will have a strong moral stance on which to found your decision-making.
  • How comfortable are your team members in speaking up, and is it safe for them to disagree? Do you easily entertain challenges to your thinking and do you encourage your team members to be curious about what each other thinks?
  • What system do you have in place for ensuring your team members achieve their objectives? How do you track their achievements? Every week? Every two weeks? Every month? The most effective systems we heard of included bi-weekly meetings, continual reviews of objectives and progress, and some form of strategic blueprint that gave the organisation's goals and how each team's goals fit into those.

As Jack Welch said, growing your people should be the focus of leaders. And great leaders do just that.

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