The seven secrets of exceptional leadership

Andy Hodge is UK managing partner of tax at Deloitte, leading a team of over 2,500. Andy started his professional career in 1987 with Andersen in London, focusing on expatriate tax. After six years he relocated to the Birmingham office to build and lead the expat part of the business there. He became a partner and in 2002 arrived at Deloitte, when the now Big Four firm combined with Andersen’s UK operation. Andy has enjoyed several leadership roles at Deloitte, and in 2011 was named managing partner of the UK tax practice. Here, talking to the BDLN, he distils his thoughts on what he believes makes an exceptional leader into seven pieces of advice…

 

Create a work environment in which people feel safe and happy

The priority for any leader is to create an environment in which a team is able to be at their best, whether that team is a group of five or an army of thousands. And to be at their best, people need to feel able to be themselves.

For me, that means creating an environment that feels safe, secure and supportive, while also being hugely challenging and exciting – even edgy.

Create an environment that feels safe while also being hugely challenging and exciting – even edgy.

Many organisations and leaders miss this simple point, and if you examine underperforming firms or teams, it’s often because their people feel vulnerable and insecure, which causes them to be irrational and defensive. Then, by definition, their performance is not at peak levels.

Align your arrows in the same direction

Think of team members as arrows: if they all point in different directions, as a group you don’t go anywhere.

To ensure every team member is flying towards the target, you need a vision or aspiration that can be communicated clearly. It must be convincing enough to compel people to join you on the journey, and exciting enough to cascade naturally to all areas of your team.

Gain experience in large and small teams

A surprising number of Deloitte leaders have, at some point in their careers, worked in smaller teams or perhaps in the regions. It’s a clear pattern, certainly in my leadership team.

The diversity of experience in smaller teams complements the resilience and confidence gained when managing larger groups

The reason why, I believe, is that the diversity of experience in smaller teams complements the resilience and confidence gained when managing larger groups. For example, at a smaller, regional office, you may well take responsibility for a number of roles: talent, training, managerial, client relationships and more. And frankly, you’re closer to the action and what life is really like on the shop floor.

Most of us are simply products of our experiences – brilliant sports stars and successful business leaders are not born with their ability. They get it by putting in the hard yards and exposing themselves to diverse challenges – the famous 10,000 hours.

Be ultra sensitive to your environment

Great leaders are not only emotionally intelligent but also have a high level of sensitivity to what’s going on around them. You can’t fix anything unless you can diagnose the problem.

If you are a highly egotistical, dogmatic individual you will find it difficult to enter an environment and be sensitive to what needs to happen to ensure a team can work at optimum levels.

Great leaders are not only emotionally intelligent but also have a high level of sensitivity

That ability to read a situation – to tune in to the correct bandwidth so you understand people’s motivations – is hugely important.

Show colleagues that you’re a fallible human being, not a machine-like ‘super leader’

People like to see vulnerability in each other. An alpha male or female leader who never shows a chink in their armour is not an appealing personality to most of us. OK, people might be slightly in awe of that individual if they actually believe them, but what endears people to each other is a composite of things, including an element of vulnerability.

The ability to laugh at yourself, to acknowledge you’ve made a mistake, to apologise when it’s the right thing to do, to ask for help and to admit you’re struggling – they’re all important in leaders provided it doesn’t become the norm.

An alpha male or female leader who never shows a chink in their armour is not an appealing personality

No one wants an apologetic, accident-prone leader – people need them to have an opinion, and to show strength of character, confidence and optimism. They just want them to be human too!

Don’t see yourself at the top looking down

I’ve never thought of leadership as sitting on the top, looking down. I’ve always thought of it as an inverted pyramid where you sit at the bottom. Great leaders rarely feel the need to boss everyone around or expect others to pander to them like servants. Instead, they have a deep sense that their role as a leader is to serve their organisation and the people within it, creating an environment where everyone can be successful.

Great leaders rarely feel the need to boss everyone around or expect others to pander to them like servants

Surround yourself with allies and ruthlessly stamp out corrosive behaviour

Making grand announcements rarely impacts on the culture within an organisation – people will simply wait for the noise to pass and the next fad or strategy to arrive.

To influence culture effectively one must win over and surround oneself with allies, one person at a time. This way, culture change creates its own momentum – ambassadors and champions emerge naturally. The naysayers become marginalised. There will always be a minority who create havoc, but if you get everyone else in the right place, there are fewer places for them to hide.

All that said, the problem with such people is that they can be corrosive to the team’s sense of purpose and direction. Dealing with the situation takes courage. First, talk frankly and honestly about how corrosive their behaviour is. Because in my experience such people have very little sense of how negatively they are impacting others.

The moment you start tolerating behaviour that goes against the grain, you’re basically saying that you don’t believe in your vision.

However, if you can’t get them to see the reality and change, it’s time to take action. Because the moment you start tolerating behaviour that goes against the grain, you’re basically saying that you don’t believe in your vision.

Exceptional leadership is about balance – having conviction and courage but also being open and able to admit you can get things wrong. It’s about being personable, reasonable and likeable but also about being tough, willing to do the hard things, and willing to be unpopular. It’s about knowing when to show vulnerability and when to have no more truck with that and say: “We’ve tried; we’re done.”

Andy Hodge was talking to John Maffioli and Charlotte Quince, founders of the BDLN.