Lessons Learnt: 20 Years of Identifying Future Leaders

In 1998, nearly 20 years ago, I came to a very clear fork in my career path: return to Bar school, to continue my journey to becoming a lawyer, or move to Sydney to see where opportunity would take me. I chose the latter.

This year, Morgan Young, the executive search firm I co-founded, celebrated its ninth anniversary.

It’s been a great journey; we’ve opened offices in Singapore and Hong Kong, have grown (and shrunk) our headcount, and tried new ways of fulfilling our client objectives. We’ve expanded our footprint successfully into Asia and successfully fulfilled a third of our mandates across the region, while staying focused on our clients and always backing our ability to deliver.

Taking a step back, to appreciate the progress made, as well as the (sometimes hard) lessons learnt, is something we can often neglect. We all acknowledge experience is worth its weight in gold, but how often do we make time to consider the value of our own, and how that might influence our future business and/or career decisions?

Kicking off Morgan Young’s new blog, here are some of the most important lesson’s I’ve learnt from my 20 years’ experience in hiring and advising business leaders…

1) The three most important things in building long-lasting business relationships…
Be honest. Be respectful and say ‘no’ when it is the right / best thing to say.

2) The essence of leadership…
Is the ability to engage others and take them with you. I once heard a leader described as ‘magnetic’; people were simply attracted to their style and focus, and were more than willing to follow. Being magnetic isn’t a naturally occurring quality; that particular person spent years learning and refining his trade. He now leads a hugely successful business with very little staff turnover.

3) A poorly-considered incentive program can cause lasting damage…
As evidenced in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s brilliant book and lecture series, Freakonomics, incentives are powerful human motivators, not to be used lightly. Organisations need to consider the behaviours that the incentive program will produce. Rewards can undermine the very behaviours they are intended to enhance. Often there is little time taken to investigate the psychological assumptions that ground such plans. The law of unintended consequences can produce behaviours diametrically opposed to those an organisation wishes to inculcate. That can be damaging on a number of levels.

At Morgan Young, we encourage organisations to think deeply about the behaviours they are hoping to influence, examine other ways of encouraging the outcomes, think about how the scheme can be ‘gamed’ and what damage the wrong behaviours will do to morale, customer interaction and the organisations culture.

More often than not, training and goal-setting programs have a far greater impact on productivity than pay-for-performance plans.

4) Fostering diversity brings multi-layered benefits…
Some of the most rewarding client assignments, since launching Morgan Young, have been those involving diversity research; where we’ve worked closely with customers on defining what diversity actually means within their organisations, beyond reporting on gender balance. This has led to two organisations taking the opportunity to review their executive teams, hiring practices, existing structures and really shift their entire company culture. Turnover was significantly reduced, training was put in place for emerging leaders and, as the divisions grew, there was a new energy throughout the business. Those were hugely rewarding and refreshing projects to be a part of.

5) Key industry trends to watch…
Client expectations of new hires
On one side, the sheer pace of change has created a skills gap, which is stopping many organisations from moving more quickly and responding to disruption in the B2C markets across media, telco’s and financial services.

On the other side, the perceived slow economy is causing some to take a more conservative ‘reduce cost and risk’ approach to their business. Some organisations want disruption and challengers; others want a steady hand on the tiller.

New employees can act as catalysts, speeding up transformation. They are often brought in to disrupt traditional thinking and business models. But there are two inherent challenges with bringing in a catalyst. First, the role must be positioned correctly, at the appropriate level in the organisation, with sufficient scope, influence and sponsorship to make change happen. The second challenge is finding the right person.

Chief Growth Officer and Chief Customer Officer are emerging titles, tasked explicitly with driving growth. These roles combine strategy, corporate development, investment and operations, as companies seek to find meaningful new revenues streams.

The changing level (and breadth) of expertise of leadership candidates
Larger corporates have become much better at retaining and readying their emerging leaders. Across the board, this has led to an overall increase of ability and readiness for people to move above operational or tactical leadership roles in to executive positions.

High emotional intelligence, agility and the capacity to lead through ambiguity are increasingly important. Since the GFC, leaders have needed to hone their social adeptness, boldness and determination. These attributes have been necessary to lead sales teams in difficult markets, finance leaders needing to respond to increasing regulation and disruption. Most industries are being challenged by digital; how an organisation responds to this, adapts its culture and commits to change, will determine how that organisation can realise its potential.

Transformation of leadership roles and management structures
There is a great deal of discussion about agility, collaboration and team and removing hierarchy- as such, management structures have started flattening out in recent years.

Deloitte recently released a paper suggesting that a new organisational form is on the rise: a network of teams is replacing the conventional hierarchy. The Economist views this as being driven by a sense that the old way of organising people is too rigid for both the modern marketplace and the expectations of employees; but profound changes in the workforce are making teams trickier to manage.

Teams work best if their members have a strong common culture. This is hard to achieve where there is a high level of contingent staff or teams spread across vast geographies. The most successful teams have leaders who set an overall direction and clamp down on dithering and waffle.

For more information about Morgan Young’s executive search and leadership advisory services, please visit www.morganyoung.com.au or read some of our latest articles on business and IT leadership issues, in the MY Insights Blog.