Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO of leading national law firm Shakespeare Martineau, tells Business Leader when positive leadership is an essential component of a successful business.
The days of the elusive CEO are over. Modern leaders are waking up to the fact that they need to be a visible, open and positive force for their employees. At a time when businesses are encouraging people to bring their all to work, positive, passionate leadership is the only way to deliver results for the business’ people, clients and investors.
Five years ago, successful leaders were largely connected with power and influence; qualities such as empathy and tolerance were unfamiliar in a CEO job description. However, today’s leaders are faced with the challenge of connecting with four working generations, a task which requires a whole new language and approach. In this case, ‘generation’ doesn’t necessarily refer purely to age, but rather to mindset; a good leader must recognise that organisations are made up of individuals and adapt their leadership style accordingly – putting people into one-size-fits-all boxes only inhibits their room for growth.
In order to drive meaningful change and empower their people, leaders need to think outside the box. For CEOs, being flexible is key to establishing and maintaining mutually profitable relationships, both inside and outside of the business. In many ways, navigating a purpose and values-driven organisation with a positive attitude is like pilates for the soul, strengthening awareness, control, and commercial conviction. When a CEO learns to use these attitudes to shape their role, combined with creating a culture of positivity, rates of engagement and motivation throughout the business increase, and consequently, so will commerciality.
Ultimately, positive leadership stems from adopting a ‘can-do’ mentality and a focus on the future. In order to practice this effectively, dialogue across all levels of the workplace needs to evolve. For example, instead of starting with ‘why?’, good leaders should be comfortable starting with ‘why not?’, and appreciate that, occasionally, they may get things wrong.
This front-footed approach goes hand-in-hand with the ability to seek opportunities and silver-linings in any situation – there should be an understanding that being wrong is not a failure, it is simply an invitation to grow. Being values-driven can also help to make difficult decisions easier, sound in the knowledge that the decision-maker has absolute courage in their convictions. Often, leaders shy away from things perceived too ‘difficult’ but having an ability to embrace conflict should not be underestimated.
For CEOs entering a new organisation, it is important to understand that building trust takes time, something which can be difficult to balance with the running of an unfamiliar business. Positive leadership goes a long way in helping to do this and confidence, empathy and decisive action are highly important. A warning point, there will always be people who confuse positivity with naivety and spin. A positive mindset in conjunction with decisive action delivers better and sustainable business results, the goal for every business leader.
As a leader, having authenticity can be a fast-track way of gaining the trust of the organisation, as well as those working within it. This authenticity comes from bringing your whole-self to work, something which isn’t encouraged nearly as much as it should be. A CEO can lead the charge here – let people know the whole person, shout about interests outside of the office and draw on experience from wider life. This bravery is something which the corporate environment has been lacking for some time, however there is now a place for it to be used effectively.
In the current political climate, leadership needs to be centred around creating certainty through positive behaviour. When no one believes in the purpose and vision of the business, any efforts to make positive changes will be futile. Whilst the future of the political world may be hazy, a strong business plan and vision can help to fill a vacuum where people may have lost trust. Politics should take heed of this approach and putting businesspeople, who have confidence in both themselves and the direction of their organisation, in the right seats and on the right panels, can undoubtedly influence the future of the UK.
Whilst the model of the all-encompassing CEO has gained traction, there is still a way to go before leaders feel they can bring ‘their all’ to work. For certain generations, this may be more difficult than others, however, a positive attitude is something that can be adopted by anyone. The time has come for a new breed of CEO, one well-equipped to drive forward an army of people passionately, supporting a shared mission.