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Inspirational Leadership – Roundtable Report

27 April 2017     London
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Peter Banks.

Rachel Allen, Head of Organisational Development Capability – Thales Learning & Development
Elizabeth Dermody, Head of Strategic Planning – Home Office
Mandy Ferries, HR Director – First Port
Lucy Finney, Learning & Development Consultant – Thales Learning & Development
Jose Franca, Learning & Development Manager – UK & Ireland – The Walt Disney Company
Simon Gibson, HR Director, Talent & OD – Sonnedix
Joan Theresa James, Manager of HR, Infrastructure – Bechtel Ltd
Karin Joehr, Head of Leadership Centre of Excellence – EDF Energy Plc
Mark Jones, Director of Learning & Development – Atkins Plc
Shona Marshall, Head of Learning & Talent Development – Babcock International Group (Marine)
Steven Raymond, Director – HR Systems & Shared Services – Amec Foster Wheeler
Melanie Steel, Interim HR Director – People Change Expertise
Jacky Wearn, Group Head of Talent & Resourcing – Centrica

The capacity for leaders to inspire has always been directly linked to the engagement, loyalty and performance of people, but what inspirational leadership is, let alone how it can be nurtured, developed and supported, has always been more difficult to define and identify than technical knowledge and charisma. Today, leadership is a completely different discipline to the past; for in the flatter workforce structure, accountability is acute and transparency determines that command and control is resigned to history.

Businesses are rapidly having to change their approach to leadership to respond to the VUCA world, and reconfigure the workforce structure, to support the commercial and operational aspirations and necessities in an ever-increasingly challenging and competitive arena. Speed of change is unparalleled and leaders are central to the optimisation of people and planning and the capacity to inspire is key to the piece. The challenge here is that leaders are under increasing pressure to make quick decisions and respond fast to change and demands. They must demonstrate consistency of message and behaviour, be open to advice, always be available for discussion, and have an unstinting dedication to maintaining values and efficacy to successfully manage the complexity of today’s matrix organisations.

What is inspirational leadership, and how can you identify its presence and more importantly where inspiration is deficient in an organisation?

Elizabeth Dermody: Inspirational leadership at its best creates common purpose and a sense of belief in the achievability of that purpose, even if against the odds. An inspirational leader will communicate a clear vision that appeals to hearts, not minds and will set out the mission giving the team the power to work out how to deliver it. Inherent in any vision is the expectation that it doesn’t exist yet, and so it must be different to “where we are now”. Emotional intelligence and ongoing communication is vital to inspirational leadership – I think those are two of the characteristics that set an inspiring leader apart from other types.

Shona Marshall: It has to be about being authentic. You can identify its presence from the energy by which other employees speak about the individual who is demonstrating that kind of leadership, and the enthusiasm by which they embrace what is required of them.

Lucy Finney: What inspires somebody and therefore what inspirational leadership is different and unique for each individual. The person being inspired will feel connected -connected to the individual, connected to their vision, connected to their message. There is a call to action that the person inspired responds to because they feel compelled. They feel engaged and motivated, empowered and inspired. Because inspiration is a feeling, the inspired individual is emotionally driven into action. We know when we feel inspired and we might even know when we are being inspiring. We can also recognise the absence of inspiration. What works to inspire people depends not just on the individuals involved, but also on the cultural maturity of the organisation, one where there is systemic leadership.

Karin Joehr: For me, this is when, as an individual, I feel energised and excited about working towards goals in the knowledge that I have permission and the trust to try – and fail – where I am inspired to stretch beyond my comfort zone and learn afresh.

Mandy Ferries: Inspirational leaders often have ideas which can be misunderstood – they’re the trailblazers and the people that can identify the next big thing and what will change in the future. They provide direction for their teams and the business and encourage others to follow.

Lucy Finney: You can identify its presence by the change that happens around you, an energy and excitement is created and people become motivated to act towards a common goal – sometimes a goal that can only be achieved if everyone does their bit. In other words, personal agendas are set aside and people commit to the greater good. Signs of it being deficient in an organisation are a lack of collaboration and sometimes too many bosses giving conflicting direction. Then confusion exists and people sometimes become paralysed, teams do not pull together and innovation is often absent.

Mark Jones: Inspirational leadership is about giving hope of a better future and a plan of how to get there. Inspirational leaders paint the picture; they communicate with a passion and tell stories. They make an emotional connection, aligning personal values with the values of the organisation, and there’s the belief that every one of us can make a difference.

Simon Gibson: I wrestle with a polarised view here – on one hand, it doesn’t seem to fit in the corporate world anymore. On the other, you have entrepreneurial leaders, taking ideas and turning them into new business areas or opportunities. What makes an Inspirational leader? You feel it in their presence, the way they talk and address people and in the much vaunted culture. I think it becomes deficient and in scant supply when the organisation is maybe too disrupted or people of influence stop inspiration from thriving.

Steve Raymond: It’s the ability to make people follow through an authentic, present and engaging approach. Great leaders are able to adapt to the audience and engage both heads and hearts.

Most businesses operate on a day-today basis, but what are the positive impacts that inspirational leadership can bring to optimise the operation and improve outcomes?

Elizabeth Dermody: Clearly, one positive impact is to keep people’s eyes on the prize, especially when the change will take time to implement. Another is that this type of leadership allows for a certain degree of autonomy in how objectives are delivered, which we know has a positive impact on people’s day-to-day job satisfaction and productivity.

Simon Gibson: In a world of constant change, pace, pressure and unrest, it has a massive level of importance. It should be able to provide clarity when needed, vision to energise and move forward and support when required. I’m not talking about this “halo” effect or creating some cult but smart leadership that accepts and works with this new world of work environment.

Lucy Finney: Everyone is trying to do more with less, people are often stretched in their work and if we are going to ask them to do more, we need to do more to inspire them to action that contributes to the greater good. The work environment is complex and many business goals cannot be achieved by one isolated worker, so we need to inspire collaboration and stimulate action. Inspirational leaders open doors to provide time for inspiration to flourish and spread. It is contagious if combined with the right culture.

Mark Jones: People respond better to organisational goals when they feel involved and engaged – this is when they create great outcomes for clients and the business.

Rachel Allen: Individuals are having to find more capacity within themselves than ever before striving to bring their best selves to work. Organisations have to cope with a constant evolution and a constant state of change, and that uncertainty requires individuals to embrace the vulnerability that this environment creates and to recognise that whilst it feels uncomfortable this is where growth and creativity comes from.

Steve Raymond: It’s a person’s ability to make people follow through an authentic, present and engaging approach. Great leaders are able to adapt their approach to the audience and engage both the heads and hearts of people.

Mandy Ferries: They also impact positively bothin identifying the ways in which businesses need to adapt to changes – like disruptive technologies – ahead of the rest – and also in helping employees learn, develop and excel.

Shona Marshall: It’s also that ability to make that often uncomfortable, step change and create the ‘permission’, that some employees need to question the status quo and challenge their own ways of working.

Karin Joehr: Indeed, it is critical to recognise and value employees as individuals and to know what drives and motivates each one, and to trust them.

What are the best ways to develop an inspirational leadership capability in an organisation? What activities should be in a leadership development programme, seeking to develop inspirational leadership skills?

Karin Joehr: It’s important that an organisation’s values are sound and that processes, policies and leadership behaviours all align to bring them to life in an environment that is positive and conducive to enable people to perform at their best. Each person will be inspired by different things, so there is not one solution. I think each leader would need to reflect on what inspires them – and not just in a quick ten minute exercise, but over some time of exploring and observing in and out of the workplace.

Steve Raymond: Structural design needs to enable free flowing communication and not stifle it. An understanding of how to best use multiple engagement tools and a strategy on how to use them is key. Very clear, concise messaging and a deployment plan, with ideas that talk to the head and heart.

Simon Gibson: It will depend on the organisational context, but people are people. Take a look outside your organisation and see how other businesses are approaching it.

Lucy Finney: A blended learning programme is always best and should include things like creative problem solving skills, innovation techniques and an exploration of the very essence of inspiration. The programme could also include topics such as; the value of diversity, neuroscience and innovation, thinking skills and coaching skills. The ability to model excellence is also good – find a role model and understand how to break down their behaviour, approach, skills, knowledge and use the information as a benchmark.

Elizabeth Dermody: There can be a tendency to consider it to be a personality characteristic of charismatic leaders, but I don’t think that it is innate, nor does it come in one form. Developing such a capability recognises that there are typical traits, but that these can be delivered in different ways that will still resonate with the organisation or team.

Mandy Ferries: We can support leaders with learning mechanisms to help them inspire their teams; effective communication, recognition, identifying talent, coaching etc. But can we really train leaders to be inspirational? I’m not sure.

Rachel Allen: The intervention has to be designed around the existing culture. It’s about helping leaders to develop the skills that will create that call to action, enable them to listen and to embrace their own and their team’s vulnerability. Programmes that provide the leaders with skills to tell inspiring stories and then provide the opportunities for the developing leaders to share their vulnerabilities have been inspiring.

Shona Marshall: It has to start with being able to help the individual first identify if they want to be ‘inspirational’ and secondly looking at the extent to which their current DNA enables this as a natural behaviour, or one which really can be developed.

Mark Jones: Indeed, developing leaders to explore their own values and purpose is an important element as they will then be able to communicate these to others in an authentic way. Inspirational leaders tell stories, using emotion and pictures, not just facts and figures. The art of ‘storytelling’ is an important skill.

How can individual leaders find a focus?

Lucy Finney: The focus is not about trying to say “hey follow me, I am a wonderful leader”! It is about leading people towards business goals and creating a followership, by making business goals tangible. We often put a vision out there and it’s so detached, that people can’t connect. Also leaders need to park their ego and link people to the bigger goal of the business, in order to provide real value to the business and inspire people to move towards the business goal.

Mandy Ferries: We can communicate what the business objectives are, but individuals will only be inspired if they know what’s in it for them – and that doesn’t necessarily mean financial reward – it’s about their connection and contribution to the business, personal development and what they are getting out of the journey.

There is the issue too of what happens in challenging times.

Elizabeth Dermody: Indeed, we are assuming that the Inspirational Leadership journey on which we are taking our people, is good for everybody, but sometimes that journey ends up with an unwanted change of status, an unwanted change of job, or indeed no job at all. I do agree that the “what is in it for me”? question is absolutely fundamental to taking people on a journey, but we must recognise that the answer may be unattractive for some people.

Steven Raymond: With all the challenges we are experiencing, there’s a lot of very important messages that are not coming across in a cohesive and managed way. Time needs to be spent on getting the messaging sound, clear and really direct. In challenging situations, you have extra issues to contend with, perhaps in the context of large scale redundancies. Faced with that, people aren’t going to stick around because it’s the right thing to do, they’re going to support – or not – the people that are leading them.

Shona Marshall: And it is a sense of belonging which enables that connection.

As a leader, it’s also about agility, or even being honest to yourself about whether you are right for the role to meet the organisation’s needs.

Elizabeth Dermody: Yes, leaders need to be able to recognise whether they are the best fit for their organisation. You need different types of leaders for different businesses and situations – start-up or steady state, or a demerger, for example. The need for a different leader might be why Blockbuster and Kodak, etc. didn’t change their mission sufficiently and quickly enough, to respond to the new and fundamental challenges.

Mandy Ferries: I think the point around the business mission and the values is important. At Amazon they have an overriding mission to be the Earth’s most customer-centric organisation and that mission doesn’t change. But what the customer wants does change and the vision of the inspirational leader is seeing that customer needs are changing and ensuring the business delivers those needs, but the mission of the company is still the same.

Simon Gibson: It’s awareness of where organisations hit a barrier – that defining moment for change – and it’s that awareness that is part and parcel of being inspirational. Challenging the status quo is one thing, admitting that you’re part of the problem is on another level.

And we have lived through times where leaders have been untouchable, and we have seen the negative, often destructive outcomes.

Steven Raymond: Not just poor leaders, great leaders can unconsciously surround themselves with “yes” people telling them what they want to hear, to a point where they lose touch with reality and they lose empathy, sensitivity and the result is disconnection.

Let us look at digital tools and of course communications, social media is such a powerful tool for leaders, as we have seen recently in us politics, where it has re-defined many parameters.

Lucy Finney: Trump’s use of digital technology on his Presidency campaign and today raises the question of ‘digital trust’. We are living in a posttruth era, and it is important to ensure that we act responsibly and share information that is truthful and enlightening. These conversations are coming in via our leaders. What is the truth? When we are trying to be inspirational towards a business end goal, you have to work on trust. I think we talk about the world being different today and we sometimes think of an inspirational leader at the top and it filters down. But actually, I think in the digital era, what happens is about disruptions happening everywhere. Savvy internet users are often more connected to the world than senior leaders, and I believe one of the important things for leaders today is to create a climate that embraces modern technology and uses it to inspire people to action and connect people on a daily basis to the business and any change programme.

Steven Raymond: Very few companies engage and think about a digital strategy. The fact is that social media is finding ways into our business technology, you can ignore it or you can try and capitalise on social media. Yammer, is a really interesting proposition, developing quite a following and is growing in influence on business decision-making.

Lucy Finney: We have a highly industrial workforce in our organisation who probably use WhatsApp on their phone, and we’ve got a HR system that could potentially be accessed on their various devices. Again, it’s not that our employees aren’t digitally savvy, they are just not wanting to mix their personal digital world with their working world. It would require a big cultural shift right now, but for sure I can envisage a future where that could happen.

Simon Gibson: I am really intrigued by this, the “my work device/personal device, my time/work time” dynamic. I think there is something about the context of the environment of your organisation. When I was at NBC Universal, we brought in a collaboration platform and I was told “it won’t work Simon, nobody is going to use it”. But once it was in place, it was really widely utilised and appreciated. And that was down to asking people what they needed and wanted and what was important to them. I don’t think that in this day and age, with the omnipresence of technology, that introducing digital solutions to any business needs to be the elephant in the room.

Mandy Ferries: Agreed, there are preconceived ideas about different populations of the workforce in relation to technology. Our organisation manages about 1,500 retirement properties and we have 1,500 development managers that work in those properties, with an average age of 50-to-55. We introduced Yammer as an internal engagement tool and out of the 3,500 employees, the retirement team are by far the biggest group on Yammer, and are the most influential, because they engage with it every day. Similarly, when we introduced an e-learning platform, the retirement team were the early adopters of the technology.

Jose Franco: Change will happen in time. Ten years ago people would never have carried out their banking on the phone, let alone think that working and learning at home was an option.

Simon Gibson: Any business that doesn’t have a digital strategy, I would be really nervous about. If it is not intrinsically the heartbeat of your organisation then you’ve got a problem already. It’s an imperative that has to be led by leadership. Indeed, I hasten to add that, without a leading edge digital strategy, even the most inspirational leader is backward looking.

Jacky Wearn: Digital is a fundamental strand in progressing leaders’ understanding of how to reach their current and future talent, and being open-minded enough to understand how to use social media platforms to deliver messages to come across with authenticity. Agreed that in some more traditional organisations, the closer you get to the top, the further away you are from reality. So it’s an imperative for such companies to run reverse mentoring, with Millennials, to give those executives the chance to say, “OK I get it and I can grasp how messaging can appeal to the breadth of the organisation”.

Steve Raymond: Agree completely, educating senior leaders on utilising various platforms in a powerful way is critical. Our CEO is brilliant, Blogs weekly and answers every single question. It feels authentic.

Of course, with such a powerful platform it has the potential for negative as well as positive consequences.

Lucy Finney: In terms of a digital strategy, when I hear the phrase “recognising the need for it”, it makes me cringe a bit. My mind leaps back to what I call digital accountability, working on understanding consequences, which goes back to the inspirational leadership piece – connecting to the cause – and the only way you are going to win is if people are personally accountable.

Melanie Steel: Yes, and there is the fear factor, the cybersecurity issues that keep coming up.

Jose Franco: This is the fourth industrial revolution and one of the biggest challenges to leadership development, is to make sure everyone is educated on technology.

Simon Gibson: And it’s about embracing the disruption. If we want to develop inspirational leadership, we need to turn it upside down and look at it from a completely different way.

In terms of developing and supporting inspirational leadership, how do you keep it consistent, progressive and top of the agenda?

Lucy Finney: What defines inspirational leadership has changed from the traditional view of the leader being at the front, but not trying to control everything, more initiating collaboration, the collective effort and team responsibility and understanding, all aligned to what the business is trying to achieve. It’s getting away from the mindset that a leader has to be on a plinth for others to worship.

Mark Jones: I don’t think today is that different to the past, and the digital world doesn’t really make much difference to the importance or credentials of inspirational leadership – the fundamentals still hold true – attributes of authenticity, purpose and ethics are still vital. However, the context is different whereby innovation and collaboration across teams are becoming increasingly important – and you must not underestimate the importance of really getting a grip on digital platforms.

How do you set a development programme that is continuously developing, and flexible for change, in order to remain on the leading foot of relevance and effectiveness?

Mandy Ferries: But we all have to continue to learn – we can’t afford to sit still, and part of being inspirational is to practice what you preach. We talk about disruptive technology, but I think leaders have to be disruptive, constantly shake the tree and challenge the status quo.

Simon Gibson: I carry around this mantra that solutions aren’t our problem, our problem is diagnosing the problem. There are a million-and one development product solutions which claim to have intellectual property. But as a function, we need to spend more time talking to our leaders,  talking to our organisations, talking to our teams, talking to our people, who have ideas or want to be disruptive, and are really keen to contribute, given the chance. And you must monitor constantly for efficacy and benchmarking.

Elizabeth Dermody: Leadership development doesn’t have an end-date, it is something that needs to keep happening. But in terms of the practical ‘what should we do’, I genuinely believe that there is a need for leaders – wherever they are in the organisation, not just at the top – to step away from the day-to-day work environment, even for 24 hours, and take stock of themselves, their behaviours, and how well they are leading. It doesn’t have to be an abstraction for days or weeks, but we do need to provide the time for leaders to do that thinking, checking-in with themselves, and sharing leadership insights from others, if we are to get the best from them. I don’t think people can necessarily reflect that deeply, nor as successfully, in the daily business environment.

Shona Marshall: With regards to the word ‘programme’, do we have to change our mind-set about what a programme looks like? I tend to use the word “framework” in our organisation and have the concept of the ‘jungle gym’ in terms of our leadership development. So my remit from an L&D perspective is to provide a lot of those different things that are there and help them join the dots in a way that makes sense for them. You have your taught elements, you have your different learning methods, you’ve got your bespoke elements, it’s about making the 70/20/10 principle real. That way, they still feel that there is something tangible they can associated with but it is not a programme in the way we have traditionally thought of it.

Jose Franco: For me it is about helping people grow and develop, it’s ongoing, and it is about helping people self-manage where leaders can take ownership for their development and destinies.

And of course, dare I say, there’s roi – the return on investment, is the unavoidable bottom line which we all have to be accountable for.

Lucy Finney: It is about linking back to the cause, and from the start of the journey, really thinking about what you are trying to achieve, and getting to something that is tangible, that people can really get to grips with. Inspirational leadership is about lighting the touch paper and keeping people engaged and on track. There is the big issue of ROI, which of course will never go away, and some people will always revert any initiative back to that, perhaps even try to derail what you are trying to achieve in the name of ROI. So we have an important role to ensure the L&D intervention is connected to the business needs and objectives.

Mark Jones: People learn best when they feel vulnerable, stretched and out of their comfort zone. Our role in L&D is to help create those feelings of vulnerability, but in a supportive environment, to provide the means for people to address their development needs.

Karin Joehr: Integral to leadership practice in the workplace is a continuous work-in-progress. In our organisation, for example, we have our annual employee engagement survey with very clear indicators that are able to measure inspirational leadership, direction and motivation. Our CIO sends out three questions every month to the whole of the Enterprise IT team, and those three questions are; what are we doing well, less well and how could we do better? It’s a practice and it’s a continual part of the way she does that.

Lucy Finney: You need to be able to articulate the return on investment. That’s not easy to do in some places, but I keep going back to your 70/20/10, it’s totally back in the workplace.

Mark Jones: I just think it feels like it’s the right thing to do, most of the return on investment programmes that I have seen is just really trying to justify a spend that they have already made so what’s the point really?

Karin Joehr: If for example you are reorganising a department, you might have a completely different manager so it’s difficult to pinpoint a shift down to a single programme.

Steven Raymond: I have a really different question. Our business bills all of our people out on an hourly basis so you can articulate the cost, not the ROI but the cost of people going and doing these activities. To me the only way to carry things through in my company is to assign a dollar value to every single thing we do in the ROI. It’s nice to say I don’t really want an ROI, but it’s what funds these activities.

Melanie Steel: Whatever you are measuring there are people who are looking at it from a different level. At the end of the day, you could have the best programme but if the people are not inspired, and a lot of that comes from leadership, then any programme objective will falter. It’s important to remember that, even in these times of change, people follow leaders and if they inspire people then half the battle is won. Whilst ROI is of course important, it should not be the defining factor. Ultimately, investors are not really going to make a great company, that is in the hands of the people, and there is the great potential for making that happen, in an inspirational environment.

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