Lessons in leadership

Jun 02, 2020
Ronan Dunne draws on his experience at the highest echelons of business to share his six leadership lessons.

When I first worked in London as a banker, I was promoted three times in a period of about 15 months. I was an eager and highly qualified Chartered Accountant but in the first 12 months I worked late every evening. Then, I started working on Saturday and Sunday. I worked my socks off and for the first year, it was a remarkably successful strategy – but then, I hit a wall. I had no more capacity. It was a completely unsustainable model and it did not take me long to realise that unless I could invent an eighth day in the week, I would need to change my management style.
The lessons that follow are based on my experience as a Chartered Accountant in business, and one who often had to learn lessons the hard way. Some may be more relevant to you than others, but I nevertheless hope that you find them useful.

Lesson 1: It is not what you do, it is what you make happen

When Chartered Accountants start out in their careers, they are largely personal contributors. They have a very specific role and success is defined by the outcome or the output of their particular job. Increasingly, however, we realise that this approach is based on an old-fashioned, hierarchical business model. In modern society, and for millennials in particular, painting inside the lines is not an attractive proposition – even in your first job. So, discover as early as possible in your career that your success does not just depend exclusively on what you do; it also hinges on what you make happen. Your capacity to impact and influence is infinite but your output is simply defined by hours in the day, no matter how hard and fast you work. At every point in your career, you have the opportunity to impact and influence those around you.

Key takeaway: Take the opportunity to make a difference when it comes your way.

Lesson 2: To be an effective leader, build an effective team

The capacity to exceed expectations lies in how you blend the skills and capabilities of those around you. Effective teams do not simply do what any other team would; effective teams harness the unique talent, perspectives, and experience of their individual members in a way that enables the collective to achieve outcomes that would not otherwise be possible. When considering team formation, we sometimes think “I need someone for finance, someone for marketing, someone for legal” and so on. But actually, if you build a team correctly, you create space for each person to bring their own personality and their own unique perspective to the team. That is the secret ingredient to superior outcomes.

Key takeaway: Every person within the team has a unique contribution to make.

Lesson 3: Exercise judgement as to when to exercise judgement

This might sound like a play on words but in my experience, people early in their career often have a desire to impress their superiors. They sometimes seek out opportunities to act decisively, to jump in and make a decision in order to demonstrate that they have what it takes to be a manager or a leader. In fact, they often demonstrate their inexperience by attempting to find a moment to showcase their decisiveness and by consequence, unwittingly illustrate their impatience. Very often, the wisest thing to do is to explain why a decision cannot be made due to a lack of information or context, for example. By all means, look for opportunities to exercise judgement but remember that judgement can sometimes be best exercised by not deciding and explaining why.

Key takeaway: When meeting with senior executives, remember that rushing to make an impact may make you look like an idiot.

Lesson 4: Leadership should happen at every level

In business, decisions are best made closest to the point of impact. An effective organisation therefore ensures that those who make decisions have the right context and the discretion to decide, because hierarchy on its own does not always work. In a team, the most senior member is not always the natural leader on a particular topic or project so to be continually effective, teams should encourage those closer to the issue to take the helm. That means cultivating the flexibility to have junior members lead the way. Indeed, the biggest challenge facing larger organisations is their established hierarchical models. Such companies recruit bright, young, and digitally literate people but in too many cases they leave after a year or two because they get completely disillusioned. Despite understanding more about behavioural trends or other issues that may be affecting the business, their opinion is never sought out because they are three or four levels down in the organisation. Leaders need to empower those people and accept a certain amount of risk. There must be permission to fail but even in organisations with a mild risk tolerance, this concept creates a space in which an organisation’s collective potential can be nurtured.

Key takeaway: Acknowledging context is critical to effective decision-making. Couple that with delegated authority and permission to fail, and you have a solid foundation for a highly effective organisation.

Lesson 5: Authenticity is the gateway to true leadership

My view of authenticity is built on two ideas – one is a personal insight and the other builds on the elements discussed above. I became a CEO for the first time with O2 in the UK when we were on the cusp of a major recession. I had a successful career up to that point but when I took over as CEO, I struggled for the first six months because I spent a lot of time wondering what other people would have done in my situation. In many jobs, you are the subject matter expert but as CEO, you are a jack of all trades and often master of none. Then, I had an almost spiritual moment when I realised that I had 27 years of rich experience. It became clear that the only way I could do my job was to be myself. So, as a leader, you need to ask yourself: who are you? People rarely challenge themselves with this question. I describe myself as chief cheerleader and chief storyteller. I am an extrovert, a joiner-upper, an enthusiast – and I use that to be a front-row leader because that just happens to be my natural style. So ultimately, the best way to be successful in any role is to be yourself.

The second thing is that when you are the boss, nobody asks you a question that they know the answer to. This leaves you with a strange obligation to know the answer to everything, but CEOs manage uncertainty amid many shades of grey and it can be quite liberating to realise that the CEO can and should say: “You know what, I am concerned about that as well.” If you do that, you help your people work things out, find solutions, and build answers to organisational challenges with a sense of togetherness.

Key takeaway: Know your strengths and acknowledge that you do not – and should not – have the answer to every question.

Lesson 6: Know the question before you try to answer it

There is massive structural impatience in organisations and as a result, I see much more ‘ready, fire, aim’ than ‘ready, aim, fire’. Too often organisations run towards an assumption of what the question (and answer) is; they are in action mode immediately. But a little time working out the precise nature of the question will invariably bring you closer to the answer. Organisations consistently do two things wrong: they press ahead to answer a part-formed question, and they do not allow talent to flourish because hierarchy gets in the way.

Key takeaway: Define the question clearly before embarking on the search for an answer.

Ronan Dunne FCA is CEO at Verizon Consumer Group.