WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT LEADERSHIP
It is always interesting and a challenge to talk about leadership. There is no textbook and everyone is different. When I thought about this topic and what makes me a leader, I had to think hard about how I ended up here. There was no plan. I always tell my daughters your purpose in life is to find the gem in you. I realised that is what leadership is about, it is about finding your purpose. Everyone has it in them. It is about the choices you make to truly become a leader. I read a paper once that said leadership is the sum of competency and authenticity. I realised this is it. For me it has been a lifelong journey of being who I am and a love of learning. You have to make your own recipe.
So what I want to share is some key lessons that I picked up along my lifelong learning journey. I want to share some of the experiences that formed my character and my leadership style and then how I have applied some of those experiences and developed other leaders in my career. It all starts with courage.
1. Leadership is about the courage to stand up for yourself
Let me take you back to the beginning. Everything I learned about leadership I learned by growing up the only girl in a family of four brothers, two younger, two older. I’m kidding of course. I learned a lot in corporate life and I am still learning, but as I reflected on what made me who I am, growing up I learned I had to stand up for myself. I learned about what it is like to be heard when you are not the same as the others in the room, in this case, one girl in the middle of four brothers.
It was tough as it was clear I was expected to do girl things and not things that I necessarily enjoyed. I was adamant that I was going to define who I was and not let someone else define me just because I happened to be born the only girl in the middle of four brothers. This I must say has been a recurring experience most of my career. I have realised it was some of my best training as it allowed me to practice standing up for what I believed in and not let anyone else define me. I have continued to do that in the workplace and everywhere I go. I do not let people ignore my voice. Sometimes we all have to learn to use influencing skills to be heard, but we should never lose the courage to be heard.
Leadership is about having the courage to do and say what you believe is right.
Leadership is also about the courage not to know everything
I grew up in a small community in Newfoundland and Labrador: Green Island Cove, population of two hundred and about one hundred today. My first year of university was a nightmare. I entered university with top marks and a scholarship but the people I met there were so bright, so well spoken, so articulate. I remember thinking “Oh my God, what am I doing here?”
But after getting to know people I realized I knew as much as them so I realized I needed more practice in speaking out and not feeling self conscious about what I sounded like. And I learned that the only way you learn is by being vulnerable, by letting people know you don’t know, by having an insatiable hunger for knowledge and not being shy about it. It’s about being curious.
You have to have the courage not to be afraid of not knowing everything. And as you work more and meet more people, you realize that most people are in the same boat. Men are also afraid of looking like they don’t know something. Nobody wants to look stupid. But seek those situations out: it’s the only way you learn and become the competent leader you need to be. Vulnerability also makes you authentic.
This mindset of learning also carries through in the way I look at new challenges and career assignments.
When I took on a new role, there were some who questioned the fact I didn’t have a background in that part of the business. Rather than get defensive, I asked about my predecessor: did he have that background? He didn’t. Did they worry about him? No. They looked at what my predecessor had: they looked at what I didn’t have.
When I tested this with my new boss, he agreed that leadership was more important in this role than previous experience in that side of the business. Women can sell themselves short. Don’t. Don’t be afraid of standing up for yourself, of challenging what might seem like the accepted wisdom but which really is a double standard that people perpetuate without thinking about it or doing it deliberately. Call people out if you feel that it’s not right.
Don’t be afraid to take on a job where you have gaps. If I am offered a role for which I don’t have any gaps in my experience I don’t take it because there won’t be any learning. Again it goes back to my lifelong need for learning. Every assignment has to be about growth. Whenever you find yourself comfortable in a role it’s time to maybe move on. You don’t want to have 10 out of 10. You want to have 7 out of 10.
I want to switch gears from leadership character to what I believe it takes to create a system of leading others and allowing the people you lead to realise their full potential.
2. Leadership is about creating a vision and framework for people to excel
I once took on responsibility for an exploration division that was great at finding oil and gas fields but not always so good at monetizing them. We had to shift our mindset and change how we defined success. We first had to set a new and very clear goal. It was to reduce our average time to develop a project by 65 per cent: to make a decision to develop or sell in a third of the time we were used to. We had to change our mindset from being patient developers to being commercially focused.
I set the ambitious goal. But I didn’t tell people how to do their jobs: what I had to do was to help our team simplify how we thought about our business and identify the handful of priorities that would enable us to achieve our goal. I call this handful of priorities and how they relate to each other a framework. In any business I have responsibility for, there can never be more than five priorities in our framework, and ideally there should be no more than three. Children can remember five things; adults can often only really remember three.
Covey calls these top priorities the “big rocks”, a term that makes a lot of sense in the extraction business. The list of these big rocks has to be short enough and clear enough to fit on one page, or to be communicated in an elevator ride. And everyone in the organization has to understand them and understand how they support them in their work day in and day out. These big rocks often flow from some core questions: What’s our product; what’s our market demanding; what are the key things we have to do to make money and meet the expectations of our stakeholders today, and what are the key things we have to do to grow so we can continue to succeed in the future.
Once the organization is clear on the goal and the framework, people can be turned loose to excel in developing and executing the focused actions that will allow the organization to win. Clarity brings purpose and purpose brings motivation and empowerment.
Leadership is about creating the vision and setting the framework, setting the goal and simplifying how people think about the business, and giving people the freedom to do their jobs.
3. Leadership is about creating an environment where people feel empowered and understand how they add value. If you are successful in achieving that then you will create a diverse and inclusive environment.
Once you have set the goal and created the framework, how can you really empower people to do their best? When I joined Shell, I was completely impressed with the company. I remember going into my first meeting and seeing men and women working together and speaking on an equal footing, and everyone was interested in what I was thinking, and relationships were immediate.
As a leader, one of your most important responsibilities is creating that non-threatening environment where people can be vulnerable, can admit to not knowing, can put out ideas knowing they will be respected, where you can say stupid things and laugh about it, not worry how you will be perceived.
Recognizing you don’t have to be perfect is essential to succeeding.
Leadership is about valuing and creating diversity, of culture, gender, ideas, and a non-threatening supportive environment where people can feel comfortable to be different, to have different ideas, to have healthy, constructive discussions and debates.
One of my greatest joys as a leader is when I help people reach a level they never thought possible. It opens doors to show them they can go even higher. This is about having confidence and trust in people’s ability, potential and ideas, and giving them opportunities to realize they have capabilities and talents they didn’t know they had.
When I first joined Shell I had a mentor who listened to my ideas, even when they were completely outside the box and foreign to how things had been done before. That trust was critical to my success.
Leadership is about focusing on the individual and on their development: on their wishes, on what they want to get out of their life and their career, not necessarily or only on the task. As leaders we can’t just focus on getting the job done: we have to think about how we get it done in a way that best develops the people we have responsibility for. Leadership is about more than just achieving financial results. Leadership is about creating relationships and shared value, about the triple bottom line, about thinking about each person as a not just an employee but a whole person.
4. Leadership is about leaving a legacy
We all know the stories of organizations that have great leaders who do great things. And then those leaders move on or retire, and everything collapses. And so you have to conclude that if their successes couldn’t outlive them, they weren’t truly good leaders. If you want to be a good leader, you have to build something that can survive and thrive without you. So it’s about thinking about the future from day one. And not thinking about just the near-term future but thinking generationally.
This long-term focus includes everything I have spoken about: developing other leaders, setting a clear long-term goal, a North Star, simplifying how people think about the business, developing a framework, giving them the freedom within that framework to do their jobs and excel.
Whenever I start a new job, on my first day I start thinking about who is going to succeed me. This is so I can start right away to develop them. I work for Shell and Shell has been in Canada for one hundred years. When I think about setting Shell Canada up for success that will continue long after I am no longer in a leadership position, I can’t just think about decisions that are good for three or five years. I want Shell Canada to succeed for another hundred years. It’s a tremendous responsibility to come into a company with such a long and successful history and to realize you are just a custodian for a few years, but those few years have to set the company and its people up for many more successes.
Leadership is about creating a legacy, not just thinking short term but thinking long term both for the business and individual growth. Leadership is not about you, it’s about what you leave for others.
So let me sum up what I have learned in my leadership journey:
1. Leadership is a combination of competency and authenticity – that is, to be vulnerable and to learn to build your capability.
2. Leadership is about the courage to be who you are and to stand up for what you believe in.
3. Leadership is about painting a very clear picture of where you want to go and developing a very clear framework for your expectations of what it will take to get there.
4. Leadership is not about figuring out the how. It’s about empowering your people and about creating a safe inclusive environment for people to realize their full potential.
5. Leadership is about creating a legacy for others. You are privileged to be in a position of leadership and you are only one part of the chain. Leave it in good shape so that others can make it even better.