Strong finance leaders are critical not only for formulating the strategy of an organisation, but also for driving its direction and vision. The importance of effective leadership is not a new concept, but organisations are beginning to better understand the personality traits and behavioural profile that make up a great leader. And particularly relevant to the evolution of accounting and finance professionals, “strategic leaders”. This deeper understanding means we are better able to identify and develop people with these critical skills.
In a recent webinar on The Outperformer, we spoke to John Leard and Lize McDonald from Thomas International. This multinational company provides people assessments which empower business leaders to transform the performance of their people, teams and cultures – and which deliver an immediate impact on their organisation. Thomas has been at the forefront of assessment innovation for over 35 years, and provides over 1.5 million assessments in 56 languages in over 60 countries every year.
John and Lize both brought vast and invaluable insight and experience to our interview. John has more than 20 years’ experience in learning and organisational development, consulting across multiple industries. His specialities include leadership and team development, developing high-performance management, cultural transformation and change implementation. He is also an accredited management coach. Lize is Head of Client Support at Thomas International Australia, has a master’s degree in Psychology and is a trained Psychologist. She specialises in psychological assessments and research.
In a very interesting discussion, we covered three key issues:
This the most fundamental trait to measure strategic leadership potential. It’s a combination of self-discipline, organisation and impulse control. Conscientious people are well organised and make concrete plans. If you’re at the higher end of the conscientiousness spectrum, you’re likely to be self-disciplined and motivated, with definite long-term goals and objectives. The possible downside of being highly conscientious is that you may be seen as being obsessive and perfectionistic. On the lower end of the spectrum are people who are very adaptable, spontaneous, easy-going and accommodating. The downside to this is that you might occasionally need help meeting deadlines.
Many people see this as how flexible you are, but it’s actually not. Instead, it’s all about emotional response. How well do you react to emotional stresses – how well-adjusted are you? On the lower end of the spectrum, you find people who are passionate and emotional, as well as being perceptive and responsive to the emotions of others. A possible negative is that you could be seen as being sensitive and less in control of your emotions. At the higher end of the spectrum you find people who are more resilient to stresses and emotional situations. They are comfortable making decisions based on emotional reactions because they are emotionally well-adjusted.
This describes your approach to new information methods - how open and curious are you about new and alternative approaches and methods of getting things done? How actively do you seek out new information? If you are highly curious, you embrace new ideas, and are creative and innovative. This could also, however, mean you’re easily distracted or unpredictable. If you have lower curiosity, you’re usually dependable and focussed, preferring traditional, tried and tested method. This could also be perceived, however as being inflexible or unadventurous.
This refers to how you cope with challenging, difficult or threatening situations. If you’re at the lower end of the spectrum, you’re likely to be more cautious and careful. The positives are that you are usually supportive and co-operative, but on the downside, you could be seen as being too passive and risk-averse. This could be a serious liability if you’re in a leadership position. High levels of risk approach are very important for successful strategic leadership - if you shy away from conflict or difficult situations and conversations, you will struggle in leadership roles.
This describes our reaction to complexity and to mixed information. Sometimes, we don’t have enough information, or we have competing information. People with low ambiguity acceptance are consistent and methodical. They prefer clarity, and exercise caution or hesitate until they have removed the ambiguity. The downside of this is that could be seen as fussy or stubborn. If you have a high acceptance, you embrace and thrive in environments with less structure and certainty, but you could also be seen as indecisive or unclear.
This is our desire to win and to have power, and it defines our reaction to winning or losing. Moderately high competitiveness is an asset in many leadership roles, but being overly competitive is not necessarily a plus. People with extreme competitiveness tend to climb over other people, hurting relationships in the process. A successful strategic leader must be able to channel their competitiveness to reach company and team goals, rather than just focus on personal achievement. On the other hand, low levels of competitiveness can equally be a liability in a leadership position. Those with high competiveness are goal-oriented, driven and ambitious, which are things we want in leadership - but not to an excessive extent.
Being either too high or too low on the spectrum of any of these six key traits can be a negative factor for potential leaders. So, finding an optimal intensity is important. Liz and John noted that we need “high” levels in all six of these traits order to be successful in a strategic leadership role - but we don’t need too much – or indeed, too little - of any one trait.
Those who have low levels of intensity in these six traits may be very challenging to reconcile with being successful in a senior leadership position. Equally, though, those whose levels fall within an excessively high range prove you can actually have too much of a good thing! When a good trait gets pushed too far, there is a greater likelihood of derailment. In fact, research shows that between 50 and 75% of leaders will derail at some stage.
Being in a leadership position can be quite isolating at times, and many leaders haven’t been given much opportunity for personal development. Self-awareness is very important as it gives you insight on what areas need to be worked on. Sometimes, the way you think of yourself is not how others see you. For example, you may think you are in control of your emotions, but your colleagues might see you as being cold and aloof. Different industries also attract different traits. Being seen as being arrogant or aggressive in one industry might be perceived as being highly competitive in a different industry. Sometimes, certain traits may get you into a certain position, but once you’re there, they may not necessarily be the traits that take you forward in that role and make you a successful leader.
Remember, though, that it’s not about changing your personality, and the traits that make you who you are, but rather adjusting your behaviour relating to your traits. This might mean moving out of your comfort zone and learning to be conscious of your development as a leader. It’s an ongoing journey for most of us.
We’ve really only just grazed the surface of this vast and fascinating topic, so click here to listen to the full interview.