Having had hundreds of discussions with high level individuals about their own personal leadership styles, Matthew Evans wanted to explore in more depth the theme of Leadership and what has moulded some of the key industry leaders into the person they are today. Learning from some of the standout individuals that he has gotten to know over the years, how they got to where they are, what makes them tick, and where they get their inspiration.
This week Matthew spoke to Kate Still, Founder, CEO, Executive Coach and Board Advisor.
Kate has a varied background in social and affordable housing for the past 12 years and has a passion for social purpose. She has sat on various executive boards and was previously the national advisor to the cabinet office on social enterprise and inclusive entrepreneurship for 5 years.
Would you say you have a particular leadership style?
My style is to try to be myself and show the real person. I try to engage with people in an open way, understanding that people are primarily emotional beings, so it’s about connecting with your team as individuals and understanding the nuances of motivation.
Do you think most businesses get that right, or do they think everyone is motivated by the same thing? Has there been a change in tactic and style in the businesses you have worked in?
I think reward programmes still place too much focus on money. A lot of performance approaches are built around very simplistic, input-output approaches to productivity which were more suited to the post-industrial period. Most of us in Western economies are now working directly or indirectly in knowledge-based businesses. This means people’s minds are their most effective tools. Motivating a mind to be productive varies hugely between individuals. We are all wired differently, and we need to be able to nurture and flex our approach and to use different motivational tools.
I do also think there is a growing generational divide in what people proactively look for from a role. My experience is that those entering the workplace over the last 10-15 years expect to work for a leader that can coach and inspire them from a position of equality rather than hierarchy. The older “Hero” model of leadership, with an all-seeing all-knowing leader that dominates strategy, for example, is really dead as an effective approach now, I think.
Do you see a difference in the sectors you’ve worked with? Do you look at forward thinking industries and think they’re doing better than the property sectors?
I think it’s hard to say on a sector level, because there is good and bad in every sector. One of the things I have learnt from working in businesses that deliver public services, such as housing or health and social care, is the importance of listening to and support front line teams. In some of the settings I’ve worked in, those teams really do make life and death decisions, so it’s really important to create an organisational culture that listens and respects their point of view. It can be really easy as a leader to think you know better, but I learned early on in those organisations that I couldn’t do some of the things my teams had to do, so I needed to really listen to them and respect their judgement. To create a business that delivers care, for example, means helping your teams embody that feeling in their own emotions. That doesn’t happen if they don’t feel respected. I am a huge advocate for unpacking how the workplace impacts individuals’ emotions and behaviours, because in social purpose businesses the product is always part-emotion.
Do you think these types of “old school”, ruthless businesses will fade away as the millennials come along and begin to take on senior roles?
I think you are beginning to see the unravelling of businesses that enable dominance over their team – that behaviour catches up with people. The Hero model is an unsustainable model of leadership for the leader as well. To always have to come up with all the answers is exhausting and in the kind of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world we live in, virtually impossible. Businesses that are not taking in wide ranges of different perspectives will increasingly struggle to compete as markets shift so quickly now. As a leader you should always be questioning your own perspective and proactively engaging with people that think differently to you. If you aren’t doing that, it’s a dangerous place to be.
Given you are in the position you are now, how do you apply that? How do you look to improve oneself as a leader and motivator of people?
I think being able to listen to feedback in all its forms is key. Being able to be aware of the weaknesses others see in you is always challenging and can put you in a vulnerable place, so creating relationships with people you really trust to do that in an uplifting rather than crushing way is really important. Not all feedback comes from a well-intentioned place, so you also need to be able to differentiate between the stuff you should listen to and the stuff you shouldn’t. I’ve built a network of trusted contacts outside of the organisations that I work for in order to gain that perspective so that I can have transparent and honest, emotional soul-bearing conversations about my own fears, anxieties and abilities and put strategies in place to improve and grow.
In terms of Leaders and self-awareness. How do you battle preconceptions of people who don’t have self-awareness but think they do?
I think it’s about understanding that leadership is a process of maturing. A mature leader understands that they need to continually reflect on how they impact on other people. It’s also about holding on to the fundamental principles of interpersonal respect. As a coach I have learned you need to let people fully understand that process themselves, you cannot “make” people see a blind spot until they are ready to. You can supportively challenge and question, but ultimately there needs to be personal motivation to change behaviours. This is where organisational culture is so important. If we are in businesses that reward bad behaviour, there will never be a need to change. That means organisations understanding the foundations of long-term growth and sustainability in business sits with the relationship it has with people, both customer and its team.
Women in Leadership. Is it still a challenge? Is there a stigma?
There has definitely been some progress, and over the years I would say things have definitely improved. The challenges women experience now are much are more about the structures and inequalities that exist due to gender norms – which will determine their outcomes in the workplace.
Certainly, most organisations will operate in a paradigm that is determined by its policies, processes, and procedures. If all those things have been established with a particular lens in mind, that will influence how other people’s perspectives are seen. A lot of women I work with and coach, will be given lots of heavy criticism about their style and behaviour for example in a way that men don’t experience. This usually relates to things like being perceived to be too emotional or “challenging”. The real issue, of course, is that these traits are not inherently wrong, it’s that they aren’t accepted as the dominant paradigm either for women or in the workplace. So it’s about challenging this view, it’s about saying what’s wrong with having emotion? Covid surely has shown us that leaders with empathy are the way forward. What is wrong with wanting to do things in a different way or questioning the status quo? It’s about questioning, as leaders, the environment in which leaders are created and operate in and what lens that gives to our perception of them.
The landscape for women is challenging because of much wider cultural stereotyping of women. Women get stuck in this double bind of being expected to reflect feminine gender norms but then also punished for them at the same time. These are the challenges we often face, we literally cannot win!
Is there someone you can name that has been your biggest inspiration as leader?
Lots of individuals have influenced me over the years but the one that really stands out to me is Amina Graham, who is a senior Leader in Housing. She was the first person in my career who struck me as a different leader to those I had experienced before. She was someone who appeared to really like me as a person and have a keen interest in my development and was someone I trusted. She had the incredible ability to motivate people through kindness, and it was a real wake up call for me. Until then I’d only really worked with hero leaders or full command and control approaches, all of which left my motivation on the floor. Amina was the first person I worked for where I felt really motivated and inspired by another person and felt I wanted to try to model some of her behaviour. Amina has also created a lot of leaders in her time, which goes to show how effective she was. A whole generation of us in that organisation are in senior positions because of Amina.
Can you recommend a book that has influenced your Leadership style?
Written by a Harvard Psychologist about emotional agility. It’s about managing your emotions in the workplace and how to move on from difficult emotions. My experience in executive teams is that 80% of the decision-making is about ego, so it’s about learning how to suppress your ego, about not feeling threatened or undermined or allowing that to cloud decision making.
Operating constantly from an ego position in leadership will drive you towards behaviours that are not helpful when it comes to leading people.
Who is your hero?
My mum – as a single parent she raised 2 kids on her own, retrained as a teacher and was a carer at the same time. She has a huge amount of personal resilience, huge amount of kindness and support. That’s the sort of person I want to be. People won’t remember your record in the corporate world as much as they will remember how you have made then feel, and what benefit you brought to their lives through your leadership.
To discuss this article in further detail, or to find out how Matthew can help you and your business needs, get in touch today.
Want to read more? Have a read of some of the other interviews from this series: