This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Recruitment Extra (October 2006 issue)
The number of books on leadership could fill a small library. Leadership books by academics, biographers, motivational speakers, sports stars, military leaders, CEOs, ex-Presidents and the like, are pumped out in their thousands each year. There are enough leadership ‘experts’ and accompanying theories for a lifetime of reading.
The template for successful leader in the twentieth century was a decision maker and resource allocator who viewed employees as tools through which efficiency and productivity were extracted, like juice from a lemon.
The effective and admired leader in today’s world of work treats an employee as a responsible adult, an attitude that consequently inspires and fuels that employee’s growth in self worth and self-expression.
The impact of this twenty first century attitude is that the employee comes to work each day feeling that their ‘real self’ is both encouraged and valued, rather than having to be checked at the door each morning when they arrive, and collected when they leave.
I have read many leadership books and, for me, the one that stands out, and is the basis of this article, is Good Business (Leadership, flow and the making of meaning) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. He wrote the book as a summary of his research into effective leadership in the business world.
Csikszentmihalyi was interested in leaders who created a work environment for a meaningful life in which work and the pursuit of financial rewards have their proper places. In other words, a place where employees experience work as increasing their sense of well-being and happiness as distinct from work being a neutral or negative force in this regard (as is so often the case).
From his research Csikszentmihalyi identifies five ‘life attitudes’ of the business leaders who create these unique places to work. The direct applicability of these five ‘life attitudes’ to my experience of leadership in recruitment companies (the great, the good, the bad and the ugly) since 1989, is the reason why I have chosen to analyse leadership in the recruitment industry through these five attitudes.
The five ‘life attitudes’ are:
- Optimism and future-mindedness
The leader needs to be both creating an empowering vision for the future as well as seeing today’s problems as merely challenges, that when solved, open the way for a more exciting future with greater possibilities.
I joined Recruitment Solutions in January 1991 for just this reason. I was interviewed by Greg Savage, who spoke in a captivating way about what was ahead for the fledging company. After I joined, when I was really struggling to make an impact as a new recruit, Greg kept urging me on, convinced (where I was not), that not only would the market pickup but I would see enormous rewards for my hard work and persistence in a ‘recession-we-had-to-have’ recruitment market. He was right. The market did pickup and I did experience the rewards of that optimism.
The other critical aspect of optimism that makes it even more important in recruitment leadership is due to the very nature of a recruiter’s job – dealing with ‘no’ every day. Recruiters hear ‘no’ from clients, prospects, candidates, and colleagues all day, every day.
This negativity is exhausting and dangerous to a recruiter’s energy and self esteem. An effective leader in recruitment neutralises all this negative energy with their positive reinforcement of key activities and successes, both big and small.
Effective leaders understand that they need to provide four pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of feedback for improvement.
- Trust, honesty and authenticity
The leader is not expected to have all the answers. Business is not a predictable linear process, there are many variables that impact results.
Recruitment is even more unpredictable, as people are both our customer and our product, and we don’t control either of them in the same way, for example, that BMW controls the design and production of their motor vehicles. As we can’t rely on the integrity of clients or candidates the integrity of the recruitment leader is even more critical. And it’s the little things that count.
For example the culture established by the leaders at Recruitment Solutions around punctuality was clear – an 8am meeting, meant an 8am meeting, not 8.05 or even 8.02, but 8am. I knew that my weekly meeting with Greg started at 11am on Tuesday and he was never late, and the only reason for it not occurring would be if he was interstate. If he was in Sydney, the meeting occurred. Greg was always ready to start on time at 11am and he expected the same from you.
The temptation in recruitment leadership is to put the client or candidate ahead of the consultant, or another internal employee, but that sends a clear (mostly unintended) message; the consultant ranks (at best ) 3rd on that leader’s priorities. Why, then, would the consultant put the leader (and by association, the company) higher on their priorities than the leader places them?
- Perseverance to achieve excellence
The leader focuses on producing the highest quality product and/or service and is relentless in their pursuit of excellence, not for financial gain, but because they gain huge personal satisfaction from doing something to the highest standard. They build teams and organisations that are similarly driven. It was no co-incidence that Recruitment Solutions rarely lost consultants to competitors (although it certainly happened).
The standards that we all set, and were committed to improving, were very high. It was clear that almost all competitors that pursued our consultants did not match our operating standards, so that when people left, they mostly set up their own recruitment company (at least 11 different companies, to date).
Perseverance generates its own momentum when the leader communicates a compelling, optimistic future, builds trust through integrity and sets high standards. Who wouldn’t want to stay back late for a candidate interview, make that extra phone call, or bounce back from a demoralizing credit or bomb out, when your leader consistently demonstrates the traits of optimism, integrity and quality?
- Curiosity, learning and wisdom
The leader’s job is not to be a subject specialist, but to be a high-level generalist. To do this effectively a leader must be open to, and actively seeking out, new experiences, both of a work and non-work nature.
I heard Geoff Morgan speak at an RCSA breakfast earlier this year and from my interpretation of that speech (and having read the excellent Morgan & Banks book Flourish & Prosper) it was clear how the two principals of Morgan & Banks were so complementary as leaders.
Andrew Bank’s background in acting and storytelling made him the natural optimistic vision creator and communicator, whereas Geoff’s curiosity made him the one that was always looking at whatever was new or interesting and seeing how it might be useful in creating a more effective business.
No surprise that Morgan & Banks (the business) was years ahead of its time, in Australia at least, in the way it embraced the Internet, and technology generally, to build a huge competitive advantage in candidate attraction, data storage and accessibility.
A couple of things that Geoff shared at that breakfast suggest that age has not wearied his curiosity one bit and he is again lifting up rocks, peering around corners and finding new galaxies while most of us a still battling to find more than one suitable candidate for our short lists!
- Empathy or emotional/social intelligence
The leader needs to be able to ‘stand in the shoes of another’ to understand their thoughts, feelings and actions. This does not necessarily mean agreeing with those thoughts, feelings and actions but instead accepting them as valid expressions of the other person’s individuality.
Effective leaders know that when a person feels validated and understood they are much more open to the leader’s feedback and coaching and hence, much more likely to achieve better results, faster. Recruitment is a tough job, not academically or technically, but emotionally.
Recruiters are emotional creatures, that’s why we work in this industry and aren’t accountants, engineers or whatever mum and dad might have wished for us as careers. One of the key reasons for my own success, both a leader of recruiters, and now as a Leadership coach of recruitment leaders is that I know exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes.
I started off as a very ordinary recruiter, then a very ordinary leader of recruiters so I have plenty of stories to share about my failings and what I learnt from frequently falling on my face. Showing your authentic self as a leader gives permission to your people to embrace their own human-ness and be empathetic (not sympathetic) with their clients and candidates who may otherwise write off recruiters as unqualified, fast buck, body-shoppers.
The challenges for the recruitment industry in the next decade are many; skill shortages, increased regulation, higher client and candidate expectations, internal recruitment teams, LinkedIn, to name just a handful.
These challenges require highly effective leadership to both recognise the specific nature of the challenges, and most critically, to inspire and motivate the consultants at the coal face, the people who have the most influence over the choices our current and future customers make about the relevance and value of our industry.
How do your leadership ‘life attitudes’ stack up?