Business of leadership

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 May, 2008, 12:00am

Changes in the corporate world mean top executives must be able to anticipate and overcome challenges

In the lucrative world of management consulting, many may lay claim to having shaped the minds of countless present and future leaders in the business world. Unfortunately, only a few have the credentials to support such a statement.

Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, is one of those few.

A former senior executive at the North American telecommunications provider Bell Canada, and later Lucent Technologies Canada, Dr Stephenson has watched the business world change over the past 3? decades.

She said that over the years, chief executives and people at all levels of corporations were continuing to take on larger leadership roles.

As the role of organisations changes, so the role of the leader needs to expand. Leaders also need to know how to handle changes.

'If a leader foresees upcoming change, develops a strategy and executes it with global thinking, he can capture the opportunity,' said Dr Stephenson. 'Also, a leader must know how to make change happen and how to get his company through such changes.

'The business world is changing. It's becoming more complex with rapid technological changes and globalisation. And the most crucial challenge of all is managing across the enterprise.

'This keeps everyone mindful of how their actions affect the entire organisation, and how their reach outside affects what happens externally to their organisation,' she said.

As a result, there has been an increasing demand for schools to emphasise how to help senior executives develop such leadership abilities in the global business context, to teach personal skills that are useful in management communications, strategic leadership topics, and to lead and manage change.

Nowhere was this demand greater than in the mainland, an economic powerhouse where growth was expected to surpass the global average for the foreseeable future, she said.

'Today, people want to learn more about business skills and education. One of the most important talents of today's CEOs is the need to manage across the enterprise.'

Under such conditions, business leaders needed to learn to manage issues from multiple perspectives and deal with several stakeholders, including political and regulatory bodies, in addition to shareholders and the general community as a whole, she added.

Dr Stephenson was in town recently to preside over the graduation of a class of 30 executive MBA students.

From her observation, companies are increasingly enterprising - where leaders need to manage and influence people.

She refers to companies as 'enterprises' which encompass more than just the company.

'It consists of a complexity of interdependencies both within the organisation and between the organisation and the environments, both public and private, in which the organisation operates.

'As companies interact with other firms in our increasingly global environment, and as they interact with governments and non-governmental bodies, the term enterprise incorporates these interdependencies.

'It is important to learn that while the company is an enterprise, CEOs need to manage both the enterprise and the people,' Dr Stephenson said. 'Our students learn that they can't simply rely on steering from the top-down as companies are no longer the hierarchical and stable organisations that they were even just 10 years ago.

'This is true for projects that engage people both within the organisation and outside. For example, bringing together various companies to create an informal alliance to collaborate on a special project, or getting a new technology to market.

'The rapid technological and organisational change that companies are experiencing means that there are opportunities for those who are ready to take advantage of it,' said Dr Stephenson. 'Companies that can spot trends and exploit new technologies will be able to seize opportunities. There will be more successes such as Google, a company that's achieved fame and fortune despite being around for barely 10 years.'

She said to survive in today's business world companies needed to embrace leadership. 'Business is a means to unite the narrow expertise of each individual department and provide leadership that is based on a broad, issue-based platform.

'As one chief executive I recently spoke with said, it was not enough to come up with an excellent product that you like, the product had to be something the customer really wants. The product can have all the greatest qualities in the world, but it won't sell unless customers want to buy it. And not just the sales manager needs to be tapped into that, but every individual in the company, at all levels of the organisation,' she said.

In order to stand out as a strong leader, Dr Stephenson tipped three key elements: sound judgment, empathy and courage.

She explained: 'Successful leaders are smart and knowledgeable. But in today's volatile and ever-changing markets, effective leaders must not only continually strive to gain greater knowledge and understanding, but they need to develop sound judgment to employ it effectively. Then, they also need 'heart,' which creates an atmosphere of trust. And finally, courage allows them to see and acknowledge dangers.

'Strong leaders don't threaten, cajole or command. Rather, they influence and lead by example. That behaviour helps foster those positive qualities in others.'