Leadership: What style is best for your organisation?

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Laura Paterson candidate, news & events, blog...

The internet has recently been rife with memes featuring Canada’s charismatic Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, highlighting his *effect* on other world leaders (and their partners). In the often rambunctious world of international politics, Trudeau’s collaborative approach and humble demeanour has helped him stand out on the global stage, although his approval rating slumped in January to its lowest since becoming Prime Minister. There is much to admire about his “high-touch” approach but is this style of leadership appropriate for all occasions?


To an extent, leadership means being a chameleon and being able to adapt to a variety of situations and environments. Being an effective leader is less about your style as an individual but the needs of the people and organisation around you. Daniel Goleman’s influential book “Primal Leadership” in 2013 was the first to popularise the idea of “emotional intelligence”, which is becoming an increasingly popular metric for analysing business leaders and performance.


In it he sets out 6 core styles of leadership:


  • Visionary – embraces innovation and calculated risk
  • Coaching – high-touch leadership with a lot of one to one engagement
  • Affiliative – values teamwork and connection between peers
  • Democratic – creates direction through collective wisdom
  • Pace-setting – sets high standards for themselves and others
  • Commanding – “military style”


Accepted thinking on the qualities needed to be a good CFO or CPO, to date, have tended to focus on technical abilities or specific experience such as McKinsey’sexcellent guidance from January 2013. However, in a changing economic and social environment in which millennial employees are entering the workforce with very different expectations of an ideal relationship with their employer, the “soft” skills around leadership are arguably becoming as important as technical ones.


Traditionally, CFO and CPOs are not known for or judged on their people skills, but instead a relentless focus on business performance, measured by facts, figures and statistics. This approach can be a catalyst for great success, as evidenced by baseball coach Billy Beane, whose “sabermetric” approach to assembling a successful team against more financially powerful opposition was immortalised by Brad Pitt in the 2011 film “Moneyball”.


In the last 20 years, more CFOs than from any other discipline have gone on to promotion to CEO. As well as the predictable “safe hand on the tiller” reasons, the fact is that CFOs have had to use strong interpersonal skills with board appointees, let alone with more junior colleagues, to lead their thinking and actions on the needs of corporate survival and success.


However, faced with two equally qualified candidates, it is all but certain that cultural fit and an appropriate leadership style for an organisation will win out – even over experience or length of service. The role of a CPO in particular has evolved to become more strategic and aligned with finance and operations, with a need to work from a common playbook. And of course, it remains crucial to be a team player, before you can become a team leader.


In the real world, extreme leadership types are rare; most people are a blend of different styles, and good leaders are able to dial certain approaches up and down as the situation requires. For example, when BHS went into full crisis mode, the argument stands that a ‘pace-setter/commander’ type was needed to quickly pivot the business and set clear, authoritative processes into place urgently. With more stable, established businesses, leaders have the luxury of time to work in a more democratic style to draw up a roadmap towards a longer-term vision. At the other end of the spectrum, most start-up businesses require a visionary approach to leadership to galvanise and inspire teams to perform.


At Cedar, we have a long history of working with senior finance and procurement professionals – established leaders in their fields. We are also broadening our services to work with less experienced candidates, who we hope will become the leaders of the future. For both clients and candidates, finding, recruiting and being inspired by great leaders is crucial for long term success. As consultants we know that box-ticking against a list of functional skills is not enough and for business to thrive we need to find the right cultural and leadership fit too. Our long term approach, nurturing relationships and not just numbers means we are able to offer solid advice for leaders, and potential leaders in their career.


Regarding Mr Trudeau, the overriding lesson that can be learned from his popularity seems that perhaps the greatest leaders are those that can lead other leaders. And that may well be the Holy Grail for leadership.