Corporate leadership is about creating change in a much wider context - not just in your organisation, but in the wider circles in which you and your organisation move.
On Monday 16 July, Corrs Partner and CEO John W. H. Denton addressed the Australian American Leadership Dialogue - Young Leadership Dialogue in Washington D.C. He presented on “Corporate Leadership”, focusing on three areas for success: change, connectedness and community.
Click 'text version' to read the full transcript.
Thank you for the invitation to speak today.
It is a great pleasure to be back at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue and I know my colleague Mark McCowan feels the same way.
Today I have been asked to reflect on the topic of corporate leadership – such a broad topic leaves the scope dangerously open to interpretation! So today I’d like to say just three things about leadership, all quite different. But they do all start with the same letter.
Change, connectedness and community are those three things. Hopefully it will all make sense as I continue.
You are all here because someone in the room next door believes you are emerging “corporate leaders”. That is to say, they believe you are individuals who stand out as leaders of today and tomorrow whether it is in Cisco, The Labor Party, The University of Melbourne or from wherever else you hail.
And to put that into context, I’d like to start with a quote from Kenneth Blanchard, who has built not just a career, but a whole brand on management theory and philosophy. He says “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”
That might sound strange, coming from a lawyer, whose professional foundation is one of rules, regulations, law and legal hierarchy.
I didn’t start my working life as a lawyer. I followed a dual Arts Hon/Law degree from the University of Melbourne with the Foreign Service Training Course run by the then Department of Foreign Affairs. I did a crash course in Russian in London, before heading off to my first posting in Moscow as third secretary, with roles as diverse as political and human rights, cultural attaché, science counsellor (and briefly agricultural attaché) and private secretary to the ambassador.
It was a small embassy with more titles than people, but it was in the centre of one of history’s great dramas – the beginning of the collapse of the USSR. I arrived with the death of Chernenko and left the country in the death throes of communism.
Being in a totally foreign environment can completely discombobulate you. It certainly did me. But in the volatility you can learn things.
My years as a diplomat taught me some of life’s best lessons. In particular, that if you want to prosper, the first thing you must master is not only to adapt to change, but manage it.
Professor John Kotter, from my alma mater a few hundred miles north of here at Harvard Business School, wrote in his iconic book Leading Change that “management deals mostly with the status quo and leadership deals mostly with change”
The old argument between management and leadership goes on forever. In my mind, however, it’s simple. If you don’t manage, the wheels fall off your wagon. If you don’t lead, the wagon won’t take you in the right direction. You have to do both.
On the management side, you need discipline. You must have strategies to follow, the awareness and flexibility to fix things when they go wrong. Above all, you need the common sense to know never to go beyond what you can afford to lose. You must embrace reality and make conscious choices.
On the leadership and change side - one thing you learn in the midst of a diplomatic firestorm is how to keep ahead of change. To be aware of what is changing, the implications of that change on the business (whether that business is government, commercial or humanitarian) and, of course, on the people involved in that business and their ability to do their work in the changing environment.
Because, at the risk of sounding obtuse, change is the one constant. As a leader, your job is to provide vision and to make sense of an increasingly complex and volatile environment. As you do that, you develop the skill to look ahead, anticipate change and prepare your people do deal with it. If you can do that, both your business and your people will thank you for it.
That said, one area of change businesses in my industry are grappling with is social media and a new era of business communication.
At the risk of sounding old, I look at my children’s generation (which, I might add IS younger than those gathered here), and note that they get their information from vastly different sources from my generation. On the whole, they are not concerned at the threatened demise of print journalism. They don’t watch free-to-air television. They don’t watch the news.
Theirs is a world of social media, text messages, and aggregated content. Facebook, Google, YouTube and Reddit. It’s a world in which news travels fast and opinion even faster. And the opinion is not always informed.
What is leadership in this world, then? When the internet is your source and blogs are your evidence? Don’t get me wrong, I’m in awe of how they operate, because I see that leadership here is judgement and the backup of their connections – just the same as in the corporate world.
Those connections give us the influence that Kenneth Blanchard speaks of. And I see the power of social media. I see it mobilising people for the wrong purposes, such as riots, but also for the right ones - raising money in charitable campaigns and truly creative marketing. I see it generating waves of change in fighting political oppression.
Social media is old-time social connectedness on steroids. And the link I’d like to make here is using your connections to build things. Networks, ideas, business, movements. They all come from people connecting with each other, no matter how they do it.
We may be in a new world of communications, but the concept of stakeholders is as relevant as it’s ever been. Know who your stakeholders are, connect with them, then build relationships to partner with them. This is building trust and leadership within your organisation and without – that is, in the business environment.
Which brings me to my third word, community.
My last Foreign Affairs posting was in Iraq on the eve of the first Gulf Crisis.
It was the dying days prior to the ultimatum in ‘91 after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. There were also a number of Australians who were held hostage in Baghdad and I was seconded from Corrs and sent to Iraq as Charge d’Affaires to work to liberate our hostages, close the Australian mission in Baghdad and get us all out of there!
There was also an ultimatum hanging over our head that unless Saddam Hussein withdrew troops from Kuwait by a certain date then operation Desert Storm would be launched.
It was an incredibly stressful time for a lot of people.
I was one of the last Australians out of Bagdad, having worked with my team to secure exit arrangements for all the Australian hostages and seen them safely out of the country.
We then closed down communications, destroyed classified material and drove the Ambassador’s car out of Iraq. The bombing then started, concluding this chapter of my life – the end of my diplomatic career internationally, and the beginning of my articled clerkship at Corrs.
But the point of this story is that it led to another experience which has greatly influenced my life. I was in the Ambassador’s Mercedes, driving through an assembly point on the border between Iraq and Jordan, when I was first exposed to the reality of the refugee issue.
I saw the visible evidence of fear in these trembling, distressed people desperately seeking to cross the border. Their lives were in jeopardy through no fault of their own, and they were genuine refugees. Most of them were women and children, the most defenceless people, violated of their sense of security. And I was just so moved by the experience that it propelled me into looking at ways I could help.
This led me to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of which I have now been the Australian Chairman for 10 years.
UNHCR is a global agency that leads and coordinates international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees – and strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.
The reason I touch on this aspect of my life, is to show you that building a career is also about getting involved in community based and pro bono activities. Issues that, on first glance bear no relationship whatsoever with what I do for a living. They do, however, enrich my life and deliver insight.
These days I spend considerable time developing the firm’s “footprint” and “influence” outside Corrs rather than day-to-day management, thanks to a first rate Executive Team.
My outside activities (The Australia Council, UNHCR, BCA, APEC, the G20 and most recently the Australian Government’s White Paper on the Asian Century) all involve engagement in global policy and trends, which takes me full circle to my earlier comments about change.
To my mind, corporate leadership is about creating change in a much wider context. It is about creating change not just in your organisation, but in the wider circles in which you and your organisation move.
In diplomacy it was a given that there is no authority, just influence. It’s the same with corporate leadership.
You can’t make people adapt to change, but you can influence by your own example and by the circumstances you create in your organisation through systems, policies values and culture.
You can challenging your own teams to go outside their usual comfort zone, inspire their thinking and embolden their courage to find creative solutions to emerging problems and to help build an enterprise that stands for more than just the day to day.
This has certainly been the hallmark of my own experience, though admittedly the path has not always been deliberate!
So, the thought I want to leave you with today is to consider your position as a leader within your own organisation, and the impact it has on others. As well as the impact your organisation has on the community.
Go on – go out and lead!
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