Challenges for Young Leaders: Moving Into a Leadership Position | In Practise

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Challenges for Young Leaders: Moving Into a Leadership Position

Former Executive Committee Member and Head of HR, Novartis

Why is this interview interesting?

  • The role of self-awareness, communication and a focus on people in great leadership
  • Why moving into a leadership position can be so difficult for fist time leaders
  • Typical difficulties first time leaders face and how to mitigate them
  • The components of effective coaching
  • The difference between coaching and mentoring
  • The role of career setbacks in keeping people grounded
  • The importance of 360 feedback
  • Key steps organizations can take to help young managers navigate the transition into leadership positions

Executive Bio

Norman Walker

Former Executive Committee Member and Head of HR, Novartis

Norman started his professional career with Ford Motor Co. in London, where he held a number of positions in human resources management. From these early years at Ford Motor Company, Norman moved on to increasingly important regional and then global HR roles at Grand Met and Kraft Jacobs Suchard, culminating in the ultimate strategic role as HR leader (1998-2003) in the (at the time) world’s largest merger that became Novartis. Here he was stretched to become a consummate leader, working on integrating and developing companies, cultures, individuals and teams into the giant success the healthcare company has become. In 2003, Norman established his company Ardfern AG which focuses on the nexus of the strategic and the human. He has served on public and private Boards, and for 15 years has been a senior advisor to global Private Equity firms. He co-wrote an important book called “Leadership Passages” and established a retreat for CEOs in 2010. Read more

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Interview Transcript

To begin, could we talk about your career experience? Would you introduce us to the work you’ve been doing over the past couple of decades?

I can actually go more than a couple of decades. It’s actually been 40 years I’ve been working. The first 25 of those years was in the corporate world at Ford Motor Company, at Grand Met, which is now Diageo, at Kraft Foods, and then as the Global Head of HR at Novartis. Novartis was particularly interesting because it was when the company was created in 1997, 1998. At the time, it was the world’s largest merger, of two companies that sat across the River Rhine from each other in Basel and had been fierce competitors all their lives.

I was brought in, reporting to Daniel Vasella, the CEO, to help that merger. Vasella’s goal was very simple: to build a world-class company. Others can judge whether that was achieved or not, but the getting there — or at least, the path to it — in the six years I was there was very informative of how I think about leadership and indeed, some of the lessons learned.

I’ve been independent since 2003, initially doing strategic HR work; a lot of work with business schools, actually — Bocconi in particular, where I was teaching. I also co-authored this book called Leadership Passages, which was designed to facilitate and allow thinking about what really happens in your career as opposed to what we think we might like to happen in our career. In the last 10 to 12 years, I’ve worked very extensively with private equity firms, assisting them, figuring out, “Have we got the right leadership team, and if not, how do we build the right leadership team for the duration of our investment?” The final element of my work is a retreat for new and prospective CEOs, which I run once a year. I’ve been running it now for 10 years, and it’s designed to support all those things you have perhaps gained at business school and in your business experience. That’s the portfolio of work I’m engaged in at the moment; primarily working with CEOs and senior leaders, helping and supporting them to be successful.

Many people become managers. Why do so few managers become great managers?

It’s a great question. When you become a manager for the first time, it is a very significant change to what you’ve been doing previously. Most people are experts. They might be a brilliant financial analyst, they move up as a financial analyst, and then suddenly, they’re a manager of other financial analysts. It’s the same with sales. Sales is a great example because so often, companies promote the best salesperson, and they don’t turn out to be a very good manager.

Why is that? Because you’re taking away a large part of the thing that made that person successful. If I’m a brilliant analyst, I may not be a brilliant manager. One: I now have to operate through the success of others. Two: I have to demonstrate an ability to coach them, engage with them, develop them. I have to be pleased with their results, not just my results. So, it’s moved from “I” to “we,” as a first instance. Then you have the overlay of the complexity of organizations. The manager very much becomes involved in the modus operandi of the firm, which asks other questions of them too. That would be the starting point, but going beyond that, there are several aspects of good managers.

How do you define excellence in leadership?

I don’t know how many books there must be on leadership and the effectiveness of leaders, but we wouldn’t have time in our lives to read them all; that’s the truth of it. Many of them are very good, but many of them try to simplify what is actually a pretty complex subject. “There are five things you do and then you’re going to be a great leader.” It’s not like that.

You preface this by saying, “Everything I say is conditional on delivering the results.” In other words, you can’t take the few things I’m going to say that differentiates great leaders if you only do those and don’t deliver the results; that will not end well. You need to understand your business, to operate at the highest levels from a purely business point of view. That’s the starting position.

What I’ve observed in terms of the differentiation between good and great is that the really strong leaders have very high self-awareness. They know what they can and can’t do, and they ensure their organization is built to accommodate those things that either they’re not very good at or they don’t have much interest in because both can apply. That’s the first thing. The second is a laser focus on people, building a talent pipeline, developing the people that work for them with an intensity akin to driving their business — the same degree of intensity and time they devote to their people. As a micro-example of that, one of the things really good leaders do is when you’re in front of them, you are the most important person. They’re not looking at their phone while they’re still talking to you or pretending to be talking to you. Or worse still, which I’ve seen, pulling out in their PC in an interview. That’s not great leadership.

Great leadership is, “When you’re in front of me, you are the most important person. I’m really listening to what you’re saying.” That would be second, this focus on talent. I think the third differentiator is, they have to be great communicators. The role of the leader is to make sure people understand where we’re going. What’s the trajectory here? What’s the vision? What are the values of this organization? These are important aspects of any leader’s role, and the more senior you are, the more important they become, and that’s just within the organization.

Externally, there are all the shareholders, the board, the press, so the role of communicating is very different to someone in a plant. That is a skill that has to be developed, nurtured, and it has to be really good. And it has to be credible. You cannot fool an organization. I can’t stand up in front of an organization, lay out the strategy, and say, “We’ve really got to get there,” if I don’t believe it.

If I don’t believe it, organizations are very smart. They will know I don’t fully trust it, and I know that I will not be able to convince them. By the way, that’s not acting; that’s having conviction about what you’re going to do. And that conviction is contagious as well because that’s what builds towards having a very positive culture in the organization.

Do you use the term self-awareness interchangeably with emotional intelligence?

Yes and no. Yes, because I think it’s unlikely that you’d have strong emotional intelligence if you didn’t have self-awareness, but being self-aware doesn’t guarantee you will be very high-EQ.

In the way you listed these attributes that constitute the essence of excellence in leadership, were those in order on purpose? Emotional intelligence, people, and communication — does that order matter or not?

If you had to have an order, which I’d prefer not to, I would put the focus on people first. For an organization to be successful, you need a great team. It’s not about a great leader. A great leader will lead, but you need a team. The person at the top does not do everything or know everything. You have to have a great team around you and deep into the organization.

Do they really focus on building a great organization? What’s surprising is, so many leaders choose not to. Sometimes, they don’t want to be challenged. “I don’t want anybody that’s too good around here, that might make me not look too good,” which is an extraordinary position but one I’ve seen. Maybe they just don’t place any value on it and will muddle through because, “I’m pretty brilliant, actually, so we’ll make stuff work.” They may not even have the skills to really understand what it takes to build a fantastic organization, never mind the processes that allow you to support that.

To hone in on these transitions for new leaders — we’ve spoken about some of the inherent challenges — could we talk a little bit more about the shift from follower to leader and what that means in practice?

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