The theme of Nucleus' recent annual conference was all about disruption. Following the event, none of us can doubt the world is changing faster than ever before.
Social, political, cultural and technological change… they not only demand that we change how we do business, but they demand that the very nature of business itself needs to change.
That requires leadership. As I flagged at the conference, this doesn't just mean better people management skills, but true leadership: seeing what is, and what could be, and disrupting the status quo to bring about change.
Companies big and small which don’t show real leadership, or which don't question their model or their purpose, will become irrelevant. It’s already increasingly hard to make a profit in today’s environment. Add in a generation of robots replacing huge swathes of employees, changing demands by new generations, and the growing number of companies willing to disrupt the foundations of their industry and it’s clear the clock is ticking on Industrial Age stability.
A crisis in trust
One of the biggest threats to business is the decline in levels of trust in authority figures. When people don’t trust they become fearful, and fearful people behave in rather dysfunctional ways. Some 67 per cent of Trump voters described themselves as fearful versus 45 per cent of Clinton voters. This is a global issue, as evidenced by the latest data from the Edelman trust barometer. It makes for frightening reading.
Business must take responsibility for reversing this downward spiral. I was asked at the conference whether different generations reported different levels of trust. While this isn’t something the Edelman trust barometer can answer, market research firm Ipsos Mori has had a go. It is probably no surprise, but Generation Y have far lower levels of trust in people to tell the truth than the pre-war generation. Each generation since the war has slightly lower levels of trust than the previous one.
It could be argued it isn’t the responsibility of business to reverse this trend. But I wonder whether any of us can imagine leaving it in the hands of politicians or the media?
You deserve trust when you are brave enough to know what you stand for, and then stand for it. In your own firm this means taking off the mask and revealing who you really are. It’s about creating intimacy with your colleagues and your clients, being someone they can open up to. This in turn means being a person who is willing to open up. We don’t trust gloss and polish anymore. And when people don’t trust you, it’s tough to bring about change.
I have no doubt that in your own business you are a person with high standards of integrity. But when it comes to investment decisions, it’s time to expect the same exceptional standards of the companies where you invest your clients’ money.
It can be easy to overlook some behaviour which, while perfectly legal and very common in the corporate world, doesn’t match your own values. Are these companies as green as you? Do they treat their people right? Are they thinking of the long-term sustainability of their funds, their products and their customer relationships? Or are they just chasing quarterly results?
You have huge influence on the behaviour of businesses like these. They behave the way they do because they want to impress the City and boost the value of their shares. When advisers start demanding companies should be a force for good rather than just money-making machines, these firms will be forced to rethink their strategies. When big business becomes accountable in this way, perhaps we will start to see an increase in trust globally.
Ears not egos
The organisational hierarchy was an Industrial Age invention. People were the cogs in the machine, and in return for loyal service they got their promotion, their bonus and the retirement carriage clock. In exchange bosses got a largely compliant, mechanised workforce.
But people are looking for more from their work today. They’re looking for a sense of meaning and purpose. They want to co-create, to partner, to collaborate. The hierarchy gets in the way of people doing their best work because the workplace becomes about satisfying ego. It becomes about getting noticed by the chief exec, or having the last word in an argument. The workplace also becomes about pointing out the flaws in someone else’s idea, or focusing on career progression, rather than doing what’s right for the customer or client.
It’s time to lose the ego associated with being the boss and seek something much more rewarding instead – a sense of purpose and a desire to leave a legacy. And that means listening really hard.
I’m not talking about listening until the other person stops talking so you can make your point. Nor is this about listening with empathy, or listening in order to coach another person. I’m talking about listening so hard you might be the one to change your mind.
When you let go of the ego that says: “I’ve been here longer/I founded this business/I’m the oldest person in this place”, you may be able to uncover the stuff you don’t want to hear. There are the quiet voices warning you about what’s ahead, the inkling someone has that something big is about to happen, or the young intern who sees the world differently to you and may just be right.
If you're not willing to change your mind you can’t lead. What was true yesterday probably isn’t true today and certainly won’t be true tomorrow. True leaders are endlessly curious and endlessly adaptable. They’re willing to hold on lightly to 'being right' because they’ve learnt to use their ears and quieten their ego.
Not all clients are like you
In the past there was some comfort in knowing your clients were roughly of the same generation as you, or at least one or two generations above or below you. A generation was 15 to 25 years long. You could get used to the difference between your generation and, say, your parents’ generation. You could understand the events that informed their values and could recognise, when they walked into your office, which generation they were from and adapt accordingly.
This is no longer the case. The generations are getting 'narrower'. The pace of change is so fast that while there used to be one or two really crucial generation-forming events every 15 to 25 years, now these kind of events or shifts happen every 10 years or less. Someone born in 2000 will have a very different life experience, different expectations and a different world view compared with someone born a mere 10 years later.
We’re also working and living longer. It won’t be long before you look around even a small firm and see five, six or even seven generations working alongside each other. You'll then realise you’re serving several generations in your client base too.
This means you can't assume your clients or your colleagues are just like you. It means you have to be open to learning about the world from people much younger than you, and help your young colleagues relate to people much older born in a vastly different time.
Above all, leadership has to become about authentic human relationships. Small firms are perfectly placed to develop such relationships with their clients and colleagues because intimacy is so much easier in a village rather than a city. But it does require conscious effort and a willingness to be the student as well as the teacher.
Taking the gamble
You can bet on the world staying pretty much the same as it is now, or you can bet on it changing. You can’t have it both ways. I think the safer bet is to bet on change. That means rethinking every assumption, habit and opinion that has brought you to where you are today. It means revealing more of who you are and what makes you human. And it means listening really hard so that you remain adaptable, receptive and relevant.
There’s a great quote from one of my favourite superhero movies, Kick Ass, which goes: “There’s no room for punks in suits, just real heroes who can really kick ass”. But while I love that quote I think it’s back to front.
The punks of the 70s weren’t about swagger and façade. They were about questioning conventional norms and revealing their uniqueness through their clothes, their music choices and their hair. They were brave and counter-cultural. They were colourful and creative.
I think that’s exactly the attitude we need in today’s leaders. I believe we don’t need a bunch of heroes kicking ass. But there’s plenty of room for a few people who are willing to reveal more of the punk underneath their suit.Blaire Palmer produces the Punks in Suits podcast, which offers new perspectives on leadership and the future of work. You can find it on iTunes by searching "Blaire Palmer"