The BBC documentary “The Elon Musk Show” reveals the incredible ability of the world’s richest man to lead and elucidate his vision around seemingly far-fetched ideas like space travel for all or, back at the turn of the century, electric cars. In less comfortable viewing, it also shows Musk extracting long and gruelling hours from staff like Colette Bridgman, Head of Global Marketing at Tesla from 2004 to 2017, who recounts in the documentary how she had lost all semblance of family life. “I was drinking out of a firehose every single day for years and years. My three-year-old son was calling me Dad.”
Leadership is one of these amorphous concepts that people struggle to pin down because it comprises a fuzzy combination of different skills. For some, the most successful leader is someone who develops and communicates a vision of an organisation in a way that can be understood at every level and allows all to contribute. For others, the essence of a good leader is the exact opposite, someone able to draw on people’s resources and talents in a way that doesn’t result in burn out. Treasury Today interviewees also point out leadership isn’t synonymous with corporate position nor is it something that necessarily responds to generous remuneration. In amongst these diverse opinions, it’s possible to draw common threads. Many ingredients go into good leadership; it can be taught – and companies neglect it at their peril.
Optimism is often more effective than a motivational approach to leadership, says Dave Ulrich, Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on Human Capability. Drawing on the work of Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, Ulrich argues that ‘learned hopefulness’ whereby leaders imbue in employees a belief in their own agency and power to control their own environment makes for the best type of leaders. Success depends on getting people to tap into their own sense of efficacy, optimism and imagination, he says. “These brilliant insights help me personally and help me help others. With agency, people replace helplessness with hopefulness and create a better future. Agency becomes a fundamental principle for people to take charge of their circumstances and reach their potential.”
Empathy is another key ingredient. “Honestly, do you know how your staff feel?” asks Ulrich. “Living in your employees’ shoes alters your perspective, provides valuable insight, and strengthens the culture of the workplace.” Empathic leaders allow disagreements to foster innovation and creates organisations rooted in common sense without self-inflicted bureaucracy and where employees want to give their best. Appreciation and sharing also oils the wheels of good leadership, he adds. “You ultimately lead most by example. Share your hopes and fears, your successes and failures, and the processes you use to make key decisions. When your employees experience your values in action, they will feel the sincerity of your commitment.”
But leadership’s association with words like empathy, gratitude and humility is frustrating for many experts on the topic. It bundles leadership into a nice-to-have box of soft skills, a depleting term that fails to reflect leadership’s importance and alienates employees. Like Ulrich, Zahira Jaser, Associate Professor and Director MBA at University of Sussex Business School, also believes that good leadership rests in employee empowerment. “Successful leadership is about understanding that people want to work, are committed and conscientious and don’t need to be told what to do,” she says.
But that is challenged by the fact that the ability to connect and listen embodies so-called ‘feminine’ skills (not unique to women) like empathy, caring and making time for people. Yet it is ‘masculine’ skills (again, as prevalent amongst women as men) of efficiency, presenteeism and control that tend to dominate in many companies.
It also suggests that the hard skills that drive performance are most sought after. “The way we appraise a good leader is often to do with a very masculine approach to leadership that is deceiving and does not respond to today’s workers’ needs, men or women,” she says. It also feeds into why many companies struggle to build these soft skills. Executives are quick to say if they need more hard, tangible skills like coders or staff on a production line, but it’s difficult to gage and push for conceptual skills in an organisation. “Leadership is fuzzy; it’s difficult saying you haven’t got enough,” agrees Russ Porter, Vice President of Finance, Global Business Services, IBM for nearly three decades before joining the Institute of Management Accountants as CFO and Senior Vice President.
Successful leadership is complicated by the fact different situations require a different type of leadership, continues Porter. For example, in a crisis companies might need a coercive leader. At other times, leaders need to be authoritative. A different situation might require focusing on morale and adopting a coach-like role to help people understand their own capabilities. “Good leaders need all these characteristics in their toolbox ready to pull out and use. Pull out wrong tool and you won’t get the results you need,” he warns.
Learning to lead
David Aldred, at Citi for 12 years, most recently leading treasury and trade solutions in MENA and Pakistan until he left in June 2022, has spent recent months coaching and advising on the key components of strategic management and leadership.
Like others, he is convinced that successful leadership involves empowerment. Something that in turn rests on leaders seeking their own self-development, whether equipping themselves with the latest knowledge around APIs, AI and blockchain, or attending leadership seminars. “You don’t have to be a coder, but if you don’t understand how to embed these things in a business that is a skills-gap,” he says. “You can’t rest on qualifications from 20 years ago – and you are never too old to learn. It’s about taking ownership of yourself for success in your next role and the role beyond that; needing to do something now that will get you to where you need to be in six years.”
“IBM is a huge believer that leadership can be taught – I am living proof,” echoes Porter. “If you’d seen me 30 years ago you wouldn’t have thought I would succeed, but I studied leadership.”
Learning to lead is why mentoring is a key tenet in the leadership process. Yet in many cases, mentoring falls short. Few organisations offer mentoring at a senior level, requiring people to reach out themselves to colleagues and peers they respect to ask for career support. In another challenge, mentors often have a propensity to advise and cajole when the emphasis should be on listening. “Mentors often say ‘you should do this’ or ‘if I was you’ but a mentor’s role is really to listen, ask questions and get the mentee to think for themselves,” says Aldred.
Good mentorship also involves mentors withstanding a critical conversation and not shying away from difficult ethical problems in a way that simply reinforces the system. Drawing on her own experience of mentorship when she was in banking, Jeser stresses the importance of mentors accepting a mentee’s criticism of the company and co-workers. “My mentors in banking where good, but when we started talking about politics in the workplace and bad practices from the top, they shied away at the time I needed them most.” Now a mentor herself, she makes sure she asks questions about who is blocking mentees and exploring the key alliances in the company to make sense of their challenges. “Don’t have generic conversations, be specific to each,” she urges.
Good mentorship comprises imbuing a sense of self confidence and belief, she continues. Something that wains, she observes, most obviously amongst minorities in senior roles. “How do you keep your core confidence up when you are continually an outsider? I think a huge part of this involves mentors helping mentees recognise their own value and the need for voices that are not compliant and complacent but innovative and creative. Your uniqueness adds to the organisation.”
Companies won’t necessarily solve their leadership vacuum by throwing money at the problem. In many ways, high remuneration is the wrong incentive to engender strong leadership. Many leaders are simply not motivated by remuneration or climbing the corporate ladder, says Porter. “I’m not sure we do enough to reward people for whom money is not a motivation.” For many leaders, respect, networking opportunities or the opportunity to work on specific projects is what they value most. “I knew a guy who wasn’t interested in becoming an executive. He was an expert in a narrow niche of accounting, and this is what he enjoyed leading on most and where he saw his value. It wasn’t about seniority or pay.”
An anecdote that also speaks to the fact companies often overlook the importance of experience when it comes to leadership. Jobs open-up in a meritocratic system; employees may only stay three or four years in the same role and companies are loath to invest in seniors. Yet experience makes for the best leaders. Similarly, managers, in touch with people on the ground and often a company’s most important source of leadership, are often overlooked and not recognised as leadership material.
Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that pay is not a key differentiator since companies in the same sector tend to have similar pay levels. Employees do, however, take a keen interest in different leadership cultures and the opportunity to grow and develop within an organisation. Corporations that get leadership right, will be better able to hold onto their staff.
Leaders may not be overtly motivated by pay but corporates still need to overhaul their reward system to better recognise leadership and talent management alongside financial results. If leadership matters to an organisation’s success – and study after study suggests it does – it should be rewarded, argues Ulrich. “The reward system should signal or communicate this by making effective leadership part of the criteria for pay. This happens by having indicators of effective leadership as part of the expectations and standards and tying pay to those indicators.”
As treasury’s reach continues to evolve so the need for treasurers to lead and inspire colleagues grows. Treasurers no longer just lead on cash and FX management. Their prowess extends to technology, ESG, governance and risk expertise. “As treasury adds more value to an organisation treasury leadership will continue to grow, and I don’t see any end to this,” concludes Aldred.