David Fairhurst interview: Complex times require complex leaders

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Leadership development is on everybody's lips, but with so many leadership models and debate over the qualities of an ideal leader, many firms are in a state of confusion. Who better to provide some clarity than one of the industry's leading lights, David Fairhurst.

At the HRD conference and exhibition earlier this year, leadership development dominated the schedule. Whether it was CIPD president Vicky Wright hosting a session designed to identify the characteristics of the leaders most likely to succeed, or Doug Strycharczyk discussing how his research had identified scales of leadership effectiveness, leadership was on everybody’s lips.

"Leaders are like tea bags, you only know how good they are when they're in hot water."

But with so many leadership models being touted, and no clear definition of what constitutes a great leader, there remains a great deal of confusion in this area – and particularly so for the growing number of firms looking to grasp the nettle and invest in leadership development.

David Fairhurst, senior vice president and chief people officer, UK and Northern Europe, at McDonald’s Restaurants, also tipped his cap to leadership at the HRD conference, acting as chair to Fons Trompenaars’ fascinating dissection of the servant leadership concept. With a CV that also includes a term as director of leadership planning for SmithKline Beecham, Fairhurst is well aware of what makes good leaders tick, and he didn’t mince his words when introducing Trompenaars: “Complex times require complex leaders.”

Leaders are like tea bags

Speaking to TrainingZone after the event, he rephrases this: “Leaders are like tea bags,” he asserts. “You only know how good they are when they’re in hot water.” So is servant leadership the (PG) tip for success? Trompenaars is in good company when it comes to advocating the management strategy - with Ken Blanchard sharing his passion for the approach right here on TrainingZone recently - and Fairhurst can see its appeal.

“Ken Blanchard speaks about servant leadership as serving the organisation’s vision rather than one’s own self interest and I think that’s absolutely right,” he explains. “Many organisations are still working on the historic premise that competitive advantage comes from their machines, processes and products rather than from their people. Until we can overcome this outdated legacy an organisation will never achieve effective servant leadership.

"For me, effective servant leaders understand not only what needs to be achieved by their organisations but also why their people should find achieving that objective personally meaningful and motivating. By effectively managing the alignment of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, a leader will engage the workforce and enable the highest levels of performance.”

"It is true to say that investment in leadership over the years has been sporadic."

As an example of this, Fairhurst points to the success that his own company has had with its McDonald’s children’s charity, a philanthropic effort that his struck a chord with a great many of the firm’s employees. “There is a lot of evidence coming out that is starting to get business curious about personal motivations, especially in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) side. We have seen that if your employees are connected somehow to your CSR activities in the organisation, that their retention and engagement rates go sky high,” he says. “There is an intrigue growing because people are looking at these stats around motivation, and servant leadership could deal with some of the holes.”

No panacea

This keen interest in the motivations and engagement of staff has seen Fairhurst lavished with praise and accolades throughout his career, from HR Director of the Year and Most Influential HR Practitioner in HR Magazine, to the number one position in Personnel Today’s Top 40 HR Power Players List. It is perhaps this wealth of experience that has also left him with some questions about the present suitability of servant leadership. Indeed, despite chairing the CIPD session on servant leadership, and clearly holding Trompenaars’ in the highest esteem, Fairhurst is unsure whether the management model offers a solution to the present economic scenario. If anything, he is concerned that given the prevailing corporate pressures, firms may rush headlong into something that is yet to fully mature – thereby jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“It is a concept that is in development, and there are currently some inconsistencies in the way it is being articulated - the way that Fons describes it is different from the way that Ken does,” he observes. “The concept of servant leadership is being set up as a clearly differentiated alternative to the organisation-centric, short-term focused model that has been vilified as triggering the current economic downturn. As is always the case, however, there are benefits to both models. Consequently, to suggest that servant leadership is a one-size-fits-all solution to revitalise business from the credit crunch is potentially as risky as saying organisation-centric, short-term focused practices should be maintained, come what may. The answer surely lies somewhere between the two – and that the right balance will vary for every organisation. This isn’t a wishy-washy non-committal response – this is a response which highlights that knee-jerk, antagonistic solutions might be as dangerous as the situations that prompted them. “

"Through training we can compensate for the fact that we have a propensity for 'head' leadership in this country."

But, as reflected by the HRD conference’s schedule, the issue of leadership development is now at the top of most organisations’ agenda. In bold type. And underlined several times. Recent research by the CIPD revealed that over 80% of learning, training and development managers highlighted the development of management and leadership as the most important skill to embed in UK organisations in order to meet business objectives during the recession.

“It is true to say that investment in leadership over the years has been sporadic,” Fairhurst says. “But there is now a recognition of the importance of leadership, and particularly where leadership hasn’t worked and where values have broken down. You only have to look at the banks. Integrity wasn’t part of what was trying to be achieved and they had lost sense of what the purpose was. Businesses are saying they don’t want that. So there is a move to consider expenditure on leadership as an investment not a cost.”

Nature or nurture?

Such a drive for leadership development appears to be one in the eye for those who claim that leaders are born rather than bred. But it is not cut and dried. One word that pops up frequently in conversation with David Fairhurst is ‘balance’, and he believes it also applicable here. Despite his own rapid rise through the ranks - from graduate trainee at Lucas Industries, and establishing the HR department for Transport Development Group, to becoming the youngest group manager at HJ Heinz and then on to a role as European Director of Recruitment and Leadership Planning for SmithKline Beecham – he suggests that a blend of nature and nurture is required to be a great leader.

“Some people innately have certain characteristics which are more likely to make them successful leaders, but there are also those who don’t seem to have any of those and can still be successful leaders,” he emphasises. “We need a blend of qualities of leaders. You get leaders that are very head-based and logical. You get leaders that are very guts-based and that take values-based decisions. And you get some that are heart-based. The trick of good leaders is that they do all three.”

Leadership development dynamism

In particular, the current climate demands complete leadership – even if leaders aren’t necessarily born with all three traits. As an example, Fairhurst points to Rudy Giuliani, a great example of a head leader, a bright and articulate lawyer, who was also quite guts-based and values-based. “He took on organised crime and was willing to tackle wrongness based on principles. But the moment that changed him was after 9/11 when he was asked how many casualties there were. The number was still uncomfirmed, but Giuliani, rather than give a non-committal response, replied simply that 'the number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.' That was heart leadership. He had evolved his leadership into more completeness. He wasn’t just going with his head and his principles. That was the right thing at the right time.”

“Through training we can compensate for the fact that we have a propensity for head leadership in this country,” Fairhurst emphasises. “We have seen the damage when the completeness isn’t there. We have seen the damage in the banks when clearly the values and guts leadership isn’t there.”

He fires a final warning, however – leadership development in itself is no panacea. Sloppy thinking related to leadership development can be as damaging as sloppy thinking from the leaders themselves – and Fairhurst believes there has been a lot of sloppiness in leadership development in the past. If firms are serious about investing greater time and money in their leaders, they will have to ensure that the expenditure is worthwhile. “Do not drop your financial analytical commercial head when you think about leadership training - the two are not exclusive. Ask yourself: am I getting the best deal? Can I negotiate with the training provider? What am I trying to achieve? How will I know when I’ve got there? Is this the right method? Am I going to get a good ROI? And am I training them in what the business needs? “

“It is very easy to waste money and then say leadership development doesn’t work,” concludes Fairhurst. “There needs to be a dynamism to how you think about leadership development.”

About Neil Davey

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