The Leadership Council - The Future Leader

The Future Leader report is based on 13 in-depth interviews with leaders, and a specially commissioned October 2015 Luntz Global survey of UK attitudes to leaders and leadership.

RITA CLIFTON CBE

Chairman of BrandCap and Non-Executive Chairman of Populus

Rita graduated from Cambridge and started her career in advertising, where she became Vice Chairman and strategy director at Saatchi & Saatchi in its most successful period. She then joined Interbrand, the world’s leading brand consultancy, as London CEO and then Chairman from 2002. She now also has a portfolio of chairing and non-executive director roles, including ASOS.com, Bupa, Nationwide and Populus, the opinion pollster and research company. Alongside this, she has recently become Chairman and investor in BrandCap, the brand consultancy for the boardroom.

Nothing is out of sight.

I used to talk about brands, especially corporate brands, as icebergs. People saw a tiny bit on the surface – packaging, logos – and focused on those, while what was actually shaping the success or failure of the brand was everything below the waterline – the vision, the culture, the people. That metaphor holds good today, but with one big difference: nothing is below the waterline. Just take recruitment: any candidate can go online and hear exactly what people are saying, how employees rate your CEO, what it’s really like to work there. There may have been a time when you could pretend you were cuddly, or friendly, or responsible, while on the inside being axe murderers. If so, that time is now definitively over. There is no option but to be the same company inside as you aspire to be outside, and that creates a need for a particular kind of leadership.

People are obsessed with what the digital age means for brands.

I’m constantly being asked to speak on this topic, and I probably disappoint my audiences. They are expecting flashy magic, sexy Youtube videos and social media stunts…which I’m obviously happy to show. But the main point they get from me is that if you want to have a brilliant brand in the digital age, fundamentally you need to be a bloody good business. That demands very particular characteristics from leaders: people who can articulate what an organization is about, what role everyone can play, how it will be great for everyone to be part of it. Every few years this basic truth is itself rebranded – now we talk about ‘purpose’, even sometimes ‘noble purpose’ – in the past we’ve had ‘visions’, ‘BHAGs’ [Big Hairy Audicious Goals] and more. All of these labels are identical. Leaders who get this and act on it are the ones who can turn their people into enthusiastic deliverers of something they actually care about and believe in. Leaders who don’t get it end up dragging unwilling, confused staff behind them.

Being brilliant at communicating purpose doesn’t mean you have to be loud.

We can be inspired by a quiet and thoughtful person as much as by a cabaret style person. But you do have to have the ability to inspire people in some way shape or form. Few people are born with that, most leaders have to work on it consciously as a project.

If you want to lead, you’d better have stamina and recruit it.

You have to be on it around the clock. And you have to have the ability to recruit people who, even if you’re asleep, will be able to reflect the purpose of the organization 24/7 and respond in the way the world now expects. If you want to sleep, you need to make sure those people are there.

Capitalism needs to make its case.

Boris Johnson frequently makes the point that most people assume that capitalism means exploitation and creaming off rewards for the few. The corporate world can seem incredibly remote, alien and hostile: the way people dress, speak, and get rewarded can put up a huge and negative barrier. Without a doubt people look at some of those at the very top of financial services organizations and other big businesses, and they perceive a sense of unreality that feels very wrong. Leaders will increasingly need the ability to explain the social role of business and the grand moral purpose of capitalism. What is business doing to improve lives, to help people contribute to society through their work, to play its part in building and maintaining a decent civil society? These are not soft topics, they are the essential ingredients of public trust, of our license to operate. Let’s hear it - capitalism as if the world matters! Business in society, not business and society in separate categories. Paul Polman of Unilever is inspirational on this. He’s one of the most articulate leaders, constantly talking about the purpose of organizations and their responsibility. Paul refuses to play the game of making the numbers look good short term when that compromises the long term, and as a result he has not been popular with some members of the investment community. Good for him! Ultimately if the majority have miserable lives, if you can’t breathe the air, and have no resources left, who cares what the quarterly figures show?

 

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Executive compensation is the elephant in the room.

Trust in business is at an all time low, and expectations from business and the public is at odds, as PwC research for the World Economic Forum has confirmed. The response from business leaders is to think ‘ok, let’s do better on product and service and some social responsibility’. But the public is thinking ‘executive compensation’. Ben & Jerry’s original idea of a ‘triple bottom line’ was far from crazy, because people increasingly want that commitment and that data. Even in the world of private business there is more and more transparency about rewards. Yet this thing which matters supremely to everyone else, to employees, to customers, to shareholders, even to governments who know that inequality directly drives social unrest, this is the one thing which most leaders desperately don’t want to talk about. Either leaders need to be able to explain why they think rewards are justified, or there needs to be a conversation among leaders about what is morally and socially – as well as economically - acceptable.

Leaders need to humanize.

It helps a lot if business leaders come across as human beings with families, people who worry about what other people worry about, people who want a better society for the future. The chemistry needs to change at the top, symbolically and in reality. You need diverse opinions and a diverse range of people, perhaps fewer suits and ties, more signals that these are just people like the rest of us trying to do the best. The ‘glimpse test’ matters, and that means having more people running organisations who don’t come across as the business stereotype. Diversity is sensible for business in substance (for example there’s evidence that boardroom diversity lowers risk), but also in imagery.

Many young people are turned off the idea of working in conventional business.

Leaders have a responsibility to take that head on, to make the next generation understand and feel that business is important and it needs to succeed. They can do that by articulating and delivering purpose, and by emphasizing the human and social dimension of that they do. I frequently come across young people who see themselves at a crossroads – they are asking themselves if they want to go into business or ‘do something good’ like working for a charity. It’s a fake choice and we need to help them see that: if you’re really concerned with providing benefits to individuals, with raising living standards, with other ‘good causes’, you may well find that business provides a quicker way of accelerating benefits than the public or charity sectors.

Business leaders who make their pile and then think about ‘giving back’ have got it all wrong.

You’ve got to give back here, now, in everything you do – from giving back to society because of what your business is and does, to giving back to the people around you through developing them and helping them be the best they can be. Leaders need to be unstintingly generous with their informal and formal mentoring, starting with the people around them, making it a daily habit. You need to want to have others be brilliant, and you need to work at it to make sure they get and take the chances to shine.

“There is no option but to be the same company inside as you aspire to be outside, and that creates a need for a particular kind of leadership”