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Brave new leadership for a brave new world

Catherine Carter

Two world wars and the Great Depression had a huge influence on leadership in the 20th century.

Businesses were structured along military lines, and ‘command and control’ hierarchies drove productivity and profit. But this business model no longer works. We now operate in an environment so bewilderingly fast-paced that it is impossible for one leader to stay on top of everything.

As the world shifts on its axis – away from the West and towards Asia – economies are changing. Our globalised world is more interconnected and more volatile than ever before. The rate of technological innovation accelerates daily, creating new industries and disrupting old ones. And social media can capture the attention, and ire, of millions of customers in the blink of an eye.

This brave new world demands brave new leadership. Despite what we are often led to believe, leadership skills are not timeless. They evolve to suit the times.

These times demand leaders that can listen and “foster a climate of empowerment, teamwork and hope,” says Chris Wheeler, a partner with law firm King & Wood Mallesons. Wheeler, the firm’s lead real estate, construction and infrastructure partner in the KWM Canberra office, says the “whip and stick approach” no longer works when you are “motivating your people to go that extra mile”.

Instead, being “humble” and “listening to what your people are saying and being accessible” get the best results.

“Leading from the top of the ivory tower does not encourage people to storm the castle,” he adds. Leaders need to foster cultures where ideas are shared. This enables staff to “have a voice” and play an active part in “designing” their organisation.

“Rather than just telling people what they need to do, the leaders of KWM are transparent about their priorities and objectives. This sets the expectations and strategic frameworks, but empowers people to make decisions and grow the business,” Wheeler explains.

Jacqueline Williams is a law graduate, and was employed by KWM through its graduate program this year. She thinks leadership is no longer a skill expected of a handful of senior members in a team, but rather an approach desired for every member of a team.

“In my experiences at university, extra-curricular activities, and now as a graduate at KWM, team-leadership is pivotal to good management, productivity and importantly a sense of belonging and motivation,” she says.

Team leadership doesn’t just work from the top down, but also from the bottom-up and peer to peer, Williams observes.

“Everyone can play a role to contribute their strengths to the team, and motivate others to take ownership as well.

Pria O’Sullivan, special counsel with KWM, agrees. She says good leadership is “often achieved by expecting the best of the team but with the leader also demonstrating that they are giving their best at the same time”.

Helping others to build their own careers is a hallmark of this brave new leadership. KWM has always focused on being “great place to work”, Wheeler says. But “now, we’ve really honed in on creating a great place for our people to grow”.

For example, the KWM Project Contribution initiative acknowledges the effort staff put in beyond billable work by removing daily targets. “It gives our legal staff the space to spend their time on a variety of productive activities,” Wheeler explains.

New leadership also embraces diversity, Wheeler says. Why? Because “getting a variety of views from all angles helps produce better decisions”.

The proof that diverse teams deliver better outcomes continues to stack up. A recent survey of 245 global organisations by Deloitte, for instance, found firms with diverse and inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be innovative, six times more likely to anticipate change and respond effectively, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets.

Wheeler says his company’s diversity programs have helped leaders become “more attuned to the human side of our people and clients”. Initiatives such as targets to achieve a greater proportion of women at the partnership level, and flexible and agile working policies to support and retain women lawyers throughout their working career are beginning to bear fruit.

But as O’Sullivan observes, “workplaces also need to encourage male employees to take advantage of flexible or agile working arrangements.”

Of course, diversity is more than gender balance. O’Sullivan says KWM is promoting ethnic diversity.

“In reviewing CVs and interviewing candidates for graduate positions, we use measures to avoid unconscious bias and to ensure we get the best candidates on offer.” This includes blind CV reviews and looking for candidates from diverse backgrounds or people who have sought out different opportunities during university.

Williams says this approach was noticeable to her during the graduate recruitment process.

“Our interviewers took an active interest in my experiences and passions outside of the law, and were open to how these experiences can inform and contribute to a more well-rounded practice,” she says.

Brave new leaders understand they don’t have all the ideas or all the answers. Today’s fast-paced, complex business environment, and it’s diverse, disperse and tech-savvy workforce, demands a different approach. And that means listening and engaging, motivating and inspiring, challenging and connecting.


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author