Leading at the top

If you are the lead wolf at the top and carry great responsibility, for example for a big business unit, a big country, or even an entire company, then you have to lead well to be successful. You have to endure loneliness, because you decide more and more alone, often with fewer people around you than in previous roles.

As the lead wolf, you often get less feedback, and that feedback may be less honest, because more and more people in the hierarchy are on a level below you, and may be afraid of your position, or of you as person or both. You may find you receive filtered feedback out of fear or convenience. To address this missing or filtered feedback, ask questions and listen, especially to less comfortable answers.

How do you lead at the top? Here are my 5 best tips for you:

1. Confidence and brutal truth

To be at the top, you need confidence and faith in the success of the people in your company. You need a clear vision and a strong picture of the future that inspires your employees. You need a simple, clear strategy, and you have to let your employees feel safe, that together you will make it.

On the other hand, as the lead wolf at the top you should create a climate where the truth is told without fear. Do not encourage fear and hesitation, but open factual discussion. Lead with questions, not answers. Carry out honest analysis without looking for culprits. These steps will take away the fear of mistakes and the fear of your role and its power. Have regular lunches, coffee chats, walks with employees of all levels. Through “management by walking around” you are noticeable and you create confidence and faith.

You also need a climate of complete, even brutal truth. What happens, if this truth is missing, has been evidenced by the example of Nokia mobile phones. When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, Nokia still believed in the superior importance of technology. At that time, Nokia was already 3G capable, while the iPhone was “only” capable of 2G. Objectively correct. But the brutal truth was that more and more smartphone users at that time were not primarily interested in the number of Gs offered with a smartphone. While Nokia was still the dominant market leader in 2007 and every second smartphone was a Nokia, only a decade later Nokia, as a smartphone brand, was history. The smartphone brand Nokia had gone down because leaders did not manage to face the truth.

So tip # 1: Confidence and brutal truth.

2. Lead your boss

In order to lead at the top, you need the trust, the respect, and the support of your boss, possibly your advisory board and supervisory board as well. Clarify as accurately as possible what is expected of you. The assumed clarity at the top is, in reality, often very unclear. Top executives, after assuming their responsibilities, often hear very general phrases like “We expect even faster earnings growth and you will show us how …” Maybe you are also uncertain what the people around you really want from you.

In this situation, you, as the lead wolf at the top should be clear about what success looks like and how you can achieve it. You should convince your boss of what you think is right, clarify expectations, and then deliver results. You should have a common focus on business outcomes with your boss, avoiding negative surprises, and regularly aligning with your manager on your goals, direction and priorities. Because only if the owner, the supervisory board, your boss and you are fully behind you and you lead as a lead wolf, then and only then you will lead your department, your country and your company to lasting success.

So tip # 2: Lead your boss.

3. Great willpower, small ego

On the one hand, the best lead wolves have enormous willpower. They have a strong inner drive for their cause, they want to win. They do not seek the convenient, but always endeavour to make the right thing to happen. Their willpower gives them the incentive to deal with setbacks and to fight for what they think is right. Their courage allows them to dare to do new things. And their willpower allows them to go ahead, despite their fear, and take all their staff with them.

On the other hand, the best lead wolves also have a small ego and great modesty. They do not lead from top to bottom, but always at eye level. They are strong but also approachable, strong-willed but also vulnerable and human. A lead wolf can acknowledge her own mistakes and can take responsibility for her own mistakes and the mistakes of employees.

An example of a lack of modesty comes from a large rubber manufacturer. This company had a rather egocentric CEO for many years. In an article about leading change in his company, the word “I” appeared 44 times, the word “we” only 16 times. Although this CEO did manage some good years for his company. After that, it fell into insignificance. One important reason for this was that the CEO was pretty self centred and he lacked the ability to build a strong successor.

I have seen a good example in my 16 years in a global consumer goods company with American roots. My then boss, who was my direct superior for several years, was clear and consistent. He always gave me the amazing feeling that he served me, instead of me serving him. Today, he is the company’s global CEO with nearly 100,000 employees. He is always modest and never allows his great intellectual and personal strengths to take centre stage. He always puts the interests of the company, customers and the interests of the employees in the foreground. He has been a huge motivator in my career.

So tip # 3: Great willpower, little ego.

4. Focus on customer and employees

In many companies, employees say they have to invest too much time into internal focus, meetings, reporting, etc. They have too little time for employees and customers. In a large global company that my team and I are currently advising, senior executives in interviews told us that they spend between 40% and 80% of their time working on internal things. This is simply too much. As a lead wolf at the top, you have to turn away from an internal focus. Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, once said, “We win in markets, not in boardrooms.” Decisive for success is that customers are satisfied or even enthusiastic with your product or service. Good leadership at the top requires a clear view of the entire company, where your limited time should actually be invested. What is the key focus in your business? What percentage of your time do you invest into employees and customers? Successful companies, such as Apple or Richard Branson’s Virgin, focus a lot on both customer and employee.

So tip # 4: Focus on customer and employees

5. Develop strong leaders, strong followers, and yourself

An average executive develops convenient followers who do not contradict and do behave in a manner that is comfortable and desired from above. They establish a system with one genius – they themselves – and a thousand helpers. In these cultures, one sees more and more uniformity, and less and less innovation arising. In today’s VUCA world, with its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, other leaders are needed at all levels. Today so much information is permanently available that a single person can not possibly know the best solution. It takes the clever thinking of all employees.

By contrast, sustainably successful leaders develop strong leaders. They make sure the right people are in the right positions and the wrong ones are moved out. They establish strong executives and systematically develop a strong leadership culture. They define what good leadership means. And they measure their executives not only on their short-term business results, but also on their leadership behaviour. Only when you lead well, when you surround yourself with people who are stronger than you in many ways, when you systematically measure, evaluate and reward good leadership, do you build a sustainably successful company that will be successful even after you move on.

If you as lead wolf, are responsible for a lot of people, then ask yourself, what culture do you characterise through your daily leadership behaviour? Whether you want it or not, you are a role model through everything you do in every moment. What behaviour do you model? Do you develop convenient followers or courageous leaders?
Especially if you lead at the top, keep evolving, looking for people you trust, your HR leader, a mentor, a coach who will give you valuable input and honest feedback. It is worth it.

So tip # 5: Develop strong leaders, followers and yourself.

Summarised, my 5 best tips for leadership at the top:

1. Confidence and brutal truth
2. Lead your boss
3. Great willpower, small ego
4. Focus on customer and employees
5. Develop strong leaders, strong followers and yourself

Thank you for your attention,
your Stefan Homeister