The Leadership Lens: perspectives on effective leadership

As part of a unique, comprehensive research study, we talked with CEOs from around the country about essential concepts of leadership they employ to develop effective teams, and, the ways to build a valuable leadership playbook for future generations.

The Leadership Lens is an 8-part interview series roundup; reporting the actionable leadership insights and lessons discovered throughout our exclusive question and answer sessions. In this edition, we bring you the leadership focus of Georgie Harman, beyondblue.

Q: On the topic of “leadership”, how do you define the term either in your own role as a leader or aspects of great leadership that inspires you?

A: The ability to be strong, make decisive calls, stand by your decisions, take the rap and hold yourself accountable are all great leadership qualities. What isn’t commonly spoken about when it comes to leadership, is human connection, vulnerability and accessibility. I think the “school of leadership” teaches us to become good leaders, but I also think that knowing who you are as a person when you're a leader, is fundamental to your ability to lead well.  I think more and more, people want to work in environments and with people who are genuine.

Q: How then, do leaders achieve the right balance between being authentic without showing too much of themselves?

A: For me, achieving that balance has been one of my greatest learnings in becoming the head of an organisation. I’ve realised that you don't need to change yourself, you just need to be yourself and be vulnerable sometimes. Sometimes, as a leader you just need to put yourself out there and I've done that. I've done that in environments that have been very uncomfortable for me, but it has had an extraordinary impact.

I've talked openly to boards and thousands of executives about circumstances that have impacted my own mental health and wellbeing, and my ability to manage the life events that hit all of us from time to time; how they impact us personally as well as professionally. Being vulnerable in a public forum has led to conversations with others about what they are going through.

Q: So, when you’re look at building a team of leaders, how important is culture-fit versus skill-fit for you?

A: beyondblue has a culture that I call “business head, community heart”. I need to run the most effective, efficient, impactful, productive organisation I possibly can to push as much money, service and support towards the community that are our shareholders. So, in terms of your question, one of the lead factors for our organisation would be culture fit. I want a highly skilled, highly professional executive team who genuinely subscribe to a like-minded, values-driven worldview. Our leaders are entrepreneurial, not scared to take a risk, and understand that with every single cent that comes our way, we are still custodians of public money.

Q: Is there a specific way leaders should best communicate their corporate vision to foster motivation with team members?

A: I’m not sure there is a specific way. But something I do is share my expectations with new starters early on. First I say: "I expect you to come to work and work absolutely at your maximum capacity and work really hard because it's a privilege to work here and the community also expects that of us.” Then: “I also expect you to come to work and have fun, because what we do is really hard a lot of the time and you've got to find a release valve." The third thing is: "I expect you to come to work and ask questions and not constrain yourself to your team. You get the most out of your time here if you are inquisitive and have an interest in our work right across the business."

Being open with your communication as a leader can help you find things out about people that can help you motivate them and start matching and mapping the future leaders of your business.

Q: When identifying potential leaders in your business, people who are ready to step up, how do you know when they are ready?

A: Our business is about connectedness. And, because I encourage the spread of knowledge across the organisation early on, I then observe the most extraordinary things about people which helps me get a better sense of our capability as an organisation as well. So, beyond the obvious technical skills, I think people are ready to develop into leadership when I see humility, initiative, strength, the capacity to work hard, and again, that kind of... ability to connect with people.

Q: What challenges do you see from a leadership perspective in terms of leading future generations?

A: The way younger generations think is completely different to how we grew up and how I was taught. For example, beyondblue ‘Millennial’ employees provide endless hours of amusement for my team about how ineffectual I am with technology. There's often a lot of talk, especially in our world, around how technology, social media, is really bad for mental health. But, technology is the way in which young people transact these days. So, as leaders of today, the challenge is making sure that the future generation of leaders understand the importance of not over-relying on technology, remembering to still create the space for human to human contact.

Q: Besides technology, are there any other gaps in leadership capabilities that you observe at individual or business level?

A: It may seem almost inevitable that I say this, because it's such a big part of what beyondblue does these days, but I think there is a gap between true leadership and building mentally healthy workplaces. Actually understanding that the mental health of a workforce is a key lever to productivity, participation, profit and good outcomes is paramount.  If businesses are not serious about that, if they’re treating it like a tick box exercise, which I sometimes see, they might as well not bother.

Another ‘gap’ coming back to generational stuff is the idea that you should just keep someone for as long as you can. What we see often at beyondblue is the most incredibly bright, ambitious, talented people come to us. They come to us from a diverse range of backgrounds, have exposure to the most incredible range of initiatives and then they get headhunted. It’s really annoying but there's no point in getting wound up about that. Leaders should send them on their way with their blessing saying, "It’s great we had you for two years or three years. Hopefully you learnt something at beyondblue and you will apply those skills in your new challenge."

An advocate for mental health, Georgie Harman is the Chief Executive Officer of beyondblue. She spoke with the team as part of our research project "The Future of Leadership" in corporate Australia.