Continuing with our successful VIP Luncheon series, WA DEFENCE REVIEW on 22 April 2021 hosted a diverse group of senior management professionals gathered at the top floor boardroom of Quest East Perth to discuss the challenges of leadership in large organisations.
The Chatham House Rule event was convened in partnership with sponsors The CEO Institute WA and Quest East Perth and included senior decision-makers from government, Defence and industry representing Asset Management Council, Austal, Australian Army, CEOs for Gender Equity, Civmec, Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, Hofmann Engineering, L3Harris and Orbital UAV. As such, over a three house session, attendees were asked ‘What are the key challenges that senior decision-makers have to contend with in large organisations’ and ‘What are the array of strategies and responses that should be considered to provide solutions that mitigate risk and build institutional resilience?’.
The discussion was chaired by Professor Stephen Smith of the UWA Defence and Security Institute, and former Australian Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister. Professor Smith began proceedings by regaling the gathering with a few amusing anecdotes regarding challenges with leadership, detailing their similarities across Defence, large corporations and educational institutions, before inviting attendees to present their own experiences and opinions.
A number of common themes were identified during the discussion.
Many attendees noted bureaucracy as an issue when dealing with large entities, whether government or big business, especially the conflict between the agility and flexibility required for an innovative mindset, and the need of bureaucracy to keep things the same and work according to established procedures. “It is frustrating trying to get changes happening in any arena, dealing with large groups, diverse populations and cumbersome processes” said one attendee. “Same inefficiencies and difficulties. But when you fight through those difficulties you end up with a result that is first class.”
Some participants noted that it was important to learn from others how to improve relationships and ameliorate inefficiencies and dysfunctions. An attendee with experience in both government and corporations asserted that “Large multi-nationals working across the globe, across cultures, are far more bureaucratic than governments. There are people within organisations whose job it is to create the bureaucracy, and it becomes very self-serving.”
Further, some divisions such as those in charge of procurement, like the power and control of regulating decision-makers’ actions. The downside to bureaucracy is that it holds back progress and the entrepreneurial spirit. It is possible, according to one attendee, to “scoot” around bureaucracy by having a clear sense of purpose and clarity of values. Bureaucracy was said to override you if you let it, and it takes leadership to break it down. Another attendee held that the way to deal with bureaucracy was by creating relationships across companies and areas.
People & Relationships
The concept of relationships and the human element was mentioned by several attendees, from comments like “The heart of all this is people,” to “build the relationship and find the place of mutual benefit.” Developing relationships was agreed to be an important quality of leadership, influencing essential attributes such as culture, values, and quality of service within an organisation.
It was also noted that when things went wrong, it was important to focus on people and remember that no one involved was actively malicious. Often, staff and managers are carrying out their duties to the best of their abilities. When discussing how communication can influence relationships, one attendee commented “People in the same job or profession, technical people, talk the same language the world over.”
The focus on people was especially important when it came to the process of recruiting and retaining good people within an organisation. The four steps, as laid out by one attendee, were to:
- Employ the right people who are competent to do the job.
- Put them through effective training systems.
- Give them the power to make a decision.
- Top it with strong leadership. If you choose the wrong people, you can spend much of your work hours micromanaging, which cripples productivity and resilience and exposes companies to risk.
Australian culture & identity
The Australian culture and identity was discussed by many attendees, in relation to the way Australians do business, and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. While one attendee asserted that Australians are inherently cynical, another qualified it to say that Australians have a healthy disrespect for authority, expecting it to be earned rather than automatically given.
In discussing the difficulties of dealing with bureaucracy, one attendee noted that “Australians think of ourselves as underdogs and like to push through and break barriers. We are competitors at heart and will continue to punch and punch until we get through.” Also mentioned was the “Australian spirit of mateship, the understanding that we’re all in this together and all want to see each other succeed; this is demonstrated when large corporations pass on their learning to smaller businesses”.
Given the current state of the world, naturally there was discussion of COVID-19 and the challenges this situation has presented to the leadership and resilience of corporations. Several attendees noted positive aspects of the response to the pandemic, in that adapting to unprecedented circumstances has created the ability to work in previously unimagined ways.
The main areas of the impact of COVID-19:
- A spotlight on supply chains, both in terms of diversity and security. The importance of domestic capability was highlighted, whether it be ongoing or able to be stood up at a moment’s notice, for example with local gin distillers able to convert to producing hand sanitiser when required.
- The ethics of supply chains was also considered, especially in relation to the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) movement.
- The fact that essential travel has been transformed.
- The development of video conferencing has become a great way to unite different facilities.
Discussion of the changes initiated by the pandemic led to an examination of the importance of adopting technology in order to remain relevant in a changing world. It is essential to adapt and be agile to be competitive globally. Technology can reduce the time taken to do jobs, while increasing accuracy. As we move towards automation and paperless systems, remaining up to date will enhance resilience.
Implementing systems and work procedures, such as skills matrices ensures best practices.
Some of the essential attributes of leadership mentioned by attendees included:
- Persistence to solve the problem and get on with it.
- Having the right attitude.
- Looking ahead for things coming down the track, which allows corporations to position themselves to mitigate risk and increase resilience.
- The right to professional dissent should be encouraged and managed appropriately. Make staff feel valued and heard, and they will be less likely to leave.
- Choosing the wrong CEO can have disastrous results. Much of a company’s success is about culture, which comes from the people at the top. It is vital for the person making decisions to truly understand what the company does and what makes that company successful.
- Expectations. Constantly checking in-between the board, suppliers, customers, and employees. “Are we clear on expectations, and are we delivering on them?”
In summation, attendees agreed that leadership and resilience require much thought and attention to ensure success in any arena, be it corporate, government or defence. All concurred that the fruitful discussion between participants from different circles provided much food for thought. As always, the networking and relationship development inherent in these events was seen as a key benefit for all participants.