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Women in Leadership| Leadership Moments

Leadership Moments: “When Loyalty Is All That’s Left, Departure is Essential”

May 24, 2018


During her extensive C-suite career, my colleague Meredith Hellicar, the CEO of Merryck & Co. ANZ, has done it all — worked in multinational public companies as well as start-ups, served on and chaired boards, and mentored 30 senior executives. In these “Leadership Moments” interviews, I’m asking Merryck’s mentors about the key lessons they learned during their careers and their best mentoring advice. Here’s the conversation I had (edited for space on LinkedIn) with Hellicar, which included her provocative advice about knowing when it’s time to leave a company or when it’s time to let someone go.

Q. Over the course of mentoring about 30 clients, what are some of the patterns you’ve seen?

A. A few themes come up time and again. One would be about grappling for a sense of purpose. Most senior executives are very high performers and they’ve moved quickly through their careers with a mindset of doing and achieving. Now that they’re leading an organization or an entire division, they are starting to think more about legacy and purpose.

Q. What do you tell them?

A. My role is to challenge them, to help them work it out, so I ask a lot of questions. The one thing I do reinforce for them is that they’re asking the right question, that it’s worth spending time on, and that answering it will make a difference to their leadership and effectiveness, which will flow to the bottom line of the business performance.

Q. So what questions do you ask?

A. Sometimes they think that there’s a contradiction in being so focused on short-term results while also wondering about their own long-term legacy. So I ask questions to help them see that it’s a “both-and” situation, rather than an “either-or.” I ask about their values and what they want to be remembered for.

I also ask more immediate questions about the events and interactions that trouble them and why, to clarify what’s happening inside them as they encounter different issues. I’ll listen for words or phrases they use a number of times and ask them to elaborate on what they mean. They have the answers within them — I just help them connect dots and offer challenging observations.

Q. Other themes that come up?

A. There is always something about the team. Invariably they have one person on their team who really shouldn’t be there, and they know it. I’m always struck by how businesses are so often portrayed as being hard-hearted and ruthless. But human beings are overly loyal – to their companies, to the people who work for them, and to their bosses. I have a little saying: “When loyalty is all that’s left, departure is essential.”

Lastly, when a leader tells me their team is working really well together, I wonder what’s really going on there, because sometimes the leader is averse to generating robust debate. The clue will be that they’re finding it hard to get some things done. That generally is a sign that everybody’s just agreeing to what the leader is saying, or someone else in the room is dominating the discussion and there’s not really robust debate.

Q. You get a window into many corporate cultures through your clients. What are the big momentum killers?

A. There’s no doubt that companies are being gummed up by complexity, because of the speed of change in so many aspects of their business. Companies are trying to cling to old business models and simply overlay new strategies and agile ways of working, and that makes for incredible complexity. We’ve still got businesses that are structured in silos, and yet companies are adding multifarious teams that are diffuse and dispersed.

There’s a fear about completely restructuring in a way that would be more suitable for today’s environment, because that would mean letting go of some of the core, old ways of working. That’s an enormous problem because it leads to people not fully understanding what they’re accountable for. As organizations become more fluid, they’re also grappling with how to make people individually more accountable. That’s a real problem for organizations at the moment.

Another cultural issue I warn my clients about is to be wary of black-and-white people.

Q. What does that mean?

A. They’re the people who only see issues in black-and-white terms. Our entire culture – business and social — encourages people to be very opinionated and to be incredibly direct and confident about their views. That’s fine up to a point. But in my experience, issues are never black-and-white, and people who do think that way are generally naïve or dishonest or both. I don’t mean fraudulently dishonest, but dishonest in terms of being in denial. I tell clients to be wary of those people, and to be wary of becoming that sort of person themselves. It creates blind spots and slows them down.

Q. What are the X-factors that separate great CEOs from merely good CEOs?

A. One is the ability to be curious and to truly listen. It’s not about just taking in everyone’s ideas and trying to reach consensus. It’s about really hearing what’s being said and asking the one extra question. The second is a kind of peripheral vision that allows them to see the world not as contradictions, but as a “both-and.”

The third thing is an ability to manage their time effectively and really focus on what matters. I’m surprised at how many really good CEOs don’t manage their time as effectively as they could. Some of the most effective ones are not racing from meeting to meeting. They’ve got time for reflection, and they seem to always have time for everyone. Why is that? It’s because they’re not trying to do more than only they can do.

Q. What are some of the most important leadership lessons that you’ve learned personally?

A. I’ve learned some of the lessons myself that I talked about earlier – about being too loyal, and about the importance of always asking just one more question. For most of us, if we’re told a piece of information, we tend to accept it at face value, particularly if it reinforces our own belief system. But sometimes, if you ask that one additional question, it can tip a belief you have on its head.

Another one I learned through bitter experience is be wary about “running into the fire” alone. I took over the chairmanship of an organization that was in a great crisis. The other board members took ten steps back, and I took one forward because I was incredibly determined that we were going to rectify what had happened. You might be the best, strongest and most capable person, but you need to make sure that you’ve got people there who have the capacity, capability, talent and willingness to be there with you.

Q. Where does your drive come from? Is it nature or nurture?

A. I think it’s a combination. My mother would say that it was in me from the start. Of the three children, she would say that I was the one who was constantly leaning out of my pram trying to get out and do things.

But my parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and my mother had a very strong belief that a woman should never be financially dependent on a man or anyone else. From a very early age, I always assumed that I would work and have a career. There’s an optimism and resilience in me, too, that’s made me a bit of an Eveready battery.

Q. Let’s shift to job interviews. If you could only ask someone one question, and then decide based on their answer whether to hire them, what would the question be?

A. I would probably just ask something about “why?” Why do you do what you do? I wouldn’t be asking why they are interested in this job. I would just ask them, why are you who you are? And then just see where they take the answer.

I would be listening for somebody who had done some reflection and learning. Have they thought about who they are and what their purpose is, and why? What kind of leader are they?

Follow Adam Bryant and Merryck & Co on LinkedIn to see more.