Three things I’ve learned as a leader

I’m stepping down as CEO of Wolff Olins, after three and a half years in the role. My friend, colleague, and Wolff Olins’ long-time COO, Sairah Ashman is taking up the reins. She’ll bring fresh energy and her usual vision, integrity and care to the role.

For Wolff Olins, these are exciting times.

As part of our transition, Sairah asked me what my most important learnings over the last three and a half years were, and I thought I’d share them:

1.That to be radical is to be human

I’ve learnt that no matter how big, systemic, important the change you are trying to make happen, you have to make it about people and bring those people along, methodically, thoughtfully, one by one.

This learning should not be mistaken as an excuse to aim low or avoid the radical.

On the contrary.

To be radical is to go back to what is fundamental to us as people, and there is nothing more fundamental than our humanity itself. When change is conceived and articulated in terms that make it clear why it’s better for individuals and society in a way that transcends efficiency and profits and speed; when you give people the time and space to interrogate that change and go through the stages of grief (killing off the old) and discovery (giving birth to new), there is literally no limit to what you can get done.

When I’ve done that – for our business or with clients – we’ve had great success. When I’ve not done that – perhaps because I’m running too fast or I’ve just not been conscious or thoughtful enough – the results have not matched the promise.

Luckily, I’ve been surrounded by people (like Sairah) who haven’t let me make that mistake too often.

2. That inputs are as important as (maybe even more important than) outcomes

I’ve learnt that the metrics that society uses to measure success and failure are not really fit for purpose, measuring only, as they do, progress towards some soulless upper right quadrant. When the dust settles, I’ve found it’s not been the hard measurable outputs alone – sometimes not at all – that have defined success or failure. Instead, what we put into it, in time, care and thoughtfulness, has produced results that endure: belief, commitment, growth, change.

The modern world asks us to set measureable goals. This is not a bad thing. But inputs, sometimes with no firm objective, have their place. To take more walks. To create more time for people. To learn something new. To be truly present.

In this fast-paced, ambitious, have-it-all-now environment that our people and clients operate in, I’ve learnt that sometimes the job of the leader is not to make the boat go faster, but to encourage people to stop for a second, take stock, recalibrate how they’re showing up. With fresh perspective, not only are people healthier, the work is often better.

3. That the primary challenge of today’s leaders is to unleash everyone’s creativity

In this era of infinite access to knowledge, to the means of production and to capital, creativity is really the only difference human beings can make to any process or system or organisation. And so learnings 1 and 2 become even more important for me as a leader, and my task becomes, quite singularly, to create the conditions that allow people to be their most creative selves. To accept that those conditions mean allowing vulnerability, allowing people to bring their (often odd) passions to the job, aligning their personal agendas and ambitions to the organisation’s purpose, and re-codifying work, fundamentally, as a creative endeavour.

The big questions our clients ask us: ‘where are we?’, ‘where should we go?’ and ‘how do we start?’, each requires a creative response – to observe the world with fresh eyes, to imagine a future that shouldn’t be possible, to take inventive steps towards it.

Even with our 200 people, thinking this way is a daily challenge. For the ambitious leaders of the huge organisations that ask for our help, it’s a mind-boggling task. Yet, it’s a task each leader has to take on to remain relevant and attractive in these turbulent, exciting, unpredictable, thrilling times.

Good luck Sairah. You’re gonna be awesome.

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