Connecting the dots: a new model of leadership

MPA's editor reviews leadership consultant Simon Hayward’s new book, Connected Leadership, a practical guide for the modern boss, and talks to the author

Connecting the dots: a new model of leadership
Connected leadership: How to Build a More Agile, Customer-driven Business is best described as a practical handbook for hands-on leadership. It’s not an inspirational memoir or academic overview; instead it contains 250 words of case studies, bulletpoint guides and bite-size management techniques.

Nevertheless, the book draws on the latest academic thinking on the subject, providing an invaluable resource for leaders who need to drive change in their businesses today. 

Simon Hayward, the author, is CEO of Cirrus, an international leadership consultancy, and the book is the product of his experience in the business and of his own PhD research. Hayward’s practical experience certainly lends credibility to the book. The case studies generally feature companies Cirrus has worked with: international corporations such as hotel chain Mandarin Oriental and savings and investment business Standard Life. While this carries with it the risk of the book being a brochure for Cirrus, this is thankfully not the case; the book is a stand-alone aid to leadership, not just a starting point.

Connected Leadership has 11 chapters, moving from an analysis of the current business environment to the introduction and explanation of ‘connected leadership’. It describes the principles of connected leadership and then provides a selection of guides and case studies on how it actually works, reaching impressive levels of detail. Because it builds on itself, the chapters can’t initially be read in isolation.

As Hayward puts it, “connected leadership is a synthesis of major research into leadership in the 21st century ... so if you omit any of the factors it will be incomplete”. That said, for a 250-page book Hayward provides a lot to take in, and the best way to do this might be to revisit individual chapters.

What connected leadership actually is 
‘Connected leadership’ is Hayward’s vision for management. It can firstly be defined by what it is not: it’s not the ‘heroic’-inspirational leadership of the Steve Jobs or, more locally, the Mark Bouris variety. Hayward doesn’t believe the person at the top is always right, isn’t impressed by speech-making or motivation through setting ambitious goals. Instead he’s interested in “the shared process of leadership that really makes organisations successful in a sustainable way”.

Of the five factors that make up the connected leadership framework (see table), it’s arguably the first, devolved decision-making, that makes Hayward’s approach so definitive. In its most basic form this is about a firm’s structure: “While strategic decisions are made centrally, service-orientated decisions are taken as close to the customer as possible.” The advantages of this approach for a company’s agility – which is another factor of connected leadership – are obvious. “What makes the difference is that colleagues don’t have to refer all decisions up a chain and wait for a response.”

“Essentially we want leaders at all levels engaging their people in relevant discussions which lead to the best decisions they can make”

While some of the factors appear well-meaning but vague – such as collaborative achievement and authenticity – Hayward is quick to spell out how these practically benefit businesses. Through connected leadership a business can respond quickly to customer demands and competition; employees will be empowered to make decisions and engaged enough to put in extra effort. A strong spine of consistency will facilitate experimentation, so the business gradually ‘learns’ what’s needed in a changing environment.

The research behind connected leadership
You don’t need to be convinced by Hayward’s language; perhaps the strongest justification for his arguments is the case studies he puts forward. For each of his five factors Hayward presents a number of case studies: Standard Chartered Bank’s ‘Here for Good’ statement of purpose and direction; retailer Marks and Spencer’s Plan A sustainability program for authenticity; retailer Zara’s shop-level stock ordering for decision-making; Three mobile network for agility; and, most surprisingly, the UK Olympic Team for collaborative achievement.

It’s unfortunate that most of these case studies are UK-centric, but you can’t make the same criticism of the book itself. It references data and management thinking from across the Western world, much of which is surprisingly practical. Good examples include the RAPID technique (recommend, agree, perform, input, decide) for designating decision-making roles, drawn from Rogers and Blenko in the Harvard Business Review, and Hayward’s use of the ‘Ethical leadership at work questionnaire’ by Kalshoven et al to build an ethical leadership checklist. Occasionally the level of detail becomes unnerving: discussing Eric Berne’s analysis of childlike behaviour in adults, Hayward notes that “physical signs to look out for include a quivering lip, laughter/giggling, rapid and changeable movement, shrugging of shoulders, or a whining tone of voice”.

“While strategic decisions are made centrally, service-orientated decisions are taken as close to the customer as possible”

A confronting read
As a book, Connected Leadership strikes the balance between easy airport-bookshop read and serious strategy guide. The writing is witty: describing a case study of innovative cooperation between retail and category managers, a deadpan Hayward concludes that “the resulting chocolate underpants for Valentine’s Day were a great commercial success”. The metaphors are generally convincing: Hayward writes that agile companies respond “just as a successful soccer or rugby team shares a collective intelligence that allows highly fluid movement without losing its tactical shape”.

On occasion the writing is notably pointed and confronting. As one memorable passage on the value of authenticity goes, “If you say you prize integrity (and possibly have it emblazoned on your corporate website and boardroom walls), but demonstrate that you prize success above all things, people are more likely to do whatever it takes to succeed rather than worrying about integrity”. Hayward doesn’t shy away from directly instructing the reader, such as when he talks about agility: “As a leader, you also need to have the courage to slash through any bureaucratic thinking or activities which could slow down innovation and learning”.

Brokers may find that the weaker chapters in the book are where the writing heads too far in one direction and loses touch with practical examples, as at the end of Chapter 11, or when it dawdles on secondary topics, such as a section on sense-making in Chapter 4. For the small business reader, Hayward’s focus on international corporations can be frustrating, but the principles of connected leadership remain relevant, although a few small business examples could have widened the book’s appeal considerably.

Concentrating on the ‘how’
For a small business leader, Connected Leadership is an interesting and useful book, mainly because it concentrates on the ‘how’. It allows for immediate application to your organisation, which in a small business is particularly viable. However, by concentrating on the ‘how’, Hayward assumes you already know the ‘why’ behind connected leadership. Admittedly, you might imagine someone who’s willing to read a leadership book would be open to change, but that’s not guaranteed; a vast amount of leadership writing still revolves around heroic individuals, and many readers will expect that when first reading this book.

Furthermore, while it’s possible to immediately apply the principles of connected leadership to your business, actually doing so requires a lot of courage. In the excellent Chapter 10, ‘Taking people with you’, the numerous bullet-point guides and infographics make clear that this is a difficult process, and that alienating your existing staff could be a real possibility. And of course actually delegating decisionmaking to your staff and being willing to tolerate mistakes presents more of a challenge in a small business struggling to stay afloat.

“Just as a successful soccer or rugby team shares a collective intelligence that allows highly fluid movement without losing its tactical shape”

It’s much easier to commit to making these changes when you trust the thinking behind them, and luckily Hayward’s justification of connected leadership is eloquent, believable and practical. The book is also surprisingly comprehensive; although it could have more on small businesses and non-Western work cultures, it’s far more satisfying than the inspiring but brief ‘starting point’ leadership writing we’ve grown accustomed to.

A perfect example of Hayward’s concise approach, and of connected leadership more broadly, comes towards the end of the book in the penultimate Chapter 10: “Essentially we want leaders at all levels engaging their people in relevant discussions which lead to the best decisions they can make. When followed up and reviewed these will then become new habits. This is when change occurs.”

“Connected Leadership: How to Build a More Agile, Customer-driven Business”, by Simon Hayward and published by FT Publishing, is now available in print and electronic versions.

MPA: Much of your book addresses the problems faced by managers of large, unwieldy corporations – how should leaders of ambitious small businesses approach this book? 
Simon Hayward:
The principles apply, but in quite a few areas it’s easier to be connected because you’ve got much more direct contact with people, so the leaders of the business probably have a shared history: they set up the business together; they work together; there’s a sense of shared history. But there’s still a need to maintain a fresh sense of why we’re here, and remind people where we’re going; the level of authenticity and trust in a business and whether people trust the leadership group is still an issu, whether they’re really committed or not.

We’ve seen data on when people are quite engaged with a business but don’t believe in the senior leadership. So that can happen in a small company as well as a large one, but the problem is that can have an impact on the customer experience. In a small company, most people are having an impact on the customer experience, whether you’re in accounts sending invoices or directly providing a service, such as selling mortgages. If the people don’t feel a level of trust, they’re unlikely to provide a genuinely caring or authentic customer experience, which will ultimately impact on revenues and customer satisfaction.

The issues around devolved decision-making are less of an issue, although I myself run a business of 50 people, and there’s always an issue of the founder or decision maker believing they always make the best decisions, and other people who’ve joined that business are used to that syndrome, and they adjust accordingly. But as a business grows or becomes more diverse, the idea that one individual has the absolute licence on good decisions means you’re probably missing out on good ideas and insights … it’s still something that needs work on, but you can do it more personally and more directly.

MPA: Are the lessons of Connected Leadership applicable internationally, or are they restricted by different work cultures in different countries? 
I think it’s a really interesting question. The next stage of research, and one we’re talking to one or two universities in Asia about, is to extend this research to look at how it plays out in different cultures. So, absolutely, there is a cultural factor in here that needs to be accommodated. But also there’s a lot of lessons about large corporate multinationals, which need to work in a coordinated way, and about human interaction, which is fairly universal.

MPA: Is there any truth in characterising connected leadership as leading from the middle? 
The idea of being at the centre of a network, and all the people in the network being important, there is something in that; there’s a diffused ability across the network, but there is a central point of coordination … like being the centre of the web.

Simon Hayward is the founder and CEO of Cirrus, an international leadership consultancy. He has a doctorate from Manchester Business School, and has spoken about leadership to the Financial Times, the Guardian and the BBC.