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Harden up over 'soft skills'

by Bernard Kellerman | 26 Sep 2017

The Australian community’s trust in the financial services sector continues to be affected and FINSIA, along with the regulators – notably ASIC and APRA, are calling for change and improved conduct, culture and accountability within the sector. Harden up over soft skills - InFinance - FINSIA
At a recent FINSIA Forum on “Ethics and Integrity from the Inside Out”, it was identified that “trust arrives on foot and leaves in a fast car, unless ethics, integrity and competence are in the driver's seat.”

That's a complex set of concepts, one that has often been tackled by Mandy Holloway, Co-Founder of Courageous Leaders, and a provider of leadership development programs for corporate and government clients such as APRA.

Holloway characterises the current situation faced by the financial services sector as one where its brand – the external image – has been affected; while it's the culture – the internal way of working to achieve outcomes – that is being highlighted by the regulators for attention and strengthening.

However, Holloway warns that merely introducing legislation is no guarantee that people in leadership positions will act with integrity – a key ingredient for creation of trust.

"I was an auditor for the first 12 years of my career, and one of the things we always looked at was substance over form," she says.

"Integrity is about doing the right thing, even when no one is looking and not 'because I have to follow the legislation' or 'because APRA tells me to do it'."


Leadership reset

Holloway says that what needs to change is that leaders should come from a deeper place of integrity and not from the fear based culture that, historically, leaders of these large organisations have created, where people are too scared to speak up.

"Sadly, people in such organisations live in fear of retribution (e.g. loss of bonuses or damage to their career progression) and judgement by their leaders if they express doubts or admit to mistakes," Holloway says.

"If you want true innovation, it means letting people disrupt the status quo to try things they haven't tried before and they are not always going to get it right.

"But if you have this fear of retribution and judgement and not owning up to mistakes – that means staff would rather let possible problems go out to the market place and hope they are not found out, rather than owning up internally."

"If the financial services sector and its regulators wants to see a real change in culture, focus on the behaviours of the leaders: what do they do each day to encourage their team members to be real, to share their concerns, and to be individually accountable for their personal integrity - doing the right thing even when it is hard to do and might, for example, slow the process of getting to market."


Harden up over 'soft skills'

A high-performing organisation, she says, is one driven by consistent leadership behaviour, where staff at all levels are encouraged to be collaborative in sharing their knowledge, fears, ideas, information, emotions – all without fear of retribution.

"This means encouraging the divergent thinking and not labelling people with different ideas as troublemakers. If the public could genuinely believe that all options had been fully explored they will be more likely to trust the people at the top," Holloway says.

Holloway disagrees with labelling leadership as requiring "soft skills" because for many executives this is the most difficult – and most important – aspect of their roles.

"These [skills] are all about having the confidence and competence to engage in the right conversations at the right time with the right intent," Holloways says. "These competencies are the enablers to implement strategies."


Leadership case study: IAG

Mandy is a big fan of removing the clutter around questions of: What is our brand? What is our mission? "Too much of this and people can get lost," she warns.

An example of an application of this approach has been the way IAG has redefined itself and created a new operating model from 2012 onwards.

Leona Murphy, who until recently was the insurance major's chief strategy officer has explained how she and her fellow management team distilled everything the company did to one clarifying and unifying purpose that all its 15,000 strong workforce, and customers could relate to: (see, for example her 30-minute presentation to a 2016 Human Synergistics forum).

Along the way, the company redefined its purpose – simply, "our compass, why we exist" as: "We make your world a safer place" – and culture was recast as "IAG spirit: "closer, braver, faster".

As Murphy has explained, "a very important part of any transformation journey is leadership", so there was a need to ensure the executive team had all its leadership and management practices lined up, and communication was "not just via the corporate comms team, but was leader-led".


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