Rebeka* is the European CEO of a manufacturing company with plants in several countries in Eastern Europe. At budget time, Rebeka faced a dilemma: should she put in her case for more investment in Europe or request that any investment funds available be allocated to China instead. Rebeka could see the once in a lifetime opportunity for the company to grow through a major acquisition in Asia. Her decision required courage and self sacrifice on her part as without investment in her region she would need to close the manufacturing plants that had reached the end of their life.

Enterprise Leadership: easier said than done!

Enterprise leadership – acting in the best interests of the enterprise rather than one’s business unit or function – is a behaviour today’s CEO’s look for in the members of their executive teams. Whilst many CEO’s expect and many executives espouse this leadership practice – for many executive teams it remains an aspirational concept rather than a practical reality. Research by CEB suggests that only 12% of leaders are effective enterprise leaders.

Enterprise leadership: acting in the best interests of the enterprise rather than one’s own business unit or function. Click To Tweet

Why enterprise leadership matters

Enterprise leadership has become a popular phrase in many businesses today. CEO’s the world over, irrespective of the sector or industry they operate in, recognise that leading in today’s VUCA world is not something that can be done by one individual no matter how experienced and talented that person might be. Tackling the complexities of the modern business world requires an aligned team of individuals all pulling in the same direction and working together in service of the business and its stakeholders. As the old saying goes ‘two brains are better than one” and never is that more relevant than in businesses today.

What is Enterprise Leadership?

As the name suggests enterprise leadership is a simple concept, it is about acting in the best interests of the enterprise as a whole. But what does this simple concept look like in practice?

In practice leaders who demonstrate Enterprise Leadership will give priority to initiatives that benefit the whole business even if it means giving something up one’s part of the business/function.

But enterprise leadership is about much more than making sacrifices for the greater good. It’s a mindset, a way of thinking and feeling that manifests itself in executives behaviour each and every day. Leaders who demonstrate enterprise leadership also demonstrate the following behaviours regularly:

    • At the executive table, they only raise issues which impact the enterprise as a whole and that all members of the team have an interest in resolving.
    • They show interest in and take action to understand the business outside of their immediate area; this includes regularly visiting other parts of the business, talking to leaders and employees who work in other areas, seeking input from people outside their area and taking this input on board when making decisions.
    • They make every effort to contribute to enterprise wide decisions even if the decision has minimal impact on their area.
    • They talk about the business as a whole and not only their part of it.
    • They seek to understand and assume positive intent e.g. they ask clarifying questions and probe for thinking and intent of their colleagues rather than jumping to conclusions.
    • They speak up especially when they believe that a decision is not in the best interests of the organisation and its critical stakeholders and will take several different approaches to get their point across.
    • They ‘play the ball, not the person’ when challenging their colleagues perspectives.
    • Once the executive table makes a table they will support it outside the room even when they did not agree with the collective decision.
    • They are quick to recognise their colleague’s achievements and will often downplay their own.
    • They are proactive in offering help and support to their executive colleagues.
    • Away from the executive table they speak positively about their executive committee colleagues and defend them when needed.

Why is Enterprise Leadership simple in theory but hard in practice?

Though these behaviours sound simple enough and most executives are very capable of demonstrating them, in practice, it is hard to do so consistently. Most executives will breach at least one of these behaviours every day, and many will do so many times a day despite the fact that this is rarely if ever their intent.

The reason is simple. Most executives’ journey to the executive table is characterised by focusing on maximising value in their part of the business and by being the expert in their field. This value and expertise are what got rewarded, reinforced and ultimately it is what got them promoted. Similarly, most individuals who end up around the executive table got there because of their strong views, their willingness to make a stand and their ability to influence those around them. It is not then surprising that many executives seek to replicate the very behaviours that got them where they are when they make it to the top.

What can executives do to become Enterprise leaders?

The first step in becoming an enterprise leader is to recognise the need and to understand what it looks like in practice. Then, like any new skill it involves trying it out in practice, reflecting on what happened then trying it again until it becomes a new habit. If you want to become more of an enterprise leader try these five behaviours with your executive colleagues until they become your new habits:

  1. Read widely especially outside your area of expertise.
  2. Think about how you introduce yourself to others both inside and outside your organisation: If you introduce yourself as the Director of HR or the BU Director that will set boundaries around what people talk to you about and thus limits your ability to broaden your perspective.
  3. Ask yourself ‘how can I maximise the whole?’ rather than ‘how can I maximise my part?’.
  4. Assume positive intent: Assume that others are acting in the best interests of the business until proven otherwise. When you hear or observe a colleague doing something you disapprove of assume positive intent i.e. do not judge a person’s intent by their behaviour. Speak to the person directly to understand what happened and why.
  5. Seek first to understand: This involves asking more questions and making fewer statements. Seek to understand the perspectives of others especially those with very different experiences and perspectives to your own. It also involves listening deeply to the responses. Forget about what you are going to say next and listen to what the person is saying and not saying.By the way, Rebeka decided to support the acquisition in China and is now heavily engaged in ensuring that employees, customers, suppliers, and communities in the regions affected by the plant closures are treated with compassion and respect.

 *Rebeka is a fictional character


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About Contributor

Wendy is a Director at Korn Ferry Hay Group. She focuses on Executive Team Development, Leadership Development, Diversity and Emotional Intelligence. Wendy is passionate about helping senior executives become more effective leaders. She understands the impact great leadership has on people performance, and has extensive experience in aligning people and organisational design with business strategies.

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