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April 8, 2020

From one leader to another: Keep calm and walk your ‘why’, your way

 

If there was ever a time for business leaders to step up – boy oh boy, it is now. It’s a time when years of leadership mentoring, preparedness planning and resilience training kicks into action, and at pace. This is not a drill, folks.

 

These surreal times have landed amidst an equally surreal moment in my career, when last week my business partner Jane and I announced Anthem’s plan for Jane to move into a new role of executive chair, while I take up the mantle as Anthem’s managing director.

 

The step up came with a mixed bag of feelings – of course there was a thrilling sense of excitement and pride that we were able to achieve a business milestone put in place six years ago to the day. But there were a few ‘take a deep breath’ moments as Jane and I watched, listened and pivoted our business as the implications of COVID-19 unravelled before our eyes. Every day, every hour, it seemed, there were new media headlines and new considerations for our business, and those of our clients.

 

I’ve never read the word ‘unprecedented’ more in my life, and like other business leaders we had to make clear decisions fast and communicate them quickly to our team and clients to provide a level of certainty and forward direction.

 

We take comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in navigating these ‘uncharted waters’ (another household phrase).

 

Thousands of business leaders across our resilient nation are stepping up and showing up to lead like they’ve never led before. No matter the size or nature of their business, the common denominator amongst them is that every business leader will be guided by their own individual leadership purpose, their intent, their ‘why?’.

 

Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, says that “walking your why” is the art of living by your own personal set of values – the beliefs and behaviours that you hold dear and that give you a sense of meaning and satisfaction.

 

The business community will face some tough decisions this year – for some, they will be more heart breaking and soul destroying than others, an aftermath of these unforeseen circumstances sideswiping the world out of the blue.

 

How are we going to make it? How do we lead through this? How do we stay strong – not only for our customers and employees – but by virtue for their families and loved ones? It’s a lot of pressure on our shoulders and easy to feel overwhelmed. For me, it all comes back to leading with authentic intent. Naturally that intent differs from leader to leader – but it should be there at the core of each leader.

 

What is it that drives a CEO to lead thousands of people towards an aligned business mission? What motivates a top health care professional to return to a hospital under pressure day after day with an unwavering devotion to help others?

 

It is simply the feelings felt by a leader when they lead, when they do what they do best – it is the values and attitudes that make up an unspoken passion to deliver on their leadership promise every day – and that passion and purpose is different for every leader.

 

 

It even differs between my business partner Jane and me. I was reminded of this when we informed our networks about the change and received one response: “You’ve got big shoes to fill there, Caro!” That I do – big, sparkly and fabulous shoes at that! But this remark was quickly followed by an important message, a reminder that those are Jane’s shoes, not mine, and I have no intention to morph my ‘feet’ into them. I must step forward in my own way, in my own shoes, if I’m to be true to myself and show others that we must always be our authentic selves. Jane herself showed me that, she unashamedly has her own style and way of doing things, which inspires others to do the same.

 

Business leaders the world over face the same challenge when stepping up to take on what could be perceived as a great opportunity – the inner critic worrying about how well people will perceive their performance compared to a predecessor, the subconscious comparison between legacies and new ways of doing things.

 

So to that, I challenge all of us to reflect on our own leadership purpose and bring this to the fore of every piece of feedback, every idea, conversation or decision you need to make in the coming days, weeks and months. There will certainly be no shortage of these but remaining true to our personal leadership values will make these often-daunting processes easier and more authentic.

 

For me, two years ago during my Global Women Breakthrough Leaders programme, my own leadership purpose was defined and has been rock solid in my mind ever since. Values that I hold dear are courage and encouragement, compassion, connection, joy, respect, honesty, curiosity and collaboration.

 

I’ve always found collaboration – inviting a range of skills, expertise and experiences to the table to make things happen – to be a very rewarding approach to doing business and solving problems. I’m seeing and encouraging businesses to come together to create opportunities to solve common pain points or benefit others. At Anthem, we’re big on bringing smarts together to drive change. No one has all the answers, and we need to leave our egos at the door, and invite collective wisdom in.

 

I am driven by a desire to create opportunities that allow other people (clients and employees) to shine and be the best version of themselves, even if that means nudging them into territories of discomfort, to illicit positive change and success. And role modelling this myself.

 

I’m also a big believer in the power of calm – and was touched by some wise words I’ve heard from a few business leaders in recent weeks, that is what New Zealand needs now is “cool heads and warm hearts”. In my job, that need to ‘reframe’ under pressure is critical. Decisions are best made with a clear head and an open mind, and by using our values to guide us. Pause, reflect, pivot – but do this with intent.

 

These times are unusual, surreal, but let’s keep calm. Keep calm and lead the way that only you know how, in your own style and with your own values. Together, we’ve got this!

 

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