What are the traits that make someone a leader? Maybe a leadership article would be suitable to find out the answers. For the sake of this piece, we will not go into the definition of leadership. Rather, we will focus on one trait that we know all leaders must have – an appetite for learning. More precisely, we will talk about how business leaders can learn and lead effectively.
We all learn – from the beginning of life to the end, we learn and grow. However, the way that we learn things, changes over time and at one point, the curve becomes stagnant – well, in most of the cases. For leaders, who are in charge of a team or an organization, the stagnant learning curve is a scary sign. When the very trait that we claimed to be a must-have, goes missing, a leader becomes obsolete. How can a leader keep on learning? To find out, we reached out to Mr. Ashfaq Zaman, CPA, a Business & Management consultant with expertise in Empowerment and Leadership.
In regard to the demography of leaders, Ashfaq Zaman devises it in two segments – senior leaders and young aspiring leaders. He pointed out few solutions for both the segments and also talked about the challenges that hinder the development of learning mindset in the whole leadership ecosystem. What follows is the narrative of the candid conversation with Mr. Zaman.
FOR SENIOR AND EXPERIENCED ENTREPRENEURIAL LEADERS
Leaders who have started it a few decades back are the prime focus for the following five suggestions by Mr. Zaman.
Continuous Professional & Skills Development. The transition from being a veteran Entrepreneur to a Real Leader is a very interesting phenomenon. If entrepreneurship is a photograph, then leadership is the artwork of that very photograph- with more profound impact. Every experienced leader should practice Continuous Professional Development (CPD) to enable a sustainable process of learning & developing. Top leaders in the world are known to continuously engage towards obtaining new skills for the successful expansion and/ or towards improvement of individuals/organizations. As leaders we need to not only value continuous learning phenomenon, but also place it at the heart of our organizations by leading with example. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is as such that you will rarely see a senior Business leader enrolling in MBA class or attending a capacity development workshop- as the stigma associated with a leader becoming a student again is too strong, added by the issue of self ego. Devoid of many advance & modern skills of our own, we often tend to opt for hired skills. Going for hired skill is important too; but, if we don’t develop our own skills set, which might be related to the core competency, product or service, then it may cause a cultural erosion when the hired person moves out. The sanctity of ones vision can only be preserved when one has his/her own expertise on that field.
No matter how efficient & effective the departmental or functional heads are, they are always parts of the puzzle. A leader is the one who has the bird’s eye view of the puzzle. So, for a leader, it is necessary to develop their own skills through continuous professional development to hold a wholistic view, being relevant in the fast changing economy and to lead others towards it accordingly. A good CPD model should be positive, plausible and proactive.
Develop A Better Reading Habit. Talent? Resources? A great network base? Innovative ideas? All of these things surely make a difference, but the single constant that permeates the top one per cent of Global High net-worth is that they read. A lot.
Research carried out by habit and wealth creation expert Tom Corley shows that, while less successful people read mostly for entertainment, those at the top are avid readers of self-improvement books. In fact, 85% of successful people read two or more self-improvement or educational books per month.
And no, time is not an excuse. If we take examples from all the leading global leaders, time is the one thing they do not mostly have. However, name any globally recognized corporate leaders of this time – Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jack Ma – all of them are known to dedicate a significant amount of time in reading. We often find them giving credit for a lot of their acclaimed work to have been driven from inspirations and ideas sparked from the books they have read.
Focus on Research and Innovation. A country’s growth is very much dependent on and driven by its leaders- be it an economic leader, an academic leader, a corporate leader or a social leader. Mr. Zaman believes innovation should drive leaders. And research as a matter of fact drives innovation. This theory he believes is very well backed by most emerging economies. Japan, for example, the third-largest economic power in the world, is Asia’s trendsetter & core innovator. This is impressively demonstrated by record figures for spending on research and development, record numbers of patent applications and ground-breaking innovations in the field of automotive technology, robotics and many other sectors.
A Harvard Business Review article published on April 19, 2016, by Greg Satell mentioned that the fusion between industry & academia made America this innovative. Google spends more money on research than they do on service-related matters. Our largest exporting industry, RMG has not seen any disruptive innovation yet. China’s RMG industry was once there where we are now, and they have moved on towards automation and eventually design. RMG industry is just an example; in every industry, our leaders should focus extensively on research and innovation. All local leaders should take the mandate of pushing the status quo.
Emphasize More on IT. Often times we find our leaders to be anti-tech or less tech-friendly. The hard truth is many of our local companies failed in ERP solutions because of the top management failing to embrace it in the top down approach. In our country, most of the companies run in a top-down approach. However, in today’s dynamic environment, the need for more contemporary, flexible, unconventional and participative leadership and management approach is increasing for sustainability and growth. To sum it up, IT has become one of the critical success factors in almost every industry and leaders need to acknowledge and embrace it to stay relevant in the ever-changing digitalized ecosystem.
Develop Emotional Intelligence. According to Mr. Zaman, this suggestion is applicable to both the senior and aspiring young leaders. One of the most researched topics of the 21st century is emotional intelligence, which is claimed to bring the most dividend for a company. If you want to take your company to the highest level, your team must share the same vision. You can only do that when you believe in the team & the team believes in you. With emotional intelligence, you can understand what they want and how to make them want the right things for the company, in other words, emotional intelligence has become a key tool in achieving goal congruence.
Our subcontinental organizational culture has instilled this exploiting mindset among us instead of empowering. We often think about how we can make our employees work a few extra hours, hoping that it will increase the company’s profit. A recent study in Sweden found out that lesser work hours made the employees more efficient because their work-life balance got better. For our local leaders, Mr. Zaman suggests that they should focus on the output of the employees rather than how much time they are spending in the office. If the workforce is truly empowered, both qualitative and quantitative efficiency can be ensured.
FOR YOUNG ASPIRING LEADERS
Mr. Zaman suggests the potential young leaders should also follow what has been shared for senior leaders. However, there are few additional things they can include:
Grow with A Sustainable Model. As we are talking about leaders, this means they have already made a successful mark for themselves, unquestionably through their ideas and creativity. However retaining and continuing the success is crucial. What they need to do is grow with a model that is sustainable.
According to Mr. Zaman, there is a lot of ‘boom and bust’ when it comes to young entrepreneurs. Many thrive very quickly and unfortunately fall just as quickly. Mr. Zaman quotes the famous saying, “When you pull on that jersey, the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back” by Herb Brooks. He shares his concerns that many of our young leaders fall prey to the publicity trap and lose focus on the very purpose that they started with. The person becomes more important than the organization.
One exemplary Bangladeshi leader whom young leaders can follow is Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. It may sound unpleasant, many of us didn’t know about him until he received the knighthood – but most of us always knew about BRAC. It is important to leave the distractions, & focus on the core product/service to ensure sustainability. Getting an award is not the goal, winning the hearts of the customer is.
Develop a Problem Solving Mentality. We expect innovation to come mostly from the young generation. Fresh blood, fresh ideas they say. Thus, they need to also hold the mentality to solve problems. They are the ones who face the newest community problems firsthand. Problems should be seen in the spectrum of opportunity, and hence a solution devised for it.
Grow and Scale. Although similar to sustainability, Mr. Zaman shares this advice particularly for the young entrepreneurs. We see a lot of young entrepreneurs who want to grow too fast and eventually thin out. Our young entrepreneurs have this urgency to achieve everything very fast because they have high positive energy. Positive energy is of course needed, but the pace of growth should be scaled. Harsh but true, in recent years we saw a number of entrepreneurs starting with excellent service and promising quality, recognized by a number of awards. However, not everyone, but many of them become desperate to grow too fast– resulting in poor service quality, eventually making them obsolete. Mr. Zaman suggests the young entrepreneurs to learn from the failure cases around and not only the success stories and take one-step at a time.
THE DEFICIENCIES IN OUR LEADERSHIP & LEARNING
Why actually can’t our leaders learn and grow, at a pace they are supposed to? Mr. Zaman shares few thoughts on the question.
Our senior leaders often do not share their true vision with their team and hence fail to make their team vision-driven. As a result, the team works for the financial return, not for achieving the goal of the organization. When you create followers who are vision-driven, they will go beyond their usual effort. Therefore, this missing link between leaders and followers remains a big challenge for the whole leadership ecosystem.
Societal challenges also keep our leaders away from learning. Although this is not something that can be changed overnight but if we play our part, things will change gradually. We rank very poorly in terms of ease of doing business, our red-tape practices hold us back from establishing meaningful businesses smoothly.
Another challenge is that we lack in big think tanks that can bring every stakeholder of the ecosystem together. As we are talking about leaders who mainly lead organizations, we will talk about the ecosystem of entrepreneurship. In that, the government is a big stakeholder – academy, entrepreneurs, ground-level workers are other stakeholders. We could not create a synergy among these four as of yet. Yes, there are multiple institutions that work with, maybe govt. and academia or academia and entrepreneurs – but not with all four together. Unfortunate but true, we could not make an effective platform where all the stakeholders of the entrepreneurial ecosystem can come together.
Two/three decades back, it was a common scenario that someone from the poorest of the condition, became a business giant, established a big group of company. Do we have an example like that from the last 10-15 years? The earlier group had more challenges and less access to advanced resources. Does this not indicate that we really could not engage our youth properly? Our unemployment rate has not decreased in accordance with the rate our economy has developed. Does that not mean that we are doing something wrong? Mr. Zaman urges that it’s time we took measures to bring a disruptive change to better the ecosystem. This will ease the way for our young generation to learn and grow as successful leaders.
While talking about successful leaders, Mr. Zaman stresses that there are numbers of successful leaders in our country. Still, we fail to portray them in front of the next generation. As he says, “We do a lot of talks, sessions and seminars – but, I would bluntly say that the objective is not always pure. Most of the times, the people taking the entrepreneurship sessions are not true entrepreneur themselves. Maybe they are working in a functional area of entrepreneurship, but they are not the ones who built it from scratch. You don’t go to an orthopedist when you have a heart problem, just because he/she is popular.”
Most of the initiatives are not solution-driven. If you repeat the same story that Jack Ma shared on a video, wouldn’t it be better if the youth just watch it on YouTube? Bring real time entrepreneurs who will share real cases with the audience. However, learning and development is not a one-off thing. Not much can be achieved through just one discussion or workshop. There has to be a shift in the whole ecosystem. There should be more skill-based programs in academia and more mentorship programs. We are in a big crisis of mentors. We need to connect the youth with the real leaders who actually built it and has faced and overcome the challenges themselves. Till the time we focus on the wrong things, we will not be able to bring out the right results.
The General Manamgent & Advance Leadership Programme Mr. Zaman took at Cambridge gave him the opportunity to learn from some of the best Leaders of our time. The wisdom, knowledge, skills & experience that he acquired inspired him to create a training program of his own that is not only limited to providing the right skills & knowledge but also supplemented with real life mentorship cases.
He shared that leadership program should not only be limited to awareness or providing the tools & means but guiding the people to use it to their optimum capacity.
Mr. Zaman concluded the conversation, quoting John Maxwell that “A leader is a one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”