Fear of fluffiness



Over the last few years I’ve been providing ‘live’ change leadership coaching for senior leaders needing to deliver significant change in complex, uncertain contexts.  Often, at the start of the coaching work, as we begin to talk about the range of skills they might need to sharpen up on – such as facilitating tough conversations and building robust teams – one of their greatest gut-level fears is that the work we do together will make them too ‘soft’ or ‘fluffy’ and that they will be left weakened by the exercise.

I thought of this when reading recent media reports on ‘driven, ruthless’, and not at all fluffy, Ivan Glasenberg.  He’s the billionaire CEO of Glencore who was responsible for engineering the recent, colossal acquisition of Xstrata.

This is the world’s largest ever takeover deal, and Glasenberg seems to have managed to carry it off in a year when few other executives had the courage or inclination to take such risks.

As if that wasn’t enough, he’s been named Sunday Times Business Person of the Year in recognition of his commercial astuteness, his extraordinary deal-making abilities and his capacity for sheer hard work.  So there is much to recommend Glasenberg and yet it also seems there is much to test him as the giant Glencore-Xstrata corporation lumbers into 2013.

As far as I can see, there’s quite a tricky list of problems developing for him to tackle:

  • how to build a new, joined-up senior team given that the top three, highly respected Xstrata executives who thought they would be getting the top jobs have either left or been pushed out
  • how to placate those shareholders who are concerned about his ability to provide the right level of governance, given previous form
  • how to ensure that the predicted (by some) mass walkouts of Xastra managers, angry about their rejected retention bonus deal, doesn’t happen
  • how best to respond to increased campaign group activity as Glencore’s tax practices in Zambia continue to concern many
  • how to approach the massive task of embedding such a large acquisition, given that study after study indicates that more 60% – 90% of all such deals fail to realise their anticipated potential.

The question is, what leadership approach might the relentless, straight-talking Glasenberg need to employ if he is to continue to be successful in 2013, and how might he actually make that subtle transition, particularly given that he’s been working in a sector that is notoriously tough and unforgiving for most of his career?

I would strongly suggest that he needs to find a way of ‘softening’ so that he’s able, when required, to be more open to the views of others, more inclusive and more attuned to the process of individual and group change.  He’ll need these skills to help him bring his new top team together to establish a shared vision for the future.

And if the Zambia issue is to be satisfactorily attended to, he’ll almost certainly need to facilitate some deep and searching conversations about the way the work is being handled and the values base of the newly merged organisation. Then there’s the task of finding a way to engage sensitively with the wider Xstrata leadership cadre to build trust and agree terms…

If there’s fear of fluffiness around, a leader like Glasenberg needs to be reminded that it’s not all about the fluffy stuff.  There will be plenty of ruthlessness required too as new executive team members are appointed, governance established, priorities clarified and investment decisions made.

However, in my experience, the integration of at least some ‘softness’ can hugely strengthen a ’ruthless’ leader’s ability to lead change well, particularly in uncertain contexts, where collaboration and the ability to build robust, capable teams and organisations is vital.  Rather than weaken a leader, as might at first be feared, the opposite is actually true. It allows the leader’s ruthless side to find its right place, instead of dominating all forms of interaction.

In my ‘live’ coaching work, it feels important, in these especially challenging times, to support bold, courageous leaders like Glasenberg to infuse their ruthlessness with just enough softness, in a way that allows the bold, breakthrough initiatives to be progressed but in a way that’s responsible, collaborative and is able to unlock the energies and enthusiasms of others.

If you’d like to find out how our change leadership support could help leaders in your organisation develop the sorts of skills and capacities I’m outlining here, please do be in touch.

[Photo credit: Creative Commons image of Ivan Glasenberg by Dianna Bonner]
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