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The Creative Executive

Creativity can help you think outside the box.

Dr Charlene Lew

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Corporate South Africa seems stunned by current political anxieties, labour turmoil, fears of increased economic volatility and competitive pressures.

Every sector is feeling some pain and each industry faces a different, but ever increasing spiral of turbulence that threatens lasting growth and competitiveness.

The landscape is rough, but many leaders stand poised in the hope of conquering markets and reaping rewards. This courageous attitude has to be matched with the right thinking and decision-making skills.

As a leader one of your primary tasks is to set direction for your company that will overcome current threats, sustain value for all, outdo your competitors, infuse you with energy and ultimately break through everything that obstructs or impedes on the way.

Why strategic creativity matters

This kind of leadership requires a high level of strategic creativity. Creativity in strategy allows executives to play with big ideas and break through boundaries.

It deals with a way of thinking that allows leaders to go beyond what their competitors may be doing, what’s been done before and what they are currently doing. The seeds of such creative thinking can be found in every good strategy.

If creativity however is about having new ideas and multiple solutions and unusual strategies, and if complexity and ambiguity increase as you ascend the corporate ladder, then nobody needs creativity more than the executive.

However, creativity remains a largely unexplored source of positive change, growth and resilience, especially for senior leaders.

Whether it is to compete on assets like Shell, restructure your company to be more nimble like Toyota, or carefully choose the release dates of your products like Apple, the logical choices in business remain important.

But alongside strategic planning, it has become high time to prepare for unknown futures, re-evaluate your relevance and shape tomorrow.

[box style=”gray,info” ]Seven Signs Your Business is Heading for Trouble[/box]

Encouraging creativity

How do you do this?  How do executives embrace a creative, counter-intuitive way of thinking to drive new results?

Practical tips for developing strategic creativity:

  • Ask, look and listen more

When you expose yourself to wide-ranging viewpoints and information, you introduce new thoughts that challenge set mental patterns.

It may be by sourcing new ideas from all ranks and challenging your employees to come up with new solutions. Lazarus Ramashilabele runs an Exxaro mine and to drive a culture of a high-performance he has introduced a campaign called “Every second counts.”

He wants hard results and the aim of this campaign is to let everyone generate creative ideas.

“Challenging everybody to be creative has resulted not only in useful ideas, but also a wave of excitement to make this culture happen” says Lazarus. Leslie Matthews, CEO of Tempest Car Hire has also experienced the value of contrary views.

“New ideas come to the fore when I allow my colleagues to have a robust debate with me, without any concern whatsoever of reprisals.  This then stimulates my thinking of alternatives in strategy, instead of me forcing my thinking on them.”

  • Play more

In diverting your attention to less serious or pressing issues, you gain and generate energy.  It is not about doing frivolous things, but doing things that allow you to test various risks.

Tempests’ Matthews puts it this way: “When people are relaxed in their interactions and communication, they become confident and confident people become creative and positive people.” In his experience, creating an energetic, playful atmosphere in the office brings a sense of happiness and subsequent out-of-the box thinking.

  • Dream more

In Distell’s Ghana office, Burton Swain, GM of trade marketing writes on glass, doors and walls to visualise his thinking

“If I see it, if I physically draw the strategic roadmap, it helps us all to focus on the year ahead.  Our strategic picture forms part of all our meetings, and helps us to add to our ideas or track our progress” he says.

Visions and dreams in strategy introduce creative shifts in your own perspectives and lets others see new possibilities.

  •  Work more

Developing creative skills also involves hard work and the discipline of putting effort towards useful, practical and relevant solutions, rather than illusions or fantasies.

It requires you to combine your divergent, outgoing thinking with your convergent, logical and practical thinking. CEO of the packaging business Mpact, Bruce Strong, has turned his strategy review process on its head to do this.

Instead of starting with the vision and mission in mind, he has asked all the leaders to first identify opportunities and then only to map it through analytical processes to strategic intent.

Strategy for Mpact has become much more practical in the process.  What is certain is that any South African business, regardless of how innovative, will face completely new sets of challenges in the future and customers of tomorrow will have needs that differ qualitatively from what customers need today.

As a business leader in South Africa strategic creativity should be embraced as a source of positive change, growth and resilience, especially for senior leaders.

It has to be developed through practice and as part of a personal development plan. Opportunities to learn, play, dream and execute should be actively sought out as part of strategic thinking towards new and better futures.

Dr Charlene Lew is a senior lecturer at GIBS. She teaches on the PhD, MBA and corporate programmes in the areas of strategic leadership decision-making and organisational behaviour. Charlene supervises doctoral and MBA research and publishes in the area of managerial psychology – focusing on the intersection where strategic leadership decision-making and organisational outcomes meet. She is passionate about the intra- and inter-psychological processes that drive behaviour at work, particularly at top management team level and holds a Doctorate in Psychology with a focus on adult career development.

Leading

What A Grade 1 Sticker Business Taught Me About Business

It’s the very fundamentals that are frequently overlooked amid ambition and “blue sky thinking” – yet, these remain the most crucial element of any business.

Grant Field

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When I was a kid, my father believed that instead of getting pocket money, my brothers and I should learn how to make money. Stickers were the school craze when I was in Grade 1, and we wanted a collection for ourselves, so Dad said if we wanted to buy the stickers, we needed to make the money. So, logically, we started a sticker trading business. Dad gave us the start-up money and took us through the basics of business.

We had a cash float for purchases, and learnt about cost price, mark-up and selling price – very basic accounting. We kept recycling that money, making extra and using it to buy more stickers. Then we worked out that if we increased the mark-up, we’d make a bigger profit – so why not make the mark-up as big as possible? The obvious happened. Our prices were too high, and we lost customers.

Valuable business lesson learnt, we came back down to a mark-up that other kids were willing to pay for.

More lessons to learn

Then people came to us and asked if they could take a sticker today and pay us tomorrow. We saw no reason not to trust them. Guess what? They didn’t pay us back. We had bad debt on our hands. When we sold out of stickers, we had cash-flow issues and couldn’t buy more stock. Dad was there to help us out, though, so we received another capital injection to get back off the ground. And this time, if we did extend credit, we loaded it for the privilege of “buy now, pay later” – another lesson learnt.

We ran a proper ledger for the business, tracking our inventory, sales and profit. Even if our “bank” account was a piggy bank, we had a clear record of what was going on. When I look back on it, none of what I learnt was irrelevant.

Today, I run a leading financial services company with billions of rand running through our bank accounts. Even though the finances of the business are run on a much larger scale, the principles of business – those basic principles that we learnt trading stickers – still power our company. And when I see entrepreneurial ventures failing, or when friends come to me for advice because their business is struggling, it’s almost always because they haven’t got these basics right.

Related: Successful SA Entreps Share Their Most Valuable Business Advice Ever Received

Clarity

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that if you don’t fully understand how the money is being made, walk away. Whether you are dealing with stickers or financial services, the business principles should be straightforward: money coming in, money going out, and profitability.

Every day, I look at an Excel statement of my company’s forty bank accounts. Every day, I look at the cashflow, and unusual big-ticket items get a note so I know what’s going on. It’s just like that Grade 1 business, only on a bigger scale.

Entrepreneur, thwarted

Once the other kids saw the success of our sticker business, they started to want to get in on the action, so they came to market with their own competing products. At first, we were able to innovate as the competition squeezed our margins and started to impact on our profits. Eventually, the whole situation got completely out of hand and the school banned sticker trading for profit.

While I didn’t become a sticker magnate, the lessons I learnt in Grade 1 remain central to every business I am involved with – get the basics right.

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Leading

How To Handle A Director Who Always Says No

Diverse opinions on a board is a good thing — but is it boosting your business, or hindering growth and decisions?

Carl Bates

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Do you have that director on your board who always says ‘no’? Regardless of what the issue is, regardless of the context, who raises it or whether or not it is indeed a good idea, their response is either a simple ‘no’ or an elongated perspective on why they disagree? It can even feel at times that they are actively working against the company and against the board. Although they obviously do not see it that way.

Experienced directors will have multiple war stories related to this subject. Aspiring directors should be aware of how to approach these situations when they arise and how to avoid becoming the subject of such stories.

Develop a culture of trust, candour and professionalism

A board’s conduct must be characterised by trust, respect, candour, professionalism, accountability, diligence and commitment. It is the board’s collective responsibility to build this culture and to engage with one another in a productive and effective way.

Dissent should be welcomed when it is constructive and engaging. The idea of being the ‘devil’s advocate’ for the sake of it however, is not the best way to approach this. Dissent should be based on a real belief that the issue has not been fully debated or creates a real challenge for the company going forward.

If you have a director who genuinely believes a different path is right for the company, hear them out and engage in the discussion. In my experience, this often opens up an issue or changes a detail that when taken as part of the whole, improves the decision-making outcome for the board and the company.

Related: Contributing In The Boardroom

Remove the politics from the boardroom

At the heart of this issue is often politics. Politics between directors, who are also shareholders or executives. Politics between the ‘new guard’ and the ‘old.’ Regardless of the genesis, politics really do not have a place in the boardroom and directors who engage in it should be called out by the chairman or another senior director.

In local government I have heard stories of councillors who always vote ‘no,’ so that whenever something goes wrong, they can say “I told you so,” and show the public why they should be re-elected. But that is indeed politics. The boardroom is a very different space. It is private and discussions should be confidential.

Board rotation, a simple solution

While the removal of an errant director should never just be left to resolve itself, there is a simple solution that can support the easy removal of the most difficult directors. The challenge is that it requires forward planning prior to the appointment of any new director.

Directors should only ever be appointed for a predefined term, with automatic rotation at the end of that term. This does not stop you from reappointing a director for a further period. It is, however, always easier to ask someone to consider a further term than it is to tell them that their time has come and they should resign from the board.

Having a predefined term for a director essentially ensures an automatic resignation period. A simple rotation policy for directors is not just good governance, it is a practical step you can take to provide a way out of a sticky relationship.

Ultimately the board as a whole must address issues that detract from the board fulfilling its function as and when they arise. A rotation policy might provide an effective backstop. A high-performance board is one that will tackle the issue head-on.

Read next: How Diversity Drives Board Performance

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Leading

The Power Pose: Using Body Language To Lead

Use the way you move and stand and interact with others to become a better entrepreneur and leader.

Howard Feldman

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In 2012, the power pose became a global sensation. A Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy hit a staggering 46 million views and became the second most popular Ted Talk in history. The premise was simple – hold a powerful pose and it will not only affect the way you behave but it will even change your body chemistry. Since the talk, the power pose has met with heavy criticism and been labelled as nothing more than pseudoscience. Fortunately for believers, they were proven right. Amy Cuddy released further research this year and it fundamentally proves that this bold stance works exactly how she said it did back in 2012.

The power pose isn’t something that you’d adopt in a meeting or around the office but the science behind it shows how important it is to pay attention to your body language as it can fundamentally change how you are perceived.

Notice how you are noticed

People spend a lot of time reading one another’s body language and the way a person stands or holds their hands or moves can influence how others see them. It’s very natural to judge someone else’s posture, but what about the way they are judging yours? Few people look at how their body language is affecting the way people engage with them.

Related: [Quiz] How Good Are You At Reading Others In Business?

So, what are you supposed to do?

Fake it until you make it

Want to know how can you adapt to become a better leader? You can fake it.

The power pose isn’t the only way to change your mood. Research has shown that whether you laugh naturally or put on a smile and make yourself laugh, your body still releases the same levels of serotonin.

Whether you are really laughing or just pretending to laugh doesn’t matter – they both have the same impact on your demeanour.

Change how others see you

Think about the pose that every athlete adopts when they win a race or achieve something that’s been physically taxing. They hold their hands outstretched in the air. Even blind athletes hold the same pose. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s a physical manifestation of success.

Now consider the defensive pose. The tight hunched shoulders or inward curve of the spine. These poses immediately make a person look nervous, afraid and lacking in confidence. Like the porcupine curling in on itself for protection.

The same ideas apply to daily business life. While the power pose and the athlete pose are not necessarily a team activity, ensuring that you hold your body upright and with confidence means that you’re conveying an attitude of strength. You come across as confident and capable and positive. You are ready to take on anything and overcome the odds.

By contrast, if you are hunched and withdrawn, you come across as nervous and lacking in confidence and these are not the qualities you want associated with you as an entrepreneur and a leader.

Related: (Slideshow) 5 TED Talks That May Change Your Perspective on Life

Body language for entrepreneurs

  • Shake hands like a hero. The way you shake hands with someone is very significant in terms of establishing equality. Be even, be firm but don’t pull people towards you or turn their hands under your own. This makes them feel like you are trying to establish dominance.
  • Create an atmosphere of openness. Maintain eye contact, say hello to people with warmth while holding a strong posture. A warm and open greeting is essential to establishing trust.
  • Do the power pose for two minutes before any meeting or interview. This will get those chemicals stirring and make you feel confident and in charge.

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