BACKUP Universally Challenging

With NZIM’s October international leadership summit looming and who knows how many business leaders from eight Asian countries attending, what are the leadership issues most on the minds of business leaders?
A recent leadership survey from the United States identifies some of them. And top of the list is the problem of getting people who have different agendas and goals to work together. solid 60 percent of US executives ranked this as their most significant leadership challenge. Sceptics from this side of the world might argue that this finding is hardly surprising, given that some American agendas do tend to be divisive and societal problems have funny way of reflecting leadership attitudes and examples.
The study, conducted by the American Management Association, asked executives to identify their five most critical leadership challenges; what they thought were the most important characteristics of leadership; what were the most important leadership skills necessary to be effective and, finally, what were the most pressing business challenges they faced. I am not sure how lack of employee collaboration would rank in New Zealand, but I’d be surprised if it was top of list of 15 challenge choices. It might be consequence of size, ego, combative culture or leadership style, but the finding surprised me.
Coming in at number two, with 56 percent of respondents identifying it, was the challenge of balancing organisational demands and priorities. Then came motivating and inspiring employees in world of change (48 percent); accomplishing difficult assignments without the necessary resources (45 percent) and balancing the needs of the organisation with those of the individual (42 percent). They all sound pretty familiar.
When it came to asking what leadership characteristics they considered important for leader, 56 percent of them identified, surprise, surprise, ethical behaviour. Martha Stewart, Enron, WorldCom et al have obviously had an impact on executive consciousness in the US. It is probable, however, that the characteristic would rate pretty highly here too. The recent UMR research study undertaken for the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board (GIAB) shows that New Zealanders are strongly “values” driven and are not too enamoured with the leadership examples set by “big business” – including the propensity for business leaders to generously reward themselves.
The UMR research showed that there is general support for the idea of business and enterprise, particularly small business, so much so that they see business as “cool”. However, big business is seen as being different from the average Kiwi agenda and, as GIAB’s chairman Rick Christie puts it; “there is real fear of loss of connection with core values and as result these businesses will act solely in their own interests”. So if Kiwi business leaders are not thinking about the importance of ethical behaviour, they should be.
The two next most important leadership characteristics identified by US executives were sound judgement (51 percent) and adaptability/flexibility, with 47 percent of respondents rating it. Other, significantly lower-rated characteristics included initiative, courage, determination/resolution, dependability and focus.
When it came to leadership skills, the frontrunner was ahead by the proverbial country mile. whopping 84 percent of respondents identified communication as overwhelmingly the most important leadership skill in senior executive’s armoury. It rated almost 30 percentage points ahead of the next ranking leadership skill, the ability to motivate and inspire. I guess if you can’t communicate your leadership messages there’s not much chance of you successfully motivating anyone.
The importance of communication is something our schools should think more about. Leadership happens at every level in society. Equipping kids with essential communication skills would go long way to resolving the myriad social and performance issues our increasingly complex world confronts. It would also go some way to throwing up more potential leaders and developing more inclusive leadership culture in New Zealand.
And what are the business challenges American leaders face? The ability to recruit, retain and to train talented employees. Now that’s something we have in common. Why? Because good people are important. They can make the difference to any organisation. And in an increasingly competitive world, having point of difference is central to success, even survival.
The ability to implement business strategies that result in profitable return ranked first equal with recruiting and retaining – on 49 percent – on the list of business challenges. From the research available on Kiwi management and leadership competencies, thinking strategically is as much of challenge for our business leaders as is the implementation.
The remaining challenges in the US were, in descending order, reducing operating costs to increase productivity and efficiency, maintaining operating profits in competitive environment, maintaining and enhancing customer relations and growing the business in soft economy. They sound pretty common too.

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