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Former Member

By Grace Chiu & Tom Flanagan, Talent Marketing, SAP

Our next interview in the HR Thought Leadership series features Ed Shaw, Global Lead of Talent Development, on the topic of leadership. Ed offers his insights and advice on how to create and lead a high functioning team and how to inspire others to achieve success and innovation.

Q: How would you define a great leader?

I think a great leader is someone who is able to understand and listen to the needs of the employees, helping them to develop their career and skills. Great leaders also need to have clarity on their expectations, in-line with business goals, support they can provide, availability to the team and individuals, and have strong written and verbal communication skills, alongside listening skills. I think the formal approach, setting up a cadence of one-on-one and team meetings, is important but that this also needs to be supplemented with informal elements, such as dropping someone a SMS to thank them or to check in periodically. If people know that you’re thinking about them and that you are there if they do need you, you empower them to go ahead and take a few more risks because they know they have your support. And when they are not sure about something, they know they can come and check in with you in the moment that they need you.

Q: What leadership practices do you feel are most helpful in achieving team success and innovation?

I think encouraging innovation is about initially challenging your team to aim high and acknowledge that we can occasionally fail. You can almost say that you need to make mistakes in order to progress. Something my boss has been very good at is allowing me the freedom to make mistakes. And, as long as I was clear on the learning from that mistake, it was accepted. Obviously if you continue to make the same mistake, you’re not progressing and not gaining wisdom that you can apply to the next lesson. When you’re allowing people the freedom to innovate, the reality is on occasion they’re going to make the wrong choice.

Mistakes can only be made if we’re cognizant of the risks. People can’t go off in isolation and make decisions on something that actually can have a risk to the company or from a legal standpoint. So the risk must be clear, and agreed upfront, otherwise it could be too dangerous. Also, there must be no surprises. I think giving people the safety net of your support, but allowing them the empowerment to go and define their own approach and their own way of achieving a goal is great. But there cannot be surprises because that’s how you disrupt a business. If the consideration for risk has been discussed then I always try to encourage my team to find their own path, and bring their own flair – this, in turn, leads to the team member stretching their ability to succeed.

I believe that my role is to help the team become successful and I think my boss considers my success when the team over-delivers on everything they should. Therefore, if the team is successful, that’s what ultimately makes me successful.

Q: What are the key elements to a successful team?

The team leader’s first role is to define their perspective on leadership and their part in the team. For instance, how they will operate, what is their leadership and personal style, what is their expectation of the team or individuals, what will they do for the team and what will they not. So once the scope, boundaries and framework for the team are established, you can then define the roles, how people are going to be organized and rewarded, and how they will be evaluated based on those criteria.

Hopefully by defining the ground rules of how you’re going to operate will allow people the freedom to succeed, as long as you’re open in your communication; whether those receiving praise or those receiving constructive feedback. I think that’s what encourages people to go off and surpass obstacles because once they see someone make a mistake and their mistake is called out, not because that person has made an error but more around the learning we can all take from it, people will feel they have a safe environment in which they can go and take a little risk, potentially to achieve greater results, knowing they have your support. The worse thing a leader can do is purposely have their own agenda – you’re the keeper of the team, you’re not the team.

The other element the leader brings, to ensure tangible success, is the vision from the outset – being able to clearly define the end state, though not necessarily the steps to achieve the goal; the team’s diversity can ensure the delivery, once the vision is crystalised for all.

So my view is that great leaders contribute to a team’s success by setting the vision clearly to all, encouraging participation in building the steps to achieve, surrounding themselves by a diverse group of individuals with complementary skills that cause creative abrasion, and then ensure the team’s success is visible, clearly communicated and recognized, to the team’s credit versus their own.

Q: Do you think good leadership qualities are innate in people or can they be taught?

I think people can be born with the tendency towards strong leadership, or possess natural leadership skills – this puts them in a stronger position for leadership roles and makes others naturally gravitate towards them. I think certain people possess qualities and strengths in their personality make-ups that contribute towards a tendency to display more strengths and skills of leadership – they will still need to hone these skills and ensure they are cognizant of other’s perceptions, but these in-born qualities of communication, or visionary ability, make them leaders more readily or more obviously. However, I think you can teach someone and anyone to be a better leader. Leadership skills may be inherent but they can also be developed. In an established company, you need to take a combination of both. Find positions for your natural leaders that play to their strengths, but built a robust leadership development portfolio to expand aspiring leadership capability in parallel; obviously this portfolio can also be utilized to improve existing natural leaders as much as those who wish to emulate them.

Q: Any last words?

To become a great leader, your self-awareness needs to be a key priority. You cannot have blind spots as a leader, because if they’re blind to you, you can almost guarantee that they’re not blind to other people. You need to make sure you establish a feedback network early, to make sure you understand which pieces are maintained and which pieces you may have lost focused. That continual self-awareness and reflection is what allows people to become the best leaders and reduces the risks of allowing key leadership skills to decline or be eliminated.

Ed believes a great leader gives their team the freedom to take calculated risks, and stresses the importance of risk taking in the creative and problem-solving process. While Ed believes some people may have natural leadership qualities, the best leaders can and must develop their leadership through continued learning and reflection.

Do you agree with Ed that leaders should encourage an environment of autonomy to take calculated risks? What are some of the admirable qualities you respect in a leader?