Q&A: Angus Ridgway: “Developing leaders is HR’s most noble role”

Author: Cathryn Newbery | Date: 2 Mar 2016

Potentialife’s CEO on the essential behaviours of modern leaders, and why local talent will unlock success for GCC companies

Angus RidgwayBefore co-founding Potentialife – a consultancy that offers online, scientifically informed leadership programmes – Angus Ridgway spent 20 years working at McKinsey, leading the firm’s strategy practice in EMEA and their global leadership development function. He reveals to People Management the five essential attributes of the modern-day leader, and why HR’s role in supporting leaders is more vital than ever.

What behaviours do the leaders of today need to demonstrate?
We associate leadership in this new era with individual flourishing. Not so long ago, organisations had clear strategies, and from those strategies you could derive the leadership behaviours you wanted. You’d tell people, “I want you to behave like this”, and that’s what you’d call leadership. You could argue that there never was leadership, that it was a form of organised compliance, but it was what it was.
 
We’ve now shifted to a new era where things move so fast that you don’t need people who are leaders of change – you need people who are leaders in a state of permanent change. What you need to have is people who are ‘on fire’ and are able to make great things happen, at every level in an organisation.
 
There are five core behaviours required to do this. The first is using your strengths: spend more time doing what you’re good at, and knocking the ball out of the park. The second is recognising that stress is a positive thing – but that you can only embrace it if you’re feeling energised. Thirdly, there’s mindful engagement – cutting down on distractions, especially digital ones. Fourthly, forming positive, authentic relationships: leadership is no longer about your ability to command and control others, but how you engage with the network surrounding you. And finally, there’s purpose – or the ‘why’ question. Great leaders should be able to tell you, at the end of the day, why they were at work – beyond ‘I just need to pay my rent’.
 
How are you seeing leadership develop in the GCC?
It’s interesting, because there is an imbalance between supply and demand for leadership talent – which presents a great opportunity.
 
You have great, great companies in the GCC who are aspiring to do great, great things – whether it’s the Abu Dhabi sovereign investment fund, which is trying to create whole industry sectors that would be global leaders, or Zain Telecom, which has acquired a huge swathe of operators across sub-Saharan Africa. These companies are really thinking big. And if you’re thinking big, you need leaders – that’s the demand.
 
But because of pure numbers, and the quality of the education system, supply isn’t keeping up. There’s also the problem of defective globalisation, which means that the most talented people may, for example, go to Harvard [University] but then stay in the USA. There’s certainly a problem to be solved.
 
Is bringing in leaders from overseas problematic?
At one level, it shouldn’t matter. But ultimately, if these [organisations] are going to be real global champions, they have to be led by people who are going to stay there and be part of the local community. The problem with the ‘fly-in, fly-out brigade’ is that you fly home on the weekend, or every third weekend, which means you aren’t in the golf club, or supporting local charities, or part of the business networks. That stuff really does matter.
 
If you have a large group of expat managers which – if I’m being uncharitable – you might refer to as ‘mercenary’, it’s very tempting for that group to hang out together. What you need to have is less of an elite, expat group of people, but more of a set of leaders that are from within the local community.
 
What is HR’s role in supporting and motivating these aspiring leaders?
For me, it’s the central and most noble role of HR. You think: what is HR about? At one level, there are some technical things that HR needs to do – make sure that people get paid every month, that health and safety is taken care of, etc.
 
But the other noble function is to help companies deliver on their strategies. I think the time has come where this particular noble function of HR is coming into focus, because industries are changing so quickly now that leadership matters more than ever before.
 
Do leadership programmes work better when people volunteer, or when they’re nominated?
The volunteer question goes to the heart of what leadership is. Compliance is the opposite of leadership, so any programme that starts with trying to comply people into leadership is, in a way, defeating itself at the outset. You have to invite people, encourage people, and help people see the implications of taking part or not. Ultimately, they have to opt-in, and know that they’re doing it for themselves.