What does it take to be a courageous leader?

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Ruth Harrison
Managing Director, UK
ThoughtWorks
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ThoughtWorks recently developed the first-ever report on ‘courageous leadership’ among successful C-Suite executives, in partnership with global insights consultancy Northstar, to explore how certain traits and leadership styles can contribute to business and workplace success. Below, Managing Director UK at ThoughtWorks, Ruth Harrison, explores what it takes to be a courageous executive, what it is that truly sets apart the leaders of today and how this will help shape the leaders of the future.

Here at ThoughtWorks, we spoke to Fortune 500 C-Suite executives across the US, UK, Australia and India, who are all advocates for digital transformation, have an active role in directing how technology enables their business and have seen their company’s revenue or profit increase significantly due to a recent technology change.

With 85 per cent of these leaders self-identifying as risk takers, we wanted to see how they worked and how their leadership styles and their willingness to embrace change helped shape the success of their team and business.

Embrace new technology with passion

Of the courageous executives we surveyed, 65 per cent said they actively seek new technological changes within the industry, and that the digitisation and adaptation of new technology is a top priority for them.

Competitor analysis also proved to be a strong driving force of technological change among leaders, with 63 per cent doing their own research to stay ahead of the curve in terms of competition, as well as keeping up with developments in technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

To grow and stay relevant, the leadership team must embrace changes happening in the wider world, and actively adopt technological change to keep employees engaged and help them master the rapid-fire reality of our changing digital landscape.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning represent tremendous possibility for more personalised and intuitive customer experiences, and recognising this potential in a position of leadership is key.

Take risks and accept failure

It was clear to see a real appetite for risk among our courageous leaders, with 87 per cent agreeing that taking risks is a vital part of achieving goals, maintaining a competitive edge and, ultimately, growing your bottom line.

Looping back to the competitive element, if you are willing to take risks that your competition isn’t prepared to, this puts you in good stead for when the risk pays off.

Courageous executives do, however, need to consider if they are well equipped to navigate their respective businesses and teams through digital transformation. Many executive boards have been successful at building businesses in the analogue era, but the skills and knowledge required to future proof in the digital era are quite different.

Digital transformation is happening constantly, and having the right team to help make daily decisions that come with these changes is vital.

It is worth considering operating a parallel digital or technology advisory board, who can offer good counsel to executive teams embarking on becoming truly digital businesses, and help evaluate risks to ensure smart risk-taking and experimentation.

Creative thinking and passionate curiosity can help keep approaches fresh and customers interested in what you’re offering, but keeping positive when faced with a setback is also essential to keeping on track.

54 per cent of our respondents said that they believed failure made their employees even more motivated to succeed, and it helped to encourage learning from their mistakes while also focusing on what went right.

Listen to your customer

Throughout all four markets, keeping a close connection with customers was recognised as a key priority. 91 per cent said customer input directly informs their strategic decision making, and over 60 per cent of respondents from each market said they listen closely to customer feedback and make changes accordingly.

This insight can be collected through customer research, social feeds, analytics from a content management system or through a designated customer insights task force, with a dedicated internal team dealing with customer insight.

Believing that innovation can, and should, come from anyone is a key attribute of a successful courageous leader.

While the ways in which this data is collated and analysed seem to differ from market to market, it’s clear to see that an ongoing interaction with your customer base, and an insight into what they are thinking, is beneficial in any form and can help courageous leaders make informed and successful decisions.

Competitive encroachment and changing customer demands often go hand in hand, so leaders need to keep an eye on both.

Prepare for the workforce of the future

Digital transformation is happening constantly, and having the right team to help make daily decisions that come with these changes is vital.

Making your team and its culture a priority is an essential component of successful leadership, and hiring those who will fit in culturally, as well as bring a new skillset into the fold, is extremely important. Indeed, 90 per cent of our courageous executives emphasised this importance when it comes to business credibility and success.

Rewarding creativity and experimentation can help ideas go to market in weeks rather than months. Believing that innovation can, and should, come from anyone is a key attribute of a successful courageous leader.

Through hiring, empowering and growing multidisciplinary, future-ready employees, as well as preparing for the eventualities of technology replacing certain roles within a team, courageous leaders are able to recognise how they can set their business up for future success.

Antiquated styles of leadership no longer work. Technology is consistently disrupting and merging with the world of business, with the roles and responsibilities of the leadership team evolving almost daily.

With the ability and confidence to challenge the status quo, courageous leaders are the ones who can ultimately set their organisation up for continued success.

You can read Thoughtwork's full Courageous Executive report here.

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