Leadership – nature or nurture?

25 October 2018

This article was featured in the November 2018 issue of the magazine.

Jerome Smail, freelance journalist, reveals recent findings about leadership and features input from the CIPP’s education director 

Every business function requires good, strong leadership to be truly successful – and none more than payroll, where failure is simply not an option.

However, such leadership appears to be in short supply, particularly in the UK. According to a survey – conducted in April 2018 by ADP and Circle Research – of 2,518 employees across five countries (France, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Italy), UK workers are the least satisfied with their leaders: 

  • 40% of employees in the UK say they are unhappy with the current quality of their leadership, which compares with an average across other nationalities of 33%, and

  • 38% said they don’t feel their manager knows them well enough to understand their full potential.

Jeff Phipps, managing director of ADP UK, believes poor leadership is having a direct and tangible impact on employee engagement. He says: “Too many companies are still getting it wrong. It’s important that managers and leaders take the time to understand their employees properly. Workers are clear that they want to be valued and treated as individuals and so by knowing your employees, from their abilities to their desires, you can truly inspire, nurture and engage, which in turn will drive productivity and business success.”

A YouGov survey of 2,006 UK employees commissioned by MHR appears to back up Phipps’s view of the effects of poor leadership. According to the study:

  •  as many as 80% of employees have experienced what they consider poor management or a poor manager at least once during their career

  •  73% of them have considered leaving a job because of it – in fact, 55% have done just that, and

  •  when asked whether their managers are equipped to deal with the human or emotional side of management, 58% of employees said they are not.

Michelle Shelton, product planning director at MHR, says: “The survey highlights a widespread failure in the way organisations prepare and train people managers to take care of their staff effectively.

“While managers are commonly trained in company policy and may understand organisational processes and procedures like the back of their hand, most don’t possess the people skills required to handle the human aspect of management and receive no training for this, which can have damaging and long-lasting repercussions when it comes to employee engagement, talent retention and wellbeing.”


...is leadership a natural ability or can it be taught effectively?...


So, this raises the question: what makes a good leader? And is leadership a natural ability or can it be taught effectively? 

Elaine Gibson, CIPP education director, says this question often comes up on the Institute’s Masters programme and she is constantly challenging students with it. She says: “I don’t think anyone is born with leadership abilities. We are all different and we are all born with different personalities, but I think our life experiences affect our personalities from a very young age.”

Gibson is a firm believer in the concept of ‘human flourishing’. She explains: “It’s linked to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Something he said resonates with me. He taught that all human life has a purpose, but as life develops, so does the purpose. This alludes to the human flourishing concept. Our life experiences, both personally and professionally, shape our traits.

“So, I personally don’t believe that leadership is a natural ability. Sometimes people are told they are a natural leader, but I think it’s a case of experience. When I think back to when I first started work and I look at myself now, it’s night and day. So, I think life experience creates our traits, personally and professionally. The life of hard knocks creates situations and we either embrace and learn from them and become a better version of ourselves, or we push back.”

As well as experience, Gibson believes time to reflect on the lessons learned is essential in developing leadership skills: “What I always encourage among my team or students is self-reflection. Every now and again it’s important to take a breather when you’re stressed out and look in the mirror, because sometimes, when you’re under stress, you can act in an irrational way and later regret it and wish you’d acted differently.”

However, facing up to reality can be difficult, she adds: “For example, a 360-degree appraisal can be brutal. Sometimes you’re ticking along okay; you think the team are doing what you want and they seem quite happy. But then you find something out and think, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that,’ and you realise you have to change your behaviour as a leader. 

“No leader is perfect, and you have to be open to change.”

Phipps concurs. He says: “There are a number of measures [leaders] can take to ensure that employees feel safe, comfortable and happy in their roles. 

“It’s important to give your workforce the opportunity to contribute their thoughts on how well you support their physical and mental wellbeing. More importantly, you need to take the time to consider how you could be doing better.”

The concept of constant learning as a leader has formed a mantra for Gibson: challenge, change and transformation. She explains: “Every day you learn something and every day you face a challenge. Whenever you hit a challenge, you transform because you learn how to deal with it, so the next time the situation occurs, you deal with it better.” 

The working environment and team culture will impact on a leader’s behaviour, adds Gibson: “If you have a negative team climate, a really important leadership skill is to face up to the issues, get to the root-cause and be brave enough to speak out.”

Often, though, there is a gap in the perception of the culture between a leader and the team. The importance of recognising that, and the ability to build a positive culture, is highlighted by more YouGov research commissioned by MHR, surveying 1,174 UK employees in July 2018. The survey found that only 49% of employees believe the portrayed public image of the company they work for matches the actual experience of working there.

In contrast, the study shows how positive cultures can inspire employees, with nearly two thirds (63%) saying they were given the flexibility and support to do their job, and many citing the feeling of being trusted and having understanding managers as reasons for their satisfaction.

However, Gibson points out that there’s a difference between creating an open, friendly culture and the leader being everyone’s friend. She explains: “I’ve been in a situation where you have friends and colleagues at a certain level and then you get a promotion and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m responsible for those individuals now.’ You need to have that business-head on, which can sometimes be very hard if you’re talking to somebody who actually, outside of work, is a very good friend.”

Shelton agrees that the ‘friend factor’ can cause leadership headaches, regardless of the circumstances of the managerial appointment. She says: “Managers promoted from within often struggle to make the transition from being everyone’s friend to be the boss. While managers appointed from outside an organisation often arrive wanting to prove their managerial abilities, but find it difficult to balance demonstrating authority with wanting people to like them. 

“Being a good people manager requires a very specific skillset, the right training and effective internal processes that drive employee engagement.”

Gibson warns that team members’ reactions aren’t always good when you’ve worked on the same level and then they’re suddenly reporting into you. “You can sit down and explain the situation, that you have a job to do, that you might not always agree and that it’s nothing personal. They can agree on the surface, but the way they handle it in practice might not be so good.”

Building respect as a leader is key to those challenges, according to Gibson, and that often means admitting when you’re in the wrong. She says: “One of the things I always say to my team is, ‘Look, I might be responsible for the decision making, but I’m a member of this team and I’m not always right.’ If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first one to put my hand up and admit it.”

Equally important is respecting your team and their knowledge. Gibson says: “Sometimes my team will put me back on the straight and narrow because I’m not as close to the nitty-gritty as they are. They can prevent me from making a huge faux pas sometimes. It’s about working through things together as a team.”

Giving credit where it’s due and acknowledging good work is essential in building a culture of respect and ensuring employee engagement. Gibson explains: “People can go unnoticed even though they’re doing a great job, and while you’re dealing with issues you can take them for granted and forget to give them a pat on the back. But that acknowledgement can make the world of difference to them and motivate them for the future, whereas if they don’t get the recognition they deserve and become invisible then they’ll start to look elsewhere. 

“Also, if you don’t give praise where it’s due, their confidence can suffer, and they start to wonder whether they’re doing a good job after all.”

Of course, every function has its own set of unique challenges. So, what are the specific requirements of a payroll leader? 

“You need to be a logical person with a steady head but also try to think outside the box and think of the different scenarios,” says Gibson. “You need strong organisational skills and to be cool in a crisis, because you can come up against major obstacles like system faults. There are also challenges like regular staff absence. On top of that you need good analytical skills and to be a good problem solver. “


...difference between creating an open, friendly culture and the leader being everyone’s friend


However, as well as the day-to-day running of the department, there is also the wider organisation and the function’s standing within it to consider. Gibson explains: “It’s important to be a payroll champion, as the work we do so often goes unrecognised. The payroll leader needs to constantly build relationships with internal facets within the organisation, reporting to finance, reporting to pensions, reporting to human resources [HR], and so on. Part of that relationship building is raising the awareness of the importance of the payroll function.

“For example, I’ve been in a situation where HR has come to me and asked for certain reports because they are looking at implementing an integrated system. I’ve said I can go one better, and if they give payroll a place round the boardroom table for major decision-making, where it belongs, not only can I produce the information, but I can also explain the analytics around it and the impact of what it is we’re aiming to do.”

So, no pressure then! Actually, coping with the pressure is another essential leadership skill. “You can take too much on”, warns Gibson, who observes: “There are situations where you know something needs to be done and although you should delegate, it can be tempting to do it yourself, especially if it needs turning around quickly.”

With the ubiquity of mobile devices and the ‘always on’ culture, there’s always the temptation to constantly check emails out of work hours, which, Gibson warns, can lead to burnout: “You can feel on duty 24 hours a day because you have to be available if there’s an emergency. It is a challenge, and you have to be disciplined.”

Gibson points out that HR can be an added source of pressure, because there are a lot of devolved responsibilities: “You’re responsible for your new starter inductions, for return-to-work interviews, for staged return to work after absences, for one-to-ones, appraisals, personal development, processes and disciplinaries. You might be involved in a redundancy situation or a restructure. All of those things can be stressful, and not only have you got those, but you’ve got the day job to get on with as well!

“Things can be ticking along quite nicely and suddenly there’s a challenge.”

Not surprising, then, that Gibson says in summary: “Don’t believe anyone who tells you they find leadership easy. It’s far from easy!”