Why your shadow is important

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


    What we say, how we act, what we prioritise and how we measure outcomes all determine what gets done  – and what doesn’t.  That is the starting point of a new leadership model being promoted to boost gender diversity in Australia.

    Called the “leadership shadow”, it was originally developed by Goldman Sachs and then enhanced by Chief Executive Women (CEW) and the Male Champions of Change, a group of CEOs from Australia’s biggest companies who aim to develop strategies to increase the representation of women in leadership positions.  The model is now being trialled in a number of companies.

    The concept is based on the premise that leadership starts at the top and if bosses want to make a difference, they must understand the shadow they cast.

    “I believe people in organisations watch their leaders very carefully and it doesn’t take them very long to figure out when leaders are not committed to what they say they are trying to achieve,” says Holly Kramer, the CEO of retail group Best & Less.

    “Many executives get pressure from their boards to drive diversity initiatives. But, ultimately, the success of an initiative depends on the degree to which the executive truly believes in it. It is very hard for business leaders to put a lot of energy and effort into something they don’t believe in.”

    Around six months ago, Kramer was approached by CEW to become involved in the leadership shadow initiative. In the 18 months since she joined Best & Less, it has made good progress in achieving all types of diversity even though it had not put an overt gender target or program in place. Its executive team has gone from 20 per cent female to around 65 per cent, and now includes people from a wide range of countries and industries. In addition, its number of female store managers has risen from 65 per cent to 80 per cent.

    “I was interested to use the model to find out why we had been effective,” says Kramer. “I also thought it was a great model for leadership in general and wanted to learn more about it so I could potentially apply it in my own company.

    “The model is all about authenticity and consistency. It challenges you as a leader, in the first instance, to ensure that you are fully committed to what you are trying to achieve. You go through it and ask: Am I thinking, acting, measuring and doing all the things that are consistent with what I say I want to achieve? It challenges you to question how committed you are.

    “It’s also collaborative and has something of a 360 degree approach. So it’s not just about assessing whether you are doing it. You also want to get the feedback from those around you to see if they perceive you that way.

    “It is broad in its application. As a leader, there are so many visions that you may want to drive through an organisation and you can use this model to assess if you are committed and walking the talk.”

    Kramer adds: “Because leaders have very strong voices, they need to ensure they bring in people from different perspectives – gender, experience, age and ethnicity – and create an environment where all those different voices get heard.

    “Because I genuinely believed this, it came through in the people I hired and then through the people they hired. It came about because I believed in it and then it showed up in the actions and reactions of others in the organisation.”

    Kathryn Fagg, chairman of CEW’s thought leadership committee and a member of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s board, says: “The beauty of the model is its simplicity and that it can lead directly to action. It asks leaders to reflect on the shadow they cast on the organisation and how their words and actions are perceived. The model then gives guidance on the most important things they themselves can do to accelerate change - looking at what they say, how they act, what they prioritise and how they measure.”

    She believes the model is a useful tool for directors to use themselves. “Boards play a very important role in setting the direction and tone of an organisation. The leadership shadow is a tool that a board can use to consider the shadow that it is casting and to ask the question whether there are things it can do to have more impact and help accelerate change. Directors can also encourage the executive team to do likewise.”

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