‘We tend to think about leadership, culture, value, and purpose in a macro way. But all organisations are aggregates of the people within them. It is easy to miss the whole piece about how people react at individual levels to these issues.’
For someone who, as CEO of Barclays, was leading 140,000 people in 60 countries, Antony Jenkins described leadership in surprisingly modest and personal terms.
He was speaking at a Responsible Leadership Seminar on 4 February 2016 in conversation with Oxford Saïd Dean Peter Tufano. ‘Leadership is a learned skill,’ he said. ‘Some people are innately good at it, but all can become better. However, this is not to be confused with becoming a great leader – a Ghandi or a Nelson Mandela.’
It is ‘not about how many people report to you, but about how you behave, act, and endeavour to do the right thing’. And it is situationally specific. ‘If you are trying to solve complex problems creatively, you can be collaborative … If the house is on fire, you don’t suggest forming a committee’.
So if leadership is a learned skill, how is it learned?
Reassuringly, perhaps, for the audience – mostly MBA students at the beginning of their careers – even Antony Jenkins didn’t start as a leader, but worked his way up the ranks, gradually taking on and being given more responsibility. This gave him a chance to observe, to watch other leaders in action and analyse what they were doing well or badly. And it also gave him experience and the opportunity to learn through his mistakes.
In particular, he described learning about the situational aspect of leadership the hard way. ‘The house was on fire,’ he said, ‘but I hadn’t realised it’. When companies started cutting back on banking services when he was at Citigroup, his initial response was to ‘tense up’, he said. But sudden low scores on the regular leadership survey caused him to realise that he had to be more ‘directional’ and to communicate more.
In fact, it is seldom that a leader should ever communicate less, and there are times when you almost have to over-communicate. He had learned this lesson by 2012, when he was back at Barclays and the LIBOR scandal broke. He went round the building floor by floor, standing on chairs and personally addressing groups of staff, admitting that the situation felt ‘terrible’ but assuring them that they would get through it.
‘The danger in a volatile world is that people tense up … you get fear and hesitation to act, which is the opposite of what you need,’ he said.
This understanding of people and their individual reactions is at the heart of his approach to responsible leadership. He claims that the impulse is not necessarily ethical, but just practical.
‘It seems an over-simplification to say that all a business has to do is make a profit,’ he said. ‘In order to make a profit you need high customer engagement, which is linked with high employee engagement.’ He is sceptical about CSR programmes, suggesting that some businesses might see CSR as a ‘get out of jail free card’, believing that they can do whatever they want as long as they sponsor a primary school in a developing country. An example of a better approach is the apprenticeship scheme started by Barclays. Most people on the scheme were NEETs (not in employment, education, or training) so the normal mechanisms had to be ‘tilted’ in order to employ them. But the people who graduated from the scheme were amongst the best and highest performing staff, ‘because we’d given them a shot when no one else would.’
Responsible businesses are good businesses and perform better because they have satisfied customers and more engaged employees, he repeated. It is ‘not rocket science’, so why isn’t it happening? In fact, he said, it is happening, just not in the places where we are looking for it. Perhaps more in the corporate sector should learn lessons from family businesses, which by their nature focus on sustainability and longevity.
In a world where some businesses have notably lost their way, he also stressed the responsibilities of ‘followers’, pointing out that thinking of ‘followership’ as distinct from leadership is artificial. ‘To follow a course of action is also a form of leadership, as is knowing when not to follow … Leaders have the right to expect that people follow them, [but also] that if they have problems, those issues are raised and aired.’