Are team players better leaders than brilliant individuals?

Steve Jobs is the prime example of a superstar visionary who brought success to his company, but being brilliant is not always the answer to great leadership, as gaining the trust of staff is often more important.

The late Steve Jobs is remembered for his individual brilliance; a leader whose visionary talent drove Apple to launch the most coveted products in the world. Jobs’ reputation helped stock prices rise 9,000% between 1997 and 2011, after he returned to Apple as chief executive following a 12-year hiatus from the company.

When he died aged 56 from pancreatic cancer, the share price dropped 5%, such was the concern that the company wouldn’t be able to continue on its path of global success without him. Visionary leaders are often the cause of celebration within the business and marketing world, but do most companies need or want to rely on discovering a superstar?

Jobs himself argued that successful leadership was about teamwork, rather than the individual, and evidence suggests that the ability to be seen as a team player is not only a way for business leaders to motivate workers, but to be successful in business growth.

Maurits van Rooijen, chief executive of the London School of Business and Finance, argues that the key to successful leadership is not to be the “ego” in the room but instead to be a unifying force, driving the team towards common goals (see box, below).

This idea was established in experiments that took place in 1939. Research led by psychologist Kurt Lewin indicates that participative or democratic leadership is generally considered to be the most effective. Guiding a team, as well as listening to and gaining contributions from its members, before coming to a decision helps to foster an inclusive environment within any given company, according to the research.

The research was tested out on schoolchildren to compare leadership styles and the results show that consulting the group leads to better working relationships than authoritarian leadership does. While nuances in leadership styles have been identified since this research was carried out, many marketers identify that a form of democratic leadership has been the most effective at getting the best results from their team. Indeed, Hay Group’s Leadership Styles and Climate data suggests that adopting the right leadership style could positively effect business results by up to 30%.

A collegiate approach

Simon Michaelides, marketing director at UKTV, and Marketing Academy Leadership Fellow, believes that a combination of leadership approaches has led to his success. Michaelides believes that he has risen up the ladder because he feels “comfortable challenging the status quo”. However, in terms of getting the best out of his team, he believes a “collegiate” approach is best – that is to listen to different opinions before coming to a decision. “To be a truly great leader, it’s about getting a balance of both styles,” he says.

But it remains a challenge to be a team player as your team increases in size. “It’s difficult to be as hands-on now that I’m accountable for around 50 people,” Michaelides admits. “You have to take a multi-faceted approach – be clear about what you stand for and make sure everyone knows what your mission is and why.”

Entrepreneur Kevin Byrne, who has built into a £10.8m business, believes that he hasn’t been a success because of his individual brilliance, but because of his ability to “build people”.

Employing more than 200 staff, Byrne has thought carefully about creating a culture where staff really believe in the service the company provides. “Building people” starts from the induction, which takes place over a week, he says.

“Each new person spends an hour and a half with me. I want them to understand the most important thing to me. I need to tell them that they’ve chosen to [help me] build my dream. That kind of attitude is rare in business – people don’t tend to bare their heart with their staff.” Byrne claims the results of “3-4%” improvement at the company each month are testament to this style of leadership.

While this personal team-building approach cannot be carried through to huge multinationals, ensuring people feel appreciated, supported, and listened to can close the gap between management and the rest of the staff.

The key to successful leadership is being a unifying force, says Maurits van Rooijen at the London School of Business and Finance

Getting the best from your team

Debbie White, chief executive of food services and facilities management company Sodexo, says you have to be an authentic leader to have any impact on the company. She has led Sodexo to introduce a number of staff initiatives to get the best out of the team, particularly opening up opportunities for women. It is in the process of introducing an auditing system to ensure fair pay for all of its 35,000 employees, as well as pushing the most talented within the business into top roles, especially those from groups that are often under-represented at the top such as women and ethnic minorities.

Nurturing a trusting relationship with your team can lead to staff believing that leaders are team players rather than untouchable autocrats. White believes that supporting the team to make the best of themselves is the reason behind company growth.

“When we put women in ‘stretch’ positions [that give them challenging levels of responsibility], it’s important that we have the right support mechanisms in place so they can be as successful as they can be. Women in particular have a lack in self-confidence. It is about making sure there are the support mechanisms there. And that helps us all be more successful, quite frankly,” she says.

Personality counts

However, being seen as a team player is not necessarily what makes a business leader stand out from the crowd in the first instance. Nigel Holland, regional president at Tata Global Beverages, is a Marketing Academy mentor who plays a part in the organisation’s Scholarship programme for high-achieving young people, and says he is often asked questions by scholars about what makes a great leader.

He says: “Fifteen years ago, I thought it was about brand management. Sadly I was wrong. Now I think I’ve got the answer. You need to establish credibility with people. First, you’ve got to be an authority on what you are talking about. You need to develop a reputation for getting things done and being utterly reliable and the third aspect – and the most important – is the way you communicate.”

Once you’ve established these things, Holland says the key to being a successful leader is empowering the team by letting people have the freedom to do their job well. Sholto Douglas-Home, chief marketing officer at Hays Recruitment and one of the Fellows on the current Marketing Academy Leadership course, agrees that having the right personality traits is key to being a successful leader.

“I believe in the ‘four Cs’. Communication is absolutely critical to being a good leader. Second, good leaders have to take a collegiate approach by sharing decision-making. You also have to have clarity of purpose, to know what you stand for. And finally, you have to have confidence, charisma and presence.”

This potent combination of strong personality traits, mixed with the ability to make the team feel part of the success, is a winning formula. But according to Hay Group research, 53 per cent of leaders are creating demotivating climates, so it appears that many leaders are yet to grasp an approach which gets the best out of its team.

Maurits van Rooijen

Leading a learning team

The biggest challenge for a business leader is to avoid turning leadership into an ego trip. The key to success is building up teams, listening to those teams and making sure the various team members listen to each other.

This is not the same as seeking compromises all the time or being nice, it is about creating mutual respect and understanding that the success of one is dependent on the success of the other. So the leader will want to replace office politics and back-stabbing with solid team work. Learning together and being engaged in innovation sessions helps with bonding and creates a sense of shared objectives.

Sharing mistakes is a sign of trust and is the best form of risk management. The best leaders are better at listening than speaking (or shouting). They encourage rather than create fear, yet at the same time are transparent towards all team members as to what the reasonable expectations are and that success cannot afford a weak link.

Practice makes perfect

The trick to making success lasting is understanding reflective learning. Reflective learning means that you use quite simple techniques to reflect on every action, especially failures, or partial successes.

Reflective learning is not just standing in front of the mirror, beating yourself up or – worse – staring in self-admiration. It is about getting structured feedback.

It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as failure, other than trying to cover an error up, denying it or repeating the same mistake.

Reflective learning is about accepting that not everything can be 100% successful. The real challenge is to learn from experience. Successful business ultimately is always a learning process. The better an organisation is at learning, the higher its commercial success will fly.

DNA of a marketing leader

According to recruitment company Hays, marketers often have the following common traits that can make them a successful leader:

  • 48% of marketing leaders have worked outside of the UK for more than two years, and most say this has been a benefit to career progression; 16% say international experience is a top tip for future marketing leaders.
  • 45% believe that developing people skills is the key to being in the next generation of marketing leaders.
  • A marketing leader is almost as likely to be female (48%) as male (52%).
  • 62% of marketing leaders believe the next generation of top marketers will need to be more commercially aware.
  • 69% believe there will be an increased focus on ROI over the next five years.
  • 24% of marketers believe that keeping up with latest developments in digital technology will be their biggest professional challenge.
  • 31% believe that unrealistic company goals will be their biggest professional challenge, while company culture is believed to be a professional challenge for 44% of respondents.