Encourage your leaders to explore out-of-the-box ideas with their sparring partners, learn how to reframe negative feedback and practice self-care, says leadership expert Holly Ransom.
He selected Holly Ransom, Australian entrepreneur and founder and CEO of strategic advisory firm Emergent, describing her as “one young person already having a significant impact today, and will go on to do a lot more tomorrow”.
“I suspect you’ll be hearing from her in the future as more and more female CEOs come to the fore, changing business for good,” Branson told Wired.
As the Co-Chair of the United Nations Global Coalition of Young Women Entrepreneurs, she’s been working to dismantle barriers that curb women’s career progress, and her first book, The Leading Edge, which aims to democratise leadership learnings and give more people the ability to scale their impact, was published last year.
In 2018, she even received a personal request from former US President Barack Obama to facilitate his only Australian talk when he visited that year.
Through her varied consulting work with major global companies including Cisco, AMEX, Microsoft and Virgin, Ransom has collected valuable pearls of wisdom to help leaders on their path – particularly those facing additional barriers due to their gender or other markers of diversity.
Here are four of Ransom’s top pieces of advice for creating thriving leaders in your organisation.
Less than two per cent of global venture capital reaches female founders, according to research by Axios and Carta.
“It’s really difficult for women to procure capital or to be backed and supported – not necessarily just in starting their ideas, but in being able to scale, accelerate and access the sorts of networks and financing [to help their ideas take off],” says Ransom.
“We glorify the entrepreneurial journey, but the lion’s share of it is still male founders, male investors, male networks. We need to open this opportunity for women.”
Doing so might involve establishing dedicated funds or investing in female-owned companies to support women who are seeking to establish their own business.
But developing an entrepreneurial mindset shouldn’t just fall into the domain of business owners.
Intrapreneurship – the act of harnessing entrepreneurial skills within an organisation – is key to devising creative solutions, and it may help to prevent unwanted turnover amid The Great Resignation.
Affording employees the opportunity to ideate, innovate and grow their ideas with organisational backing can help to boost engagement.
“On the whole, people don’t leave companies, they leave people,” says Ransom. “A core part of the cultural environment at the moment is that people want to be empowered. They want to be working on something they feel really excited about, and that gives them purpose.”
Photo: Holly Ransom by Michelle Grace Hunder
So how can you encourage your people to adopt an intrapreneurial mindset?
Ransom says initiatives such as hackathons or business sprints allow time for creative ideas to bubble up, and gives people genuine ownership of them.
Performance management discussions shouldn’t just involve asking employees, ‘How is your work going? ‘Do you feel connected?’ and ‘What can we do to support you?’, says adds.
“It should also be, ‘How do we unleash your talents and capabilities and give you the opportunity to grow and learn?’ What’s an idea you have that’s really out-of-the-box?’
“Step out of the rhythm of business as usual and create an opportunity for conversations about new ventures. What about asking, ‘Why don’t you take that idea, and see if you can turn it into something in three months with this bit of funding?’”
Ransom says these questions are examples of “proactive thinking” that employers should be looking to cultivate in both their current and future leaders.
“The opportunity to re-engage people in their work by providing them with new opportunities is boundless. Let’s use the Great Resignation to talk about the Great Re-engagement.”
Help leaders find their sparring partners
Having great mentors to coach you through a problem, expand your networks and give you a pep talk is invaluable for career growth, but it’s equally important to have challengers by your side.
Ransom says while sponsors and sounding boards – your mentor-type figures – are essential, you also need sparring partners.
These are people who think differently to you and have complementary capabilities, are strong supporters of your growth and aren’t afraid to challenge you and co-create solutions together.
“They can throw ideas around with you, and they [might] say, ‘What about this instead? Have you thought about trying it this way?’ Or ‘I don’t know if that will work, but what you could do is take that customer insight… and turn it into X.’
“I’ll throw an idea into the room, and by the time we’re done, two or three conversations later, it looks completely different to the original idea. The intent [remains] in what I’m trying to achieve, but the others have challenged it, stretched it, pushed it and we’ve ended up with something that has the capacity to be really exciting and dynamic.”
Help them to handle critics
As a young female leader, Ransom is no stranger to gender bias. She finds herself regularly fielding questions from critics such as: ‘How can a young female be working in this space? What knowledge do you have as a young woman to discuss these issues? What experience do you have to be writing about leadership?’
In response, she says: ‘That’s exactly the premise I’m seeking to challenge.’
“There is a lack of diversity in the leadership dialogue. We don’t have a diverse set of stories from people of different gender identifications, sexual orientations, generations, sectors or backgrounds. This diversity is not just a reality of what leadership looks like, but of what it absolutely has to look like so that we can make progress on major systemic issues.”
Now, when Ransom is confronted with negative feedback, she takes it in her stride.
“I’ve learnt to interpret it. That’s not to say every now and then one of those bits of feedback or naysayers doesn’t knock me to the ground… but I chose to understand their feedback as coming from their world view, their background, their position and not necessarily carrying any more weight than that.”
“Our mothers and grandmothers knocked down many of the overt barriers to discrimination. We are playing in murkier territory now where there are more covert barriers.” – Holly Ransom, Founder and CEO of Emergent
She also uses negative feedback to her advantage by asking, “Is there a nugget in there which I can use to fuel the importance of my work, or to embolden what I’m trying to do?”
Broadly speaking, her overarching goal in the fight for gender equality is to break down unconscious biases, and continue the work of women who have come before her.
“Our mothers and grandmothers knocked down many of the overt barriers to discrimination. We are playing in murkier territory now where there are more covert barriers. There’s a lot of unconscious bias and [we’re having to navigate] the lines around what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Understand that self-care is critical for effective leadership
When you ask leaders how they are, they often answer: “I’m so busy”.
We’re living in a culture that glorifies the grind and associates being busy with having a level of status and importance.
In Ransom’s experience, this response tends to be common across men and women, but she says there’s one important differentiator.
“I have many more conversations with women about prioritising self-care and the level of guilt associated with taking time out,” says Ransom.
“There’s a sense of not being able to engage in self-care because ‘I’m too busy’ and [they feel] it’s almost selfish to take 15 or 30 minutes to go and practice mindfulness or yoga, or go for a run, or connect with someone who will energise you.”
Ransom’s advice to leaders who are struggling to care for themselves is two-fold. First, you need to give yourself permission to switch off.
“This is critical because you’re in no place to lead anyone unless you can lead yourself sustainably first. We need to talk about leading the self before we can talk about leading others.
“Let’s talk about foundational habits that are critical to sustained performance, not just being able to achieve results, but being able to sustain results in a way that you enjoy.”
The second part of Ransom’s self-care advice is to not let perfect be the enemy of the good.
“This is about creating micro-habits. Research shows you don’t need to go to a full 45 minute gym class to get physiological benefits. Committing to regular small circuit breakers – so taking 10 deep breaths, getting up between Zoom calls and doing a series of squats , going for a three-minute walk to the corner and back – can all produce positive physiological benefits.
She says the pursuit of perfection can mean people “fail to take advantage of these smaller interventions that can actually compound into really significant benefits”.
For these behaviours to echo across the organisation, leaders need to be ‘loud and proud’ about their self-care, she says.
“Many leaders will say, ‘It’s essential to take time for yourself’ or ‘It’s important to recharge,’ but a disconnect emerges where they say it, but they don’t do it. It leaves others wondering, ‘Is it a career-limiting move for me to take time out to practice self-care? Or is it psychologically safe for me to do that?”
From Ransom’s perspective, this is one of the fundamental elements of leadership at work that needs to shift.
“We need to role model it. We need to extend self-care from an individual’s experience to a collective practice because if we’re serious about self-care becoming a bedrock of culture, it needs to be practiced by everyone.”
This is where the white-collar world could take a leaf from blue-collar professionals.
Ransom draws on her experience working with a mining company which would instigate regular ‘safety shares’ at the start of every meeting.
“No meeting started without a safety share, which was a leader talking about something that they’d seen in their world that was either a safety miss – for example, something that happened on their way to work – or a positive example of safety being upheld in their personal or professional life.
“It was the first three minutes of every meeting, whether we were opening a conference, having a team meeting, or a communications catch up.”
This approach could be extended to mental health safety by instigating regular ‘self-care check-ins’ at the start of every meeting, she says.
“We need to find moments where self-care becomes a regular part of the conversation… Everyone could start by saying, ‘Here’s something I did for my mental health today,’ or ‘I’ve been finding X really tough at the moment, so one of the things I’m trying to help myself is Y.’
“We need to think about how these conversations can be had not just on signature days of the year, such as R U OK? Day, but how we can actually embed these conversations into part of our weekly rhythm of our organisation.”
Want to hear more of Holly’s advice on effective leadership? AHRI members can register to hear her speak at the International Women’s Day up until midnight tonight. Book your spot today.