The Secret Formula to Great Leadership

What is the elusive formula for perfect leadership?  What does it take to be an outstanding leader in your field?  Chorus Executive has been speaking to the finalists for CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards to find out what has led to their success and what they’ve learned throughout their leadership journeys.  

Interestingly, the common thread that seemed to run through all our conversations with the finalists involved one central theme; people.  From Managing Directors to CEO’s to Heads of HR, every leader we spoke to identified that their role is to serve their people; giving their staff compelling reasons to work towards a vision, developing their teams, and keeping their people engaged and happy.  As Jamie Stanistreet, Managing Director of Medtronic ANZ explained, his philosophy is to “look after employees and the results will look after themselves.” Over the course of these interviews with leaders from different industries, there was a shared belief that a leader can only be as good as the team they are leading.

It is fascinating to see how this has changed over the years.  It wasn’t so long ago that our businesses operated on a hierarchical model, where levels of management were clearly delineated and those at “the bottom” had little communication with “the top” and vice versa.  That structure has well and truly been turned on its side with leadership teams much more involved in the day to day operation of  a business, communicating at all levels and making themselves accessible to all.


Commitment through Communication

Neil Trembath, Chief People & Sustainability Officer at Ausenco, spoke of the need for leaders to be in touch with their people. “Good leaders have an uncanny ability to build trust, loyalty and commitment in followers. They set direction, communicate clearly where they are going and create compelling reasons to get there,” Neil said.

It’s an interesting challenge for Neil, who oversees a team of one hundred HR and HSE professionals operating out of thirty offices across fifteen countries. Staying in touch with his people is no simple feat! “It’s difficult to lead across both geographical and cultural boundaries.  It requires great trust in my people.” To combat the geographical distance, Neil travels a lot, connects with his direct reports once a week and uses email and instant messaging services to stay connected, however it is the cultural boundaries which prove to be a bigger challenge. 

“When you’re leading people from all over the world, you have to understand that while everyone has the same fundamental wants and needs, like fair work and equitable pay, culture and context changes things,” Neil said.  He explained that in other countries like Chile or Peru, job security, fair pay and good working conditions are at the top of everyone’s mind, whereas in Australia we expect those things as the fundamental basics and add to it the desire for interesting work, new challenges and career progression.

For Justin Hocevar, Managing Director of Renault Australia, communication is vital for change to be accepted within a business. “When I accepted the position [of Managing Director], I proposed my vision for the business,” Justin said.  Renault was to undergo a massive reinvigoration of its brand to better communicate its place in the Australian automotive market. They were going to take Renault’s one hundred years of heritage, successes in Formula One and the healthy recognition of the brand overseas, and create a more meaningful proposition in Australia. 

“I worked with lots of staff to create a strategy map for the vision.  Because so many people were involved and because we communicated the changes with absolute transparency, it meant that it was easy to obtain buy-in from everyone.  Having that compassionately honest approach resulted in a high level of support,” Justin explained.   


Success is having happy people

We’ve all heard the old aphorism that “people don’t leave companies, they leave leaders” and while true, it seems it works in the opposite way too.  Great leaders are one of the primary reasons people are attracted to a company and one of the primary motivators to stay with a company.  In a poll of our candidates, we found that 60% of talent would consider taking a pay cut in order to work for an inspiring leader.  This clearly demonstrates how important quality leadership is for the attraction and retention of exceptional talent.

So how do successful leaders retain their people?

For Megan Bromley, Head of Employee Experience at Red Balloon, it is people who hold the business together and a little recognition goes a long way. Every month, Red Balloon awards an employee with their equivalent of an Oscar. This is a peer-to-peer nomination system for colleagues who live and breathe the values of the company.  At the monthly meeting, the ‘Oscar’ award is given to one individual. The winner also receives something from their ‘Dream Catcher’.  This gift is anything they dream of having or doing and the gifts vary because each employee has different dreams.  One staff member had a kayak delivered to the office; another received the experience of a walk-on part in the TV show Packed to the Rafters.  “This program is designed to show the importance of recognition of individuals and that not one solution fits all,” Megan said.

Colleen Callander, CEO of Sportsgirl Australia spoke about how her organisation decided to keep all its engagement policies and programs despite facing a tough retail market and an industry-wide need to reduce expenditure. “People underestimate how much turnover rates affect the bottom line,” Colleen said.  “In tough times, cutting training and benefits disadvantages your people and your results are driven by your people.  It makes more sense to protect and nurture them.  There are better ways to show restraint and work within tight budgets elsewhere.”  

Because of this attitude, Sportsgirl maintained their low turnover rate while managing to weather the storms of online shopping and the threat of the international retailers.  In fact, they’ve embraced the two game-changers. “The international onslaught of retailers has certainly changed the landscape.  We could have been scared of it but at the end of the day, we know the Australian consumer better because we are the Australian consumer.” 

To retain their talent, Sportsgirl offer training and development opportunities, transition programs, flexible working hours and benefits such as healthy meals provided every day, running club and yoga. “It’s about lifestyle,” Colleen said. “Keeping staff healthy and happy keeps them engaged.”


Leadership Advice from the Experts

We asked Executive of the Year award finalists what advice they would give to themselves twenty years ago.  This produced some interesting responses as it forced our leadership experts to think about the mistakes they made earlier in their careers. 

James Thiedeman, CEO of Monash IVF, said that the advice he would give himself is to take a step back, pause and think about the bigger picture before making a decision.

“Early in my career, my view was that action was efficiency.  But as I progressed through my career, I have learned to step back and draw upon the experience and knowledge of others,” James said.  His advice was to find the confidence to admit that someone else might be the expert in a particular area.  “The biggest risk is a leader who thinks they know the answer to every question,” he said.

Colleen Callander shared a similar view. “I have lots of energy and I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so twenty years ago, I was trying to do everything myself.  I look back now and can see times when I was probably quite burnt out because I didn’t know how to empower others.  Now one of my real strengths is to empower others,” Colleen said.


The Winning Formula

From our conversations with eight finalists, we found many shared characteristics in the way they approach leadership.  All identified that good leaders provide a clear vision for their team. They empower their people, and trust in the expertise and abilities of their team.  They challenge their people by setting a high but attainable standard and then support them by making available the tools, training and resources necessary to get the job done.  

They are brave enough to make hard decisions and face the consequences.  They see the bigger picture of the business, recognise success and surround themselves with talented people – “Including people smarter than themselves,” Jamie Stanistreet was quick to point out.

Good leaders need to be committed to the role of a leader. “Some people want leadership only for the title and the grandiosity. They forget that leadership is hard work,” said Neil Trembath.

Chris Radin, CEO at Stihl summed up the secret to outstanding leadership with honest simplicity; “Be human, be authentic, be vulnerable,” Chris said.  

What is interesting to note is that all of these characteristics seem to transcend industry, sector or size of business. They are universal qualities which inspire, support and empower people to perform at their highest levels in order for a business to achieve success.  


CEO Magazine's Executive of the Year Awards will be held on 27th November, 2014. Chorus Executive is a proud sponsor of the HR Executive of the Year Award.  Visit to find out more.