‘Think you’re a great leader? First ask those people around you...’

Respected business ‘fixer’ and Leadership Jersey founder Kevin Keen knows the importance of executives who admit it when they go wrong and are willing to listen to those they work with. Emily Moore reports

Kevin Keen. Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (31783698)
Kevin Keen. Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (31783698)

THINK of a great leader and the chances are that Barack Obama, Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Jacinda Ardern and Richard Branson will be among the first names that come to mind.

This was certainly the case for many of the 759 Islanders who responded to last year’s inaugural survey designed to assess the quality of Jersey leadership.

But, while there was widespread consensus on which global leaders inspired people, the results when it came to judging the leaders within their own organisations were much more mixed.

‘Overall, when people rated the quality of leadership within their organisation, the average score was 6.6 out of ten, but this average is not necessarily representative of the situation,’ explained Kevin Keen, of Leadership Jersey. ‘Individual answers varied significantly, with 18% awarding their boss a score of nine or ten, while 13% scored their leaders one or two.’

Interestingly, the survey also revealed a difference between people’s perception of themselves as leaders and the way in which they were regarded by colleagues.

‘On average, people in leadership rated themselves more highly than people rated their boss, and I suspect that this is partly because leaders do not generally receive much feedback about themselves,’ said Mr Keen. ‘There are not many people who will say to their boss: “I don’t think you’re a very good leader; you don’t inspire me.”

‘Such a conversation tends to be rather career-limiting, particularly if you report directly to the chief executive. This makes it difficult for people in those positions to get objective feedback, and I would certainly encourage chief executives to undertake 360 appraisals so that they, and their boards, can understand colleagues’ experiences of their leaders.’

Renowned locally as something of a business ‘fixer’, Mr Keen was inspired to set up Leadership Jersey, alongside marketing professional Jo Ferbrache, after his own experiences suggested that poor-quality leadership was a contributing factor to the problems that many companies were experiencing.

‘Over quite a long career, working with many companies who were facing difficult times, I regularly concluded that the reason the organisation was in trouble, or struggling to get out of trouble, was because of the leadership,’ he said. ‘That applied equally across the public sector, charities and businesses. Having discovered this situation, I didn’t feel that there was enough conversation about the development of leaders as opposed to the development of managers.’

Having run a number of events before the pandemic curtailed public gatherings, the not-for-profit organisation last year teamed up with Emma-Louise Veitch, of All Things Customer, to run the survey.

‘Before you can solve any problem, you have to know what that problem is,’ explained Mr Keen. ‘Launching the survey in the middle of a pandemic was interesting but there is nothing like a crisis to test the quality of leadership. If you have a really good leader in a crisis, they will get you through. If you have a terrible leader, you will feel the pain. But, generally, leaders step up with things are difficult and people need help, guidance and inspiration.’

And good leadership, says Mr Keen, sets the tone for the whole organisation.

‘There is a saying that the fish rocks from the head,’ he added. ‘Chief executives not only set the tone for the organisation, but also say what good looks like. As a result, if the person at the top does not display the values and qualities that they ask other team members to display, then the organisation is lost.

‘Crucially, leaders have a big role to play in making sure that staff have a true vision of the organisation’s purpose. Whether you work for a charity or a business, there should be a meaningful purpose that goes beyond making money. And, if the employees understand that purpose, the organisation becomes a more satisfying place in which to work.’

While Mr Keen is clear that communication is a key part of leadership, he is also convinced that the way in which success is measured can go a long way to shaping a person’s behaviour.

‘The way in which we measure success really does drive behaviours, especially if bonus schemes are linked to that measurement,’ he said. ‘If, for example, the chief executive is remunerated based on saving money, then he or she might stop investing in staff training or stop marketing the business as they become focused solely on the short-term financial results. Measurement, and the way we incentivise our leaders, is critical.’

Equally important, he says, is recognition that different situations require different leaders.

‘I’ve gone into many businesses because the organisation has been struggling and someone has needed to stabilise the situation,’ he said. ‘I’ve headed up the Zoo, the Post Office and Jersey Dairy at various times and I don’t know much about any of those areas – but I do know about people, money and strategy. A generalist can help for a certain amount of time but, ultimately, you then need a specialist to grow the business.

‘It is also crucial to have a leadership team, rather than just one person, and this is where diversity becomes so important. Although the concept of diversity is often over-simplified, diversity of views and experience make for a much better leadership team and a much stronger organisation. At this stage, you have to give people a chance. If you believe that only existing chief executives can take on such a role, you will just get same old, same old. We are in a new territory and you have to take risks and give people a chance to create that diversity of opportunity.’

As well as specialist knowledge, leaders need to understand their responsibility.

‘Something people often forget is that your responsibility as a leader is to your organisation, not to yourself,’ he explained. ‘Chief executives tend to become distant and lose track of how the organisation is doing. They struggle to adapt to change because, by accepting change, they also have to accept that they may have done something wrong, and this is something they often see as career-limiting. To me, though, that shows strength. For a chief executive to say “I got that wrong” is pretty empowering for everyone else.’

And it is not just acknowledging mistakes which Mr Keen believes is key to inspiring a workforce.

‘I have been very lucky to have spent time in a variety of organisations, learning from a range of people,’ he said. ‘When I was at Jersey Post, I remember that some of the best ideas we had came from the posties themselves. As a chief executive, though, you have to be quite confident to ask the posties how you should be doing your job. However, if you are prepared to do that and if you respect all of the roles within the organisation, not only will you learn a lot but people will be more inclined to follow you.

‘That is when you become a leader. Really good leaders don’t need badges or titles. Really good leaders are followed because people want to follow them. A leader knows the way, shows the way and goes the way. They focus on people, articulating a vision and motivating and inspiring those around them to strive towards that vision.’

It is interesting, then, that in last year’s leadership survey, 60% of respondents felt that the person to whom they reported was ‘more of a manager than a leader’, while half of people described the chief executive of their organisation as a leader.

‘This shows that, while we need both managers and leaders, we need people to be both,’ said Mr Keen. ‘If you improve the leadership, people will not need so much managing because they will know what you’re trying to do and the intent behind it, and they will get on and do it.’

With last year’s survey having provided an overall impression of leadership standards within the Island, Mr Keen is hoping to attract more responses this year so that the findings can be broken down by sector.

‘Not only would I like to see how people’s experiences vary by sector but I also want to see whether the overall standard has improved over the past year,’ he said. ‘Most of the questions are the same as last year so that we can make those comparisons but we have added one question this year, asking people to rate the Council of Ministers on its leadership. Given the challenges that ministers have faced this year, I hope that people will think carefully about that question and recognise the difficulties they have experienced, and the fact that they cannot please all of the people all of the time.’

The Leadership Jersey survey, which has once again been compiled on a voluntary basis by Emma-Louise Veitch, is now live and can be completed at leadershipjersey.je or allthingscustomer.co.uk.

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