Episode 5: What makes someone leadership material?

A LEADER’S IMPACT — a podcast for business owners, managers and changemakers.

What makes someone a good leader? Are they born, or are they made?  

Elona and Duane offer their pearls of wisdom and explore the value of certain leadership styles.  

In this episode, Elona shares her experiences leading a large business during Covid, and Duane talks candidly about his challenge in learning to become a leader rather than a ‘software coder’.  

Together they offer some great advice for professionals wanting to charge up the ladder.   

Elona Mortimer-Zhika
CEO of IRIS Software Group

Duane Jackson
Senior Technical Director at IRIS Software Group

Elona 0:00   

Hello, everyone and welcome to a leader’s impact, part of our IRIS Interviews podcast channel for business executives, business owners, managers and anyone interested in what’s going on in the world of business and tech. I’m Elona Mortimer-Zhika, CEO of IRIS Software Group. And today I’m joined by the amazing, Duane Jackson, founder of KashFlow, and Staffology and the Senior Technical Director at IRIS.  

Duane 0:29   

Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me back. 

Elona 0:31   

Hi, Duane. How are you? 

Duane 0:32   

I’m good. Thank you. 

Elona 0:33   

Great to have you back. I really enjoyed our last podcast. Today, we are going to be talking about what it means to be or to have leadership material? What is it that all leaders possess? And how can it be developed? As a CEO, I regularly get asked this question from people and my journey obviously has been my journey.  

But I’m going to try and share what I’ve learned about leadership over the years. And as you can imagine, that’s evolved because the role of leadership has evolved. I’ve got my favourite person here, Duane Jackson, as I mentioned. Now, Duane and I already did a podcast together. So, if you didn’t listen to it, please do. We explored confidence and self-belief, and I think it was a pretty lively discussion, Duane. Would you agree? 

Duane  1:23   

It was. I’ve got a feeling this one is going to be livelier though. 

Elona 1:26   

I’ve asked you to join me today to get your perspective on leadership because I know you have a lot to say on this topic ass an entrepreneur and a business founder. I always say hat’s off to you, because so few people can succeed in founding their own businesses and making them a success; and you’ve done that a few times over. So absolutely amazing. I’m sure our listeners will learn a lot today. So, Duane, what leadership role models, if any, did you have in your early career? And was there anything about them that stood out? Or were you born with all the leadership skills already? Didn’t need any help at all? 

Duane 2:13   

It’s like the question about entrepreneurship, are entrepreneurs born or made? I think the same works with leaders, are leaders born or made? And certainly, when I think back to earlier in my career, there’s no specific people that stand out. But if I think about those I did look up to as leaders and the qualities that they had, I’d think of things like high EQ, rather than IQ, self-awareness, charisma. These are all things that I do not possess in great quantities, and I’ve had to learn over the years. My natural state is in a dark cupboard with a computer writing code. I was kind of forced into a leadership role. So certainly not a natural leader and I have learned how to walk. EQ, you can’t necessarily learn, but the self-awareness you can do. So, there’s lots of qualities that you need, as a leader and you can learn and you can develop, it’s not something you either have or don’t have, I don’t think. Does that chime with your experience? 

Elona 3:05   

100%. I think self-awareness is really important because people have this perception of what good looks like. And we are trained throughout life to focus on things we don’t know very well. You know, you go for a performance review, and people tell you, you did well there, but here are the things you need to work on. So, we are conditioned to go and work on those areas that are areas of development. And I genuinely believe that if you’re not good at some things, it’s because maybe you’re not naturally talented in that particular area, or you don’t have a passion for it. So, you can spend all the time in the world learning those things you’re not that good at but the reality is you might only get to be a seven out of 10 on those things. When really, if you’re self-aware as a leader and you know what you’re not good at, your job is to focus on the things you’re a 10 out of 10 on and then hire some people to cover you for the things that you’re only going to be a seven out of 10 on  

Duane 4:08   

But that sounds more like management, right? And are management and leadership the same thing? Because a managerial role you can be put into, right? That comes from your job, your place on the org chart, whereas I think you can be a manager without being a leader. And you could be a leader without being a manager. So even someone, again, if you look at it from your chart, sort of lower down can still be a leader in a small team and it’s a position you put yourself into and earn I think, rather than are given. 

Elona 4:33   

I completely agree with that. I think leadership is about energy and it’s about affecting others, with your positivity, with your influence. 

Duane 4:46   

Getting people to follow you right? That’s the whole point of leading If you’re leading and you’ve not got any followers, you’re not a great leader. Right? 

Elona 4:51   

And it’s a great point t to mention, because normally we think of leaders and leadership as a style or as a skill that we need to have as we go up the ladder. And to add to your point, sometimes leaders are born. I remember always wanting to have the main role at the school drama or whatever. And that’s not because I thought I was the best but because I put myself forward. And sometimes you’ve got to grab opportunities and a key role of leadership is having the confidence to give yourself the permission to put your hand up, to do something that maybe others want too and actually, to influence other people. 

Duane 5:39   

And that’s the key, right? You can get that main role but unless you are motivating the rest of the cast and get them excited, you’re not leading, you just have the main role. So, I think you can be a great manager and a terrible leader and I think you can be a great leader and a terrible manager. And I don’t think that we, especially in the western business world, conflate the two a lot. And on the self-awareness thing – I went for a lot of training on this, I was probably a better leader than I was a manager for a long time. But I wasn’t great at either. And a few years before selling KashFlow, I went through a lot of training. And one of the things that really stuck with me, especially being a computer nerd, I have these dials, and there are multiple of them. But one of them is your leadership style, you can either be a dictator, or you can be consultative, and they’re opposite extremes, right? And you will naturally lean one way, you can guess which way I lean, and I think you do as well, we lean towards the dictator side? No? (Laughing). But being aware that 1) that dial exists, and two that you can make a conscious effort. And in a certain scenario I need to fight my natural propensity to be a dictator and push more towards a consultative in this scenario. And that’s just one of the multiple dials and you can be consistent, or you can be reactive, you can’t be both. And it’s working out what those dials are and being aware of them that for me was the biggest insight around the self-awareness part of leadership. Does that make sense? 

Elona 7:08   

Absolutely. It makes perfect sense. it’s interesting what you said, about style, because leadership styles have changed a lot. And I think they’re coming back as well in cycles. And I think COVID did a lot to change what the view of a good leader is today. I’ve always been super confident from a very, very young age, and I know I joked about it earlier, but when I look back, I was always the head girl, or, you know, had the best part in a school play. 

Duane 7:36   

So partly, you were naturally born with that, I guess. 

Elona 7:40   

Maybe. And then what happened to me is, when I was 16 years old, and I went to this boarding school with 200 kids from 135 different countries, I realised they were a lot cleverer than I was. And being honest, that was the first time I’d been surrounded by so many people that made my world look bigger. I used to be, a big fish in a very tiny pool. And now I was a very small fish in a big pool. So, what it taught me is how that consultative style, how important that is, because you are only as good as your team. I always say to people, you get the team you deserve. And it made me realise that I was so little compared to how big the world was, and there was so much I needed to learn. And the only way to learn it is from the people around me. I’m still super confident and I can make decisions quickly. And I don’t need a lot of data to make decisions. However, I have seen the benefit of diversity. And I have seen the benefit of having amazing teams around you. And I know that I don’t know a lot, I’m always going to be work in progress. So, my leadership style as a result changed a lot to one of listening to people and making sure that they’re collaborating and I’m learning from them. Because what’s the point of hiring great people if I’m going to tell them what to do anyway. 

Duane 9:07   

Whereas if you were in a much smaller organisation, in a 10-person start-up, you would hopefully then link back towards your more natural style of being authoritarian, dictatorial, if you like, and getting stuff done quickly, rather than having to work as part of a bigger team. 

Elona 9:22   

And I think it depends on the situations. If I’m being completely honest, I think there is a time and a place for that leadership style, if the business is in trouble. If you’re running a business that’s running out of cash, there is no time to take long for decisions, you’ve got to make decisions quick. I think for me, COVID was a fantastic at that because we were all hit with this new thing none of us had seen before. And the world was all in the same place. It was a bit like driving in the dark and all you could do is put your full beam lights on but all you could see is two metres ahead and you don’t know if you’re going to crash or not. For me personally as a brand-new CEO at the time, that was really interesting. But as a leader, never waste a good crisis, I think that’s a good thing to take away. 

Number two, we live in an imperfect world. Fast decision making was far more important than the best decisions making, fast decisions was far better than waiting for data to come, particularly in that time when we didn’t know what was going to happen. So, to your point, my, I don’t like to call it dictatorial because it’s, it’s got negative connotations, but the reality is, I’d be in the executive team every morning, and we were decisive, and we made some decisions that were good for business. Regardless, you can control the controllables. That’s the only thing you can do. And there are some non-regret decisions, you can do quickly, without having to think about the data and the points, because by the time you wait for six months, the world is a different place.  

So, making decisions really quickly, I think is a great trait of a great leader, because nobody learns from standing still, 

Duane 11:09   

But that’s potentially contradictory, right? Because some of the received wisdom is it’s about having people on the bus on the journey with you. And if you’re making a decision, and we are doing X, and you have not invested the time to get everyone on board with that decision, then how do you deal with that? 

Elona 11:22   

As I said, I think it depends on the situation that you have, if the business is struggling, you’ve got to make decisions quick, don’t you. If you are in the middle of COVID and loads of people have a lot of different ideas, you can listen. But at the end of the day, the timing of the decision was, in my mind, far more important than the decision itself. Doing nothing and waiting wasn’t really what the business needed at that point in time. And that instinct that you have, as a leader to say “My duty is for the greater good. And my duty is to look after business and most of the people rather than every single individual need.” And at that point in time, you’ve got to make tough decisions, you’ve got to call the shots because that’s what you get paid for.  

Duane 12:09   

Yeah, absolutely. But is that instinctive for you? when you’re in that scenario, do you instinctively know this is a scenario where I need to make a quick decision? I’m going to do it versus I need to spend time getting everyone on board? Because for me, it’s not instinctive, right? I have to make a conscious decision to think which dial do I move in; in which direction is needed in this scenario, which can be exhausting sometimes. 

Elona 12:28   

It is quite exhausting. I think that sometimes creating a culture of collaboration, if not done well can lead to it taking longer to make decisions. So, for me, I’ve got four key priorities for the business, and they are well communicated, and everybody knows what they are. So, I try and make decisions, in line with those priorities: does it hit one of those four criteria? If not, then it’s not that important. And that means that somebody else has to make that decision, or people can take longer to collaborate. And that’s key. When it comes to one of those four, I would always still revert to the team to start with, because they’re the experts. There comes a point, whether it’s in the middle of a meeting, or by the time you’ve had a third meeting, and people haven’t agreed where you as a leader are going to go: Have you got a recommendation for me? Because obviously, that’s the best way, because if they’ve recommended, then everybody’s bought behind it, and you didn’t make the decision. That’s the whole point. But you’ve given everybody the chance to give their points of view and think about things 360. So, at that point, I will always say, what’s the decision here? Because we have now wasted too much time. And I think there is a fear generally from people about making the wrong decisions. And I always say, very rarely have I come across decisions that are irreversible. We don’t have any patients on the operating table. You know, we can’t make a decision that’s going to affect somebody’s life. I know for some people, that is what they deal with day in, day out. I don’t have to deal with that. So really, the first thing I ask people when they’re unsure about whether to go ahead with something or not: how much are you going to sink? How much money are you going to sink before you know that this was the wrong decision? Tell me how are you going to fail fast? And how much money have you sank at that point in time? Because if I’m going to wait a whole year, and X million pounds before you realise it’s the wrong decision, it’s very different. if you’re not sure, give me a plan that fails you fast in two weeks and sinks only X amount of money and then we can move on. 

Duane 14:29   

That’s a really good point. So, when you talk about your team, and you’re looking for leadership potential what qualities are you’re looking for? 

Elona 14:39   

number one is curiosity. The reason I look for that is because curious people are going to have a growth mindset. They’re always going to be work in progress and have a thirst for learning. And I think leaders are more inspirational when they want to learn, when they present themselves as work in progress. And I’m always thirsty for more knowledge. If you look at somebody, and you look at them as the finished product that looks almost unachievable, you create this vision of them. That is not realistic. The reality is, we’re all human. So, if you hire people and they’ve got a level of curiosity, you’re hiring a team that’s going to grow. You’re hiring a team that is innovative. And you’re hiring a team that can inspire others, because they’re taking an interest in what others do. And fundamentally, people want to be listened to, and they want to be treated as if they can contribute. And I think that’s quite an important trait. 

Duane 15:41   

What about vulnerability? When you look at the old school model of a leader, it is the alpha male, invincible but you were talking about changing styles, I guess. and vulnerability seems more important than it used to be. 

Elona 15:52   

I completely agree. Vulnerability is so important in a leader. And it’s become even more important during COVID. I think vulnerability is a strength, if I’m honest, and what it does, it creates a connection between you as the leader and the people around you. Because as I said earlier, nobody’s perfect. And whilst we want our leaders to have courage of their conviction, and make decisions really fast, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be vulnerable as well. I think what I liked about COVID, I was a new CEO at the time, I had to find a different way to reach out to people, obviously, all digital, we did a blog, and everything else. But what I liked about it is that for the first time, everybody was exactly facing the same situation, it didn’t matter how high up you were in your career, it didn’t matter how much money you had, it didn’t matter what your current situation was, whether you live in a big house or a small house, you were all hit with exactly the same problem, none of you could leave the house. And that was one of the very first times where everybody from all paths and in this case across the world was facing something similar. So, it was really important for me as a leader to be open to our team at IRIS and our 3000 employees and say, “This is really hard. Actually, I want to be here. And I know we can do this. And I know we’re flexible. And we’re going to be able to do a lot more than we ever thought. But this is very difficult. I didn’t sign up for, you know, teaching my kids home-schooling, I don’t know how to do that.” And it gave us all, I think a connection that will be there forever. So, I do think that COVID was great for that. And I think it changed the picture of the power of vulnerability, because fundamentally, we’re humans, and we connect at a human level. 

Duane 17:46   

Exactly, regardless of P&Ls and goals and OKRs -, we’re all humans. and that kind of connects nicely with another thing that I think is really important around leadership. And that’s authenticity. So, I remember reading a quote, and it’s still confusing me even now, there’s a question somewhere on a test, I don’t know if it’s around ADHD or Asperger’s or just some other random test?It was about “do you act at work the same way you do at home?” In other words, do you treat your colleagues and friends the same? Of course, I do. And it just completely threw me that some people have the professional persona, which is very different to who they are at home, which again, to me sounds tiring.  

Elona 18:27   

I couldn’t agree more with that. So, I vividly remember having this boss I worked for, and she was amazing and formidable. But she was a woman of steel. And then something happened in her life, she lost her father. And I remember going out for lunch with her and seeing a completely different side to her, obviously, being very sad about what had happened, and I have never felt more affection or was more inspired by somebody for seeing their true self. , This job, any kind of leadership job can be all consuming. You’re a leader, because it’s what you want to do. You know, you’ve chosen a certain path, you are affecting others, you are influencing other people, you’re hopefully inspiring other people. So, it’s full on, it’s not something you can turn on at nine o’clock and switch off from at five o’clock. So, I would personally find it really, really tiring if I put on a different persona for eight 9, 10 or 12 hours a day, and then went and become somebody else afterwards. And I always say to people, the trick about success is to find a business environment and a business that accepts you just the way you are and shines the light on those things that are different about you because it’s your differences that make you amazing. I tell this story about being in big four, in Deloitte, as I’ve got promoted to manager, one of the partners I had a lot of respect for at the time, sat me down to say:” Elona you are going to have to wear suits now.” And to put this in context, I always wear a dress, I’m wearing a dress right now. Beautiful dresses, nothing indiscreet or anything like that. And he said, you are a customer manager now, so you’re obviously more senior, and our clients expect you to go in a suit – your typical accountant. I was working for an accountancy firm, and I wore this suit, and I just didn’t feel myself at all and what you lose, when you try and change somebody and create a version of them that they’re not, you lose what’s best about them as well. I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t loud, I wasn’t full of energy. And, that energy is what makes me amazing. And that’s why I’ve been so lucky. And IRIS I joined her as a CFO, I was promoted to COO, I was promoted to CEO. And in all of that time, I’d like to think that people have seen the real me. There is a lot of people here, I’m so privileged and lucky to call my friends. You know, it’s wonderful, really creating an environment where you can be yourself. 

Duane 21:11   

And because I think when you are doing what you do, and this is your entire focus, and perhaps even more: when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re building something from the ground up, that is your entire focus. And I don’t have much of a line, if one at all, between business friends and friends. I have a few friends that aren’t involved in business, but I’ve got some of my closest friends or people I’ve met on my entrepreneurial journey if you like, because it’s a very raw experience, lots of highs and lows, but you are there authentically and not seem to be something that and you’re not putting a facade on. 

Elona 21:43   

100% and I think that authenticity also comes with some passion. As Roald Dahl said a long time ago, lukewarm is no good. And for me, I really, really stand behind that. We all have choices, the world is a big place, there are a lot of jobs out there, there is a lot of, you know, activities and hobbies and anything that you that you can do. We know that we are best at doing things that we are passionate about. And I genuinely believe no matter what your role is, if you find a job or a career that is aligned to your skill set and that you have a natural affection for or natural passion for, then you will be a lot better at it because that means you don’t have to fake it, you are naturally excited by what you’re doing. Regardless of what that role is in the organisation. That’s the sort of thing you’re interested in. When you pick up a book on holiday, I pick up a book about leadership, you probably pick up a book about tech, because that’s what you’re interested in. And if your passion is coupled with the role that you do, then you can be your authentic self. You can bring your best self to the table because you’re doing what you love. And then it’s not a job anymore. It’s getting paid to grow and learn and do it with some amazing people. 

Duane 22:58   

I’m seeing it as chart, as a triangle, and there are three corners: something you’re good at, something you enjoy, and something that makes money. And if you can do all of those, you’re laughing, right? Because you can be good at something that makes money, but you don’t enjoy it. You can do something that you enjoy and you’re good at it but doesn’t make money. That sounds like a hobby, but when you can do all three of those, that’s a jackpot. 

Elona 23:21   

Absolutely. So, we’ve covered a lot about leadership today. What sort of legacy do you want to leave behind from a leadership perspective? 

Duane 23:32   

I’ve not thought about that much. if you’re a leader, you can’t be a leader without followers, right? So, it’ll be enabling and elevating people that I work with into a leadership position, assuming that’s what they want. You can’t force people down that path. But rea, it’s, lifting other people and helping them along the journey to be good leaders or not necessarily to be good leaders, but to get where they want to get to in life, which doesn’t have to be a leadership position. It could be somewhere else. But yeah, helping other people on that journey. 

Elona 24:02   

Maximising their potential.I like that. I remember looking at schools for my two little boys and the school we chose, I chose it because I went to the open day and the headmaster said to us, I can’t guarantee you that your kids will be superstars. I don’t know how bright they are, etc. But I can guarantee you if they have it in them, we will get it out of them. And we will help them maximise their potential. And for me, I think that’s a great legacy.   

Duane 24:31   

So, I can turn it around on you now then. So, same questions to you, what do you want your legacy as a leader to be? 

Elona 24:35   

l if I look back on the IRIS, that I have created today, hopefully it’s better than the IRIS that I found and hopefully, the future IRIS will be even better than what we currently have today. I think for me, the legacy is creating an environment where everybody can maximise their potential and bring their best version of themselves, not the version of somebody else, not what they think success might look like. But the version of success that they aspire to be and giving them the means and creating the environment where they can do that. Unquestionably. 

Duane 25:14   

I can certainly see that’s what you’re doing. when I look around and talk to people, it’s certainly sort of changed over the last four or five years, I have been here in 2013 and being here now, it’s a very different business. 

Elona 25:25   

Thank you, Duane. That means a lot. Thank you. Wow. Well, that was lively. I think so we talked a lot about leadership. We talked about being authentic. I think we both agree, you can’t really fake it. It’s, it’s too many hours in a day to be somebody else. 

Duane 25:42   

It can be learned rather than been born with it. I think that’s key takeaway there. 

Elona 25:46   

Absolutely. Having that self-awareness, and the humility and vulnerability as a leader, because vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness. Exactly. Thank you, Duane. I’ve really enjoyed that. Looking forward to our next podcast. 

Duane 26:01   

Looking forward to it. 

Elona 26:03   

Thank you for listening, everyone. I really hope this has been interesting and useful. Thank you, Duane. We have a lot of other podcasts on our channel, So, if you found this valuable, please do hit the subscribe button. And don’t forget to seek us out on all the usual social media channels.