At the helm of every great company is a great leader. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson… Home-grown heroes like Melanie Perkins, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes… All are wildly successful, their praises sung far and wide. However, each runs a business that’s underpinned by their own unique vision. It makes one wonder… what, if anything, do these leaders and others of their ilk have in common?
That’s the question we put to 30 entrepreneurs and industry experts, this week, for our exclusive “Let’s Talk…” feature centering on leadership. As more than a few commentators pointed out, the best leaders possess a high level of emotional intelligence, acknowledge and account for their limitations, and focus on empowering the people around them. Other universal traits, identified by this week’s line-up, included integrity and focus as well as resilience and the ability to make hard decisions – they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer (or they can shrug it off) and they’re not afraid to say ‘no’ to people or idea.
Read on to find out what this week’s commentators – many of whom are leaders in their own organisations – had to say.
“What do all the best business leaders have in common?”
Tammy Butow, Co-founder, Girl Geek Academy: “A good business leader understands that the people are the heart of an organisation. They spend time and invest in developing their team, which involves consistently supporting them to learn and develop in new ways. A strong leader also understands the importance of diversity in an organisation and will focus on building a great team from day one. This was my aim when founding Girl Geek Academy – we started out with five talented co-founders with a diverse set of skills, who can work collaboratively across many disciplines within the organisation. Another trait of a good business leader is perseverance; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were sustainable, scalable businesses.”
Kevin Spiteri, Founder, Menace Group & Author (‘I Just Want It To Work’): “After years working both sides of the fence – in marketing agencies and large multi-national businesses – I’ve encountered a number of different management and leadership styles. The best leaders, from Gary Vaynerchuk to Richard Branson are those who are authentic in everything they do.
“To lead, you need to not only be genuine and consistent in your personal brand, but also be open to feedback and always actively seeking to improve. The best leaders can adapt their leadership style to work with different people and empower them to take ownership of projects, problem solve and act as ‘intrapreneurs’ driving their business forward.”
Nathan Birch, Co-founder & CEO, Binvested: “A great leader is someone who empowers employees to think creatively and problem-solve. In this way, they ensure staff not only play an active role in driving the business towards its goals but are also inspired by the company’s vision and feel like they’re part of something bigger (not just cogs in a machine).
“The best leaders have in common the ability to build a forward-thinking culture where staff walk the talk, and are able to step back and assess the big picture. Leaders need to be able to make the hard decisions that will move a business to where it needs to be. Much like investing in property, they need to be able to make smart decisions in line with an end-goal, not making emotionally-driven snap decisions.”
Julie Demsey, General Manager of SBE Australia: “I have found that the best business leaders encompass five, key qualities:
- Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – leaders with a high EQ are relatable and empathetic to their team and their business. They are also highly regarded because of these traits.
- Authenticity – leaders who show up and are themselves, believe in their cause and are genuinely passionate about what they do. They engage with the people they work with and have a conversation with them over reciting canned messages.
- Transparency – leaders who have open conversations with their team so that they always know where they stand. There is no fear. Teams who have fear or lack of trust do not perform as well. When you have transparency, people are comfortable sharing ideas.
- Vulnerability – leaders who show up and don’t come across as superior. You don’t need to know everything, you should be hiring people who are smarter than you. Showing weakness does not mean you’re not a strong leader, it means you are very self-aware and you value others for their strengths. This in turn breeds trust, loyalty and engagement.
- Listening skills – leaders who talk over people are going to miss out on so much valuable discussion, insight and knowledge. Leaders need to be able to listen, encourage conversation and let their teams shine.”
Dean Taylor, Founder & CEO, Cracka Wines: “Leadership requires a clear vision and mission for your business, to drive it forward. Keeping it real and staying true to who you are, no matter how big you grow is important! The best leaders can innovate and respond quickly to change, e.g. can quickly bring on new staff when needed and can quickly make the hard decisions, like letting go of staff that aren’t working out.
“Leaders are connectors and listeners, and are driven by an unwavering passion to improve people’s lives through their work. They know their ‘Why’ and inspire others to share their vision. They surround themselves with those who have complimentary skill sets and build trust with staff and customers alike.”
Andrew Barnes, Co-founder & CEO, GO1: “Being genuinely humble and always curious. I’ve met some amazing people (from Bill Clinton to self-made billionaires) and the best leaders consistently have a deep interest in listening and learning from what others have to say.”
Terry Gold, Managing Director, Techstars Adelaide: “The best business leaders know their limitations and are willing to let go. At some point in their journey, most business leaders find themselves at a crossroads where they need to choose between the next stage of growth and keeping control. In my experience, the best leaders are those who know their strengths and weaknesses and are able to let go and bring in the expertise that they don’t have into the organisation.
“Another commonality amongst the best business leaders is their willingness and interest to pay it forward. To be generous with their time and give back to their community, whether that’s grabbing coffee with new leaders or becoming a mentor to startups.”
Tanya Titman, Founder of Acceler8: “The best leaders have a high level of emotional intelligence – arguably, they need 85% emotional intelligence compared to 15% technical knowledge. The most technically accurate accountant in the world is not going to be the best business leader unless they know how to get the most out of their staff. Leaders who understand people’s motivation and communicate style are more likely to influence change. I use Extended DISC profiling to understand staff’s communication styles and insights from NeuroPower to understand staff’s core beliefs and strategic mindsets.”
Greg Taylor, Group VP (APAC), New Relic: “The best business leaders I’ve known have all lived by a core set of values that underpin how they do business and make business decisions. I believe that the leaders who are clear on their values are typically more effective, productive, and confident business leaders.
Culture starts at the top, and I’ve seen how this can impact a company for the better or for the worse. When a leader has a strong core set of values, it can have an amazing impact on a team’s culture and potential.
“From my perspective, there are five reasons why values form the bedrock of great business leaders:
- Values guide business decisions
- Values strengthen your ability to influence
- Values create clarity
- Values reduce stress
- Values guide your actions.”
William On, Co-founder & joint CEO, Shippit: “Great business leaders have self-awareness and people skills. Surrounding yourself with people who have strengths in areas you lack is as much about understanding your own weaknesses. With the best communication skills and ability to get the best out of relationships, great leaders can get the most out of the people around them.”
Mark Gustowski, Acting CEO, QUT Creative Enterprise Australia: “I’ve worked with hundreds of startup founders but the leaders I’ve watched become success stories have all had one trait in common…The inability to accept ‘no’. In their eyes, ‘no’ is never ‘no’ forever; merely a jumping off point for later relationship building and negotiations.
“Building relationships through demonstrating a high degree of empathy and storytelling techniques have always struck me as core strengths of a standout leader. Across every aspect of business is a need to connect. A skilled storyteller can engage and capture a person’s attention in a truly authentic way, and whether the narrative is being told for the purpose of gaining investment, garnering co-working opportunities, securing global partnerships, or appealing to customers or collaborators, an empathetic narrator will always leave a lasting impact.
“A true leader needs to have enormous grit in everything they task. They need to have a burning passion within them that drives them every day to prove people wrong. Being able to be told to ‘go away’ and still come back time and time again to ask for something without restraint shows huge determination and tenacity; both vital elements needed to ensure that a team or business is driven to global success.”
James McKinnon, Co-founder, Sittr: “Without a doubt, I think the most under-discussed leadership trait is resilience. When we talk about business leaders we often focus on traits like intelligence, vision or charisma but I believe this only relates to a small proportion of leaders. Anyone who has started or leads a business needs to have resilience.
“This is because, as a leader, you can expect to hear “no” many more times that you hear “yes”. Whether it’s from investors, customers, or even employees – leaders need to deal with ‘no’ every day. For example, the founders of Airbnb were turned down by seven prominent Silicon Valley investors before they found someone that believed in them.
“Sometimes the ‘no’ people are right. Sometimes they just don’t see the world the same way as you. The ability to hear a “no”, shrug it off, and keep pushing towards your end goal is the trait that all the best business leaders have in common.”
Rafi Katanasho, CTO & Solution Sales VP (APJ), Dynatrace: “The best business leaders are driven by strong beliefs, which shape their vision as well as their company’s culture.
These leaders also have a laser focus on customers and customer experience. Those that obsess over their customers and always look for ways to provide a delightful customer experience with every interaction are the most successful.
Finally, good judgement is what separates great business leaders from everyone else. Leaders are faced with many daily judgement calls, across many facets of the business, often with very little time. This often requires rapid analysis of short and long-term consequences and then making judgement based on practical wisdom and experience.”
Michael Jankie, CEO, PoweredLocal: “We’re fortunate that we work with business leaders across the country, we sell to them. We get to see who is on the pulse and who is stuck with pre-determined ideas. There are two things we see that great leaders have in common. An acceptance to listen to new ideas. Even if they have seen similar in the past, they understand that over time markets will shift. Myspace was too early, but it didn’t mean that social media was a bad idea.
“The other is emotional intelligence. One of the biggest indicators of mediocrity is when a business leader uses their own opinion on what is good or bad without consultation. Often, we see this masked as stubbornness. The best leaders are those that can recognise and conceptualise the emotions of their customers, staff, teams and advisors and know how to best serve them through leadership.”
Yasmine Gray, Principal, Red Agency Brisbane: “There are a number of qualities required to be a good business leader but no matter what industry you are in, if you have the following you will be more likely to succeed:
- “Good listeners– leaders often have strong opinions, ideas and vision, however these can blind you if you don’t have the ability to look around you and see how your plans are affecting your team or your business landscape. Asking the right questions and then listening, truly listening to the answers will enable a leader to make better and more informed decisions that may require an adjustment to the original vision, but will lead to a more successful outcome in the end.
- “Patience– leaders often know what they want and how they are going to get there but there is not a leader in the world that doesn’t encounter hurdles and challenges along the way. Most will think it is determination that gets leaders to the top – it’s actually more about having the patience to deal with road blocks and plot a new course to get to where you were going regardless of how long it will take or how difficult the journey is. Patience with your teams will reward you in spades, and let’s remember they are the ones that are going to help to get you to where you need to be.
- “Empowering – good leaders are usually blessed with a range of skills but one of the most important is having the ability to empower those around you. Good leaders are usually inspiring people but inspiration means nothing if you don’t give those around you the sense that they can be a part of it. If your leadership style is one of charging out in front and expecting others to follow this may or may not lead to success. However if you have the ability to empower those around you to take ownership of the steps that will be required, and this may include some hiccups along the way, then you will be able to develop a rock solid team which is of course essential to success.”
Troy Martin, Vice President (APAC), Instructure: “The best business leaders believe in inclusivity. They put aside their bias, consider different viewpoints and are willing to continue to learn from others. Watch these leaders in action: they’ll often speak last, ensuring that everyone has a voice, regardless of gender, discipline or age. This trait is key to building a diverse and multifaceted workforce, which drives innovation and new ways of doing things.
“The challenges of employing millennials are well documented but the benefits less often discussed. Extending an inclusive approach to this cohort will lead to a more egalitarian workplace; Millennials aren’t afraid to ask questions, and thrive in open communication environments where collaboration drives the free flow of ideas. As they advance their careers, the rest of the workforce can learn lessons from their approach. So, the most successful business is one where leaders ensure all voices are heard and, everyone contributes in a meaningful way.”
John Drury, Business Mentor & Author (“Integrate”): “The best business leaders have a strong inner drive to be successful. They are consistent. They expect to be successful. They know if they focus and put in the work they can usually achieve what they set out to do. They have the ability to inspire people and to make things happen. When they are around people lift and things get done. Those who have long term success are the ones who lead themselves well. They know themselves well, and are comfortable in their own skin. They know their strengths, and accept their weaknesses. They know their values and live congruently with them. This makes them secure. They are not afraid to say ‘No’ to ideas or people. Those who impress me the most learn to mentor and raise up next generation leaders. They can spot potential, and through a combination of encouragement and challenge, draw it out so that person can rise to achieve great things as well.”
Stephen Barnes – Business Advisor & Author (“Run Your Business Better”): “The best business leaders don’t blame poor business performance on things that are actually symptoms of poor performance e.g. tough retail conditions, high AUD, global recession, main customer’s business failed. They are able to differentiate between the symptoms and the causes of why their business may not be running so well. Then they can get to the bottom of it and start to put things right. The best business leaders also understand that every business is a family business in that the business impacts both their family and their employees’ families. Further, they spend more time working on the business rather than in the business.”
Michelle Gibbings, Change leadership specialist & Founder, Change Meridian: The best leaders are…
- Decisive – They know how to seek input and make decisions. They are not afraid of taking action, and are happy to course correct when they need to. This means they are adaptive and flexible, without being indecisive and ineffectual.
- Disciplined – They have the capacity to generate insights from a wide range of sources and use these sources to gain perspective. It is this breadth of view that helps them explore alternative ideas, analyse options and make effective decisions, whilst always striving for progress towards the end goal.
- Determined – They have resilience such that they are able to learn from their mistakes – fail fast and fail meaningfully. They learn from their mistakes, and persist despite setbacks. And most importantly, they know how to inspire confidence in their teams to take calculated risks.
- Devoted – They are committed to the vision and to making the organisation a better place to work and to always deliver value for their customers. They are committed to helping and supporting their team through changes, and are able to balance organisational, team and personal needs.”
Danny Lessem, CEO, ELMO Software Ltd: “A good business leader understands the middle-way, which I describe as the balance between a steady, sustainable and methodical approach to business growth, and a healthy appetite for risk and innovation. Environmental and economic conditions impacting businesses today are wide and varied, meaning there are many unseen forces at play, making unpredictability the new norm. A true business leader understands this, is agile, adaptive, and seeks a product market fit and commercialises the opportunity once it is available.
“And the essential character qualities? Integrity and focus. It is easy to get distracted in the digital age – time is a limited resource, especially for startups and fast growing companies. A good leader will prioritise business outcomes and ensure the organisation focuses on achieving them without being distracted by aspects peripheral to the business. A good business leader will also invest in people, because they are the life-blood and most valuable resource of a business.”
Kelvin Kirk, Managing Director, Pureprofile: “The structure of an organisation is rapidly evolving and it’s not top down leadership anymore. This enables companies to respond quicker and be more nimble, which is critical in this market where technology is speeding up the pace of business at a faster rate than ever before, with five-year plans out the window.
“To work with this new structure, a good leader needs to create an environment that is collaborative, that enable employees to work laterally across the team. Good business leaders should help empower employees to make decisions, create confidence and have the courage to speak up — but at the end of the day people still want leaders to make decisions, so it’s important to find the balance.”
Anthony Mitchell, Co-founder & Chief Potential Officer, Bendelta: “It’s incredibly difficult to find any quality that is shared by all great business leaders. If you identify a group of ten truly outstanding business leaders and look to see if all ten shared something you’d expect to find, you’ll almost always find one, if not three or four of them, who don’t have that quality. There are great business leaders who lack something you’d expect them to have: for some, it’s charisma, for others attention to detail, emotional intelligence or an even temper.
“But there is one very important strength they all share: a long-term perspective and a behavioural pattern of delaying gratification. Put more prosaically, they understand the value of compounding. While they make sure the business doesn’t become insolvent in the short term, their focus is first and foremost on the great things the company can achieve if they head in the right direction for 3, 5 or 10 years. They sacrifice a little of the short term (including their own gratification) and take some calculated risks – which they consider investments – to gain a lot more in the long term.”
Elizabeth Heusler, Director, Heusler Public Relations: “Communication skills. These are skills that can be learned and honed. Good leaders know this and work at it constantly, stripping away the mumbo jumbo and weasel words that infect language and turn a message toxic.
“Many leaders believe that talking or writing in itself is communicating. Today more than ever it’s critical to learn how to cut through the noise.
“To be memorable and authentic isn’t easy. Just being your natural self won’t necessary persuade and influence and can just as easily be dull and boring. A poor choice of words can unintentionally offend or put people off. Just like a sense of humour, everybody thinks they have one, but how many people do you know that aren’t funny? Communications skills are the same. Very few are naturals.”
Jarrad Skeen, founder & MD, Affix: “What’s common among the best business leaders is they are committed to a vision and create a purpose for others to connect with and follow. They’re decisive in how they set direction yet open to new ideas. They also create a culture that embraces inclusion and innovation.”
Vern Chan, Director of Client Services, Atomic 212° Group: “We were once told that leaders were born. That might be true to a certain degree, where charismatic leaders tend to look effortless in everything they do, especially when delivering a big speech on stage to thousands of followers. However, experience tends to suggest that leaders can be, and are, built.
“In today’s democratic world with readily accessible technology, people are empowered with enormous amount of information which was once sacred, and importantly, people will only assume ownership of executing plans if they’re part of the process. Hence, a great leader will be a mastermind of pooling the right talent at the right time for the right task.
“This then comes with the challenge of time, to spend on communicating with people, in groups and in person. This is also the opportunity for great leaders to be transparent and concise in what’s expected out of their team. A great leader needs to listen actively and give feedback whenever it’s appropriate and timely. Someone who’s empathetic will win the hearts of their team. Gone are the days where dictation rules. People want their voices to be heard and actioned upon.
“In my humble opinion, great leaders are those who are visionary and high in emotional quotient. Those who invest in people are those whom the generation of today would want to follow.”
Sean Senvirtne, Founder & CEO, MyDeal: “The ability to focus. Prioritising the tasks or ideas which are the most meaningful for your business objectives, and sometimes saying no to ideas which may great but not critical.”
Rony Chiha, Founder & MD, Adcreators: “The best business leaders possess an extraordinary desire to innovate, create or transform ideas with effective execution. Their visions are achieved through their willingness to explore challenges and take risks without the fear of failure. In order to possess the courage to courage to take these risks, business leaders understand the concept of change and aren’t afraid to adapt to an ever-changing business world. Their success is cultivated by their passion, as well as their optimism and boundless persistence.”
Luke Anear, Founder & CEO, SafetyCulture: “The best leaders ensure everyone in a business is aligned on the overarching company vision and encourage employees at every level to re-imagine what the future could be. They find people who are capable of getting the job done and then get out of their way. When you combine the talents of people who are better than yourself in many ways, you come together to build and enhance your company vision beyond belief. This clear vision needs to be communicated often and widely across the team, and reinforced by a working environment built on transparency and an open door policy; a strong company culture that will attract the best people in the world; a strong sense of company purpose; as well as ongoing investment in your people to motivate and inspire them each and every day.”
Nick La, co-founder, Weploy: “One trait the best business leaders have in common is that they are go-getters. They understand the importance of the hustle and know all about staying on the grind. As Richard Branson once said, ‘If somebody offers you an opportunity, whether you know anything about it or not, just say yes and then go and learn how to do it. Life is a lot more fun that way.’ This is the go-getters mantra!”
Mick Spencer, Founder & CEO, ONTHEGO: “The best business leaders I have been coached by or have learned something from know exactly how to communicate a vision to everyone in a company, from the frontline leaders to the executives, and then take them on a journey towards achieving that vision. They realise that the team’s success is far more important than their own, so they are very self aware and able to recognise where they are strong and where they are weak within the running of the business.”
“On a more personal level, the best business leaders are resilient because they have come to the realisation that in life ‘change’ is the only constant. They are fit, healthy and ready to dominate each day by forming daily habits and building strong networks and mentor relationships to motivate them, inspire them, and to learn from. Finally, they have close family ties and appreciate the genuine importance of love and nurture in their life.”
Nick Roberts, CEO, RISQ Group: “Transparency isn’t something that might spring to mind when you think of leadership, but I think it should. My professional focus is best practice around employment screening, and what is striking is how many businesses falter because the same vetting processes they take for granted for employees often don’t get applied to management. This isn’t only a failing that could lead to a problem CEO or manager causing genuine material and reputational damage to a company, but it is a failure of leadership because it reflects a culture built on a double standard.
“The healthiest leadership I’ve seen is the kind that wants transparency, not only encouraging openness about one’s background but openness about intentions, direction, vision and other fundamentals that should be communicated across an organisation. Obviously, leaders need to know when to keep things to themselves or select members of their team, but you want a leader who does this out of necessity not nature.”
About “Let’s Talk…”
This exciting new, weekly initiative provides entrepreneurs and industry experts with a forum to share rapid-fire views on a range of issues that matter to start-ups and SMEs. Every Wednesday, we pose a themed question to a line-up of knowledgable industry figures, with a view to picking their brains for valuable insights to share with you, our readers.