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    What Australia needs to do better

    August 23, 2016 by Alison Hill

    The Olympics are over, and Australia didn’t do as well as we’d hoped. The post-mortem has begun and the leadership is being blamed. Chef de mission Kitty Chiller was too controlling, had ‘muddled team ideals’ and made policy on the run, says the Guardian. Former head swim coach Bill Sweetenham says the entire swimming hierarchy must step down. The recriminations will go on.

    Sport seems not to be the only area in which Australia is falling behind – a recent leadership study finds significant weaknesses in business leadership and management that are hurting our future performance and prosperity. The Study of Australian Leadership was conducted by Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne and reported its findings in May. The SAL says we have reason to be concerned about the state of leadership and management in Australia, and that we are in danger of being unable to address future challenges.

    SAL highlighted seven areas of concern. The gaps and weaknesses we believe are most worrying for Challenge clients are these four.

    1. Many Australian organisations do not get the basics right

    Management fundamentals are not up to scratch, the survey found. Performance monitoring, target setting and using incentives were found to be lacking, and the survey rated these as more important than leadership capabilities and self-efficacy (a leader’s belief in their ability to lead). The good news is that these are skills that can be taught and learnt.

    The study showed that investment in leadership capability pays off in better performance and more innovation. Workplaces with a range of leadership development activities not only have more capable leaders, they also believe in their capacity to excel.

    This leads us to the next important finding.

    1. Too many Australian organisations underinvest in leadership development, especially at the frontline

    When organisations do spend on leadership development, they are focusing on the wrong places. The SAL showed that for every $10 spent on training for senior leaders, only  $1 is spent on frontline and workplace leaders. Yet training for frontline and workplace leaders improved performance and drove innovation more than training for senior leaders did.

    The study found too that many leaders are not well trained for the job, with one in four senior leaders in the private sector having no formal training beyond secondary school. While it concedes that formal qualifications are not everything, it points out that formal training provides a basis for many of the necessary skills, from technical too problem-solving and change management.

    This could be related to the next finding.

    1. Leadership in Australian organisations does not reflect wider social diversity

    It is still dominated by older men form English-speaking backgrounds, according to the study, with women, younger people and those from Non-English speaking backgrounds underrepresented. It points out that diversity is good for business performance, leading to greater creativity and innovation and higher commitment and engagement at work. Since a key finding was that innovation is driven by quality leadership and management and is a critical source of productivity growth and competitiveness, this matters at more than only an ethical or social level.

    1. Many senior leaders do not draw on strategic advice in making decisions about the future

    The study identifies three levels of leadership: senior organisational, workplace level and frontline leadership. At the most senior level, leaders must scan the external environment, interpreting the myriad factors that will influence the competitive position of their organisation. Yet few senior leaders are turning to associations, consultants, experts and the insight of other senior leaders for advice. The study points out that leaders need many sources of insight and information, they cannot make sense of how external challenges will influence their organisation in isolation. Not drawing on strategic advice leaves them vulnerable to poor decision-making, especially in a climate of uncertainty and disruption as we are experiencing now.

    Australian sport and Australian business both have a lot to learn about leadership, it seems, before we can truly be winners. Anthony Mitchell, co-founder of strategic leadership firm Bendelta, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald put it this way: ‘We are now smart enough to recognise that the most important driver of business success – the quality of leadership – requires a level of science proportionate to its impact.’ More on that next time.


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