Become a Leader that Matters

Become a Leader that Matters with Dan Pontefract

Dan Pontefract is the CEO and founder of The Pontefract Group, a consultancy whose aim is to improve leadership and organizational culture.  He’s the author of four books including “Lead, Care, Win: How to Become a Leader Who Matters.”  We talked about how to become the kind of leader that values and motivates every employee, while instilling a culture of care.

Dan was wooed from academia into the tech space, becoming Learning Officer for SAP, then joining Canada’s leading telecom company Telos.  While at Telos, Dan improved the company’s engagement score (a ranking of positive corporate culture) from 47% to 90%.  Most recently, he developed his own theoretical models for positive leadership.  He has summarized lessons he learned from his experiences in different corporate settings, in a new book “Lead, Care, Win”.

Dan Pontefract’s Nine Tenets of Good Leadership:

  1. Be Reliable.
  2. Play for Meaning.
  3. Stay Present.
  4. Remain Curious.
  5. Embrace Change.
  6. Dare to Share.
  7. Command Clarity
  8. Commit to Balance.
  9. Champion Others.

Research studies have looked at the causal relationship between the functioning of a well-led and engaged business and its profitability, demonstrating a direct correlation.  In this session we focused on a few of Dan’s tenets, which can help build such a business.

Tenet 2 involves a leader asking themselves “why am I here?” and “who am I serving?”  Ideally, we can answer these questions with reference to the greater community and environment.  Even solo entrepreneurs are leaders of self (requiring the energy and drive to self-motivate).

Tenet 3 is about time management; the lack of ability to slow down and be in the moment.  Too many leaders stack meetings back-to-back with no breathing room between.  As Dan explains, some companies even admit “we’re a meeting culture, and we get our work done at night.”  Leaders need to demonstrate humanity in how they schedule their time, and the time of their employees.  Focus blocks for personal work and planning are vital to maintain workspace sanity.

It’s also important to avoid “shiny object syndrome”, whereby employees charge off on bright new ideas without first pausing to examine their validity.  Dan uses the acronym PEG – Pause, Examine and Go.  To channel this enthusiasm, you might have a “potpourri” meeting where any idea or concept can be thrown into the mix.  Asynchronous locations such as Slack channels can be used to park bold ideas, discussing them whenever time and opportunity permits.

Tenet 4: Embracing a positive mindset is a vital aspect of leadership.  Dan gives the example of Malala Yousafzai, and her inspiring journey from personal hardship to being an advocate for girls’ education.  This is a story of both perseverance and inspiring by example.  Remaining curious is part of maintaining the inspiration which proves contagious within an organization.  Another great example is that of Alice Coachman, a 1940s black athlete who, in a segregated America, created her own training materials to teach herself high jump.  Eventually a white coach took her on, helping her to train to an Olympic gold medal in the London 1948 Olympics.

Embracing change (Tenet 5) is important too.  Dan gives the example of Kodak, which once had 90% worldwide market share of film.  When an internal team figured out how to do digital photography (in 1985) the Kodak leadership unfortunately failed to grasp its potential, and the company diminished in the digital revolution.  Without curiosity, it is easy to be side-lined by history.

Tenet 9 is about leading by encouraging others.  There are many reasons to do so.  Firstly, it’s common courtesy to recognize the contributions of employees.  Humility forms a base for team members to strive to prove themselves.  “My responsibility as a leader is to provide air cover for the team” – Safid Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.  In short, this is supporting your team to be brave; even to fail where it is instructive.

A flipside of this is dealing with difficult conversations.  Dan suggests the “Oreo cookie” approach where you begin by stating what the meeting is about, before going on to stress the positives in any working relationship (the cream), before ending with the changes you need to see. 

The last point we covered was acting with clarity (Tenet 7).  The three components of this style of leadership are reminding the team of the shared mission, updating everyone on progress to date and maintaining vital deadlines.  By being transparent on the non-negotiables, you command respect.  This is especially important with the move towards hybrid working in recent years.

“’Follow your Bliss’ is a Bumper Sticker”

Passion and purpose can be easily confused.  The former can wax and wane, the latter is more immutable.  In an imaginary Venn diagram, there are three overlapping circles: the employee’s personal purpose and values, plus circles for organizational purpose and role.  In the middle of all three is the “sweet spot.”  Ideally, it’s this region a leader can focus on promoting.

Work-Life Balance

If “the great resignation” has shown us anything, it’s that employees have taken an opportunity during the pandemic to re-evaluate how they feel at work, and whether they want to continue in an environment where they are “always on” or undervalued.  Wise leaders would do well to ask themselves similar questions and create a culture of care.

This point gets to the heart of Dan’s teaching – to create a working environment where everyone does feel valued for the contribution and challenged to a reasonable extent.  A caring culture, in other words.