Paula Leach of Vantage Points Consulting: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader…

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Paula Leach of Vantage Points Consulting: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Create clarity: Always focus on ensuring that the direction is clear. I saw a highly effective CEO join an organisation in difficulty and the first thing he did was create a clear message of unity and collaboration and this was repeated and repeated, so it became our collective mantra and therefore our way of working.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Paula Leach.

Paula Leach has over 25 years’ experience in HR, most notably as Chief People Officer at The Home Office She now runs her own business, Vantage Points Consulting, and is the author of Vantage Points: how to create a culture where employees thrive.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

As is the case with so many of us, my career started with a mix of uncertainty and a sprinkling of failure! I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I was interested in people and the dynamics between people. When I just failed to get the grades to study psychology, I found I excelled at Business and took the ‘human performance’ avenue after business school and started a career in HR. I worked for many years in a global multinational automotive company which was truly brilliant, and I learnt everything about people, culture, and leadership in every setting from the manufacturing shop floor to the C-Suite. After a brilliant and varied career working alongside leaders in all functions and all geographies, I moved to the UK Public Sector and became Chief People Officer sitting as an Executive at the Home Office in Whitehall. A large operational organisation with many similarities to a complex corporate, but with some nuances unique to the Public Sector. Following this I was Chief People Officer for a FTSE 250 High Growth Entrepreneurial company before deciding that I really wanted to focus my time exclusively supporting and partnering with leaders to help build great, thriving human working cultures.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

When I first started as a Graduate in a Corporate Multinational, I went out to buy my ‘work clothes’ which was very exciting as a 22-year-old who had only ever worn jeans and had one smart interview suit. I was very proud of my new tailored work wardrobe and shoes. My first graduate job was working in a vehicle manufacturing plant where the general attire was bomber jackets, overalls, and steel capped boots. I confess I looked a little out of place tottering around in my heels and pencil skirt in the Paint Shop and Sealer Deck! Whilst one take away was to research where you are going to be working before you start of course — the other was that although I adapted slightly to ensure I was adhering to health and safety (!) I did maintain very much my own personal sense of professional style. It was and is part of my brand and showing up to be taken seriously. I never did wear a bomber jacket!

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

So many. I have been lucky to have many amazing sponsors and mentors over the years. However, one manager I worked with I feel grateful for because what she gave me seems small and practical, but actually was a fundamental lesson in human leadership I try to take with me always. I was new to my first management job, and I was working for a senior manager with quite a bit of experience. I did always think she might be a bit frightening to work for — she had a reputation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first lesson was to not make assumptions based on what other people say and to make my own mind up based on my own experiences of people. The second was that if I were writing a paper or presentation for example, the way she handled feedback was just so helpful. Rather than giving me feedback or telling me what I had done wrong or what needed changing, she would say things like ‘I know this is a draft and you will already be thinking about … ‘or ‘I really like this part, it makes me wonder if we might also include …’. Both of us knew I wasn’t ‘already thinking about …’ whatever it was she was about to say, but she provided really helpful guidance without taking me down or making me feel I had failed in some way. The way she spoke to me always made me feel like she had a high expectation of me, and I wanted to live up to it and not let her down. I always gave 150% to her of my discretionary effort and I was never left licking my wounds after a conversation even if the piece of work I had submitted was unrecognisable and completely changed. That approach of coach-leader is something I have tried hard to build into my leadership practice because it had such a powerful effect on me and my confidence at an important step of my career.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

My aim in my business is consistent with what I had been trying to do in my corporate career previously: ‘To help individuals and teams thrive and deliver results through high performing, human-cantered leaders’

Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

I believe that all times can feel uncertain as we are constantly adapting to changes around us whether that is technology, societal, competitors or other influences. I believe every leader has two main jobs: 1) Creating Clarity — really clear direction, parameters, and expectations and 2) Creating Space — the opportunity for others to be proactive and bring their ideas and problem-solving abilities to life. If we concentrate on these two priorities decisions are made, people understand their agency, and this enables collaboration and action.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I am sure that we all feel that we might let go of our dreams and our striving at various points. Nothing worth working towards is without challenges and setbacks. I think having a clear purpose is really important because it acts rather like a compass in a maze. Occasionally we have a really good clear run and then we come up against a dead end. But rather than seeing the dead end as THE END, we know the maze has a route through, you just have to turn around and find another avenue.

Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

I adore reading and always have 2–3 books nonfiction books on the go. Curiosity to keep learning is just such a brilliant source of inspiration for me. The book that really impacted me deeply was ‘A New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle. I had not fully understood the concept of ‘Ego’ until I read that book and it has been very helpful as a leader myself and in partnering with and coaching leaders.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Set some parameters and be really clear about direction and what to prioritise and de-prioritise. Often, I feel leaders mistake this sense of clarity with being authoritarian, which does not have to be the case. The job of the leader is to ensure that decisions are taken and there is a clear and shared path forwards. Without this decision making there can be chaos. However, HOW a leader goes about making those decisions, setting that direction, and communicating it can be inclusive and engaging. But avoiding setting clarity is unhelpful to the shared endeavour of the team.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

Two thoughts on this: Firstly, building on the point about clarity, any leader needs to embody the purpose and the ‘why’ of the mission or direction they are setting out. If a leader doesn’t believe in that sense of direction, it is highly visible to others, they cannot create an engaging narrative and relate emotionally to others. If we believe in something, we have the foundations for inspiring others to believe it too. Secondly, we all want to feel that we belong, and we have a part to play in any endeavour. So, ensuring that whilst our direction may be clear, there is space for people to have their voice and ideas heard, their opinion and expertise matters, and they can have some autonomy over the way they work and are recognised for this builds engagement.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I think at times difficult messages are avoided or unclear because it feels uncomfortable, so we want to make it more comfortable for ourselves. However, this simply doesn’t work in the long run because the discomfort will be greater if people hear things in a roundabout way. We have to take the approach that we are all equals and adults and sometimes things are not easy. Simple, clear, timely and factual communication is important. Whilst people may not like what they hear, they will respect the information given. Firstly, know that when you deliver difficult news, you are messaging fact, this is not about you personally. Secondly, enable people to digest difficult news. They will not immediately digest and process it and make you feel better. We all need to go away, make sense, and then follow up. We can be both clear and empathetic at the same time. Being unclear is unkind because it prioritises our own feelings of comfort over someone else’s.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

I think from a leadership perspective the idea of making plans might need some re-framing. Sometimes we view plans as concrete and certain when in fact we are constantly needing to be agile and ready to change and shift according to different factors. The risk is we make plans and feel these are immovable, or we don’t make plans whilst we wait for things to settle. Neither of these approaches will work for leaders. We might rather think of our plans as having an overall direction or destination, and then knowing our first few steps. This means we make progress towards our overall aims but remain able to be emergent about how we achieve this. This requires a shift in terms of communication and engagement with our teams as more frequent and 2-way communication is necessary to plot a course together.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I would always start with ‘Why.’ If everyone is clear who we are serving and why, then this is a common leveller and reference point. Added to this if the leader is able to be clear about their own purpose and invites others to consider the same this is a powerful foundation. Why do we do what we do and why do we as each individual care about it?

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

If the top leadership have a ‘bunker mentality’ and fail to communicate with everyone else until they have ‘something to say’ this is a problem. Even if we are working on a solution together and there may be confidentialities or considerations, acknowledging the challenge and providing regular updates — even if there is nothing new to report, is important to help everyone feel they are in this together and reduces false assumptions.

Linked to the above, often the answer to challenges is within the wider team. People are close to customers, or they are making your product or distributing it. When there is a challenge, it is important to involve as many people as possible to help create solutions and at times the hierarchy can mean the people with the potential answers aren’t even in the room.

Starting and continuing with an over-focus on financials in difficult times. It is true that financial liquidity is essential for business success. But whilst financial liquidity at times may come from e.g., cost control as a short-term measure, overall business success and financial liquidity comes from focusing on the customer and responding to their needs. Therefore, putting the energy of the organisation around the customer / service user rather than solely on reporting and driving financial performance is the sweet spot for leadership focus.

Finally, I have seen instances where everyone in leadership is focusing on survival, and no one has the eye to the future. The role of the leader is to stabilise today and then look forwards for the direction. If this is similar to a captain of a ship — if the ship is leaking water, you need to find the source and temporarily stop the leak, but once that is attended to, everyone looking at the leak doesn’t help solve the source problem, a leader has to trust sufficiently that the stabilising solution is in place and turn attention to finding dry land, repairs and then navigate a new route.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Create clarity: Always focus on ensuring that the direction is clear. I saw a highly effective CEO join an organisation in difficulty and the first thing he did was create a clear message of unity and collaboration and this was repeated and repeated, so it became our collective mantra and therefore our way of working.

Get out of the way: Create enough space for people to solve problems and make things happen. Whenever I have been in an organisation and there is a true urgent crisis, leadership steps out of the way and leaves the space for experts to take the lead, make decisions, ask for what they need and take action. We often wonder why we can’t replicate the effectiveness achieved during a crisis in general times of change or challenge, and my observation would be real problems are solved when there is a clear objective and space is created for people to do their thing!

Build reciprocity and trust: Human interaction is built upon reciprocal actions leading to a trustful relationship. Human beings, when faced with danger or challenge, will move into defence. Investment into trustful relationships ensures that there is a foundation of deeper shared endeavour and respect which can be relied upon when needed. I have seen this in evidence in an organisation where a new and completely different (risky) investment needed to be made. The decision makers at the Executive level were convinced by longstanding relationships of trust, not by data or business cases.

Leverage different vantage points to get the big picture: Never assume that from where you are you can see everything or that the people briefing you and talking to you have the whole picture. It is really important as a leader to leverage all vantage points that you uniquely have including regularly seeking to understand what is happening at the ‘coal face’ of your business e.g., call centre / production line / retail shop as well as seeking perspectives from the marketplace and futurist predictions you may pick up by reading or learning. One leader I observed was outstanding at this regular movement between the different perspectives he could gain to see his business unit through different lenses. Approaching everything with a sense of curiosity he was much better able to make informed decisions.

Ensure there is time and space for reflection: When the business or operation for which you are responsible is experiencing challenge, it can be difficult to prioritise space to reflect and think but as a leader it is crucially important to have that ‘sense making’ time before making a decision or communicating to the wider group. Many successful leaders are noted to have spent time at rest or in contemplation allowing the various inputs they are receiving to percolate so as to give a clearer more decisive direction.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Can I have two?! I absolutely love: ‘The bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch breaking but on her own wings.’ This resonated for me because it signifies that we are enough and have everything we need within us to be resilient and to fly. But equally I adore Maya Angelou’s often shared quote ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ It just sums up relationships for me.

How can our readers further follow your work?

My book ‘Vantage Points — how to create a culture where employees thrive’ is available now at: : vantage points paula leach

My website is:

I am on linkedin at: Paula (Ratcliff) Leach (FCIPD, MBA) | LinkedIn

And Instagram: @paula.m.leach

Paula Leach of Vantage Points Consulting: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.