Locke Lord and the Leasing Foundation hosted their inaugural joint conference in November. Entitled New Leadership, the event sought to take a fresh look at what it meant to be a leader amid changing times for the leasing industry. Saad Ahmed reports back on the main talking points

“What is leadership?” Peter Thomas, chief operating officer of the Leasing Foundation posited.

“I can tell you now that we’re not going to answer that question today or anywhere near it in the next few hours.”
The Leasing Foundation held its first joint conference with Locke Lord at the law firm’s offices in London on November 29th.

Branded New leadership, the conference set out to examine how the leasing industry could rethink its leadership practices in a time characterised by great change and uncertainty.

Signalling a desire to dispense with convention, Peter Thomas said that rather than “the wisdom of the great leadership books”, the conference would focus on “some real visions of leadership – all personal, all valuable, and all, in their own ways, impermanent and changing.”

Mentioning the Leasing Foundation’s Future Leaders programme, Thomas stated that the joint conference with Locke Lord would become a permanent fixture in the cycle of industry events.

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“By opening up leadership as a topic for discussion…the question for me is not what leadership is, but how I should think about the leadership challenge,” he said.

Thomas’s introductory talk set the tone for the event. Though the theme was leadership, its specific purpose was to consider new strategies to meet the needs of a changing industry and landscape.

With the hovering spectre of Brexit, and the (albeit slowly) changing demographics of the leasing industry, Thomas encouraged the attendees to consider how best to adapt their leadership styles to meet the new realities of a “shifting economic and social context”.

“The world is messy, uncertain, and sometimes, entirely out of our control,” Thomas said, and said that alongside leadership, the idea of what constitutes success was ripe for redefinition.

Cultural revolution?

Leasing Foundation board member Mike Randall began the talks.

“I’ve been asked to speak about a really important topic today…leading the future,” he said. “We as leaders have a special challenge in setting the direction of our businesses.”

Randall’s talk focused on strategy and the effect of company culture on driving outcomes, and enthusing leadership.

“These three areas are paramount for a business to be successful, now and in the future, despite all the challenges that we all face in the world,” he said.

He expressed that the cultures and values embedded within good leadership were crucial, and must be projected, particularly in times of upcoming political and economic uncertainty.

“We all know the future will have its challenges,” Randall said. “Leadership is knowing what the pitfalls are and calmly steering the business through them.”

Randall argued that a poor culture in the business would allow poor leadership styles to emerge, preventing success.

“Culture has to be created from the bottom up and the top down,” he said. “There’s no point in telling your staff: ‘This is how things are done around here.’”

According to Randall, the key to good leadership and culture was communication between staff, rather than purely dictation, to ensure a group vision could emerge.

“Culture is also about agreeing a vision for the business, and sticking to that vision,” he said.

The first questioner in the Q&A session asked whether it was up to the leadership to drive the culture, or if it happened in reverse. “It starts with the leadership, the actual culture of the leader,” Randall said.

“If you have a strong leader with character, with those values…it [helps] drive a better culture in the business.”
Drawing on his experience in previous roles, Randall warned that some employees would not be willing to go along with cultural change. “Strong leadership is not tolerating poor behaviours in your business,” Randall added.

Another question concerned the encroaching period of uncertainty and upcoming volatility, and asked whether long-term strategies should be adapted.

“How important do you think it is to stick with your strategy, or refresh?” she asked.

Randal said: “Things will go wrong. The marketplace or the economy might change. You actually have to say: ‘Stop what we thought we were trying to achieve; we do need to change.’ That’s strong leadership.”

“Everybody should have a voice, and if you need to change direction and it’s the right thing to do, you should do it, otherwise you will end up in trouble,” he concluded.

The millennial factor

“Different generations demand different kinds of leadership,” Thomas said, and introduced Nathan Mollet, head of asset finance at Metro Bank who brought the topic to millennials.

Mollet argued how leadership could not only accommodate younger employees, but also bridge the generational divide by moving towards more collaborative forms.

“They are good in teams, they’re so networked that they’re never truly alone,” Mollet said. “They’re good at collaboration, they’re not scared of asking others for assistance.”

Raising the theme of cultural change, Mollet suggested that the rise of millennials in the workforce would make a leadership rethink inevitable. “You should almost forget trying to ‘lead’ millennials,” Mollet said, stating that they challenged authority and established hierarchy as a concept.

To better integrate the workplace and styles, Mollet suggested a degree of mentorship, and stated that engagement was key.

“It’s important that we empower them early and often,” Mollet said, warning that a failure to do so would cause a loss of talent. He argued that old leadership norms must be challenged in order to hold onto younger employees.

“Millennials are more loyal to principles than individual people,” he warned. “They want to make a difference. They want to be recognised and taken seriously.”

Mollet also suggested that calls to alter the traditional work schedule and times should be considered. “We need to reconsider the schedule,” he said, arguing that flexibility was becoming increasingly important.

A move towards more flexible modes of working, with fewer restrictions on start times and enabling remote working, was something to be discussed, Mollet suggested. “The thought of spending years and years in traditional corporate environments isn’t particularly attractive to them,” he said.

The session remained on the topic of millennials, but considered the role of the age group in leadership, rather than as recipients of it.

The way to better integrate millennials in the workforce was clearly a source of much disagreement, as the Q&A revealed.
An attendee asked: “What sort of leaders will the millennials make?” prompting some laughter from the crowd.
Mollet suggested that younger workers would express a more collaborative form of leadership, drawing on his previous comments of a generational contempt for established hierarchical norms.

The importance of social media in company operations was also discussed, with Mollet warning the attendees: “Organisations that do not embrace [social media] are going to have a challenging 10 years ahead of them.”

One attendee, however, challenged Mollet’s assertion that millennials would spearhead collaborative leadership, expressing the view: “They have this sense of needing instant gratification”.

Mollet emphasised the need for established norms to change.

He stated that hierarchies had still not been adapted to accommodate the changing makeup of the workforce, and warned leasing companies could lose young talent as a result.

“There will be a move away from the superhero, ‘do it on your own’ style of leadership,” Mollet said, favouring an approach of “managing by wandering around”.

Returning to the prioritisation of values over personal loyalty, Mollet offered parting advice for leading younger workers: “Convince [Millennials] in an authentic way that what you’re doing is principled, [and] they’ll get behind you.”
Women in leadership

Kirstine Wilson, head of strategic development, commercial finance Europe & Asia Pacific at Siemens Financial Services, led the panel on Women in Leadership.

She was joined by Amanda Childs, head of business and consumer excellence at Siemens Financial Services, Pamela Brown, marketing director at Aldermore, Carmen Ene, chief executive officer at 3StepIT, and the Leasing Foundation’s Mike Randall.

The topic of the representation of women in leadership positions was discussed. The panel said that entry-level positions showed female intake of 60%, while middle management was made up 25% of women, and senior financial services roles 19%.

“Businesses are struggling to find the spaces to talk about this topic,” Childs said.

“Something is happening,” Childs continued. “What can we do to stop this leakage in the pipeline of women leaders”?
Ene argued that technological developments had a role to play in alleviating barriers to leadership.

“Technology is levelling the playing field,” she said, “[creating] opportunities for women to play on an equal level with men.”

The role of societal norms was discussed, with many on the panel suggesting that seeking to combat bias, long-programmed practices and language archetypes such as ‘bossy’, could provide a route to more diversity in leadership.

Responding to an audience question, Ene said: “The differentiation starts from an early age, in the perception of what they [men and women] can do.”

Adapting, attracting, evolving

Entering the final swing of the New Leadership conference, the talks centred on how to adapt leadership to different situations and individuals, and the need to attract talent to the leasing industry.
Jonathan Andrews, global chief executive, commercial finance at Siemens Financial Services, spoke about connecting with colleagues as a way to enhance leadership and collaboration.

“Everywhere that we all go today, people are spending more and more time linking and networking,” Andrews said.
Andrew Denton, chief executive officer of Alfa, returned to the theme of cultural change, speaking of a need to embrace compassionate leadership.

“You have to adapt your leadership style for different people,” Denton told the attendees. “Be prepared to listen,” he said. “If you listen, people will tell you things,” suggesting that communication was key to compassionate leadership.
Simon Goldie, head of asset finance at the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA), spoke about his experience of leading in the leasing industry, followed by the Emerging Voices panel led by Amanda Childs.

The panel stated that many in the industry were “set in their ways”, but argued that technology would play a role in leading change.

The panel on Inspiring Change, led by Carl D’Ammassa, Aldermore’s group managing director – business finance, discussed leadership in a time of change.

“Let’s stick to the priorities we have as a business,” D’Ammassa said, stating that factors such as Brexit should not act as a distraction.

The New Leadership conference concluded with Dana Cuffe, Aldermore’s chief operating officer, discussing ‘Building a team for transformation’, followed by a Q&A session lead by Peter Thomas.

As noted by Thomas in his opening statement, conclusive answers on what constituted leadership and its challenges could not realistically result from the conference.

By opening discussion around leadership and its makeup, it seemed the conference sought to provoke new ideas and approaches in the industry.