LIW: Busting leadership myths

Henry Ford set out with the ambition to ‘democratise the automobile’ and today widespread access to the car has transformed society.  Australian company Leading Initiatives Worldwide (LIW) now wants to do the same with leadership and LIW CEO

Pia Lee is convinced that it’s the key to not only improving companies but society as a whole. Pia speaks with Business First about her own leadership journey from teacher to CEO and tells us why we should watch this fast-growing organisation.

By her own admission, Pia Lee has an ‘unusual background’. As a high school teacher in the UK in what she terms some ‘pretty tricky schools’, she learned a lot about human behaviour. ‘From locking the classroom to keep the children inside in inner city state schools, to handling stressed high-flying private schools, to teaching international students, who two years earlier were at war with each other, that’s a good grounding in understanding what makes people tick’ she says.

Yet given her next move, some may have questioned her own behaviour.

After ten years working in the school system, Pia started thinking about her students and what became of them when they entered the business world.

The trail led her to immigrate to Australia, where she literally had to start her life again.

‘I arrived in 2000 with no job and nowhere to live, but a passion to answer the question of what direction my students had taken’ Pia says.  Perhaps to follow a trail you have to create your own path and that is exactly what Pia did.

‘My first job in Australia was working at the Sydney Olympics as a street cleaner which taught me a lot in a short period of time. Being relatively invisible gives you the best opportunity to observe how humans behave around you. Sometimes that’s really disappointing.’

This led her to becoming involved with LIW, then a fledgling company based in Sydney, set up by three ex-army officers and which today is a thriving and ambitious leadership consultancy engaged with leading Fortune 500 organisations globally.  LIW now operates in 30 countries across the world but when Pia joined, she was its first employee.

Five years later she became a Director and after a further six years, became the CEO.

Pia has spent the last 16 years fully immersed in organisational leadership across the globe including studying a Masters in Organisational Coaching and Leadership to go deep into the background of a subject that has become her driving force.  ‘It’s strange but I initially felt like a failure in that I wasn’t cut out to become a technical expert in life like a lawyer, engineer or doctor but later on I realised that I may have a place in supporting these technical experts to expand their reach and have a greater impact.’

These experiences and studies helped to form Pia’s views on leadership and they are refreshingly different from the norm.

‘There are a couple of myths about leadership that exist today that aren’t really useful,’ she says. ‘One of them is that leadership belongs to only a few leaders and the second is that those few leaders need to know all the answers. This really bowties the capability of an organisation around a few people rather than multiplying the efforts of the larger group.’

‘Over the 21 years that LIW has existed we’ve formed the view that effective leadership needs to exist at every level of an organisation and its focus is about creating the best conditions for others to achieve success. What we notice is that technical expertise becomes less relevant as you progress in an organisation and leadership becomes more important as the catalyst for enabling more to be achieved,’ Pia says.

‘Pragmatism is a key value for LIW.  Our approach has academic backing but we keep it simple enough for everyone to understand. Leadership is about creating the conditions of success for others. Leaders need to develop real clarity, provide an optimal environment and build competence in their people so that they can achieve their goals.  We always start with a simple question to our clients: What are you trying to achieve and why?  This helps us to give a business the outcomes they’re trying to achieve.’

‘If we are really clear what those business objectives are and we identify them for individuals as well as for the organisation, then we can plan and measure a more tangible change and identify the real impact that’s been made.’

‘When we know what the direction is and what the leadership needs to be, we can then look at innovative ways to close the gaps in that organisation. It may be through coaching, development centres, top team workshops or enterprise-wide leadership development programs.’

As well as clarity, good leaders build great climates where the culture enables success and the systems and processes including IT, performance management and remuneration help, not hinder, individuals.

‘The climate is really, really key. We need to understand the structure of the organisation; is it hierarchical? Is it silo orientated? Does it encourage cross-functional collaboration?’  The culture, as Pia indicates, is driven very largely by the leader’s example. ‘Research tells us that leaders have an impact of potentially 70% on organisational climate through their leadership example and the standards they set. This leadership example is not always what it could be,’ observes Pia.  ‘In fact there’s often a sizable difference between a leader and leadership – often we make the mistake that one will mean the other!’

It seems to be an approach to developing business leadership that is working. ‘Today, we have operations across the globe, but we’ve retained that core purpose as well as our values while constantly seeking new ways to add value to our clients. Every day there is a program where we are getting consistent personal transformations which are helping to shape the organisations that we work in and these are running from the shores of Tanzania to the floors of Silicon Valley. We’re seeing the fruits of that labour come through with a number of awards that we’ve won globally with our clients, particularly in the last two years and that reflects both the business impact and the strong partnerships that we have.’

The following diagram gives an indication of the problems businesses face and the way LIW goes about facilitating change, particularly in matters of leadership.

LIW uses a four-step approach to help its clients deliver impact through leadership:


1. Design for impact – a pragmatic process to understand desired business outcomes, the specific leadership behaviours that will achieve them and the design that will unlock those behaviours.

2. Real work in the room – the immediate application of clients’ learning to a real business challenge which is aligned to the organisational goals. A typical program consists of 50% learning and 50% application with support from consultants.

3. Application support – LIW has a number of proven options for helping people to take their learnings back to the real world to deliver the organisational strategies. From Turning Learning into Action® phone coaching to manager and group coaching provided by LIW partner Lever Learning.

4. Impact measurement – a proven method to measure business impact using a combination of surveys and interviews to give broad and rich data.

‘There is a lot of work to be done to be able to measure the impact from a leadership program and how that directly impacts business outcomes,’ Pia says.

‘I think it’s really important that we partner with an organisation and that it is a joint process between the organisation and ourselves to be able to measure that impact. We’ll be looking at surveys. We’ll be looking at employee engagement scores. We’ll be looking at psychometric analysis that we might do before and after.’

Scaling the business requires planning. ‘It’s really important to maintain a consistent approach but also one that is the right cultural fit for the country as well as the organisation. We need to have the scale of a global approach but it needs to have that local feel. That’s really important because a number of our contracts are with multinationals where we are delivering leadership solutions potentially based in 10 to 20 countries around the world. We need to have that scale. We also need to have the practicality.’

Looking back through her life. Pia has never been one to shy away from a challenge.  As she looks ahead, the next challenge and opportunity is clear: to take leadership development out of organisations and into the wider world; in the spirit of Henry Ford, by ‘democratising leadership’.

By 2020, LIW wants to have an impact on one million people.  ‘That’s a huge number and to reach those people will require simplicity of message and new, low-cost approaches.  Most people can’t afford to attend a traditional leadership program so we need to look to the digital world to make our ambition a reality.  The exciting opportunity here is to do something that has never been done before: to use technologies such as machine learning and big data to enable anyone, anywhere to get things done together.’

Pia has a final call to action. ‘We can’t do this alone.  We’re looking for people who share our passion for democratising leadership to join our quest. Given the challenges and opportunities at this time – there’s a lot at stake if we don’t.’

Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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