Rebecca Houghton on Australian Leadership

The Centre for Optimism's Victor Perton welcomed Rebecca Houghton, the author of Impact: 10 Ways to Level Up Your Leadership.   It was a deep rich conversation on Australian leadership and optimism.


Victor Perton: Rebecca, at the Center for Optimism, we often say the leader looks like the person in your mirror: That leadership is for everyone. You're the first person I know to write a book for the B-suite. Why write it?

Rebecca Houghton:  Great question, Victor. So the B-suite for me? I remember coming up as a leader myself and leaving leadership twice in my career because I really didn't enjoy it. And it really got to that point for me where this middle manager that's been so maligned for 30 years almost felt thankless; it felt worthless, it felt low value. 

"The branding of being a bureaucrat and a middle manager and a pencil pusher really irked me because middle-level leaders pull it all together. 

"They are the ones translating what the executive wants with what the workforce will do and creating communication and flow. So I began to feel quite personal about the mission of bringing the mid-level leader back into the centre of the organisation, which is really where they live and ultimately where I thought they belonged. 

"So that's really what the B-suite is to me is it's a complete reinvention of how we look at mid-level leaders and the value that we apply to them."

Victor Perton: What's changing in leadership?

Rebecca Houghton: The last three years it has changed every single year. So we've gone through survival, where the leader is the hero and kind of follow me, and we're going to be okay in the trenches. 

"We've gone through a year, particularly in Australia, of waiting. 2021 was a year of just waiting, waiting for COVID to go away, waiting for the world to go back to normal, to create a new normal. 

"And next year is going to be different again; next year is going to be a third way of working. It's not going to be working from home. It's not going to be working in the office; this hybrid approach is not a bit of that and a bit of the other; it's something completely new.

"And what we know is that the workforce has been disconnected for two years. We've never done that before in the history of work. We have never been this disconnected, and this has a pretty profound effect on your team's psyche. 

"And as leaders, we've got to really lean into that and bring people back together, reconnect that disconnect. And that's going to mean a whole new set of skills for us. And at a time when really B-suite leaders feel exhausted and burned out and disconnected themselves.

Victor Perton:  You do a lot of coaching work. You live in one of the most exciting cities globally in terms of this changing workforce, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning. So what do you see in that Australian milieu? What do Australians want from their leaders?

Rebecca Houghton:  Such a good question Victor. It's actually quite interesting how different Australia is from the rest of the world. Some of the bad news is that our burnout rate is higher here than anywhere else on the planet. The B-suite leadership burnout rate is much higher here than anywhere else on the earth. 

We're not quite as threat fit as some other nations are as a nation. We haven't had many threats on this island in the last 80 years. So we're not very familiar with the sensation of being threatened, nervous, and anxious on an ongoing basis.

"So I think what Australians want from their leaders is a genuine, personal connection, a sense that they're not alone in feeling anxious and a sense that we will together find a way forward. 

"One of the beautiful things about Australians is the strong team culture we have here, much stronger than in most other nations. So this sense of bringing the team back and putting team back into the team is going to be really vital and quite exciting in terms of what it means for us as leaders next year.

Victor Perton:  Last year, we did an excellent series called The Optimist Heart. It was a Sunday morning program focused on personal, heartfelt optimism and elements of spirituality and the like. The host Caroline Ward caught up with me last week. She reminded me that when I started my mission to spread optimism, I distinguished the personal case for optimism - better health, better sleep, better relationships, better leadership - from the case for optimism in the organisation or the country to be able to harness that optimism is a different thing. 

"So in your work around the B-suite and with Australian leaders, how can an organisation support the sort of positive changes you are advocating? On the one hand, the Dalai Lama would say, "We are the only ones who can make meaning of our work."

"On the other hand, the boss does not influence whether I get meaning from my work or very little influence. But how might an organisation take up what you've talked about in Impact? As you say to rewire the organisation for positivity rather than negativity?

Rebecca Houghton: That's a good question. Organisations are trapped in this shift from the '80s sort of hierarchy model and moving towards a much more democratic approach to managing their business. And as with any significant transformation, they're going through a painful growth phase, and that's really what's happening right now. 

"So right now, you've got this massive shift between Y and X management philosophies. You've got an enormous shift between holding power and empowering people. You've got a massive shift between command and control and genuine accountability and autonomy. 

"And at the moment, you've almost got the two things living in the one organisation, and that's pretty tiring for a workforce to follow that because it's confusing, but we've got to go through that to come out of the other side and be less autocratic, more democratic. 

"And for me, is the fundamental of it is to understand that to be a more powerful organisation, individuals in the organisation have to give their power away. And that's very hard for individual people to do, but once they get over that, we will achieve a great deal more together.

Victor Perton: "My impression of your writing and your work is you really get Australian leadership. And what's different between Australian leadership and global leadership. 

"In our research for the Australian Leadership Project, we interviewed 2,500 people. We talked to INSEAD and Harvard and the like. The three qualities of Australian leadership that we hit upon that differentiate Australians from global leaders are egalitarianism, self-effacing humour and no BS plain speaking.

"Egalitarianism? Australians are top the Richter scale for talking to the cleaner with the same respect as the chairman. The prime minister has to sit in the front seat of the limousine, not the backseat. Self-effacing humour, which you exemplify, that laughter that ability to laugh at ourselves. And then that plain-speaking for which we are mocked in some parts of Asia, but on the other hand, when you look at the stereotype of us everywhere from Brazil to the US to France, they love that you never die wondering what Australians thinking. Have we picked up the traits of Australian leadership? Or is there something else that you'd see there too?

Rebecca Houghton:  "You're making me smile because you couldn't have described an Australian leader better. The straight-shooting, I love the self-effacing, doesn't take themselves too seriously. And for many Australian leaders, leadership is a privilege, a calling. It's just part of the gig; it's not something that marks them out as different or special; it's just another job. And that's quite refreshing because you look at Europe and this sense of hierarchy and entitlement and seniority and superiority that goes with being a leader. And I think here of all countries, this sense of a leader as servant or leader as coach it's very fertile ground for concepts like that because here in this country, we've never really come at it with this leader as God mentality. So I feel very optimistic about Australian leaders leading the way to democratise workforces.

Victor Perton: "You put that really well. One of the unexpected things that I have found is that when you ask an Australian about leadership, they think of the prime minister. They think of the Queen. They don't think of the person in the corner suite in their building.

Rebecca Houghton: That's right.

Victor Perton:  In some Australian interviews, I use the word boss rather than leader. Whilst boss is a pejorative in some countries, I think in Australia, it's an affectionate term for your manager or the person you directly report to. So can I ask you to think about the leaders and the bosses in your own life who have been the ones who've inspired you?

Rebecca Houghton: "When I first came to Australia, I lost my mojo. I couldn't make it work here the same way I made it work back in the UK. And this is 20 odd years ago now. And my first brilliant boss was a lady Rona Mclean who picked me up and dusted off and just said, "Stop beating yourself up, just give it one more shot. And if it doesn't work, I'll send you back to England myself." 

"And she was perfect because she gave me that last shot of confidence that I needed to give it a go. And then she got out of my way. And to this day, she is the leader that I hold up as being what I'd like to be when I grow up."

Victor Perton:   "Well, a big shout out to you, Rona.

"Rebecca, your book has optimism smeared throughout it. It says to be a good boss, you need to be optimistic and infectiously optimistic. And as Dominic Barton, who was the head of McKinsey and now the Canadian Ambassador to China, said to me that the great leader is not the person who makes the grand speech from the podium. It's the one who can unlock the optimism in the team. And that's one of the bits of advice you give, and may I ask you, as we head towards 2022, in your own passions, what makes you optimistic, Rebecca?"

Rebecca Houghton:  "Such a great question. I think the last couple of years have been really tough. And no one would argue with that anywhere in the world. The last couple of years have been really tough, but when you take a big step back and zoom out, it is the most fascinating period to be alive. I mean, really, the last time we saw anything this momentous was the two great world wars. This is the time of your life. And people will be studying this era for hundreds of years, and you are right here, and you're living it. And yes, that means it's hard, but my God, I wouldn't want it to be boring. And it certainly hasn't been that. And I don't think it will be for another two years. I think we've got a five year run of this major disruption that we're halfway through."

"My optimism comes from we've done worse before we've done it tougher before we always pull through, we always improve. So for me, it's a privilege to be living in this planet changing era. And I'm very confident that we will come out of it bigger and stronger and better because that's how we roll, us humans. That is our gig. It's what we do."

Victor Perton: "We are the descendants of the optimists."

Rebecca Houghton: "Well, I don't think we'd still be on this planet if we weren't."

Victor Perton:  "Let me just refer you to a couple of my favourite passages in your book. . One of our board members is John Hagel, the former head of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. John wrote the book, The Power of Pull, and more recently, The Journey Beyond Fear. And one of his pillars is the passion of the explorer. Curiosity is the key to 2020's leadership."

And you wrote, "we need to legitimise doubt without sucking the optimism from the room. "  

I love that. It's such a beautiful piece of writing. Do you want to elaborate on that? How can we make that happen?

Rebecca Houghton: "I think that ill-informed people have a sense that optimism is blind optimism, it's naive optimism that it's lacking planning, lacking risk management, lacking governance. 

"I think it's the complete opposite. People used to argue about, is it realism or is it optimism? I'm sure you've anchored that argument a few times.

"So for me, the excellent quality optimist is a realist, which means that to be optimistic, you have to endure all the negativity to be more confident than ever that it's going to be okay. If you didn't do that, that would be blind optimism. That would be inadequate planning.

"That would be unfounded positivism, which can sometimes mean that you end up in a big hole, and I'm more of the realism flavour of optimism. So for me being able to air your doubts as a team, go through what I love to use as a premortem, sit there, and go, this all goes wrong, and we're in the press. What does it say? And to catastrophise, the plan makes for a better plan, which means that you're more likely to succeed. So for me, I think harnessing doubt is part of building optimism."

Victor Perton: "That's brilliant. I often quote Mother Julian of Norwich, who lived in the 14th century in the last great plague, which killed 30% of the British population and who knows elsewhere. And in her book, the Revelations, she says, "All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well." And that's translated to the contemporary definition of optimism, which is a belief that good things will happen and that things will work out in the end. But it doesn't say that there's a silver lining in every dark cloud, and bad things don't happen to good people. So we all go through grief. 

Victor Perton:  My second favourite passage from your book, "Learn to be an optimist. And you say your brain is wired for negativity like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. And you quote handsome and then rewire it by noticing your negativity and search for a silver lining in the situation, even if it's unintended. Good things often come out of even the most difficult situations." And I love this challenge you give your readers 'you finish this sentence. The one good thing about all this is…." 

"So I'm going to throw that question to you. In these two years of struggle, living in the city with the most prolonged lockdown in the world, the one good thing about this is?

Rebecca Houghton:  "So many Victor, so many, so on a personal level, the one good thing has been my connection with my sons. Having been an executive that worked seven till seven in the office, I honestly didn't really see them. I was kind of outsourcing their uprising, so that has totally transformed, and I would never go back. So that's a beautiful thing. From a work perspective, the flexibility argument that's been loitering and bubbling but not really achieving anything for a decade just suddenly had to happen. And now that will never get put back in its box either. And these are brilliant steps forward. Brilliant. So I think there are lots; there's actually a huge list. Those are my two big ones."


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