Leadership: evolving, empathising and engaging

Nathan Thompson is a Business Architect at Aegon and a member of the SFE Young Professionals Committee.

I recently joined the fifth SFE Young Professional Leadership Series event that welcomed Andy Cunningham, MD in Operational Risk at Barclays, who shared his leadership journey and how he has adapted his leadership style throughout his career.

It was great to hear Andy start the session with an upfront acknowledgement that any leader who tells you they have all the answers may not quite be telling the truth - a claim that resonated with me. Everyone is always learning, no matter where they are on their career journey. Here are some points from the event that really struck a chord with me.

Empathy goes a long way

It would have been remiss not to touch on what leadership looks and feels like in our current situation. Andy shared that just like everyone else he is adapting to our “new normal” and likewise his leadership style continues to evolve, perhaps more so now than ever before. The most important skill Andy believes leaders need to leverage today is empathy and genuinely acknowledging an individual’s personal circumstances. As our work and home lives become increasingly blurred, this brings its own challenges, and good leaders have to recognise and adapt to such situations, and use empathy to enable inclusivity.

The route towards leadership

The discussion moved into career management and paths to leadership. Andy shared his own career journey as well as the hourglass and funnel models (see image) as a tool to help visualise career paths. I regularly think about career trajectory and on gaining the skill, I need for the next chapter, so this discussion was really thought provoking and it gave me a framework for my thinking going forward, which was great.

Being inclusive matters

Andy talked about how he has always tried to put inclusivity at the heart of his leadership. Similarly he acknowledged that key ingredients such as determination, confidence in one’s own ability’s, tolerance and, perhaps most importantly, resilience have all grown and been assimilated into his own personal style over the years. Throughout his various different leadership and management roles, Andy noted that such factors have all traded places as the dominant style at one time or another.

Age v experience

Something many young people face is the good old debate of age versus experience, and how age can often be a barrier to positional leadership, if not emotional/reputational leadership. In response to this, Andy noted that humility could be a key tool to help break down real (or perceived) barriers. Demonstrating humility, and learning from mis-steps will go a long way. The support of mentors and managers who have your back will help grow confidence and help young leaders fulfil their potential. Andy stressed the importance of continually building your network throughout your career and offered some tips from his own experiences.

Finally, Andy offered some thoughts around leadership in the post-pandemic workplace and noted that “Leaders are going to need to find the ‘cultural glue’ that binds everyone to their organisation, that encourages loyalty and pride. For the most part, people want to know that they are part of something good that is working towards positive outcomes for broader society. Now, more than ever before, leaders need to stay abreast of what that looks like and demonstrably engage in a genuine way”.

Overall, the session was incredibly insightful. Andy offered both thought-provoking and practical advice for the SFE Young Professionals network and I benefitted hugely from taking part.

Our Leadership Series continues on Thursday 15th October with SFE Board Member Vida Rudkin of Morgan Stanley who will discuss maintaining personal development and staying visible in a virtual environment. You can register for the event here.

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Published 14 October 2020