Fergie Balfour has an enviable track record for leading company turnarounds, such as at Calvin Klein and Birds Eye. Now he is taking on Unilever’s Food Solutions business in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Anthony Landale spoke to him about how he unlocks energy in people and organizations.
"What does an effective business leader do? He or she makes it possible for others to do, and be, their best. Simple as that. And the way to do that is by unlocking people’s energy and belief that is so often missing at work."
The words are those of Unilever’s Fergie Balfour. And he should know what he’s talking about. Balfour arrived at Calvin Klein in 2004 when the company had not performed well for some years – and in just over 12 months he had the business back in double-digit growth and had helped restore its reputation as one of the leading fashion brands in the world. Not content with that, he then went on to lead the revival at Birds Eye – bucking the market decline in frozen foods and playing an integral part in the sale of that business to Permira for e1.725 billion at the end of 2006.
Balfour epitomizes the new breed of 21st century business leader: restless, energetic and believing wholeheartedly that business success and personal fulfilment can co-exist. How? By challenging people to take ownership of their work and by encouraging people to make things happen and reap the rewards of their enterprise.
“What’s the difference between successful and poorly performing companies? It’s not about the commitment of people,” explains Balfour. “Rather, in those companies where decline has happened, you will find that employees think that what they do makes no difference. That’s the sticking point. And it’s my job to shift this victim mentality.
“And I’ve seen that transformation occur. All I have to do as a leader is help people to get in touch with their fundamental beliefs and take obstacles out of their way. Then they will walk through walls. People get frustrated and demotivated when they see that what they are doing has no impact. In contrast, they get inspired and bring a completely new energy to work when they are given the opportunity to show what they can do and get recognized for it.”
Leaders at all levels
For senior leaders, the prospect of being surrounded by staff who are increasingly entrepreneurial and expressive may have some executives shifting nervously in their seats. But this vision is in tune with the dynamic nature of today’s markets. The business world won’t wait for those who are attached to the past; and companies like Unilever have recognized that, unless they provide freedom, opportunities and development for their leaders, they will lose their best and brightest recruits.
But stop. Who exactly needs to be a leader today? The answer to that is everybody – from shop floor to front-line sales and marketing, from R&D and logistics to finance and HR. In this respect, leadership is about people everywhere taking initiative and responsibility: leading the project, leading the customer, leading the team. It’s the matrix world in action. People who are leading in one area are following in another. Rigid hierarchies are barriers to effectiveness, and learning and enterprise are the watchwords for those with ambition. But don’t mistake this for not having clarity about the direction the business is going in.
Not surprisingly given this context, leaders who are emerging from today’s universities and business schools need to understand what leadership involves early in their careers. And one question that starts to shape their approach to leadership is this: Why should anyone want to follow you? (Or, as Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, phrase it: Why should anyone be led by you?)
The answer to this question can only be discovered by self-enquiry, because it points to the need for authenticity. Followers want to follow leaders, not because they are told to, but because they want to. And, in turn, this means they want to know what their leader stands for, what he or she can be counted on for and, most importantly, in what direction the leader is heading.
There are no stock answers to these questions. Leaders need to look inward for their own personal response, so this enquiry leads people to investigate and learn about their leaders’ personal values, their beliefs and the reputation they want to build for themselves. Leaders may also find that, as they build their self-awareness, they start to see the various ways in which they restrict themselves via self-limiting beliefs. And this is especially powerful, because all too often people – even leaders – dismiss as unattainable those futures that might otherwise spark their imagination.
Looked at from another perspective, what leaders, at all levels, need to examine is how they present themselves.
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