Changing leadership

E-business has brought with it an ever-changing environment, and IT leaders could wear the crown in this Brave New World, writes...

E-business has brought with it an ever-changing environment, and IT leaders could wear the crown in this Brave New World, writes Jacqueline Moore

The senior BT executive, announcing the latest company reorganisation, turned to his management team and said, "All I can promise you is change."

Those words were spoken several years ago, but in recent weeks BT has had good reason to heed them. Last week saw the departure of Iain Vallance, BT's chairman of nearly 14 years.

However, the speed at which the marketplace is changing and the extent of those changes is one of the biggest challenges facing business leaders in blue-chip companies. And this is in part due to e-business. How companies deal with competitors, customers and suppliers differs and, as a result, the skills business leaders need to succeed in the new economy have changed.

"In the 21st century world of e-business the qualities leaders need are not simply to be very good at their function, whether they are in HR, technology, finance or marketing," says Garry Griffiths, senior vice-president of human resources for BT Ignite, BT's broadband and IP communications services company.

"You used to ask whether someone could command and control large numbers of people. Now you ask 'do they have the commercial focus, a frenetic sense of urgency, a can-do, will-do mentality. Can they get what they want by winning friends and influencing people?'"

Nowadays, senior executives need to be true leaders, rather than just managers.

"Management is doing everything in the right way, whereas leadership is doing the right thing, and they are very different," Griffiths explains.

"Forward-thinking e-business leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. They say, 'I know what the vision and the direction is, but I will have to take it that the marketplace may change every day'."

Glenn Frommer, vice-president of e-business for chemicals group ICI, says, "Leadership has to do with changing or developing the right culture - the amount of risk we can take, around change and learning, around sharing. The leaders who 'get it' and influence the organisation to move in a certain direction are successful."

An ability to deal with the speed of change is also a vital e-leadership skill.

As Karin Laljani, global e-commerce manager for Uniqema, part of ICI, says, "Strategy is more dynamic now. [In the past] we might have had two-year strategies that we believed didn't have to change, but today we're going to have to move faster than that."

This speed can be disorientating for staff. Leaders have to create an environment where ambiguity and uncertainty are part of business life, not a crisis.

"You don't want a leader who says, 'we are going through a temporary situation where it is going to change, but then the status quo will be maintained and we will all be happy again'," says Griffiths.

Only a few years ago one of the certainties of business life was that you knew who you were competing with. If you asked a big company who its competitors were, its executives would reel off a handful of names without hesitation. Today, that is no longer the case.

Tony Eccleston of the global e-business team at Glaxo SmithKline, the recently merged pharmaceuticals group, says, "The competitors have changed. What is a competitor in the e-business marketplace for pharmaceuticals is interesting. When we think about success in pharmaceuticals one of the measures would be: how much do we sell? Our competitors there are AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and Pfizer.

"If you look at providing information, marketing over the Internet, improving our internal efficiencies and processes, and adding more customer value, who are our competitors?

"Our competitors could be other pharmaceuticals companies, they could be a Reuters-type organisation, they could be portals providing healthcare information."

Leaders also have to be prepared to treat an enemy as a friend. Partnerships between competitors, as well as customers and suppliers, are an increasing feature of the new economy.

Eccleston suggests companies need to ask the question, "Are they competitors or are they partners?"

"In the future a competitor might be a partner. We need to prepare ourselves to partner with anybody," he says.

Blue-chip companies tend to agree that today's e-leaders need the skills to give direction, to deal with speed and to promote acceptance of uncertainty. They also need to handle the e-business sceptics and traditionalists.

As Russell King, vice-president of e-business development at ICI Paints, says,"Even the people who think e-business is irrelevant need to embrace it, because it is just going to be part of business. There's this danger that people say, 'well, dotcoms - obviously they're all a load of rubbish, so e-business is over'. That's just as dangerous as being a full e-business convert."

Soundbites from the leading edge

E-leadership is not about technology
"I don't see technology as one of the top five most important things for e-business to flourish"

E-leadership is about direction
"There has to be clear direction because you can't say 'We'll do Asia today' and do Europe tomorrow"

E-strategy is not necessarily about competing
"Are they competitors or partners?"

E-strategy is about speed
"We might have had two-year strategies that we believed didn't have to change, but today we're going to have to move faster"

E-vision is not about grandiose, long-term plans
"Because the speed of change is so high, your budgeting process is shot - because in six months you might make new decisions"

E-vision is about clarity in times of uncertainty
"First-to-market is something that we should strive to do, but smart-to-market is more important."

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