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Interview: Graeme Gherashe Talks Successful Leadership

Feb 07, 2014

The Australia Council recently announced two significant new leadership grants  for Australian arts professionals.  These two new grants, which sit under the Capacity Development Program, are the Executive Leadership Grants and the Artistic Leadership Grants. To assist potential applicants to understand the various inflections of leadership, Dr Ricardo Peach, Program Manager of the Capacity Development Program, interviewed Graeme Gherashe, the Project Director of Council’s Emerging Leaders Development Program and highly respected mentor in the arts.

Graeme you have had over 30 years experience as a human resources professional and a leadership consultant across the globe, including Australia, Asia, UK, Europe and North America.  What is your background and what made you choose such a varied career in human resources?

I was unclear of what to study at University and even less sure of what career to take after completing a degree in Psychology and Pure Mathematics. I had grown up in the country, attended an agricultural boarding school and my interests were far from farming.

My first real job was in sales with IBM, and when I asked to be transferred to Personnel I was practically laughed at.  A few years later I went back to study an MBA and by then it was clear I wanted to work in what was still called Personnel. People are the greatest asset of any company but until then I had not seen people as being a strategic priority.

On getting an MBA with a specialisation in Finance and Human Resources, I was lucky to enter the new era of Banking and Finance in Australia in Human Resources Development for Bank of America. I had qualifications, an interest and a natural empathy with the HR role and with a growing industry sector was quickly recognised and promoted to a Director and then an Executive Director role with an HR focus. Twenty-two years ago I was approached to take a global role based out of Hong Kong with Standard Chartered, and with an HR and Strategy focus. That started my international career that has seen me work in Asia, greater Europe, Africa and the USA.

In 2000 I accepted a global Management Development role with the Aviva group which allowed me to work with a number of leading business schools including INSEAD, Columbia, Wharton and London Business School. I returned to Australia in 2006 and took a role with the AGSM in Executive Education. After that I set up my own consultancy business with the foundations built out of my experience with business schools, international work and line executive roles.

I chose my career and it was opportunistic as well. From the MBA days onward the choice was always about attracting, retaining and developing great teams. Around five years ago I started consulting to the arts and delivering workshops for the Australia Council. Today I have a balance of corporate and NFP, including arts clients.

You have often talked about the difference between leadership and management in the Emerging Leaders Development Program. Can you give us a bit of insight into what the differences are between the two and how leaders approach issues as opposed to managers?

You need to have both skill sets in your kit bag to be successful. To me the tasks of planning and budgeting, setting out policies and procedures, monitoring results and problem solving and getting specific results with stakeholders all fall loosely under management. More often than not management can involve a right answer.

Leadership is about establishing a vision and direction, driving change, influencing others versus positional power alone, positively creating teams, energizing people and aligning people through communication and overcoming barriers.

I believe that management and leadership are synergistically entwined. They are two sides of the same coin. Both can be developed and great leaders can make a significant and positive impact on those around them.

A starting point for any great leader is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and knowing that you are on a never ending learning career.

Great leaders are avid learners. Great leaders are a combination of a challenger, coach and mentor. I think back to the great leaders I have worked with and they have made me think and reflect and not just do.

Your knowledge around the different forms of leadership practices and styles is extensive.  How do you teach and develop leadership?

Leadership is making a positive difference to yourself, your team, your organization, your industry and society at large.

I have a motto ‘a good question will always stump a good answer’ which I learnt from a mentor, Professor Philip Yetton. This epitomises how I have taught leadership.

Hundreds of models and frameworks abound on leadership. The teaching I now do is about challenging people to know who they really are, develop insight into how they will react to different scenarios and develop skills to help them keep challenging themselves and others.

Yes, on programs we teach different leadership models, use psychometrics and feedback loops including 360 degree feedback, coaches and mentors. But, at its core leadership is the ability to understand first yourself and then others.

Like a good organisation a great leader should have a good and clear vision and mission. When I have had a line responsibility to develop leaders over a longer time frame I also added into the mix an additional and powerful initiative – secondments and projects.

I am a great believer in giving developing leaders new and interesting challenges either within the company and the country or internationally and also across industries. If this could be achieved effectively and on an industry wide scale we would make further steps forward in developing our arts leaders. There is no substitute for experience, and experience in multiple situations to develop leadership skills.

What do you think are the essential elements of a great leader?

This depends a lot on the situation. A dictator can be a good leader in the right situation.

For me great leaders have four things in common.

Firstly they are authentic. Authentic leaders have integrity, clear and unwavering values and are consistent in what they do and how they set about leading others. They can be trusted. Examples often given are Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Secondly they know their own limitations. Nobody has all the skills and experience they need in the ever changing world we do business in today. Great leaders know what they can do and cannot do and can engage and motivate others to compliment their own skill set.

Thirdly they continue to develop and learn. When I meet, interview or read about great leaders this trait comes through every time. Great leaders are always learning new skills and approaches and have an appetite for improving themselves and their skill set.

The fourth attribute is being able to see beyond the ‘me’. By this I mean seeing beyond ‘me’ as the leader so they can enrich their team, their organisation, their industry and greater society.

Lastly, what advice would you give people who are keen to develop their leadership capability? Are there practical steps they could take to expand and develop into more successful leaders?

Grasp new and different opportunities, put your hand up to take on new challenges, invest in yourself through getting honest feedback and taking on development opportunities. These development opportunities can be projects, new or expanded jobs, development programs and using a coach or mentor.

When I work with people as a coach or mentor I get the most success when the person I am working with takes time to invest in themselves, reflects on what they are doing and challenges themselves regularly.  They are also clear as to where they want to get to, maybe not ten years out but at least to the next step in their career and life.

We all learn differently and if you know your learning style then you should be able to work out how you can develop your leadership capability. To be able to do this, you need to know yourself.