Practical analysis for investment professionals
11 July 2019

Work and Leadership: Going It Alone

This spring, I was asked to participate on a leadership panel sponsored by European Women Payments Network (EWPN) in Amsterdam. While honored to receive the invitation, I soon realized that I had nothing to say on the topic. So I politely declined and explained that I had never been in a serious corporate leadership position. By choice!

Early in my career, I decided to take another path. After some bad formative experiences with horrible and ineffective bosses, I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that I would have to behave like a jerk to get ahead in a traditional organization. I made a decision to “lead myself.” As a result, I’ve always chosen pay-for-performance rather than salaried positions.

This strategy has worked out very well for me, especially since the leadership style in finance organizations tends to epitomize the traditional form that I found so unappealing early in my professional life. Due to the types of jobs I chose, in institutional sales and portfolio management, I avoided dealing with these kinds of old-school leaders on a daily basis. And I have always advised other women in the financial industry to work for themselves or in commission-paying roles so that they can enjoy full independence and feel their own power and identity.

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Is it okay to opt out of leadership?

I explained all this in turning down EPWN’s invitation. But in a return email, I was surprised to learn the panel organizers considered my “opt out of leadership track” stance a useful one for the discussion. As London-based leadership consultant and EWPN executive board member Stanley Skoglund explained:

“What you say is very relevant to any discussion on leadership and power and identity. Many women and men chose to bypass the traditional contract with an employer because it comes with a hierarchy and asymmetry with respect to leadership and power relations. And if there are attributes or labels that can be attached to your identity (self-ascribed or ascribed by others) these will be far more pronounced in such a relationship. I particularly like your thoughts around ‘pay for performance’ rather than being ‘salaried’ as a means of staying out of politics and bad leadership. A strategy that has worked for you. Looking at the relative success of the gig economy (there are gigs and there are gigs!), it seems reasonable to assume that the way we relate to work and leadership is changing.”

Is every job a gig economy job?

When I started out, full-time workers who aspired to stay with the same company throughout their career dominated the economy. That approach had its appeal: one employer, full benefits, and a pension. But today’s gig economy is something much different: It is “based on flexible, temporary, or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform.”

To state the obvious, working life has dramatically changed in the 20 years since the internet became a widespread business platform. Today, there is no single dominant future of work: Going forward, there will be a mix of people working in offices, from home, from the road, offshore, onshore, and nearshore, and a growing category of employees who aren’t even employees — the gig folks.

Organizations will continue to evolve alongside these developments. And it won’t be easy. Creativity may prove the most important skill for navigating this mixed-work environment. For her research paper, “Women at Work: Designing a Company Fit for the Future,” Deborah Hargreaves, a journalist fellow at Friends Provident Foundation, interviewed innovative job-sharers. Their unique arrangements were fascinating: There was a three-person job-share, a husband-and-wife job-share, and two senior women who took their shared role to a different organization.

“My view now is that all jobs can be done part-time or in a job-share,” Hargreaves said. “You have to think creatively — take some things out [of the job description]. All jobs could be done in different ways.”

Can you be an independent-thinking individual inside a large organization?

Yes, but this requires creative leadership, according to Jane Horan in Singapore. A renowned leadership expert and author, Horan recently shared her thoughts with Creative Sparq:

“The broad challenges facing companies today include the inability to embrace leadership differences and using outdated frameworks of selecting leaders, rethinking talent and career development and ways of retaining female talent. The organisation’s inability to retain and engage women comes down to ‘not seeing the individual’ and the strengths this individual brings to the organisation. Creativity means doing things differently. Hence a creative leader is one who has the ability to take a different approach, focus on innovative problem solving, consider and welcome new ideas.”

Skoglund offered his own perspective:

“I think the only way we can change the conversation around leadership is to offer up alternatives that are not anchored in masculinities (and the ranking thereof) and qualities that draw their examples from religion; sports; military conquest and use of power (coercive and/or as a threat to exclude others). I also think we need to evaluate critically (inquire into) our own identities; the stories we tell ourselves and others and how we sustain identities. For instance, sometimes we conform to expectations, which suits our identity, when, on balance, we would have achieved a better outcome for ourselves and others by not conforming and calling out aspects/assumptions/power-relations present in a professional context/encounter. Not risk free but surely a choice we can make?”

During the EWPN leadership panel discussion, I realized I wasn’t the only one who chose to bypass a traditional model of leadership that was out of sync with my values and lifestyle. Estelle Brack shared her experience working for a major bank in Paris for almost 20 years. She changed roles many times and then decided to switch to international advocacy within a professional association. When she could no longer stay with the association due to legal constraints, she returned to the bank. But a position that aligned with her qualifications and skills was difficult to find.

Brack was practical about dealing with her situation:

“My first strategy was to adapt and do my best to find some activity within the bank . . . sometimes developing it myself. As an economist, I also kept writing books and articles, sharing knowledge and gathering stakeholders. My second strategy was to better observe my environment within the bank: I tried to understand local strategies in order to create opportunities for myself. Thanks to reorganizations, I got recognized as an expert leader and pushed to create an office for the chief economist within the company, where I naturally would support the job of the chief economist. But after six months acting as the chief economist and getting appreciation from my colleagues, the position disappeared after another reorganization. The possibility to fully express economic and intelligence leadership then vanished behind egos, and visibility within and outside the company was not welcome.”

Be your own leader.

Brack’s next step was to move to a third strategy: fully exert and express her qualifications and competencies and follow her objective to contribute to the global community. She decided to leave the bank and created her own structure of work that would allow her to, as she said, “be fully in a capacity to express my talents and fully contribute to the market’s evolutions, research, and knowledge in banking and financial services at a global level, thereby freeing the leadership capacity from administrative and big structures’ burdens.”

Unless you are fortunate enough to work with one of the all-too-rare creative leaders, directing your own career is the best way to determine your future. As Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him . . . We need not wait to see what others do.”

Going it alone means that you work and live by a personal leadership plan. And in a 21st-century, gig-economy world, self-leadership may become the most important kind of leadership of all.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

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About the Author(s)
Barbara Stewart, CFA

Barbara Stewart, CFA, is a researcher and author on the issue of women and finance. She released the ninth installment of her “Rich Thinking” series of monographs on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019. Stewart uses her proprietary research skills to work as an Executive Interviewer on a project basis for global financial institutions seeking to gain a deeper understanding of their key stakeholders, both women and men. She is a frequent interview guest on TV, radio, and print, and she is a columnist for Golden Girl Finance. Stewart is on the Advisory Board for Kensington Capital Partners Limited in Toronto. All of Stewart’s research is available on Barbara Stewart.

4 thoughts on “Work and Leadership: Going It Alone”

  1. A K M Zahidul Islam says:

    This is an outstanding article, befitting to the emerging landscape of jobs and the way we live our lives. It is very much well tuned with the change of our own social structure; clans, slave masters, feudal lords, independent farmers, industrial task masters, and finally evolving into the arena of the need to harness the power of diverse value adding processes of human and machine intelligence.

    Organisational structure, like the social structure, changes slowly, until the internal pressure continue to build-up to align and realign itself in line with the rapidly changing external need and demands. By creating and delivering values to the external stakeholders is the only way to survive. In today’s Info-tech driven fleeting demands of the customers have a constant nature of changing face of demands. Never ever in the history of mankind have we seen such a situation when human demands were such diverse and fast changing. Hence, this diverse landscape of demands have opened up a range of niches which are short-lived. Can a hierarchical organisation be nimble enough and creative enough to fit into such flexible and fast changing niche? It’s a big challenge indeed. So we see the fast decline of the British high-street retail empires, designed to command, to some extend, the customers needs and choices. For quite a long time, their major strategy was to increase customer footfall into the territories of their ’empires’; like taxpaying subjects of the old empires (which these retail lords follwed in their organisational design), their customers would bring them profits. Customers didn’t have any physical choice to go elsewhere. The landscape of any British town was occupied by few of these retail giants.

    While a need, apparently so mundane and archaic as to clad our body with some pieces of clothes, is heaving so dynamic changing face and trends, what about the nature of other complex needs that emerged out of our living in this complex global village? How the non-flexible and innovation-killing organisations are going to adapt to recreating and recreating its purpose with non-creative leaders? In fact a leader is she who has some inspired willing followers, and whose performance depends on the some-total performances of her followers. But can a single person can be a leader without any apparent human followers organised around her? Well, I think it could be. In this world of micro-marketing, we need effective micro-leadership, a leader who is incharge of her arrays of creative value-adding faculties, a leader of a single person’s different personas.

    While human participation in any production and value creation processes were too much dependent on physical human labour and participations, need for human followers-participants around a leader was a common scene. But, in the current knowledge economy, this requirement has changed. Machines, electronic gadgets, internet, AI, robots and drones have replaced much of the need of human physical labour. Hence, I think, the definition of leader and leadership must evolve. Now, leadership should encompass the idea of leading a single person’s creative and value-adding faculties to work effectively for the person herself without the need for any physical second human near her proximity. And as this doesn’t need any formal hierarchal organisation, there is no questions of gender biases and things like that. Because, the concept of traditional leadership evolved following the large human organisations leading many people, mainly to harness the physical human muscle force, we were conditioned to the need for ‘muscular’ leader true to its voice and body. But we are living in a time, where much of the need for human body-force is delegated to the machines and engines; but still we didn’t give-up the notion of the need for ‘strong leader’ in place of the need for ‘creative leader’. This is because the image of a leader is still drawn on the canvas of human body-force, not on the canvas of human brain-power.

    As the Nobel laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে, তবে একলা চলো রে… ” meaning
    ” If they answer not to your call walk alone”..

    And this lone walker is a leader in herself, with invisible followers. If time comes, the followers may be ‘seen’, or may not be seen in her life-time. But it is the intellectual power that stays on and enters into the heads of the invisible followers. So, she is a leader!

  2. Muhammad Ali says:

    Being student of CFA, I have gone through the article of Miss. Barbara, and completely agreed with her views towards leadership and its importance lacking mostly in Management.

  3. Norbert says:

    @A K M Zahidul Islam
    “Machines, electronic gadgets, internet, AI, robots and drones have replaced much of the need of human physical labour.”

    For rather “simple” work, where only one brain is needed, this may work out well. Nowadays, however, most interesting creative work, e.g. developing new technical systems or complex new business models addressing more and more complex needs, needs a creative team effort, which machines cannot (yet ?) provide.

  4. Thanks to all three readers for your most interesting comments! Great to hear alternative perspectives.

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