Interview with the CEO: Authentic Leadership

For International Leadership Week 2024, we sat down with our CEO, Fiona Stilwell, to discuss authentic leadership, why it’s important to lead authentically and with honesty, and how she leads effectively with a ‘people-first’ strategy.  Read the full conversation here.

Why is it important to be an authentic leader?

I think it’s important to be authentic because to lead a team and to serve customers, our apprentices, I think we need to believe what we’re trying to achieve. If you’re not authentic or you’re trying to be something you’re not, then you won’t be able to bring a team along with you, you’re not able to support the apprentices, learners and employers in the right way, and if you feel the purpose of what you’re doing and really own it, then what you deliver will be more meaningful and have a bigger impact.

Actually, from a personal point of view, if I didn’t believe in what we do, I genuinely don’t think I could run this business. It’s important to me that I believe in the business.

How does someone know if they would be a good authentic leader? They might have an idea of what they think a good leader is based on stereotypes, but might not think their personality fits that model, so what would you say to that?

So it’s really interesting, if I’m having a chat with myself and thinking “how would I deal with this?”, I then think “okay, how should I deal with it, what is the right thing to do? If I aspire to be the leader that I want to be, how would I deal with that?” because actually, we’re all human and sometimes we have emotions that are involved; we get cross about things, we get anxious, and with that sometimes you say things out loud and think “I shouldn’t have said that, because if I was going to be the leader that I wanted to be I’d just be professional all the time, tell it how it is,” but actually sometimes showing a little bit of weakness, a bit of vulnerability is actually a strength. It really helps to show that you’re human and we’re all in it together.

I think we all aspire to be something better than we are, and I think that’s probably why leaders become leaders if they’re prepared to reflect and learn and grow, but you’ve also got to be prepared to get it wrong and say sorry; and I think particularly in a business with a lot of people, people like to know that we’re all human and we all have imposter syndrome sometimes, we all feel like we’re not the best person that we can be, and I guess if your leader looks like they are the polished article that never gets anything wrong, it’s just not true. People want to feel like they belong to something that’s good, and they want to feel comfortable. If you’re comfortable in your environment you will perform better, if you can be yourself. If you’re aspiring to be something that you’re not, or you can’t be, then you will continue to be really uncomfortable and then probably not perform.

Where does your idea of the leader that you want to be come from, and what does it involve?

So the leader I aspire to be….I’ve been really fortunate over my career I’ve been to loads of different training courses, developed by psychometrics tests, I’ve had a whole plethora and you’ve probably heard me talk about this before but I’ve also been coached by some pretty incredible leaders who will challenge me, and be prepared to call me out if I’m sloppy or if I’m not dealing with things head on. I aspire to be the leader that doesn’t ignore things, calls things out but in the right way, it doesn’t have to be unpleasant, just to be able to say “Actually that’s not how we work round here”, because other people’s behaviour can really be quite toxic, it’s not a very nice word but it can really impact on other people, so if I’m authentic, it means that I can’t moan about anything if I’m not prepared to deal with it, I just need to call it out and say it as it is.

The people within the business and the people strategy you’ve built clearly means a lot to you, so do you think that ties in with being authentic and caring about the people that work for you?

Massively. So to bring a team along, you’ve got to believe it and believe what you’re saying, and actually, know that sometimes that things don’t go well and with that, if they don’t go well know how to deal with it. Recently in this business, I handled something not as well as I would have liked to on reflection, and to those people I have taken them to one side and apologised for that. ‘Sorry’ means a lot to people and it means a lot to me too. I’m going to share a story with you, even today, I was on a call and everyone was updating and I missed someone out, so I went and found them afterwards and apologised, I apologised on the call as well but I went and found them afterwards and apologised to them specifically face-to-face because actually that’s not okay, so I will hold myself to account as well.

How do you stay authentic when faced with so many responsibilities and different types of people that require different approaches? With all the different hats you have to wear as CEO, is it easy?

So with all of the different hats I’ve got to wear I don’t actually know the answers to everything, obviously. So I believe that part of recognising you don’t know the answer is being authentic. When talking to my team as they are the experts in their bit of the business, I will draw on their strengths and I will coach and challenge, but I do think also just being honest and sometimes saying “I just need to think about this, we’re not going to get this answer today” shows authenticity. I’m not going to go into every meeting with a polished PowerPoint because actually I haven’t got the monopoly on good ideas and I think years ago the way businesses were run was very much about sitting behind a desk, deciding what’s going to happen and then relaying that to the team, actually, those days are gone. The team – and even better when you’ve got a diverse team of different skills and different thoughts, will have a far better view than one person. Now don’t get me wrong, I go “Let’s do that, that’s a good idea”, so I might sow the seeds of some of the thoughts I’ve had, or if I’m doing a bit of research on digital competencies or whatever, that will inform it, but actually people in the business know the business as well, so you’ve got to be able to consider other people’s views.

And it can’t be a tick box either, just now we sat and did the Employee Forum check in, now, when I put that in the calendar I hadn’t fully articulated what I wanted to share with the team but I knew I wanted to do something. I felt that if I hadn’t have gone with what I did and taken the lead, we wouldn’t really have got very far, so what I needed to do was help you to understand where my head was. Just going through the survey and saying “How should we do this?” probably would’ve been a very slow process. I recognise that my job is to lead, so I need to give it the first thought. I’ve been through similar events before so I’ve got that experience to draw from, but I also want people to know and I hope they do, is that when I’m asking for their feedback I don’t want them to tell me “That’s a great idea”, I want them to tell me how it can be even better or different.

And I suppose giving people the confidence to feel like they can be honest, and they can disagree with you or challenge you is a whole part of being able to work together, with that kind of empowerment.

So do you think that authenticity is something that can be taught?

That is a good question. I like to think that anything can be learned. So if somebody wants to do something badly enough, they can learn about it and then they can start to practice those skills and develop those skills. So I don’t think it’s a no, I think you can learn to behave in a certain way, and as you go through development activities I think you can practice and eventually it becomes part of who you are if you really believe in it and really want it to work. I think if somebody didn’t want to be authentic or didn’t believe it would have the right outputs, then they couldn’t learn to do that. I think somebody could stop themselves learning it. Actually, I think it’s probably the reverse of the question, which is, everyone is authentic when they’re born because they just are who they are, they know no different. I think we probably knock out of them the authenticity because they behave in a way that they think they should behave so I don’t think it’s about learning it, it’s about unlearning the other stuff that holds you back from being authentic.

I agree, and I think authenticity is something that comes along with having good self-confidence, self-worth, self-esteem and it’s not always easy to have those things so I think once you’ve figured that out, then you can start working on being authentic because then you know who you are and have confidence in who you are; but for many people that don’t feel confident in who they are, are they then going to struggle to be authentic leaders or authentic in whatever they do?

Well you’ve got to be comfortable with who you are first, so I do believe that if you’re confident – and everybody is confident with some things and not others, not everyone is good at everything, and everyone has weak spots and areas they need to develop so I think it’s about people just being comfortable with who you are in that, and developing them, or not, but just saying it as it is and being honest with yourself.

So, can someone be an authentic leader if they’re not fully, 100% confident with who they are, or is admitting that you’re not fully confident part of being authentic?

So I’m not confident with who I am all the time but I can’t lie, and I’m not saying not being authentic is lying, but actually if you’re putting on a show or a front it’s exhausting and even to pretend something for a period of time, you can’t keep it up, so if you’re not who you think you are, if you’re not behaving in a way that is true to you, I don’t think you can maintain that. I think people see through it anyway, so the minute you start actually being you, people will buy into that, or they won’t, which is equally fine. Fundamentally, most people have an understanding of who they are, or what they like and what they don’t like, it’s just whether they’re prepared to reflect on it.

Do you think the idea of the “traditional” authoritarian style of leadership/personality is still relevant today?

It’s a really interesting question because the obvious answer would be “No, it’s all changed”. I think leadership is about understanding the situation, the audience, what needs to be achieved and why. So, when I think about why I’m doing something I don’t always make very popular decisions but I have to work out why I’m doing that, and the reason I do that is maybe because it will sustain the business for longer, and for the short-term pain, it will be more sustainable in the long-term so it’s the right decision, and that’s how I justify whether it’s a fair or reasonable approach and that’s how I would explain it to people.

In some situations, the team are better being told “This is what’s going to happen”, because in some situations if you don’t say that, and you’re consultative around it, it will be floundering, they will be unclear and unsettled. So I think in any leadership position you make a decision of what it is, what the communication is, what it is to achieve, and the best way to do that – and usually if you’re authentic, or if you really believe in people, you’ll work out which way is the best way, because there are times when you just have to say “Actually, this is what we’re doing, because if you don’t, nothing will happen.” A good example is, we’re currently focusing on income so today the leadership team all spent 2 hours this morning focused on income, they all had to do something to drive up income. That was the parameter I gave them, and what they did was different depending on their skillset, but they all did it and they all came back and all fed back.

Now that could be deemed as micromanaging, but actually, it was the quickest way to achieve our goal so I have shown that works; therefore I know that in that situation by saying “Actually, this is what we’re going to do, and this is when, and these are what your parameters are” that was able to be achieved. If I’d said “Well, what should we do? If you get a bit of time at some point, can you just try and do this? You tell me when it works for you”, that wouldn’t have had the team impact to drive it forward. Sometimes, leadership is just deciding what that looks like at different points and adapting your approach to different situations.

Maybe as well, and finally, that touches on the difference between managing and leading, would you agree?

I do aspire to be a leader rather than a manager, there are certain situations where you have to manage, but ultimately my job is to lead the organisation so people in the organisation are empowered, autonomous and know what they need to do, and draw on their expertise to achieve what we need to achieve.