European Business: In your experience, what is the most common challenge leaders are faced with in their daily business?
Alan Willett: I think the number one challenge is striking the right balance. What I mean by that, is maintaining balance within the organization. The needs of the project versus the needs of the individual. But I would also go further and mention the need to balance urgent short-term tasks that must be done right now versus long-term important time investments that really need to be done to strengthen the organization. There are two types of questions you have to ask yourself as a leader. First: How can we get more value to our customers immediately? And second: How can we invest in our people, in our own infrastructure to make our company even better? Leading means performing a balancing act on a daily basis.
European Business: Everyone encounters challenging personalities at work. What is your favourite personality type amongst all those you have come across?
Alan Willett: Working with different personalities is always a challenge. It is part of the job of being a leader. You always have to take into account all the different personalities, sometimes they work together well and sometimes it is more difficult. My favourite type of person is someone who has passion. Everybody has passion but sometimes it is hidden. As a leader you have to draw it out. In the last few years, I have really enjoyed working with passionate sceptics. They are sceptical of things I am helping organisations to do, they keep coming back to me and telling me: "Alan, your ideas are wrong because of xyz." What this shows me is that they really, really care. I love working with these people because they make the ideas better and sometimes become the strongest advocates I have for the work that I am doing.
"Everybody has passion but sometimes it is hidden. As a leader you have to draw it out." Alan WillettAuthor, Leadership Coach and Trainer
European Business: You state the following: “The role of exceptional leadership is to create a culture where people do extraordinary things.” What have your employees developed that you are proud of?
Alan Willett: Absolutely, there are many things I am proud of. I can give you three examples.
The first is an organization that created a Protein Data Bank. Maybe you have heard of the Zika virus, Aids and diabetes, at the centre of those things at the microscopic level are proteins. The better you can understand what the proteins do to your body, the better you can solve the problems. These are brilliant scientists and engineers who have been capturing for over 40 years three-dimensional representations of proteins. They have created an immense data base that can be accessed by scientists for free from all over the world. It is enormously beneficial to the whole world. I am very proud to be part of that.
I also have a programme that I offer to people. It is called “The Exceptional Engineer." I have a young woman taking it right now. It is an extraordinarily hard course, but I want people to be exceptional. This particular student is doing an amazing job with it. What she is doing with her clients is really amazing. When I see my students do good in the world it makes me proud.
I also work with a lot of companies. There is an invisible infrastructure that must be taken care of in these organizations. Dealing with the invisible takes a lot of courage. There is a concept called technical debt. For example, underneath a local road there is a hundred-year old pipe that is breaking and needs to be fixed. Here is this amazing, invisible thing that needs to be fixed or the road would be dead. Or things like software, there are problems invisible on the surface but need to be fixed by an expert.
It is the same with relationships. I have worked with a lot of leaders who are courageous enough to address the real problems and invest in the underlying infrastructure. It makes it so much better in the long-term. I am proud of these people.
"I have a problem with doing surveys on a daily or weekly basis. Do them too often and they lose their power." Alan WillettAuthor, Leadership Coach and Trainer
European Business: Do you think it is a helpful tool to conduct regular surveys and feedback discussions in the company?
Alan Willet: Feedback, Yes! I like feedback, I like to get it and I like to give it. Exceptional leaders are really good at providing a clear and crisp direction. When people deviate from that direction or there are personalities who are causing friction, that is not constructive. Destructive friction is the opposite of constructive friction.
Destructive friction slows things down. I don’t want people to insult or snipe at each other. Constructive friction, I am happy with. For example, I am happy to hear people yelling at each other about what approach is the best way to address the technical debt. They can have passionate arguments about that and when they cool off, those ideas will gel into something constructive. I believe, leaders should create an environment where people are giving each other feedback, especially about their ideas. Environments in which teammates feel they can give feedback to each other are helpful.
I do believe in surveys, but I have to admit that exceptional leaders don’t do surveys daily or weekly. They do it when it is the best way to quickly take the pulse of a large group of people. For example, I do periodic, infrequent surveys to find out how meetings are running. I basically ask two questions: One is: How useful is this meeting to you and the company? Second question: Did this meeting energize you or suck your soul dry? I like to give a negative and a positive option. When you get too much negative feedback, you know that you have to make a change.
I have a problem with doing surveys on a daily or weekly basis because anything you do too often loses its power. I believe in using these things sparingly so that they retain their power.
"My recommendation is to look for role models everywhere. You can learn a lot by just watching different people." Alan WillettAuthor, Leadership Coach and Trainer
European Business: Everyone can learn from other leaders. Who have you learned from?
Alan Willett: I have learned from my parents, they were extraordinary. I found some old newspaper articles about them and I didn´t know that they did so many great things. As well as raising a big family, they ran the family dairy farm which has been in the family for a couple of hundred years.
Another inspiring leader is Barry Dwolatzky. I like him. He is a professor at Johannesburg University in South Africa. He has taken a really poor area in Johannesburg and transformed it into a thriving economic district. It has really revitalized the area and has given people better chances. Shout out to Barry, he is wonderful!
In my local home area, there is something called “The free science workshop”. It is completely free, and you go to this amazing building full of all these science things everyone can use for experiments without judgement, without grades and without fear. Make mistakes, get messy and learn. Really inspiring.
European Business: In your book, you mention Steve Jobs or John F. Kennedy as famous leaders. Who is the most exceptional leader you can learn the most from and you would see as a role model?
Alan Willett: I don´t have a single role model. John F. Kennedy was a brilliant speech writer, he was brilliantly passionate. But there are some traits of his that I would never suggest anyone should emulate, he was not good to his family for example.
Another example in this vein is Steve Jobs who did many things that are really inspiring. I love his focus when creating products. His passion was to make a product loveable. The iPhone was transformational in so many ways. But again, he also had traits that I could not recommend at all. I don´t think he was so good to his co-workers. I think it was extraordinary to work with him, but it was good and bad at the same time.
My recommendation is to look for role models everywhere. You can learn a lot by just watching different people. Our house is near a big sand box where kids play all the time. By watching them play you can learn a lot about leadership. Just look how the peace makers make peace. You can watch the kids take care of their own problems. You can really learn a lot just by watching and thinking "How can I become extraordinary?"
Interview: Vera Gaidies | Photos: Gary Hodges