Rise of the avocado leader highlights key traits needed to survive 2021

HRD explores the thinking behind this new style of leadership

Rise of the avocado leader highlights key traits needed to survive 2021

A new style of leadership has been hailed as the future for businesses looking to survive in a post-pandemic landscape.

The uncertainty of the last nine months has shown the importance of putting human beings first and that good leadership really does affect a business’s bottom line.

Dubbed ‘avocado leaders’, these business heads have a soft, empathetic outer layer with a strong, commercially-driven nut at their centre.

HRD spoke to Nick Tucker, performance and culture lead at We Are Unity, who said that against the demands of the pandemic, companies have shown the best and the worst of workplace culture.

“Throughout the COVID-19 period, we saw this type of leader really emerge as a new way of getting it right both now and going into the future,” he told HRD.

“There is a real requirement for balance and this is what sparked the idea of how do we get the soft empathetic exterior but still maintain the harder commercial core?”

A staple of the classic Aussie diet, the humble avocado provides an apt metaphor for this new style of leadership.

But at the heart of the issue, is something far more serious.

After a string of corporate scandals at big businesses like QBE, AMP and Rio Tinto, the scale of Australia’s culture problem has been laid out for all to see.

Read more: Leading and learning by example

The country has one of the highest CEO turnover rates among developed nations across the globe.

The number of female CEOs is also painfully low, with this year’s annual census by advocacy group Chief Executive Women reporting just 10 women occupying the top job among ASX200 companies – the lowest number since the census began.

Meanwhile, many incidents involving sexual harassment, racism, workplace bullying and financial misconduct have shown the lucky country is not so lucky for some Australian employees.

Culture problems extending to all levels of seniority have been brushed under the carpet, but Tucker said the tide is turning.

He put part of the problem down to Australia’s maturity around people practice in general, saying it lags behind that in Europe and other parts of the globe.

“One driver is that societal expectations have shifted now,” he said. “What we accepted in the past, we're no longer accepting.

“We also haven't really had the investment. Even since the last GFC, there is a lack of investment in leadership or culture that does more than just run an engagement survey.

“We're not really making that broader investment. It’s something a lot of organizations are struggling with.”

A report published earlier this year by the Male Champions of Change (MCC) group, which is made up of execs from some of Australia’s biggest businesses, urged boards to take tougher action on issues like sexual harassment.

It estimated that two-in-five women and one-in-four-men have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years.

Read more: Remote work: Leaders reveal key lessons from pandemic

To truly get to grips with the culture problems, leaders need to tap into their soft skills and set an example for other managers within the business.

While much of the work around good leadership is led by the C-suite, Tucker said HR leaders play a key role in highlighting the serious knock-on effects of a toxic leader.

“The first thing HR needs to do is prove it,” he said. “You need to think about quantifying the impact of not getting the soft stuff right on the business’s commercial outcomes.

“How do you start to build out a broader framework outside of the well-known theory that good leaders who invest in relationships, create better outcomes.

“We now need to get more sophisticated and start to use some of the people analytics and cutting-edge data that's out there to really look at what the outcome we're driving for is and how leadership connects to that.”

Bad leadership doesn’t just create a toxic workplace culture.

It impacts staff turnover, talent acquisition, employee engagement, productivity and mental health.

With the availably of reviews on sites like Glassdoor, businesses can no longer hide behind the silence of employees within the business.

Plus, thanks to the rise of remote-only roles expanding opportunities for job seekers all over the world, the power dynamics have shifted.

Employers no longer hold all the cards in a post-pandemic world.

If they want to retain, hire, and inspire their staff to do great work, building a transparent workplace culture from the top down has to be a priority.

“The big question going into 2021 is how do we reset expectations about what it means to be a leader?” Tucker said.

“How do they use their power, how do they flex their style, create bonds and influence their people. That is all going to be super critical in the next year.”

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