How we talk about leadership
From late 2019 to early 2023, diverse ‘creative makers’ from around the world have been telling me what they think about work; designers, developers, creatives and strategists doing multi-faceted work to conceive of and build the digital products, services and experiences that we rely on today. They need great leaders and want to be great leaders, but are seeking an authentic work life that can only be achieved through honest conversation.
In 2022 I published the first book in this series — How We Talk About Work. My conversations revealed that people are looking for meaning; having a purpose and feeling like they can come up with and build great ideas. They care about money, not only being paid fairly but also how their work is sold to the world. They also care about culture, specifically whether they can get on with their colleagues and if their workplaces are adaptable to their needs.
I was told many times that ‘It all comes down to leadership.’ Creative makers feel that their key needs can only be met if the right leaders are in place. They also told me that, as leaders, they are struggling to meet the overwhelming and growing expectations being placed on them. New generations have reshaped leadership by expecting much more than before. They want leaders to personalise their approach to each individual, to understand complex mental health needs, to protect them from stress, to be inclusive in their speech and attitudes, to teach them one-on-one, to be the best practitioners to learn from and be commercially astute enough to enable faster pay increases. However, now that the generation who introduced these expectations are leaders themselves, they are struggling to hold themselves to the same high standards.
How We Talk About Leadership is about all levels of leadership, from those who are new to leading to c-suite executives and business owners. All are both leading and being led, whether it’s by a boss or a board.
Instead of going back to the panel of 85 research participants who informed the first book, I interviewed and surveyed a new sample of 45 people from late 2022 to early 2023. The majority were creative makers (designers, creatives, strategists and techs) with the remaining participants acting in varied management roles that impact how work happens. I spoke to people from their mid 20s to their early 60s based in Asia-Pacific, the USA, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the UK, many of whom had worked across multiple countries and continents. There was balanced gender representation and a range of ethnicities, abilities and identities.
A small sample of the verbatim responses from the research have been included in the book. I’d like to thank the people who allowed me to interview them and those who shared their views via a survey. Publishing honest conversations about work still puts people at risk. Thankfully, some participants have been happy for me to create and share illustrations of their faces, but their names and organisations have not been included. I deeply appreciate the generosity of the participants, to me and to the readers of How We Talk About Leadership.
Areas of focus
I wanted to understand the early leadership experiences of all the participants, so I asked them if they could remember the first leaders they admired, how they felt when they first led anything and their first leaders and jobs. I asked them about their favourite and least favourite leaders, and if they had admired leaders outside of their workplaces, ones that they aspired to work with.
I asked participants about the first time they realised they were a workplace leader, their path to leadership, what they enjoyed and disliked about being a leader and how they learned their leadership skills. Then I asked a provocative question; do you think you deserve to be a leader? Advancement into leadership positions has historically been treated as a reward for hard work, yet is really about taking responsibility for others. As impostor syndrome is so often mentioned by leaders, this question provoked a reflection about whether people genuinely felt they were up to the responsibility of leadership.
Lastly, I wanted to understand sentiment about the future. I asked participants if they thought there had been a change in what people expect of leaders, whether they felt people still had faith in leaders, how organisations will need to change and what was next for them.
The How We Talk About books share the words of people who have complex skills that are both respected and misunderstood; organisations need them but don’t always hear them. So How We Talk About Leadership isn’t a typical leadership book. It isn’t going to instruct you on how to lead and the words aren’t crafted thought leadership from profiled industry titans. It is designed to inspire more authentic conversations within your own workplaces about how the leadership ecosystem really works for valuable creative makers, so we can make it better for them and for everyone.