Thank you to the 1646 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 questions! I hope reading 7 Questions with
helps you in your leadership.
Name: Alastair Dawson
Organisation: Alastair Dawson Consulting
If ever there was an eclectic career pattern than Alastair Dawson's career journey followed that path. From an early start working in Student Unions building commercial value to an NFP, moving to Charityies and then onto Public affairs and community engagement in Local Government, Alastair learned quickly to be able to do more than his conventional university degree had taught him, simply by stepping up and taking risks in believing in his ability.
His career has almost exclusively been in executive leadership, across industries such as Water and Wastewater commercialisation, Chief Advocate and CEO of a Major Farming advocacy group, CEO of a number of Local Authorities in Australia, including Beaudesert Shire COuncil and then Rockhampton Regional COuncil (both at times requiring major reform), and then as a senior Deputy Vice Chancellor for a second tier university, leading its culture change program to become a "CAN DO' organisation and turnaround its declining customer base to become a powerhouse growth university with 26 campuses across Australia and overseas in countries such as Indonesia.
Following an early retirement Alastair decided the years invested in learning leadership and execution skills Alastair decided he needed to keep working to share what he had learned along the journey of his career and to help start up and smaller organisations to grow. He current spends time between non-executive Board duties to consulting with young companies and organisations in Australia on organsiational growth and performance.
And to add to that he has recently taken on a role as Australia Solutions and Sales director for the global Venues and Events Management Software platform 'Optimo Software', noting that busy people get things done.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
One of the challenging aspects of being a leader is also being a good follower. In the younger part of my career, when I was in a hurry to be successful, it always felt as though I was trying to be out the front too often. IN doing so, I often neglected to listen to others who also had great ideas and solutions.
That probably slowed my journey of growth until I can to the realisation that powerful teams are those where everyone gets a chance to collaborate and participate and that no individual can hold all the answers. When you get this and you then pick great people in your business and let them get on with doing what you employed them to do, you will be surprised at how fast you will progress and the level of respect you earn along the way.
I have had the extreme privilege of working with some extremely talented individuals and it has often been their great work that has benefited me, so never forgetting that has been important. The final issue is learning not o get caught up in every new management fad that comes along. HAving spent more than 30 years in executive leadership roles I have seen many new fads (often created by consultants looking for work), to make organisations more human or productive or accessible.
In many cases, it is nothing more than a re-badging of what used to be known as courtesy and common sense. But if you buy every fad, it often costs your organisation significantly in terms of addition workload without the required return. Use your instinct and your experience to know when to join or avoid jumping on the next bandwagon that seems exciting to follow.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
From my early days as a youth, where I used to organise shows for the local high school, I was drawn to the opportunity that stepping out in front and leading provided. I wasn't ntil I was much older that I really comprehended what leadership was truly about. I am a very good manager, especially of projects and programs, but I had to work on better understanding the role of a leader to focus on people, to listen, to collaborate, to be empathetic and to follow when necessary.
Some of my colleagues will say sometimes I need to work on the empathy from time to time but the focus for me is something I learned early in career, which is "Go hard on the problem, soft on the people. I know I have been privileged to have a large number of employees in my career who have followed me to other companies because they love the leadership I have provided, but that hasn't always been the case for everyone.
I focus on high performance teams (not necessarily individuals because powerful teams are far more effective than star individuals). The analogy used often in sport is equally applicable in business. When I studied for my first degree, which was in Journalism and media, I was conscious even in those days, that the courses taught a lot of technical skills (which sadly in today's more technology driven world are redundant), and they taught a lot about communication, but they taught very little about leadership and people.
That had to be learnt on the job and through life. Even today, having spent more than a decade leading in a university, I would suggest very few universities teach leadership well, other than as an academic exercise. Professional coaches, who I have used throughout my career, have been the ones who brought those skills to my portfolio and to this day, I always encourage young people that I mentor to find themself either a good mentor and a coach. keep growing in both your professional capacity, because the skills you learn early in life are all persishable if you don't keep nurturing them
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
When I was employed in a single full time role as an executive, my days were largely out of my control, and managed by exceptional personal executive assistants who knew how to maximise my time (albeit too many working hours). I used to travel frequently around the globe and so plannign simple dasy was difficult becasue of the uncertainty of where you would wake up from day to day.
Keeping some form of exercise has always been an important part of my routine (more for thinking and sanity than even the physical improvements it creates. My day typically has always started with ether a gym workout or walks, cycling or running. As I have transitioned into many jobs but all self employed, there is greater flexibility in the way my days are structured. As an executive, I was hostage to the whims of my employer and, I suspect my family suffered for that with my more than frequent absences.
These days I caution anywone who dreams of the globetrotting lifestyle to fully understand the impact it can have on improtant aspects of your life, such as family and friends. These days, no matter how busy I am, it always starts with my having breakfast with my wife and taking time to enjoy the day ahead. I am careful about keeping time blocked out through the day to have thinking time and reading time put aside. LIfe is way to short not to enjy the journey. As you get older you start to find that not everyone gets the enormous privilege of growing old, so don't waste that privilege in not enjoying every day in the best way that you can.
Happily I seldom travel as much, and when I do, my wife now often accompanies me. I am conscious at my stage in life that is indeed a privilege not afforded to everyone, so I relish that. Finally, I always spend time at the beginning of the week mapping out what my week will look like and then at the end of every day five to ten minutes mapping the following day to avoid surprises and an overly hectic and less enjoyable day when you are running on adrenalin.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
In ore recent times I have been conscious in my mentoring and coaching activities to work with clients on building resilience and independence. As a corporate executive I always valued loyalty and have always been extremely loyal to my employers (after all my success has largely been due to their satisfying my remuneration demands. As I have gotten older and observed many organisations, including a former employer, I have been reminded that companies are not always there to serve the best interests of their employees and loyalty can often be misplaced.
For a long time authenticity was touted by HR professionals as one of the most valuable traits of leaders, but in reality (and increasingly), there are conditions to authenticity put in place by many employers which suggest authentic behaviour is not welcome. So many organsiations don't like mavericks, those who don't fit neatly into a corporate box, who can be disruptive and even though they are the best performers in an organisation, don't conform to the expectations of compliance.
Personally, I have always loved mavericks in business becasue they are usually very authentic, and becasue they have the ability to keep an organisation slightly on its toes, edgy and engaged. When we don't value everyone for their own special uniqueness, we are not truly inclusive. Too often the term inclusive is highjacked to mean a form of coercive compliance, and that hurts both organisations and society when we don't recognise and celebrate people for all of their wonderful unique gifts.
We don't need to always agree with people to be enriched by what they bring to the table and, at least in my experience, when organisations recognize this and truly practice this form of inclusivity, they become a much stronger business.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
Clay Christensen's "The Innovators Dilemma" has been one of the most profound influences on my later thinking in corporate life. Essentially Christenen, a former professor at Harvard whom I was privileged to study under and who has sadly passed away some years ago) talks about the theory of disruptive innovation. So many young entreprenuers talk about their product being truly disruptive but very few ever really fulfil the definition and outcome of this.
His work has been hotly contested from time to time but I have been particularly enthusiastc practitioner of the theory later in life, with a much clear focus on 'the job to be done' than ever before. I wish I had been exposed to his work as a young innovator but I would certainly encourage anyone who wants to innovate or who wants to grow a business in todays highly competitive workplace, to search out the book. It's readily available in digital form and worth the investment of time.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
Stay true to yourself. IF you allow yourself to follow every whim and loud voice in the room, you will quickly lose yourself and find you no longer know what you stand for. The axiom that if you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything is never more true. Great leaders have a purpose and conviction for the things they believe in and even when others question their purpose they know how to stand firm when required. That doesn't mean be pig-headed. even great leaders get it wrong from time to time so being emotionally intelligent enough to realise and change where necessary is a strong skill in maintaining your balance of authenticity.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
My greatest memories in business as a leader don't come from the many business successes I have personally had, the new buildings, new business, international expansions etc, but inthe success of people I have been privileged to lead. As a more elder statesman these days, I get excited to see some of my early staff now in very successful role, with happy productive families in tow leading very full expansive lives and doing very well. Having been able to make a small contribution to their success means that my life's work hasn't all just been about self. If you help others to succeed you give meaning and purpose to your work as a leader, and it frankly doesn't get better than that.