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Author's profile photo Tom Flanagan

INTERVIEW: Carmen O’Shea on Leadership and Credibility

By Tom Flanagan & Grace Chiu

Our next interview in the HR Thought Leadership Series is on the subject of leadership with Carmen O’Shea, Vice President of Talent Marketing, and at the time of the interview also the Interim Head of Global Diversity. Carmen shares the qualities and attributes she sees in great and successful leaders and details how one can gain credibility as a leader and then use that credibility to motivate people.

Q: What is your definition of a great leader? What qualities do you see great leaders possessing?

Firstly I think it’s very important for leaders to have integrity. Integrity is kind of a table stakes for me which surprisingly I sense a lot leaders don’t necessarily have as they lose it somewhere along the way. I also think a people focus is critical. You can run your business and you can run your numbers, but if you don’t care about your people as more than just assets, I think you can only go so far. You might be good but you won’t be great.

Initiative is key. You’ve got to make your own way sometimes as a leader, so resilience is another key quality. Resilience is sort of a general human trait that I think is important, but it is particularly so for leaders since leaders are going to fail at some point, sometimes multiple times. So it’s important to pick yourself back up, learn from your mistakes and press forward.

Maybe the last one, and I am copying an old Harvard Business Review article on this, is humility. It seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but I think you know no matter how high up you go in a particular organizational endeavor, you’ve got to maintain a sense of “well you know ‘this’ could change, right?” There is always somebody smarter than me and better than me in the room, and if you keep that humility, I think it will actually serve you well. It will also help inspire the people around you to do their best.

Q: What attributes do you think are critical to being a successful leader?

I think the ability to motivate is a key attribute because if you don’t know how to motivate your people I think you’re going to have some problems. I am assuming things like business savvy and an understanding of the business as foundational elements. When it comes to the people, as a leader you need to be able to have situational awareness in what’s happening in a given situation with your people, with your team, with your stakeholders and with external people. You need to be able to have a read on the situation.

I think you also need to be able to have a read on the individual people you are trying to influence and motivate and a read on yourself. So sometimes your self-perception is clearly different from others’ perceptions and vice versa.  So I think it’s important to bring all of those things together and understand what it is that makes each person tick in each situation. Also you must realize that sometimes when you have a team, the team or group dynamic takes over and trumps the individual dynamic. Being able to read those dynamics and proactively pull them together into a reasonable response to the situation is very critical.

Q: How to you establish or gain credibility as a leader? Then how do you use that credibility to motivate your people?

I think you have to come from your position of strength, and that’s different for different leaders. I think some leaders capitalize on their depth of knowledge and their expertise in that particular area, and that is clearly quite important. There are a lot of leaders who come up through a particular function, and so by the time they are a in a leadership position they have been in many jobs in that function, and they can really contribute and bring a deep understanding to that particular role or that particular part of the business.

That has never been my particular forte. I’ve tended to be a little more of a generalist and rotate across different functions. I’ve been in consulting, business development, strategy, marketing and now HR. So for me it’s a more of having an ability to synthesize and to look at the big picture. To ask the right questions and try to get the best out of the people on my team who are the experts, rather than me being the expert myself.

Also, taking the time to get to know a person and truly understand what motivates them and what makes them tick on a personal, as well as a professional level is important. Call it credibility, call it establishing rapport, I think that then opens the door to somebody saying “ok, I think I can actually follow this person” or “I think there is something there that I want to learn myself.” Even if what they want to learn is not depth of the topic, maybe it’s breadth, or maybe it’s the soft-skills that the team would want to learn.

Carmen believes that great leaders must possess integrity, initiative, resilience, and humility. She contends that being able to properly read individuals via situational awareness is a key factor in successfully motivating and influencing the people one manages. Also, Carmen stresses the importance of getting to know an individual’s personal and professional tendencies to help gain the credibility required to successfully manage people and a team.

What do you think are the most important factors in gaining credibility as a leader? What have leaders in the past done that you found significantly motivating?

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Carmen O’Shea on the topic of leadership.

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