A Kinder Leadership – By Gillian Charlesworth

A few weeks ago Sara Cameron, a leading light of the #surveyingsisterhood and RICS Governing Council member, asked me to write a piece for this blog on the subject of kinder leadership. At the time, unknown to Sara, I was involved in a selection process for a new leadership role – CEO of the Building Research Establishment (BRE) Group. For one reason or another, I didn’t get around to writing the blog post and am glad that I didn’t because, now that I’ve been appointed to the role and the news is out, I am able to reflect not only on kinder leadership but also on the response I’ve received to the news. They are – of course – related.

Around 6 years ago I was fortunate to meet Pinky Lilani, business woman, supreme networker and champion of women. She runs several awards in the UK and, as of last year, South East Asia. Pinky’s core philosophy is kindness in leadership and I quickly found in her a kindred spirit and a beacon of the kind of leadership that I wanted to be known for. RICS has sponsored Pinky’s Women of the Future Awards and Asian Women of Achievement Awards for 6 years and, as a result, we have built up a fabulous network of winners and shortlisted women in our industry. To see this group of women support each other, cheer each other along and go out of their way to make time for each other and other women in the built environment and property sector has been truly inspirational. We’ve had several successes, with members of the group taking on new roles, being promoted, receiving honours and awards, reaching higher professional status and generally going from strength to strength. The power of this network is undeniable.

Last year Pinky launched a new list recognising the contribution of kind leaders to business, the economy and society. Three women from our network nominated me for this inaugural list and I was delighted to be included, along with RICS CEO Sean Tompkins, in the final list of 50. What an incredible honour – the first I have ever received – and I could not hope for a better accolade. Women of the Future.

So…..why kindness? And what does it really mean?

People talk a lot these days about ‘soft skills’ and I expect in the minds of many these are conflated with women and the attributes they often – not always – bring. Equally, these skills are not confined to women, of course they are not. They are often taken to signify communicative, collaborative, emotionally intelligent, able to negotiate and form relationships. I also include kindness in the soft skills list – by which I mean respectful, inclusive, thoughtful, empathetic, listening to people to work out how to relate to them and provide them with room to express their views.

However, the problem with calling these skills ‘soft’ is that it means they are seen as unbusinesslike or signs of weakness. Dare I say it – they are seen by some as ‘not leadership skills’. What a poor reflection that is on the leadership culture we have created in too many cases.

How necessary they are becoming in the workplace, though! I read a fascinating article last week about the four top trends transforming the workplace. One of them was ‘soft skills’ and another was tackling bullying and harassment – both fundamentals of kind leadership in my view. “These four trends are shaping the future of your job”

Just as importantly, what does kindness in leadership NOT mean. It does not mean being weak or unclear as a leader. It doesn’t mean failing to tackle poor performance. Nor does it mean allowing people to continue in roles they are not suited for because you can’t find the words to help them make a change. The best advice I ever received about leadership was from a lawyer and she meant it as a legal view but actually, it is a very sound piece of guidance and has often helped me to make the right decisions and tackle the difficult challenges. She said that as a manager/leader your first duty is to the organisation that employs you.

As a person who is naturally inclined to harmony and happiness I had to work out how to follow this advice whilst also treating people kindly and with dignity and respect. And that’s just it – whilst our first duty is to our employer, we can always, without fail, treat people with dignity and respect, even while giving unwanted news about their performance or their future. In fact, it is UNKIND not to do this. As leaders we must work on this and find the strength and the words to tackle the difficult conversations, give the challenging feedback, advise the person their role is at an end – whatever it is we need to do in order to carry out our responsibilities. In almost all cases, the individual is probably unhappy in any case and if as leaders we cannot help them, then we are the bigger failure.

The built environment and property industry is not well endowed with women, as we well know, but yesterday, when the news was announced that I had been successful in my application to become a CEO, I received a torrent of mixed messages, a disproportionate number of which were from women. The universal theme (apart from saying they were sad I was leaving RICS) was a palpable longing for women to make it, to get to the top. I thought people would be happy for me but by the end of the day, I felt like a beacon of hope in a rather bleak outlook! I’m not unaware of the struggle some women face in our industry but this overwhelming theme came as quite a shock, even so.

I’m excited to take on a new leadership role and will continue to pursue kind leadership, as defined above, to the best of my ability but, today, I’m mainly reflecting on those pent-up voices of hope and thinking about how we need a huge culture shift to enable all the brilliant, kind, decent people in this sector – men and women – to flourish.

2 thoughts on “A Kinder Leadership – By Gillian Charlesworth

  1. David McCullogh

    Gillian, you already are those things that you say you want to achieve and you are perfectly right that this is the very best style of management. You can steer people in the right direction with a firm but friendly “now do you really think that is right” glance. I know, I have experienced it 😁 and it is empowering not destructive and you are right, it is not just the preseve of women there are men who have realised this too. You will continue to be amazing at BRE and the organisation will realise the rewards for having made their choice. David.

    1. Gillian Charlesworth

      Thank you David! I really appreciate the encouragement and support I’ve received from so many friends and colleagues and am so pleased I’m staying in this wonderful industry.

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