Why a leaders’ mindset needs to shift from control to care

Steve Vamos, a board director for Telstra and other companies, says leaders need to shift their mindset from one of control to care

The difference in the mindset between generations creates a gap between managers’ expectations of their employees and employees’ expectation of their work, according to Steve Vamos, a board director for Telstra and other companies.

This gap can be put down to a change in attitude towards employees:  “All through our early working lives, we’re told ‘Do what you’re told,’” he said.

“Bosses in the past were control orientated, and got promoted because they’re in control (or look like it), didn’t make mistakes (or hid them well) and knew the answers to questions – or which question to question if we didn’t.”

This is the mindset that most leaders possess, and has worked well in more stable business environments in the past, said Vamos.

However, with increased disruption, complexity and speed impacting many organisations, he said the mindset of the past can be more of a hindrance than help.

“Now, leaders are saying, ‘Create, collaborate, innovate.’ And people go, ‘You serious?

“If I’m having heart surgery tomorrow, I don’t mind if the surgeon is in control, doesn’t make mistakes, and knows the answer,” Vamos said.

“But that’s not the thinking that’s going to create breakthroughs in cardiac health.”

In order to enable these breakthroughs in business, he said HR managers need to understand that today’s work culture mindset is all about care, as opposed to control.

“In the old days, we did take orders and we did execute what the bosses told us and it worked, because change was slow. You could count on things for about five, ten years,” he said.

“So, if more and more of your day is about change, then that mindset is the wrong mindset.

“Now, leaders are saying, ‘Create, collaborate, innovate.’ And people go, ‘You serious? I just do what I’m told. Now you’re telling me you want me to create the future?’ That’s a huge change.

“So, I’ve got to care about everyone around me; be connected with everyone around me. I’ve got to enable those around me.

“It’s a very different mindset. It’s going from a star player control orientation, to a head coach enablement orientation.”

Vamos explained that CEOs might have trouble seeing the need for this change in mindset.

“We individually don’t think we need to change. We don’t have that sense until something happens to us,” he said.

“Some people might wake up one day and read a book, others might get feedback and take that on board.

“So, a lot of progressive CEOs had experience outside their comfort zone in businesses they didn’t really know.”

From 1998 to 2003, for example, Vamos took on the role of CEO at ninemsn.

“My background was IT sales, and I’m now running an online digital media company. Every meeting I went to, I knew less than everyone in the room,” he said.

However, this lack of experience helped him understand that the controlling mindset of leaders in the past would no longer add value from a leader’s perspective.

“It’s going from a star player control orientation, to a head coach enablement orientation”

“For the first time in my career, I couldn’t lean on my knowledge, I couldn’t be the star player. All I could do was help others,” he said.

“And I never managed the same way again after that. I always went into every job I did with a mindset of ‘how can I help you?’ and ‘how do I build teams around me that are better than me, that can get stuff done and work well together?’”

By changing his mindset from controlling to one of caring, Vamos said he helped ninemsn become a leading online media company.

“We come from the industrial age of hierarchies, silos, fragmentation and divide, and now we’re in this crazy, connected, volatile, fast-changing system that none of us can control or predict.

“The mindset of leaders determines the fate [of the business].”

For the full interview with Steve Vamos see the next issue of Inside HR magazine. Steve will also be speaking at Leading an Entrepreneurial Culture to Drive Growth, which will be held on 4 September from 8-5pm at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.