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Great Resignation or Great Realisation?

Nicky Sparshott, Unilever Australia and New Zealand CEO, shares her view on leadership.

I am often asked to comment on leadership – my view of what makes it great, how I feel it has changed, and its benefit when harnessed to effect. I have been fortunate over the course of my career to learn from the best of the best. Equally, I have worked with others who have taught me what never to do. Both experiences are valuable.

At a time when the Great Resignation has become the greatest catch cry (also called the Great Exhaustion, Great Re-Organisation, the list goes on), I can’t help but wonder if the truth of it is that we’re all simply taking a moment to pause and ask, “what brings me joy and where can I make an impact?” Nothing like a global pandemic, the rise of social inequity, devastating natural disasters and war to sharpen the sense of mortality and a human’s most basic desire to belong to something that matters.

So, the Great Resignation can also be the Great Opportunity. A chance for individuals to spend their time in an organisation or role that matches their values, that inspires their best self and that nurtures their spirit of possibility. A chance for companies' to also attract great talent - people who are excited to play a role in progressing business for the better. A chance – amid the sludge of today’s challenges - for individuals and business to be their best version of themselves.

I am personally inspired by the work of Doshi & McGregor in their book Primed to Perform. It disrupts the usual old world thinking around what motivates people to deliver extraordinary results. It gets under the skin of why any of us are inclined to offer up discretionary performance and commitment. They found that the concepts of ‘Play’, ‘Purpose’ and ‘Potential’ strengthen performance.

Being part of an organisation or team that makes you happy is a great place to start. Overlay that, with a North Star ambition that sits beyond financials and you enable a sense of personal purpose. Wrap it up with a feeling of momentum and possibility, and you build the foundations of a culture that is bankable.

It does mean a few more considerations to juggle. We’ve all had that feeling of walking through treacle, feeling like it is rising minute by minute and that the load you are carrying is increasing in proportion to it. It can feel overwhelming. The more energy you exert to help yourself out simply results in you finding it harder to breathe. Life can be like that at times.

I have certainly felt overwhelmed with what I want to do, be and achieve. Trying to be ‘the best I can be’ in all my roles - Mum, wife, CEO, board director, friend. Juggling dual careers with my husband, travelling between commitments (and pre-COVID, between countries), fitting in exercise, and also hoping for some semblance of a social life. I am not planning to resign from life, but I do recognise there are times I may need support; and I certainly need more play!

Before pressing the panic button, dial a friend. Awesome leaders know how to leverage the expertise of others; to ask for help at the right time in the right way; and, most importantly, give generously of their own knowledge when asked for help themselves. When we do this, we set a culture where others can do the same. The ripple effect is powerful.

A couple of tips that have helped me embrace that spirit of Play, Purpose and Potential for myself and others:

  • Prioritise ruthlessly and hold things lightly: make sure the key items on your to-do list are really worth the time you are spending on them. Are they your big rocks or are they someone else’s? When you do this well, it is a lot easier to enjoy your work and enable others to also do the same. Take your job seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. Allow your inner child to live.
  • Busy is not the same as purposeful – rubbish in/rubbish out: Take the time to write your purpose – i.e.how you can unleash your super-power to create value in the organisation or life more broadly. The sharper you are on where you need assistance to make this a reality, the easier it is for someone to give it. You will find people will want to help you dream and deliver.
  • Be a Giver – it comes back it spades: you do get back what you put out there. When someone seeks your help, see if you can find 30 minutes for them, without expecting anything back. We cannot help everyone, but everyone can help someone. When you help others fulfil their potential, you also help to shape and progress your own.

Most importantly, never forget that leadership is about the impact you can make versus the title you hold. Being playful and purposeful are not fluffy follies; they are to business what laughter and belonging are to the family unit: enablers of unity & potential. Leadership is not about being the best, rather supporting everyone to be the very best they can be. Maybe that is the “Great Realisation”.