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Authentic Leadership Dialogue: Sean Murphy

Authentic Leadership Dialogue: Sean Murphy
Authentic Leadership Dialogue: Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy is someone I had the pleasure to work with during my years at Mondelez International. Most recently the President IMEA and SEA Region for Asia Pulp and Paper, to me he is most notably a leader with a commitment to delivering sustainable and superior business results.

His leadership style is founded on authenticity, trust and partnership and he describes himself as someone whose ethos focuses on doing the right thing for the business and its people. He now utilizes his years of experience and expertise advising start-ups to achieve sustainable and superior business impact and growth.

His leadership style is founded on authenticity, trust and partnership and he describes himself as someone whose ethos focuses on doing the right thing for the business and its people.

What are the biggest challenges facing leaders today?

I believe the biggest challenges relate to sustainability and integrity.  Sustainability, not only from the topical environmental challenges, but also from a business continuity perspective which embrace financial, compliance and reputational issues which is where integrity becomes a greater focus, particularly in the current political and news environments where objectivity and facts are being displaced by self-promoting opinions with little consequence for misrepresentation.  

In this current environment, basic values are being challenged more than ever so I believe it is critically more important to remain focused on “doing the right thing”  for the good of the organization and its long term performance. 

Expanding on doing the right thing, for me it encapsulates decisions related to the financial performance of the business, the growth and development of its people, brand and reputation and impact on the environment, both physical and community.  I believe that a leadership that consistently short-changes this perspective in the interests of short term gain will by default limit the business performance over time.  However, if you are establishing an environment that provides opportunities for people by creating the right environment for them to thrive, with a focus on sustainable performance, then you can create a a virtuous loop of performance over time.  By extension, the impact on the environment, both the people in the community and the physical environment needs to similarly be considered.  Failing to consider the impact on either is short-term thinking and does not drive sustainable business.  

There is a Return on Investment argument here too.  Not only do you remove threats to the longevity of your business, but there is also a generation of young people who increasingly place a value, on how brands and companies treat the environment, and communities.  Logically, those companies and brands that value and behave in a sustainable manner will be more desirable, growing their value.  

If that did happen then the question is, what are authentic global leaders going to need to be able to do going forward?

Well what is changing is that the developed world has so much greater extent of choice.  Higher disposable incomes, greater brand choice and accessibility.  As a consequence the opportunity to make choices is greater, and given the sustainability challenges, people will make decisions that incorporate how that brand might be treating the world around them.

In the developing world, the opportunities are fewer due to wealth and choice for many people, however, the speed of change and adaptability is greater.  Given the volumes of people it is critical to engage and embrace these opportunities as not only will their impact on the word be great, the success of a global business is intrinsically linked to these communities.  

You haven't spoken about yourself and I would like you to do that. So, what about you? What has been your leadership journey?

Let me talk about my experience leading the Southern African business through the integration of Cadbury and Kraft.  I believe that as a leader I learnt and developed most during this time.  There were some challenging periods and the business was not delivering at the level we expected and I do not believe I was being as effective as the team needed me to be, so I asked for some help and sought out an external coach.

Taking on a coach for myself was something that I always uncomfortable with.  So, when I made the decision to do so, I made sure I found someone who was very different to me, with the objective of ensuring they were able to really challenge me and push me out of my comfort zone.  We worked with Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team model.  The model is a simple pyramid of what you need to be successful as a team and the foundation is trust, embracing conflict, commitment, being accountabile and at the top, (and this was the key that sold me) was deliver results. 

This lady I partnered with was excellent, because she was as committed to delivering results as we were, so any of the work we did on me as a leader, and the team, was clearly focused on delivering business performance.  Through our work I was also able to better understand myself and what made me more effective, for example, the need to build partnership relationships with those I work with and the need to stay true to my values. 

What was the hardest part of that for you?

Being vulnerable was the most difficult thing for me, initially asking for help from a coach, and then being vulnerable with the team who were looking for leadership. 

The other area I struggled was achieving the balance of my presence as an out-in-front leader versus a leader who leads from within the team.  Initially, I got the balance wrong and was too much of a leader from within the team when the business probably needed me to be out-in-front to a greater extent.  

But there's a middle ground?

I believe there is, and more importantly, there is a need to be flexible depending on how the team is performing.  Developing greater awareness of the team dynamic is vital to allow a leader to take the appropriate role at different times.  

I think that experience was probably the best learning you ever had.

Yes, I certainly learnt a lot about myself and the style of leadership I should adopt to be at my best.   My leadership approach since that period has been built on the foundations of that experience.  As a team we did some excellent work and turned around the business performance.

Let’s talk about authentic leaders. There are leaders that are not authentic, yet they seem to get ahead. They seem to have built very successful careers and are not held accountable for their negative impact on the organizations they work for. What can we do to enable authentic leaders to progress in organizations? What is the organization’s role in doing that?

I believe the issue is the inability of people to look beyond the immediate results into what is being done to build sustainable performance.  That might be due to the pressure to deliver performance “now” for business stakeholders, or, to a fundamental inability, or unwillingness to invest the time, to understand what is behind the results of the business and the steps being taken to progress.  There is also a human element, we all love good news, so react positively towards it.  In a situation where some short term pain may be required, the disposition is not as positive.  

It is therefore important for leaders to become better at taking stakeholders on the journey.  To be able to show and convince them that the current steps will lead to improved sustainable performance, but also, to understand that performance needs to be delivered.

So we’re paying attention at the wrong time?

Or, perhaps to the wrong things.  Rather than focus solely on the outcomes, which are important, we need to look deeper into the business fundamentals and take a longer term perspective.  Understand also the progress on category and market share performance, customer satisfaction,  people and team development, impact on stakeholders and environment etc.

So what you're saying is, organizations led by authentic leaders may be few and far between, but the ones that do are going to be more sustainable. In the long term. Today, we may keep a leader who's authentic and that will positively impact the organization's long term performance and the trust that you get from customers, stakeholders and so on. So those efforts and fundamentals that we don't look at, because they're not immediate, they will create sustainable and superior performance.

Yes, and that's a hard one for people to get their heads around. Because of the contradictory pressure for short term performance, particularly for publicly listed companies.

Sean, this has been a very meaningful discussion, thank you! I’ve certainly gained a lot of insight here. I’d like to close out with perhaps one final question. Who or what has been your biggest influence in terms of bringing you to being the person you are?

I would say that has to be inherent and it has to be deep rooted. So, the foundation is probably just family upbringing. And then I would say in terms of refining and challenging my thinking over time, that's probably my wife. Usually, she's a much more insightful person when it comes to people than I am.

Sean, I have to agree. Family does keep you grounded. And it is the same with almost every leader I've spoken to. It all begins from there it seems.

Thank you so much for your insights and authenticity! This has been a great conversation.

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