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“From surviving to thriving”: Insights from a CEO on leadership skills required to succeed

BIG IDEA

Acknowledging the challenges of the past is part of moving towards the future. 

“We went through a period where we needed to consciously change our thinking, from surviving to thriving,” Ron Harper, the president and CEO of JFE Power Canada Incorporated, told me recently on our Lead the Future podcast.  

Harper has been leading JFE Power Canada for the past 25 years, so he has a deep understanding of what his longtime leaders have been through. JFE Power Canada has been making electrical steel for 50 years, and for much of that time, it’s been a niche product. In fact, for the past 25 years until recently, the market had been in a slow decline, Harper explained. From 2015 to 2019, he said, the company’s ownership had been struggling with debt, and JFE Power Canada wasn’t getting the resources it needed. 

Today, demand for electrical steel is growing rapidly, thanks to the rise of electric vehicles and the need to update electrical grids. The challenge for the company’s leaders is to make the emotional and cultural change to embrace this growth and move into this new phase.  

WHY IT MATTERS

Expressing optimism about the future is a key part of any leader’s job. 

Our global research has found that expressing optimism and creating a sense of excitement about the organization’s future is one of the 10 key characteristics of a strong community of leaders.  

Why optimism? We don’t need leaders to be Pollyannas, ignoring challenges and pretending everything is fine. But we do need leaders to communicate to their teams that there is a path forward for the organization. We need leaders to believe that the organization can meet the challenges in front of it, and can succeed. After all, if leaders don’t believe these things, their teams won’t, either. And it’s hard to come to work every day and do your best if you ultimately don’t believe it will make a difference.  

THE RISK

If leaders haven’t healed from the past, they’ll struggle to change their thinking for the future. 

Culture change is always hard. For JFE Power Canada, the recent rapid growth in demand for their products is happening at the same time as they’re still working on the culture change transition that’s come from being acquired by a Japanese parent company in 2019. Leaders are working with this merger-driven culture change at the same time as they’re processing the emotional fallout of the pandemic and struggling to meet new challenges, like supply chain disruptions, raw material shortages, and the demands of rapid growth.  

“It does require some healing,” Harper said. “It’s about telling stories, so that people understand the richness of the experience,” he said, “and being able to clearly articulate the vision going forward.” 

Attitudes and beliefs aren’t just ‘soft’ stuff that leaders can safely ignore. When people are stuck in survival mode, Harper told us, they’ll be more likely to hoard resources or fight over turf. “It’s kind of like you had a buffet of food in front of you, but you were still trying to scrimp on the food you’re eating because it needed to last for a month,” Harper said. Leaders in survival mode will struggle to adopt a ‘one company’ mindset.  

WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO

Do your leaders have clarity about your strategic vision? 

Growth is a good problem to have, of course, but it does come with challenges, including volatility and uncertainty. Harper said that it’s been crucial for him and his leaders to make sure that leaders at all levels of the organization understand the organization’s strategy. “It’s important that everyone has a vision of what’s going on and how we see our business working through this,” he said.  

On a practical level, that means sharing as much information with your teams as possible. “I find people who know what’s happening and why, even if the future is a little uncertain—or a lot uncertain—people can manage that better when they have the information and understand what we’re trying to do. So that clarity is really important,” Harper said.  

Make sure that your teams understand what the organization’s strategy is, how their work fits into that picture, and what specifically is expected of them in order to achieve the organization’s goals. Of course, there will always be information that you as a leader can’t share, but you should aim to share as much as you can—and to communicate a clear sense that the organization’s future is full of possibilities. 

NEXT STEPS

Take our Leadership Culture Survey to assess the health of your team or organization. Are your leaders excited about the future? 

About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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