Writer’s reply: when the going gets tough…

Sunday, 18 September 2011 - Kayleigh Ziolo

Better Under Pressure author, executive assessment expert and psychologist Justin Menkes tells Kayleigh Ziolo how top executives succeed in a crisis

Better under pressure

What inspired you to write the book?

About six years ago I was working with a large, profitable energy company. The board was assessing the range of possible problems they may face over the next five, 10, 20 years. All had the potential to create more than a major ripple in the industry, to create a real nightmare scenario for the company; all were 100% plausible. It was the realisation that there are no calm waters in the tides of management. Problems used to be short-term, but now, each and every industry has to be prepared.

Hmm. that’s a rather gloomy outlook…

Increased awareness of the problems industries and companies face is not a negative thing. Human beings as a species can be incredibly dynamic, but they can also be incredibly idle. The business world and its pressures have the power to bring out the very best in us.

What do leaders need to deal with pressure?

It is only the unprepared that panic under pressure. Crisis can actually bring out the best in us if we know how to apply ourselves correctly. By learning from those who already display these qualities and strengths, we can all adopt the state of readiness that is needed. We need to become crisis managers ourselves, rather than looking to outsource this skill when a problem arises.

How do you identify these qualities in managers?

For the book we took a sample of around 244 candidates. We collected extensive, in-depth information about them through ability tests, psychological interviews, and previous performance ratings. We then segregated the samples and analysed the behaviour of those in the top quartile, and these are the sixty that feature in the book.

What separates a great leader from the rest?

All great leaders need to have three qualities – and let me stress these are things that can be developed. First, a level of realistic optimism should be adopted. Recognising the issues and having an unshakable belief that they, as a manager, can aid the survival of their company is vital for success. Second, there must also be subservience to purpose – the dedication to pursuing a noble cause. Third, we need the ability to find order in chaos. The three essential attributes are intertwined – one cannot exist without the others.

Who has most inspired you?

All of those that are mentioned in the book have offered something truly unique to their respective industries and companies. David Novak of Yum! Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, was a fascinating person to profile. He takes a genuine and active interest in the people who work for him. He says the most inspiring experience for him was seeing 1,000 KFC managers enthusiastically spelling out “YUM” with their arms on the Great Wall of China. Connecting with a business and giving your workers that same feeling of connection is a special thing.

What do you hope people will learn from the book?

I hope that people will gain an understanding of the qualities a leader needs to weather a storm, and realise that they can develop the necessary attributes. The book offers the inspiration of stories of great CEOs, and the guidance to improve your performance when the going gets tough.

Find out more about Justin Menkes’s work here

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