Leader Talks: Key & Spark’s Dana Poul-Graf on modern workplace challenges and CEO qualities

Leaders today are grappling with unprecedented disruption, while evolving demands from employees change the fabric of workplace relationships.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 17.06.2024 17:00:00 (updated on 17.06.2024) Reading time: 6 minutes

Recent years have been no easy ride for business leaders. Global turbulence has ushered in an unpredictable era of change and disruption, while the ever-accelerating pace of technological transformation is impacting decision-making across all industries and sectors.

Key & Spark, a strategic thought partner based in Prague for leaders worldwide, provides CEOs and executive leaders with advice and support to help them and their organizations prosper in unprecedented times. Expats.cz spoke with Dana Poul-Graf, Founder and CEO at Key & Spark, about the modern challenges leaders face and the steps they can take to create positive, successful working environments.

What are Key & Spark’s aims in providing consultancy to business leaders?

I was inspired to found Key & Spark during COVID times when numerous leaders approached me with challenges closely linked to what I experienced after progressing quickly within the corporate world. I found myself on the divisional board of a Fortune 500 company, and no training had prepared me for what that meant. I was eager to learn, but it was an isolating experience, and I think many leaders can feel the same way.

We have to earn our clients’ trust; often, our work with them doesn’t start with deeper topics about the “mindset” of leadership. It may be that there is a conflict in the boardroom that’s hard to resolve, or a big change initiative that needs to be supported from a communications perspective. There are many topics on which we engage with CEOs.

What are the characteristics of a good modern CEO?

A good leader today is different to what we’ve traditionally known. Authenticity is key, meaning congruence between beliefs and desires, and actions and words, irrespective of external pressures.

Leaders need to be visionary, strategic, emotionally intelligent, and ambidextrous, able to juggle many balls at once given the volume of change. Another key characteristic is the ability to face and invite difficult conversations and to be vulnerable within those conversations to the right degree.

Have changes in working habits made it more difficult for leaders to have good relationships with employees?

Within a hybrid working model, it may be more difficult for people to connect on a human level. In the past, CEOs could rely on physical proximity and meeting people to talk about their shared vision. Nowadays, you can’t rely on that physical proximity.

Studies suggest that this can be replaced by emotional proximity; once people are in touch, they need to maximize the opportunity to connect on an individual basis. As a result, there is now far greater pressure on individualization and tailoring of the working experience. Managers must be able to foster individual relationships with each team member.

Is this a particular issue for leaders with old-fashioned management styles?

More traditional ways of managing are linear; a vision, strategy and plan are perfected, then executed. Traditional managers may therefore have problems with the modern climate of change and disruption. They have to let go of perfectionism and learn to be agile and adaptable.

Is it a good idea for CEOs to try to be a friend to employees?

It depends on the context and what a concrete CEO or leader understands as friendship. It is always worthwhile to be respectful and friendly. One definition of friendship is a relationship between people who share certain beliefs, have joint experiences and share a liking and exchange of energies. In that context, it doesn’t seem like anything we shouldn’t foster between a leader and team members. Friendships at work have benefits that go hand-in-hand with performance; a study has shown that they make people seven times more likely to be engaged, which increases productivity.

However, friendships with employees can also create pitfalls, such as biases in decision-making, perceived favoritism, or other issues in team dynamics. It’s about how well you trust yourself to do the right thing when the situation becomes difficult because of that friendship. We provide our clients with tools and practices to mitigate the aforementioned risks.

How are leaders dealing with employees’ new desire for increased flexibility?

The COVID era caused a significant reshuffle in the workspace, with the majority of the employed workforce desiring flexibility. However, this desire for flexibility is highly individual and depends on a person's specific conditions, lifestyle, and other factors. For leaders, managing these diverse needs is a complex task requiring emotional connectedness and understanding. Besides individual desires, they must consider the specific role and type of tasks performed to determine the appropriate level and type of flexibility for teams and team members.

Flexibility is differently perceived in different-sized companies. In smaller companies, work-from-home can be very favorable from the perspective of cost-saving, while leaders of such companies have an easier time connecting individually with their employees. In bigger companies, it’s more difficult to hit the right balance.

CEOs have to be careful not to impose their realities on others. Typically, leadership duties are easier to execute in person. However, that isn’t necessarily the case for others, and, as mentioned, research shows that most people highly value their newly-acquired flexibility.

What advice would you give to CEOs worried about employee morale in this context?

Consciously creating a culture of psychological safety is vital. This means a culture in which you don’t have to be afraid of being humiliated or punished for expressing your opinions, concerns, questions or ideas. In such an environment, interpersonal risk-taking is rewarded.

Leaders should also seek to provide meaning within work. During Covid times, people became acutely aware of their finite levels of energy. It’s no longer enough just to be financially rewarded for our work; we want more. This involves providing opportunities for career development in ways that overlap with the higher goals of individual employees.

How can leaders create meaning in what may be considered more ‘boring’ industries?

I strongly believe that there is no such thing as a “boring” industry. Leaders should be visionaries; they should find an angle that brings meaning to the work.

A company making an everyday product such as plastic bags, for example, can focus on sustainability, aiming to innovate and create bags that are biodegradable. This brings meaning by helping people to buy groceries while protecting the planet. There’s always some need on the consumer’s side which you’re fulfilling; that’s where meaning is found.

How can leaders create the right environment for such innovative thinking?

Innovation rarely happens in isolation; it usually comes about in a collaborative setting. Achieving the “flow state,” when we forget about time, when we’re in the moment and building on each other without competition or judgment, is the ultimate state for innovation. This is easier to achieve in an in-person setting, although I don’t think it’s impossible online.

Collaboration can also, however, be as simple as working cross-functionally. We have a tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people, but when social tension is decreased and intellectual tension is present, the quality of collaboration is enhanced.

How is the image of the CEO linked to the success of the company?

They are very tightly bound together. When the CEO’s reputation is well-managed, it leads to greater opportunities, new business partners, and enhanced market value. It also supports and improves internal culture and the acquisition of new talent, as high performers are attracted to respected leaders.

Consistency in leaders’ daily actions and interactions is more important than the particular format or media used for their personal branding. Inevitably, if you’re a CEO, you’ll be in touch with the wider world. The key is providing value to others and being steadfast in your values and beliefs, ensuring that everyone you interact with consistently experiences your integrity and commitment. This is the mark of a true leader.

This article was written in cooperation with Key & Spark. Read more about our partner content policies here.

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