Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Management expert: what defines a successful leader

Professor Chris Styles

When the Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), Professor Chris Styles, spoke at Warrane on Wednesday 29 August 2012, he shared his ideas on what makes a successful leader.

Professor Styles, who is an expert in strategic and international marketing, international entrepreneurship and corporate strategy, emphasised the importance of the “three A’s” – accessibility, agility and affability – an approach he learned from a business leader that he has taken on as his own business mantra.

On accessibility, he said many of the leaders he had worked with had always been accessible and urged students to strive always to be available to see the people they worked with when they needed their attention.

On agility, he said leaders needed to be agile when faced with changing situations: “In the world we live in we know that tomorrow is not going to be like today and today is not like yesterday,” he said. “The problems we will need to solve, we can’t even predict… There isn’t a toolkit you can go into every situation with and think: ‘This is one of those problems. Here is the toolkit I got at university – I’ll just pull out a two-by-two matrix and I’ll be fine.’ I’m not sure that those days ever were here, but it’s certainly not now.

“It’s the idea about the unique, unseen, or unforeseen problem or situation with no prescribed solution that would ever be taught. So the knowledge you need to solve it is up here. You will only ever have this much.

“Therefore one of the biggest skills that hopefully you will learn here (at university) is how to get from there to there in that particular context or situation. This idea about being agile means lots of things, but I think it means being mentally agile as well. With each situation, think your way through it, and be ready to change direction to see things differently, reinvent things and so on – as opposed to thinking that things are always going to be the same.”

On “affability” he said that while different leaders had different styles, it was important not to take yourself too seriously. “Although I take what I do very seriously, I don’t take myself very seriously,” he said. “I have two children who help me with that – they call me a doofus – often.”

Professor Styles, who is also Deputy Dean of the Australian School of Business, advised students against “doing what you think you really have to do”, and said that they should instead try to pursue a career doing things that they enjoyed.

“One of the biggest mistakes you can make is doing what you think is expected of you and being pushed into things that they don’t really want to do,” he said.

“I kind of think it should be the other way around, pushing them towards the things they want to do and that will sort of work itself out.”

Professor Styles told Warrane residents that he was not sure that it was really possible to plan a career and that there were not really many bad decisions you can make. “In the end,” he said, “go with your gut feeling… Your first job is reasonably important. Your guide should be: ‘What can I learn? What can I learn most from whoever I work with?’”

In a talk that touched on many aspects of career building, Professor Styles’ advised students to:

  • Establish their own measures of professional success. (For himself career had not been about money, but about being able to feel that he had achieved certain things.)
  • To make sure they had some form of creativity or arts in their lives. “Whether it is music painting, or cooking or whatever it is, I think it is really, really important – in business, at university or whatever – it is really important to keep up and to draw upon.”
  • Have as many “international, cross-cultural experiences” as possible: “That is the world we live in and if we don’t learn early to deal with that and to be in unfamiliar situations, then that is not going to help our career and help us as people.”
  • Try to develop empathy: “One of the greatest skills of a salesperson is being able to see the world through other people’s eyes.”
  • Wait for around five or six years after entering the workplace before considering doing an MBA.: “You need enough work experience to be able to contextualise the course work,” he said. “It is also the time in your career when you feel you are ready for the next jump. You feel the skill base you have has almost taken you as far as you can go.”

Professor Styles said one of the biggest traps in the workplace was getting too busy with your work at the expense of family life.

“You really do need to make time for your family,” he said. “For instance, I don’t do emails when I get home any more. That is one thing that has changed my life.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]