“The best or nothing” was the motto of German engineer Gottlieb Daimler, the man widely credited with inventing the modern motorcar.
In 2010, the same motto was adopted by Mercedes Benz, perhaps the most famous brand owned by the German industrial giant that carries Daimler’s name.
But in a global marketplace, spanning a wide range of cultures and time zones, how do you lead a team to deliver the best?
Based in Singapore, Richard Howard, President and CEO of Daimler Financial Services for Africa and Asia-Pacific, oversees businesses across more than 10 time zones, covering a wide range of different cultures and market maturities.
His business, he says, is about “making customers’ dreams come true”, whether that dream is buying a luxury sports car or a more utilitarian commercial truck.
For Howard, effective leadership is about getting the best out of your team.
“Leadership is about inspiring people to do something different, take them somewhere they’ve never been before and look at opportunities they’ve never seen before,” he said in a recent presentation at NUS Business School. Doing that requires leaders who can build alignment in their teams focused on a clear objective.
Daimler has more than 270,000 employees around the world, so a common challenge is sharing knowledge and breaking down the silo mentality that tends to pervade large organisations.
As the financing arm of Europe’s largest industrial company, Howard says the mission of Daimler Financial Services is about creating value for its customers, vehicle dealers and shareholders.
You won’t take people with you with IQ, it has to be lots of EQ
At the same time the firm is focused on putting its own people first, building engagement with and among employees. It is, Howard says, not just the right thing to do but it also makes sound business sense – companies with very high levels of engagement outperform the market.
Building that engagement requires leaders who are smart but more importantly who have a high level of “EQ”, or emotional understanding, as well.
“You won’t take people with you with IQ, it has to be lots of EQ,” Howard says. “The way you show you care is really important, equally, if not more so, than business results.”
In his presentation at NUS Howard pointed to the example of Daimler’s Japanese team in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake.
The team showed remarkable dedication – to the business, their communities and each other – and it was important that the company recognised and responded to that appropriately, he says.
Recognising such extraordinary team efforts is a key component of building engagement, leading your team from the heart as well as the head.
“It’s easy to get the head,” he says. “Logic we all like. But to get the heart is a real leadership skill. Taking people on a journey where they can’t see the future as clearly as you is really where you mobilise your organisation.”
Being open and personable is critical to dynamic leadership, Howard told the NUS audience – great leaders can’t lead from behind a desk.
Leaders that are open and transparent build trust, he says, something that is vital to successful leadership, but also very fragile.
“Trust is a delicate thing,” he says. “It takes years to build up but you can lose it in five minutes. So it’s important to take time to keep the trust and not lose it in a bad moment.”
Trust is also critical to inspiring teams to commit to a vision for the future, even when the journey to get there seems a nearly impossible challenge.
This is what Howard refers to as “blowing their minds”.
“What I mean by that,” he says, “is how can we do things that we’ve never ever done before and some people say are not possible.”
It’s a challenge that Daimler is facing right now – one driven in large part by Asia’s booming auto market. With sales set to soar in the region, Daimler expects to do as much business in the next five years as it has in its entire 127 year history.
In the region that Howard manages, that means going from a portfolio of around 14-15 billion euros to one of around 50 billion euros in just a few years.
Such rapid growth, he says, “can become a bit scary in a way, a bit incomprehensible”. But in such situations great leaders can take that market outlook and translate it into realistic objectives that their teams can learn from, grasp and believe in.
A key part of the “blowing minds” approach is guiding your teams to build confidence, take risks and not be afraid of failure. Failure is an opportunity to learn, so, as an effective, dynamic leader it’s important not to blow up when things go wrong.
“That learning and confidence you bring to the team is really important if you want them to run faster than anybody else,” Howard says.
Leading with intent
He points to the often-cited example of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton as a demonstration of a leader with focus and intent to pull his team through the most challenging circumstances.
Shackleton’s 1914 TransAntarctic Expedition was a heroic failure in many ways, but all 27 men who accompanied the explorer survived and returned to England, two years and 22 days after leaving.
That was, Howard says, because Shackleton selected his team not on the basis of technical competency, but on the combination of characters he thought would be best able to endure and survive some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
Shackleton, he says, “was able to shine a light where there was none. At the most challenging times he remained incredibly optimistic about the opportunities, and understood his team immensely well.”
Shackleton’s expedition, which set out to make the first ever land crossing of Antarctica, failed spectacularly in its primary objective. But it remains a powerful lesson in successful leadership.
Similarly, Howard says being open about failures and using them as a learning opportunity are vital skills for today’s global business leaders, moving from a command and control approach, to a leadership model that is more transparent and consultative.
“If you look at customer service, we have a much higher retention rate from customers where something goes wrong and we handle it very well, to a customer where nothing goes wrong,” he says.
“So from a business point of view, when something goes wrong it’s a golden opportunity.”