INSEAD Participant Interview

Leadership for senior executives: Interview with a past participant of LEAP

James Stewart

Chairman of Partners at Ferrier Hodgson, Australia

"LEAP is a great opportunity to reflect on your personal style and understand how other people perceive you and respond to your behaviour in ways that you perhaps don’t see yourself. It gives you a chance to explore making changes that not only benefit you but also the people you work with." says James Stewart, past participant of LEAP: Leadership Excellence through Awareness and Practice

Tell us about your career path so far.

Since July 2017, I’ve been Chairman of Partners at Ferrier Hodgson. I’ve been with the firm for 30 years, so it’s pretty much been my career path! We’re a leading Australian turnaround and restructuring firm, specialising in corporate recovery and advisory, forensic accounting and forensic IT across Asia Pacific.
Before assuming my current role, I was Practice Leader at our Melbourne office. I’m also the National Retail Practice Lead for the business.

What drew you to the LEAP programme? Were you facing any specific leadership challenges in your role at the time?

I was relatively new to the role of Practice Leader in our Melbourne office and aware that the prospect of becoming the Chairman of Partners would require a significant reframing of my existing role. I wanted an executive education programme that would help me reflect on my senior leadership style and develop more effective behaviours, so I could bring my best self to the new roles.

Why did you choose INSEAD? Did you consider any other courses or institutions?

I did about 6 months’ worth of research, to be honest! I didn’t want to do a 1-week course – I was looking for something more immersive. One of the great benefits of the LEAP programme is that it is spread over a 9-month* period, with 3 residential modules and group work in between.
Every time you finish a module, you get the opportunity to go away and consolidate your learnings in a hands-on way back on the job, then you can refine what you’ve learned at the next module. That approach really helped make what I was learning more “sticky”.
At the same time, I didn’t want a course that would take me away from the office for too long. I looked at doing an Executive MBA programme, but that would have taken me away for 5 weeks at least, which would have been just too much, given my roles in the firm. LEAP is 3 bite-sized chunks away from the office, so quite manageable.
Apart from its structure, LEAP’s content also seemed highly relevant. Besides addressing issues of personal leadership style, it looks at leading and implementing change at an organisational level. We do a lot of work with clients that involves stakeholder management and organisational change, and I could see there would be scope there for me to understand how to better manage specific challenges that we see in our client projects.

What would you say were the main takeaways from the course?

We start with a lot of work on who you are and how you lead as a person. There is a lot of structured and unstructured feedback that helps you reframe your sense of self and increase awareness of how you are perceived in your leadership role.
We also spent time understanding the importance of diversity in decision-making. I’m much more aware now of getting a range of views – even if I don’t particularly like the input – before making a decision.
Another takeaway revolved around the benefits of adopting a more collaborative approach to stakeholder management, the dangers of a command and control leadership style, and how to bring people along with you on the journey. This included reframing my thinking on politics and networking and better understanding how to manage stakeholders and difficult people.
Finally we did a lot of thinking about the legacy of leadership and what success should be. This really challenges you to look to the future in your leadership role and think about what you want to leave behind, and how you will make this happen.
In sum, I’d say LEAP is a great opportunity to reflect on your personal style and understand how other people perceive you and respond to your behaviour in ways that you perhaps don’t see yourself. It gives you a chance to explore making changes that not only benefit you but also the people you work with. I found that space for personal reflection and the feedback I received enormously beneficial.

How is what you learned on the programme helping you in your work and enabling you to meet your challenges?

LEAP helped me reframe my leadership style. I’m trying to avoid the “command-and-control” leadership approach and make sure I’m better informed with a diversity of views before making final decisions.
This involves making more of an effort to stand back and let others voice their views before I voice mine. If I can ensure people have been heard, I believe that I will make better decisions as a leader. At the same time, I’ve adopted more of a facilitation mindset. The people I work with say I used to be the first person to speak – now I’m the last!
So, there have been changes to my style that I hope allow people to feel more comfortable with me. I don’t think I’m so much a bull in a china shop any more, crashing through in order to get stuff done. Instead, I’m very much trying to take the time to invest in people and hear their views.

What would you say to someone who is thinking of doing the programme?

For me, without a doubt, the course was a game-changing experience. It really got me thinking in a completely different way not only about myself and how I lead, but how I want to execute the role and what success looks like. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it.
* Please note that LEAP is now a 6-month long programme.


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