Gervase Warner - what I’ve learnt as a leader

Gervase Warner, Group CEO at Massy Holdings Ltd, is one of the Caribbean’s most respected and experienced business leaders. Following his appearance at the recent Business is an Adventure event in Barbados we spent some time with him, getting both his take on the state of leadership in the region and an insight into what he’s learnt about leadership during his career...

With decades of international business experience in the US, Latin America and the Caribbean, Warner has been in the fortunate position of witnessing numerous leadership styles in action, enabling him to perfect his own individual approach.

One point that I was particularly keen to get his take on was the piece of research that had been unveiled at the start of the event by Scott Hilton-Clarke, before Warner’s appearance on stage. Hilton-Clarke, CEO of Inspiration Labs, has spent a considerable amount of time assessing the state of leadership in the Caribbean and was on hand to share his findings.

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Leadership in the Caribbean

"I found a lot of cynicism, sarcasm and negativity towards the very notion of Caribbean leadership," explained Hilton-Clarke. "As you can imagine, this made the project even more intriguing. The fact is, there's a need for stronger leaders in the Caribbean."

You can read more about Hilton-Clarke's Caribbean leadership project here. While not all of the findings were negative, it’s a fair assessment to say that there’s a lot of room for improvement. Is this a picture that Warner recognises? 

"Some of what the research tells us doesn’t come as a shock to me, although it was a little bit sad to hear it," reflects Warner. "I think part of it is that we in the Caribbean, with our history and heritage, don’t look within for leadership - we look outside. I worked in the states and now I’m in Trinidad, I can see that here we’re still stuck in the old, very hierarchical model of what leadership looks like – that doesn’t feel good to people. We’re not as far down the path to enlightened leadership as other places."

Upon returning to the Caribbean to join Massy Holdings Ltd, Warner was himself faced with a leadership dilemma, one which would come to shape the whole organisation’s approach.

Arriving at my own leadership style

"For me, I’ve had to come to master a particular style of leadership and really make it work. My natural style is to give people a lot of responsibility, autonomy to do things and be there if they need any help. I’m naturally not a big stick person, I prefer encouragement and the carrot approach," explains Warner.

"However what I encountered when I came back to Trinidad was that there wasn’t a very strong culture of taking ownership and responsibility, so when you used this approach people would not complete what was expected. They’d come back and say 'oh, I just didn’t have the time'. So I found myself adopting a much more authoritarian, hands on, micro-management approach as that’s how you got things done - there wasn’t the level of trust there. So what I’ve done to address this issue is to invest in people, making them understand what is expected of them.

"Over time this has meant I have been able to go back to a more hands off leadership style, which allows me to delegate more. I’ve seen others follow this more and it’s slowly becoming more prevalent, but it’s still cutting against the grain to do this as our culture favours an approach which says 'I won’t take initiative, I’ll wait to be told' or 'if I don’t do anything then I can’t be told off". But we are getting there and it’s really encouraging to see lots of other people in the region come around to this new approach to leadership."

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The influence of 'conscious capitalism' on modern leadership

The tensions that were caused by trying to implement this modern leadership style among staff who were more familiar with traditional, authoritarian methods led Warner to create the Expectations of Massy Leaders, a piece of work that houses the organisation’s guiding principles and the manifestation of his beliefs on the subject.

The core values of honesty & integrity, love & care, growth & continuous improvement, responsibility and collaboration are the principles which drive the development of leaders across the Massy Group, but how were they selected above all others?

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"The approach came about as a result of reading the book Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, the experiences I had working at places like MicKnsey and having personal coaches. Personally I’ve always felt that the form of leadership where you’re trying to engage, give them a sense of purpose and motivate them is really what business should all be about," explains Warner.

"Most people enjoy working somewhere where they can find a sense of meaning, therefore reading the book was a revelation - you really can get a financial return by focusing on these things. That was the starting point for us, we needed to develop conscious leaders within our own organisation. This started by creating a purpose for our Group, putting executives on personal transformation programmes and giving them more of a sense of self-awareness."

By installing a defined purpose and encouraging those in leadership positions to reflect on their own approach to the job at hand, Warner and his leadership team are taking the whole organisation on a journey. It may have been far easier to stick with methods that he knew would have resulted in quick wins, but that’s not what great leaders do.

As the African proverb so succinctly puts it: "if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together".

To learn more about leadership, head over to Virgin Atlantic's Business is an Adventure hub.

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