Zoe Routh is a leadership expert and experiential educator who specialises in ‘people stuff’. Born in the UK and raised in Canada, the outdoor adventurist spent nine summers working at a Canadian summer camp leading canoe trips, before moving to Australia to work with Outward Bound Australia, specialising in personal and leadership development.
She went on to found her own leadership development business, survived cancer and has written four books on leadership — the latest, People Stuff, winning Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards in 2020.
We chat with Zoe about the ability that every organisation has to create an elite team, and the importance of leading with wisdom, compassion and perspective.
How have the challenges you’ve faced shaped the way you lead, and teach others to lead?
All my outdoor adventures in Canada and Australia have helped shape my attitude and approach to team engagement. There is nothing like sitting huddled on the side of the mountain in a torrential downpour, sodden, to build camaraderie! In tough times we learn to rely on each other, to support one another.
My cancer experience in 2005 taught me a lot about perspective, about getting clear on values and how I want to experience life and leadership. I see a lot of leaders sacrifice their health and happiness for external goals. I think we can have both: happiness and goals, and enjoy the journey too.
Are some people born leaders, or is it something we all need to work on, and have the capacity to be?
This is actually more controversial than it looks! Some people have innate talents that lend themselves well to leadership roles: they may have charisma, be empathetic or have a healthy dose of initiative and drive. All of us can learn the skills of leadership. Ultimately individuals need to bring courage to lead and have a clear service orientation in order to be successful. Are some people not suited to lead? Yes, I think that’s true. You have to want to do it. If you don’t want to do it, because of the risks that leadership exposes you to, then you shouldn’t do it. But first: try. There have been many reluctant leaders that excelled once they undertook the role.
In your latest book People Stuff you talk about leading with wisdom — how important is this in leadership?
I believe that all leaders should do their best to lead with both wisdom and compassion. Compassion is best of the heart, wisdom is best of the mind. You want to be both sensitive and sensible. Gaining wisdom is about growing perspective and honing the skill of discernment. In other words, get skilled at seeing the big picture, the long-term future, then making decisions that are in the here and now.
“I see a lot of leaders sacrifice their health and happiness for external goals. I think we can have both: happiness and goals, and enjoy the journey too.”
What would you define as the “tough stuff” that leaders have to deal with? Has this changed or been amplified in the face of a pandemic, and more digital interactions?
Leadership is hard, period. COVID added new challenges to the mix. The pandemic pushed us all to survival mode initially: all that uncertainty put us all on high alert. That usually causes a bit of chaos and dysfunction. Plus, then there’s the need to learn new technology, invent systems and protocols on the fly, and keep adjusting to every shift in the sands. The pandemic has challenged us to develop sensitivity and flexibility.
Tell us a bit about the concept of an elite team, and is it achievable for any business or organisation to aim for?
Any business can create an elite team, no matter how big or small. One of the biggest mistakes I see that stops people from gaining elite status is that they don’t put the fundamentals in place. That includes things like group ground rules, having a clear purpose, having clear decision-making processes. A lot of leaders just let culture develop on its own and that is fatal. Cultures evolve and fluctuate; they will do much better with deliberate management.
How important is it to assess your team regularly, and what is involved?
Elite teams are always self-checking. One of the critical success factors for sustained elite performance is reflection. The practice of evaluating successes as well as failures as well as checking in is a constant health monitor that separates high performers from lackluster ones.
How can leaders foster collaboration and innovation?
Collaboration and innovation are by-products of having a clear structure, harnessing individual strengths and creating an atmosphere where people feel safe to speak up. Robust conversations are critical to elite performance.
What are a few key capabilities needed to enhance your team’s performance?
There are three things individuals must do: reduce friction, build capability, and maximise personal energy. Simple! And maybe not so easy all the time.