Emerging Leaders Programme: An adaptive leadership approach

14th November 2019

Emerging Leaders Programme: An adaptive leadership approach

On Wednesday 6th November, we held the 2019 Emerging Leaders Programme closing session.  The afternoon was focused on the importance of adaptive leadership and cultivating successful teams. For the initial part of the session we were delighted to be joined by guest speaker Rob Fenwick, COO of Howdens. This was followed by a session led by Bill Lawry, CEO of Ascend Consulting, specialising in attaining and sustaining elite team performance.

Having honed his craft in a world class manufacturing and JIT Supply environment, Rob Fenwick took his learnings into an Executive Leadership role at Howden Joinery Group Plc, where spectacular growth and shareholder value has been created by a tight-knit top team. Since October 2005, he has been responsible for transforming the Supply Division from a vertically integrated operation to a commercial organisation.

Rob is particularly passionate about both leadership and talent development, especially in complex situations – he spoke with us about his beliefs on ‘getting leadership right’ and four key areas for consideration emerged:

Purpose and the implications for leadership

Rob discussed that a clear business purpose is a starting point for ensuring successful leadership and commercial output – it sets the tone. Simple? The difficulty lies within communicating this purpose with clarity, leaving no room for ambiguous interpretation. To achieve this, Rob explained that reaffirming what you are not is just as important as explaining what you are; this helps to distill things for all teams. Ultimately, the purpose must be the lodestar that guides the business, its culture and values.

Performance: what are you about and how do you measure up to it

A successful leader can change outcome through performance. Again, a relatively simple concept. Rob brought this to life. He explained that leaders must take responsibility for guiding their team through struggles to ensure victory, and then fully encourage celebration. Celebration is vital because without it, teams cannot consolidate learnings and tackle their next challenge. The aim here is to create stories of how positive performance has affected positive change. Good leaders can do this. Great leaders can turn these stories into myths and occasionally we see myths become legends!

Adaptive leadership

Rob made no secret of how the work of Ron Heifetz has positively shaped his leadership style. The sentiment is to be able to separate technical problems from adaptive challenges. Most leaders can deal with technical problems; they are easy to diagnose and require relatively process-driven fixes. Adaptive challenges are more difficult; they require a more holistic view and are most dangerous when misdiagnosed as technical problems. Rob made it clear that ‘failing your way forward’ is the way to overcome these challenges and is not a bad thing. He questioned our emerging leaders on their individual leadership style; are you on ‘the balcony’ or ‘the dancefloor’? With this, Rob explained that an adaptive leader positions themselves on the balcony – it allows them to observe which dancers are distracted, who isn’t dancing at all and who needs support; ultimately, understanding the mindset of your team. Allowing yourself to be dragged to the dancefloor means you lose this perspective – although Rob did note the importance of a good leader knowing where the stairs are!

Building resilience

The right mind-set, belief and determination can drive tremendous results, but leaders must build resilience in order for teams to flourish. Tone and culture dictate how resilient your teams are. Rob was clear in his belief that these things are set by the behaviour of leaders as “a fish rots from the head down”. He shared that in order to create the right tone and culture, leaders must have clarity of purpose and consistency of leadership. They must also understand how people ‘fit’ together. In his no-nonsense but human approach, Rob explained that something as simple as eating in a staff canteen can help build this understanding. However, he was quick to mention that not everyone will want to sit next to you as their leader!

Rob also cited that treating individuals fairly is a very simple but effective way to build resilience. He explained that leaders should allow their team members time for ‘renewal’ and recharging, to avoid them burning out. Renewal makes for sustainable, high-performing teams.

The final part of the resilience jigsaw that Rob discussed was reward and recognition, which goes back to actively encouraging celebration but takes it a step further. The celebration must be encouraged, but also facilitated by a leader and achieved through tangible rewards.


Rob provided us with an honest, genuine and hugely insightful session that gave all participants food for thought. The overwhelming takeaway was how Howdens’ tight-knit top team successfully balances an uncompromising commercial focus with a human-led approach, demonstrating that it is possible to lead with grit and determination, but also humility.

The second part of the session was led by Bill Lawry of Ascend, who held a workshop on building successful teams. We were fortunate enough to benefit from Bill’s 25 years of experience in bringing together great people with deep expertise, to support and challenge leaders and leadership teams to attain and sustain elite performance.

Get involved

There are several ways for you to get involved with the Emerging Leaders Programme, from speaker and mentor opportunities to becoming a participant yourself.