A leader should ask the right questions and listen to all the answers even when it’s difficult to do so, says Kim M Sharan, president, financial planning and wealth strategies and chief marketing officer, Ameriprise Financial, Inc, a diversified Fortune 500 company.
During a recent visit to India, Sharan, who has held senior leadership positions at Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, spoke to Gaurav Choudhury on a range of issue on leadership. Excerpts.
How do you define a leader?
There are many definitions of leadership but for me good leaders are those who have a clear vision and are able to create a followership
What are the most important traits of a leader?
Good leaders show empathy, understanding and the ability to motivate and inspire their employees to reach new heights. They have the ability to constantly reinforce the direction of the organisation. Being fair and open is vital, as is a desire for continuous learning
As the head of your group, how do you cultivate leaders?
In my career, I’ve consistently found key ways to cultivate and motivate leaders. I believe in giving responsibility and ownership for projects that ladder up to the vision of the organisation, rewarding and recognising a job well done and ongoing support to help them deliver.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
Yes, I believe leadership can be learned. It develops through shared experiences over years. Leaders are on a continual path to develop qualities that inspire their organisations to achieve greatness.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a web of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
In times of crisis, the role of a leader is to define reality, but inspire hope and direction at the same time. During these times, communication becomes even more important — to be there to listen to concerns and help people put things in perspective. It is also important to create an environment where it’s OK to fail, so long as you ensure that something is learned in the process.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
Leading a large and complex organisation through the development of an entirely new brand and inspire a diverse team to embrace the brand in their role as brand ambassadors. In 2005, our organisation spun off from its parent company and we created Ameriprise Financial, a new brand in the market.
Getting an organisation of 20,000-plus individuals to stand together with this new brand was challenging yet enormously rewarding. Today, Ameriprise Financial is America’s leader in financial planning. The firm maintains a leading position in each of its core business segments: wealth management, asset management, annuities and insurance.
It is also ranked 263 on the Fortune 500. We’re also pioneering financial planning in India through our growing advisory business.
Leaders have to often carry the cross of other’s wrongdoings and inefficiencies, the global banking sector today, for instance. What role can good leadership play to counterbalance this image?
Act with integrity, be forthright and always walk in the clients’ shoes.
What is your one-line leadership mantra?
Ask the right questions and listen, even when it’s difficult to do so.
Who are the leaders who have inspired you?
Over the last 34 years, I’ve worked for a number of leaders and taken something from each of them. A key learning from my current boss Jim Cracchiolo, the chairman and CEO of Ameriprise Financial, is to believe in yourself and believe in others.
Name a leader in your industry whom you respect?
I have a great amount of respect and admiration for Cracchiolo who led the development of one of the largest spin-offs in financial services history. In addition, he led us through one of the most difficult financial crises in our history, and we’re one among a few firms that did not take a government bailout.
He has set the direction and stayed true to putting clients first. Through all types of economic environments, it has remained a strong and stable company and it takes a leader with a great vision to achieve this.
What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt?
You can’t do it alone. It’s about teamwork and creating a culture of respect, integrity and driving results. It’s also imperative to lead by example, personally demonstrating the values you want to see in your team and fostering an environment in which those values are consistent and followed throughout the organisation.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
To speak less and listen more.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
There’s always the risk of playing it too safe and missing opportunities to innovate.