Miguel Carrasco has been with Boston Consulting Group for more than 20 years, and is now global leader of the BCG Centre for Digital Government and CEO of BCG Platinion APAC. 

Here, Miguel discusses the central role trust plays in good leadership, how he builds trust with his team, how COVID has impacted his leadership strategy and tactics, and how leaders can shepherd their teams through adversity and hold onto the resulting innovations.

Trusting leaders is what gives them legitimacy. I think that trust comes from two things. One is authenticity – being sincere, vulnerable and imperfect, but true to yourself – and the second is delivering. 

You build trust by consistently delivering for people. I'm a big believer in the notion of servant leadership, where your main role as a leader is actually to enable and empower others to succeed. Ronni Kahn said that she surrounds herself with smart people and they make her look good. We share a similar ethos. I trust that the people I'm working with are smart, capable and talented – that's why we recruited them. The worst thing I could do is smother them by micromanaging and controlling every step. 

I work hard to get the balance right between delegation and control, and to help people when they need help. I work to give people the space, autonomy and ability to do what I know they're capable of doing. It is about knowing when to intervene and when to sit back. Being present and visible when you need to be, but mostly creating a platform for the team to shine.

Authentic reassurance

The world around us has become more uncertain, and that's when people look to their leaders for reassurance. That can be a difficult position for the leader – I don't know for sure that everything is going to be okay. Even if you had a crystal ball before COVID, for sure it’s now broken. I think anyone who tells you they know how things are going to pan out is peddling false certainty. Living through a global pandemic is a first for most of us!

What I can tell you is that we've been through difficult times before. My generation has lived through the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the dotcom bust of 2000, the post-9/11 downturn of 2001, the aftermath of the GFC in 2007-08 and Euro-zone debt crisis in 2009. Of course this is different, but I think we have to just come back to what we do know. 

We know that we can be very innovative when we need to be, and we can be very adaptive. This is the true meaning of resilience, and it’s what lots of companies have done and lots of leaders are doing now in responding to the new context and the environment that we find ourselves in.

It's going to be challenging. It's going to be difficult, probably for quite some time. But our collective strengths have got us through hard times in the past – they will also see us through this time.”

Miguel Carrasco

Leaders need to remain optimistic and positive about the future, and give as much reassurance as they can. For me that’s to say: “It's going to be challenging. It's going to be difficult, probably for quite some time. But our collective strengths have got us through hard times in the past – they will also see us through this time.”

The reason I have hope is because we are not helpless. We can respond to the new context and the environment that we're in. I'm very optimistic about how people come together and solve problems. Some countries and communities have faced great adversity, and some have aligned around a common purpose in the face of that adversity, with a sense of clarity and an urgency of action.

Create common purpose

One of the really interesting phenomena that we’re seeing is an acceleration in the adoption of agile, not as a methodology but as a new theory in organisation design. For several years now, we have seen teams genuinely adopting ‘new ways of working’ achieving so much more than teams working in traditional, hierarchical, bureaucratic organisational paradigms.

Now we’re seeing leaders really embrace ‘agile’ approaches out of necessity. They’re forming multidisciplinary teams with common goals and time-boxed deadlines, and empowering them to make decisions. Those teams are self-organising around those goals, working in sprints in an iterative way, and delivering better outcomes – particularly in the production of digital products and services. 

There had previously been a few more courageous leaders, like Shayne Elliott at ANZ Bank, driving a shift towards more agile ways of working. Elsewhere it was happening, but progressing really slowly; then COVID hit and, all of a sudden, you had an urgency to move faster.

They are working quickly and collaboratively, and can see the impact very clearly – that is worth preserving, and the onus is on leadership to preserve it.”

Miguel Carrasco

These teams and task forces formed very quickly to respond to various health, economic and social crises, many working in these ‘new ways’. This idea that COVID has accelerated digital transformation is true in the obvious sense of remote working and video conferencing increasing, but it's also true in that it’s driving the adoption of new organisational behaviours and structures. 

Many are now asking how we can retain this and make it a permanent part of a future operating model. There's a tension there because working in that mode can be quite intense and exhausting, and you can't operate in crisis mode forever – people will burn out. But we can rethink the way our organisations work, the way we organise teams and how we lead them.

Connection and contribution

People are much more engaged and feel more connected to their purpose when they're working in an agile mode. It is easier for them to see the difference they’re making and the impact of their contribution on customers and citizens, rather than being just another gear or cog in a machine. 

This line-of-sight motivates people to do more, to give more. Productivity doubles and the time to impact halves, inspiring and driving even more positive engagement. It becomes a virtuous cycle. This is worth preserving, and the onus is on leadership to preserve it. The single biggest factor is how well leaders are able to crystallise goals and aspirations that their teams want to achieve.

The biggest failure of leadership is a lack of clarity about intended outcomes. And then it's very difficult, because the team ends up wasting effort through misalignment of expectations. That’s frustrating for the team and frustrating for the leaders.

So the hard work of leadership is to be clear on purpose and objectives. If you can do that, then it’s important to trust your team to find the best way to get you there. You don't need to spell it all out and micromanage every detail for them. They're pretty smart, they'll work it out – sometimes in ways you never even imagined. 

See how leaders are stabilising and accelerating their businesses out of crisis. Download the COVID-19 Response Playbook.