By Brent Duffy
Leadership is not a choice. You’re exposed to it and once you opt into leadership, you can’t opt out. That’s why conviction and clarity are such key qualities for great leaders.
For me, exposure to leadership qualities came when I was young. My parents never used the word ‘leadership’, they simply taught us that you must always try to help other people. It’s not a choice, you just do it. I am one of four boys and each of us were exposed to a variety of experiences that contributed to the community around us. That’s why I’ve always believed that once you step into leadership, there’s no opting out. You step up and lean in.
As I reflect on it now, I can see how that ‘lean-into leadership’ ethos has been so important to my career. It’s why I transitioned from being a medical scientist to consulting. I realised that I didn’t want to be sitting in a room by myself for 12 hours a day. I wanted to contribute to others, I wanted to help others be better.
Commencing a career at Maximus also didn’t feel like a choice to me. At the time, Vanessa was a 29-year-old entrepreneur and she’d been running the business for a couple of years. We sat down and it immediately seemed like the obvious thing to do: join a leadership firm and impact leaders across industries.
Today at Maximus we say, ‘If it’s in you, we will find it’. I love it – it feels so true to what we do. Once you find ‘it’, it’s not a choice to be a leader – conviction and belief drive the choices you make in that role. Belief in the purpose of the business, the culture of the business and in what matters to you. You find it, turn it on and it stays on.
When leaders have a real clarity of purpose and back it up with conviction, that’s when we start to see real change. They are clear on why they do what they do, what they want to contribute, and the impact they want to have. We see them change individually, and we see them effect positive changes in others around them. This is the true key to our success at Maximus, we are deeply passionate about aligning purpose and conviction, which drives belief, and ultimately impact.
Leaders with conviction cannot walk past things that are misaligned to their purpose or beliefs, they can’t let things slide. Once we opt into leadership, it’s in every element of our lives. For me, it’s as a business partner, as a husband, a father, a brother, a son, and as a community member. It guides all the choices we make in those areas. A leader is the person who calls things out, the person who wants to make things better.
Living with such conviction makes me feel more aligned. There’s a strong sense that there’s no choice but to follow the path. It doesn’t mean it’s always easy, I still have to make the hard decisions and there will be tough times, but I know what I have to do.
“You will never find the solution to your problem, inside your own organisation. Clarity and conviction are often fueled by a healthy connection with the world beyond your organisation.”
Conviction demands clarity, and clarity demands perspective. I regularly force myself to find the space to reflect, to think, to look outside myself. An incredible entrepreneur we worked with summed it up beautifully: ‘You will never find the solution to your problem, inside your own organisation.’ You’ve got to find that space and time to look outside of yourself, to read, to be curious, to speak to other people. Clarity and conviction are often fueled by a healthy connection with the world beyond your organisation.
We know our work with leaders can be confronting. Life is like a movie: Some of those scenes represent amazing highs, and some are real lows, but the person standing before us today is the accumulation of all of those moments. You need to dig deep to understand how you got to be who you are, how your beliefs and the values you hold tight were formed. Sometimes, you realise that you have to let go of certain beliefs because they’re not serving you anymore.
When it’s most difficult, I go back to our mission: ‘If it’s in you, we will find it’. This is the kind of work that finds ‘it’ and we work together to bring it out. It’s such a huge part of why I do what I do. If we can help a leader realise their true potential and help them build their conviction, choices and purpose, they go back into the world and there’s a multiplier effect. That’s the beauty of leadership. When I work with a leader who makes that shift – whether they’re leading three, 300 or 3000 people – they generate an incredible and disproportionate impact on those around them.
The greatest strength any leader can have is to create other leaders. It’s about paying it forward to the next generation coming through your organisation. That’s such an exciting part of the impact. We worked with a known fast-growing organisation – they were doubling in size every couple of years – and they brought us in because they realised beyond their top half dozen leaders, they didn’t have the bench strength to keep scaling. Our job was to create the next generation of leadership. We set them up to build leaders themselves through a leader-led culture change. I coach them and catch up with them every six weeks or so to check how it’s going and provide a bit of a steer and guidance. It’s immensely rewarding to know we’ve built a culture there that will keep on creating leaders for years to come.
For Maximus, that idea of how leadership and conviction go hand in hand was always there. But in the very early days, we didn’t think it was enough. We weren’t sure that our entrepreneurial spirit was enough, so we went about trying to supplement it. In those first 10 years, I went to Stanford, Vanessa went to Harvard, we partnered with other strategy firms. It was the right thing to do and it was a good exercise, but in the end we realised that what we already had was special, and differentiated.
Our market worked out that it’s what they want, too: they want that entrepreneurial spirit, they want us to unlock leaders who are uncompromising and unrelenting on growth and progression and impact. In those early years we didn’t realise how special what we had was – we used to joke that we didn’t have enough grey hair!
All that work was essential, though. It was foundational to understanding that our own unique qualities were what made us special as a firm. Once we realised that, it made all the difference. It has informed who we bring into the firm, to how we get our own people and the leaders we work with to think, reflect and believe.
There was no one to teach us, and it was ultimately Vanessa’s exceptional conviction that led to our success. Vanessa knew what differentiated Maximus, and once we unleashed that conviction instead of trying to respond to the market or what competitors are doing, we started seeing tremendous growth and success. We’ve kept pushing each other forward ever since. ‘It’s time to lift again’ we would say to each other. We have to, for the firm, the people around us, the leaders we work with. That responsibility will never go away.
“Leadership is not a title, it’s how you show up and stay true to your conviction.”
For me leadership is not a title, it’s not a hierarchy, it’s how you show up, how you make decisions, how you lean into other people and how you stay true to your conviction.
This article was written as part of a series celebrating the 20th anniversary of Maximus. Driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of Vanessa Gavan and her conviction that leadership should be so much more, we have created a series of interviews presenting the fundamentals of differentiated leadership, available in full here.