Nathan Ott, CEO of business insight and executive search firm eg.1, speaks to David Woods about the results of exclusive research into the qualities of the Game Changer in business and what differentiates these individuals from other leaders. Download the full Game Changer report here.
Leadership; talent; high potentials; talent pools; pipelines; “people are our biggest asset”… You’ll no doubt have heard this terminology many times before. Over the past 25 years, as people strategy has grown humble origins to fuelling the engine of the modern economy, business leaders have become increasingly concerned about “talent”. But is it time to cut through the rhetoric?
In the 21st century workplace, there is a distinction between “talent”, “future leaders”, “impact makers” and the “Game Changers”. Game Changers are the people unafraid to lift their heads above the parapet; to make important decisions; take calculated risks; do things differently; go against the current; and leave a lasting footprint on their business. These are the people who will shake up the business world and enable organizations to thrive in a complex environment. These are the people who will guide organizations and brands from monotony and uncertainty to success and sustainability. Now is the time for guts and goals.
But not every CEO (or leader) is a Game Changer. Many of our business elite run perfectly healthy organizations, but don’t have this “star quality”. Is there something in the DNA of a Game Changer that differentiates them from the crowd or is there a dynamic that business courses are failing to teach? Dialogue partnered with business insight and executive search firm eg.1 to carry out ground-breaking research in order to get inside the mind of the Game Changer and shed light on how they differ from other leaders or high potentials.
The study was completed in two phases: a qualitative study and quantitative research.
The qualitative research set out to identify the key behaviours of a Game Changer and to discern how their behaviours, personal attributes and motivations differ to that of a “leader” or “impact player” (those who make an impact by being good at their job).
The Repertory Grid Technique was used along with a structured interview process, motivated by Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory. The Repertory Grid enabled participants in the study to consider differences between complex pieces of data; in this case, they were asked to give three examples of impact players, leaders and Game Changers, and then to compare and contrast them. This establishes data and follows a complex algorithm. Kelly’s theory is then applied to this, leading to identification of 10 constructs or behaviours associated with a Game Changer.
The behaviour of more than 150 Game Changers, impact players and leaders was investigated through interviews, carried out by a PhD researcher, with C-level executives (including Barclays, Network Rail, Novartis and Grant Thornton). The top 10 behaviours of the Game Changer were identified, and the extent to which these behaviours differed from those of leaders or impact players was ascertained. This study was followed by an online survey of 242 respondents, 54% of whom were business owners or board directors, with the remainder in middle or junior management positions.
The qualitative study was global, with 46% of respondents based in the UK; 24% in North America including Mexico; 13% in mainland Europe; 9% in Africa; 4% in Asia; 4% in South America; and approximately 1% each in the Middle East and Australasia. All industry sectors were represented in the survey.
The qualitative results
The qualitative sample of respondents was asked to identify the top 10 behaviours of a Game Changer, as highlighted below:
- Big picture thinkers
- Very strategic
- High on vigour/ high energy
- Creative ideas generators
- Ambitious with an obsessive drive to win
- Very good at influencing people (above and below)
- Very good at articulating a vision
- Passionate about their ideas
Those characteristics or behaviours marked in bold are the areas in which Game Changers differ most in their ways of working from other leaders. Nathan Ott, CEO of eg.1, elaborates: “Compared to the traditional leader, the Game Changer has the opportunity to be more of a risk-taker. “Traditional leaders are more risk averse, but Game Changers have greater self-confidence, paired with less ego. They have a survival instinct that gives them confidence to take on a challenge. They are not so worried about failure or their status. Rejection can positively fuel them rather than demotivate them – they can take a positive from it and do better next time. They will not fall off their course. Game Changers are not so concerned about climbing the corporate ladder or saving face.”
More specifically, the qualitative findings reveal:
- Game Changers have a genuine belief in their idea – they will not be knocked off-course until they are able to make a difference.
- Game Changers do not tend to be pushing for their own personal gain; quite simply, they have a belief and need to make a change and pursue an idea for the greater good of their organization.
- Research suggests the Game Changer is about the power of the idea; the leader is about the power of the individual.
Ott adds: “The strategic perspective is the one that comes through most. Game Changers tend to see the world in slow motion – so to use a sporting analogy, they see the big picture and they can see the ball coming towards them in slow motion before anyone else does, so that they can predict what action needs to be taken, giving them time to react. The same is true for a Game Changer in the corporate world – they predict situations before others and make decisions accordingly.
“They are extremely focused and their energy is derived from obsession. Traditional leaders are focused on steering the ship – but for a Game Changer, their obsession is the last thing they think about at night and the first thing they think about in the morning.
“Passion is created more easily and is temporary. Obsession is innate and will see the Game Changer through thick and thin.”
The quantitative results
The quantitative questionnaire was designed to ascertain the areas in which Game Changers – as defined by respondents in the qualitative study – impacted on business. When asked to define the most important characteristics of Game Changers, the top answers were: very focused and driven (32%); high self-confidence (25%); and strong ethics and passion (20%).
“These findings inextricably connect to the qualitative findings,” explains Ott. “The focus and drive correlate to Game Changers’ obsession.” True to the form outlined in the qualitative study, more than half of the quantitative study (56%) rated creativity and innovation as being one of the top areas in which Game Changers add the most value to the business, followed by instigating change (39%) and strategic thinking (36%).
And when asked where in the business Game Changers were to be found, a significant 58% disagreed they were in the higher echelons of senior leader- ship, while just under 30% agreed Game Changers were in the Generation Y bracket – the most recent age demo- graphic to enter the workplace.
Ott comments: “A Game Changer can be found anywhere in an organization, at every level, in any role. The pity is they are too often overlooked.
“Game Changers supersede generational and diversity issues and they are more than entrepreneurs.”
Nonetheless, the sample of respondents was undecided about the gender of the Game Changer, with a mere 6% agreeing most Game Changers are women compared to more than a third (37%) agreeing most Game Changers are men. “I find this quite unsettling,” says Ott. “It goes back to some of the typical male/female challenges within organizations, where a man is more likely to go into an interview and talk about the “great things” he has done, while a woman – stereotypically – will list the things she hasn’t done. “I wonder if this finding serves to illustrate that Game Changers are less visible in a traditional corporate structure if they are women.”
Respondents were in agreement about the development of Game Changers, with almost two-thirds (61%) stating their belief that staff members could be developed to think like a Game Changer.
“There is a belief that all leaders can be developed,” says Ott. “You can’t teach someone to be obsessive. You can’t teach someone to take risks. I think that someone can be developed to be a leader – but you can’t teach a person to be a Game Changer.
“Game Changers, though, sometimes have the potential within them and need support to help release this.”
According to the findings, however, respondents in smaller organizations were less likely to believe that Game Changers could be developed than were their counterparts in larger organizations.
But a whopping 84% of the whole sample believe people in junior roles in business could change the game in their company without having to be put in a senior management position. “This study proves that, regard- less of whether you are old, young, male or female, you can be a Game Changer in any walk of life,” says Ott. “This is a powerful story. But it is a question of unlocking the potential of Game Changers, rather than teaching them.”
Having said that, almost half of respondents (47%) thought less than 5% of the people in their organizations were Game Changers, compared with just 3% who believed more than three-quarters of their colleagues were Game Changers. This is despite the fact that almost two-thirds of respondents (63%) deemed themselves to be Game Changers.
“This goes back to why we wanted to carry out this research,” says Ott. “We want to find people who offer something that’s a bit different. Everyone knows what a Game Changer is, but no one can describe it. “Therefore, we all naturally believe that we are the Game Changers because that is something very personal to us.”
The findings reveal that fresh skills and attributes are needed in business and the Game Changers will be those people who come up with ideas, take calculated risks, learn and grow stronger from negative feedback, and put the needs of the business before their own personal career trajectory.
Ott concludes: “The talent that is needed to drive organizations forward is going to have to be fundamentally different over the next 10 years and there is a strong need for organizations to have individuals with core technical skills, but also people skills, business skills and commercial skills combined. They will need to create followership and move organizations.
“The Game Changers of the future understand the core of the business, but look at it slightly differently, with a slightly different personality. They will thrive in the increasingly fluid global economy, but, more importantly, take people with them.
“We still need leaders to steer the business – they will deal with complexities that Game Changers don’t have to manage. The leader is the manager of the football team, but the Game Changer is that obsessive and selfless captain who will take the team through.
“They are rare, but the Game Changers are the people who will take our organizations forward, providing we give them the freedom to operate.”