Leadership skills in an AI world

Sophie Bennett is a motivation expert, author, and champion horse dressage rider. She believes that leadership skills need to change in today’s increasingly technology-enabled workplace, where virtual teams are often working across country and cultural boundaries.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why we need a new approach to leadership skills now.
  • How management accountants need to think of themselves as “salespeople”.
  • The way body language affects the brain’s neurochemicals.
  • How to overcome communication challenges within virtual teams.
  • The role of “content” in building a personal brand.

Play the episode below:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Oliver Rowe, an 
FM magazine senior editor, at


Oliver Rowe: Welcome, Sophie.

Sophie Bennett: Thank you so much for having me. I'm absolutely delighted to be interviewed and be here as a guest on your podcast.

Rowe: You've written and spoken extensively on leadership and how leadership skills are changing. Why do we need a new approach to these skills now?

Bennett: Well, Oliver, the world is changing so quickly, I'm sure you'll agree, and the way we work is changing radically. So we're no longer just working with people in our own country. We're having to cross cultural boundaries. We’ve got multiple communications channels that we use, which mean that we have to change the style of our leadership often, depending on the channel that we're using. Hierarchies continue to flatten. Whatever businesses we're in and we're working with, there's no longer the sort of steep curve of leadership.

People are getting more informal as well. And that causes some really interesting challenges for leaders, because it's sometimes not as obvious who is the leader in the room these days. So we all need to get greater skills at working with teams that are not necessarily in the same room as us. So I think leadership is changing radically, and we all need to keep on developing our personal leadership skills.

Rowe: You've spoken before about the other skills accountants need and about how they need to be a salesperson, what do you mean by that?

Bennett: Yeah, I think there's always been a bit of a gap between this perception of the people that do sales and the people that don't. And I've worked in lots of organisations and consulted to lots of different businesses and governing bodies, and there's always traditionally been a divide between the people that sell the products and services and the people that do the technical skills behind the scenes that are actually driving the business.

And I think that's changing, because we're all convincing people of ideas constantly and what's that if it's not selling? So, we're constantly selling ideas. And if you have a boss, if you're not the person that owns or runs the company, then if you're going to make an impact in your career then you are always selling ideas upwards, because that's how innovation happens, right, we sell ideas upwards. And if you have a team, then you're always going to be selling ideas downwards because your team's not going to buy into something that you haven't convinced them about. So, for me selling is the concept of convincing people to take action or make changes, so we're always selling all the time.

Dan Pink wrote a great book, To Sell Is Human, which again was a book really about crossing that perceptual divide about what selling is or it isn't. And effectively if you're selling, you're building relationships constantly, it's a really important part of what we all need to do if we're going to become influential.

Rowe: And I guess part of that is about building rapport.

Bennett: Absolutely. Rapport is a really interesting thing because I think that's something that people perceive salespeople are very good at is building rapport. And some people perceive rapport as something that extroverts do, that introverts aren't so good at. And certainly in the management accountancy profession it does tend to pull people who are very good at focusing on things. And that can sometimes mean they're very focused on the data, but sometimes less comfortable about building rapport with people.

First of all I want to say that's OK, because oddly enough change very rarely happens when you're in rapport with somebody. Change usually happens when you break rapport. And that's something that when I talk about it really surprises people. Just think about it yourself as a listener. When you last made a big purchasing decision or a big decision about change in your life, did you make it from a place of comfort or did you make it from a place of discomfort? Chances are you made the shift in a period of discomfort. Because if we're comfortable, we very rarely make a change, right? We nearly always choose the status quo because that's what human beings do.

So interesting. If you're trying to sell a change whether that be convincing a client to take up a strategy change because of some of the data that you've shown them or some information about their business they weren't aware of or whether it's to convince your boss or your company to give you the funding for a new internal project or build some new software, whatever it happens to be, if that person, the other person is completely comfortable with where they are now they're very unlikely to change. So rapport is that comfortable-with-where-we-are-now place.

And if you watch or have ever been on the receiving end of a genius salesperson who's able to completely transform your vision about what's possible and get you to make that change, if you looked a video of that interaction, you would probably see that at some point they broke rapport with you and put you in an uncomfortable state so you either had to cling to the old or leap to the new, but not sit in a chasm between the two.

So it's just as important to be comfortable with breaking rapport if you want to make changes, as it is to get into rapport. But to do that, of course, you need to be very individually secure, because breaking rapport is a really difficult thing to do if you're not good at saying "No" or not good at setting boundaries. It's a very personally challenging thing to do. And great leaders are very comfortable with saying "No", with setting boundaries and are prepared to make the difficult decisions that will break rapport and break states, and for me that's how changes are made.

Rowe: That's absolutely fascinating. And I guess part of that, Sophie, is about communication skills. They're going to be more important in the future as well.

Bennett: Absolutely. And you asked earlier a very perceptive question about why a new approach for leadership now? And part of that is I responded with talking about cultural boundaries and about the communications channels we use.

Most of the things I have to clean up with people if I'm coaching senior leaders is often because of things that were misread when they communicated with somebody else. It's either a message that's being misread either by the press or by an internal team or by somebody on the board, or it's being read too quickly and the nuances and the details of the message has got lost.

When people are very clear in how they communicate those misunderstandings are minimised, business problems are minimised, losses of trust are minimised. So, communication skills are probably even more vital than they've ever been, because we have less and less time to listen. Messages get more and more condensed. The world's getting more complicated, and we're all on cognitive overload. You know we've all got emails and phones and messaging coming at us through channel after channel after channel, 24-hour news — it never stops.

So if we want our messages to stand out, we need to keep improving our personal communication skills. I believe it's one of the key elements of building a business and building a personal career.

Rowe: And what is the role of body language in that?

Bennett: Oh, that's a fantastic question. I'm reading a book at the moment because body language has always fascinated me and I'm an ex-sportsperson. I don't know if you're aware of that Oliver. So I'm very aware of how we use our bodies and how that affects our personal mindset and how people view us.

I'm reading a book at the moment called The Winner Effect, which talks about how our body language directly affects what's going on in our neurochemistry. And because the advances in science where we've got MRI scanners and we can actually test people while they're in a scanner, we can actually see which parts of the brain light up.

And if you stand confidently with open body language and your head well balanced on your neck and you're breathing correctly, you actually produce more of the hormones that give you self-confidence. So there is a direct link between how we use our own bodies and how we read others and our own personal performance. And we're getting a greater and greater understanding of the fact that even if you fake it, if you stand looking confidently, then you will actually feel more confident quite quickly, because your neurotransmitters will kick in. And obviously you need to be able to read other people's body language as well to be able to correctly assess a situation to the best of your ability.

So, again a little bit with the multiple channels, body language when you meet somebody is becoming more and more important because you've got less and less time to make an impact. And of course we don't see our colleagues a lot of the time, so we don’t have much face-to-face conversation anymore, so we really need to be able to read body language and impact people with our own in rapid time I believe.

Rowe: Thank you. And that's about us as individuals, what about teams? Does the definition of teamwork have to change?

Bennett: Oh, absolutely. Another great question. I think it's linked to the previous answers really because we're working across boundaries, we're working across time scales, we're working across cultures. And running a virtual team is very different from running a team that's all being based in the same building.

I mean just ten years ago we nearly always knew face-to-face our personal colleagues. You know we knew what we all did at weekends. We knew a little bit about each other's wives and children and husbands, and these days because we often work in different time zones and we've never met a lot of the people on our teams, we're running virtual teams and without that personal connection it's more different to communicate.

And I think one of the things that gets lost is the empathy we have with our team members. Empathy definitely goes when we don't understand people's personal struggles. So, there's a risk currently of people being left on the margins, especially who aren't proactive communicators inside those teams.

So we need to make sure that we're using whatever mechanisms we have, whether it be technological, whether it just be personal and we personally decide to look out for people on our teams and keep people included, I think it's vital.

I was at a conference with a couple hundred accountants, and one of the things people were telling me was that the distance they have from their teams is really starting to affect the way they work. People are working a lot from home and in small offices or in satellite offices, where their technical contributions are just the same or more positive than ever, but people do tell me that the teamwork element of it really gives their work meaning. So, we definitely need to not lose sight of that when we're working at how our organisational structures look in the future. Teamwork is super important, and it always will be.

Rowe: That's great advice, thank you. As individuals, management accountants needs to build their own brand and take a strategic look at their careers. How do they do that?

Bennett: Oh, that's a great question. I wrote a book recently and one of the people I interviewed was a global leader on personal branding, a lady called, Dorie Clark, who's based in the US, but she comes to London from time to time and she's very active at Duke University and many others in the US and in many other countries in fact. She's spoken, I believe, in about ten countries in the last year.

And content is one of the key elements that Dorie certainly believes that is one of the ways that we build our personal brand and I agree with that. Whether it be publishing, whether it be speaking and connecting with others, but it's vital to get your own ideas out.

Now here's a thing that I find that people are very uncomfortable with when it comes to publishing whether it be an article on LinkedIn or contributing to a professional magazine. They're both great examples of what I think all go-ahead professionals should be looking to do. But the one thing that holds them back is often the worry about being seen to be showing off or raising themselves above the parapet, raising themselves about their peers.

And here's what I say to people: "If you create really good content that's around your specialist element, whether that be soft skill that you're particularly good at, it could be something on leadership or it might a technical element of what you do or a case study that clients allowed you to use with permission. If the reader finds what you have written or what you are saying is helpful, it's not about you, it's about the reader. And then the pressure is off yourself from being the publisher or the speaker."

So, for example when I get up on stage and speak to professional conferences people often say to me, "Don't you get nervous?" My answer is, "Before I get up on stage, yes, I get nervous, but as soon as I'm on stage, I instantly know that it's about the people in the audience." Because I'm watching the faces of the people who are listening and when it's about them and when the point of what you're saying is landing with them, it's changing their careers, it's changing their ideas, their ability to develop themselves or their teams and businesses. And suddenly your confidence comes back and the nervousness goes away.

So, if in doubt, ask if your material is useful and, if it's useful, it's not about you, but you will be seen as somebody that's contributed to others. So personal branding really is ultimately about helping people, and you get the rub-off effect on that, and it's a very powerful way to help start building your career.

Rowe: It's been a fascinating conversation, Sophie. Thank you very much indeed.

Bennett: Oliver, it's my pleasure. Delighted to be here, and I hope the listeners have found it helpful.