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Leaders on leadership: Heather Coker at Morgan Advanced Materials

Leaders on leadership: Heather Coker at Morgan Advanced Materials
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We sat down with Heather Coker, Global Learning Lead at Morgan Advanced Materials PLC, to talk all things leadership.

What are some of your own acts of leadership that have had a significant impact on your life and others?

I really value everyone I work with, not just for who they are at work, but for the whole person. This really helps me build trust with my team, and also helps them to believe in me.

One experience that had a particularly big impact on me was with a new member of my team who had lost her son 18 months before. We worked really hard together to rebuild her confidence in the workplace. We made her brilliance shine through again after she had been in a very sad and dark place. This experience really touched me – I feel like I really helped someone, and in this way, this has been my greatest leadership achievement.

What do you see as the most essential aspect in building leadership across an organisation?

I believe that the most important thing is that the senior leadership team are consistent in their understanding of the purpose of the business, and that they can relay this – and the reasoning behind it – down through the organisation. If leaders simply repeat what other leaders have said without fully understanding it or bringing it to life, then communication lines are bound to break down. By the time the information reaches the bottom it's meaningless and nobody has bought in or engaged with it. Everyone needs to be able to relate to this message and to recognise how their contribution fits into it.

What is your own personal leadership style?

I would say my personal leadership style is based on trust, compassion and empathy. I am an open and honest collaborator and I thrive on great teamwork – this is something that we practise in our own teams and also in our work with Impact. Within a team, hierarchy doesn't matter to me. The most junior people in my team have the same voice as senior individuals, and I find that this is often where some of the most interesting ideas come from.

My parents always taught me to treat others as you would like to be treated and I still live by that rule today. Basic courtesy and kindness are vital to any leader. In addition, I always try to approach my work with great enthusiasm; in my team, we work really hard, but we see great value in our work and we enjoy it.

Are there any trends you’ve been observing in the L&D space that you would like to share?

We all talk about digital learning and mobile delivery, and I absolutely agree that this is the right direction to go in, but I also think that people are becoming saturated with information. Every day I am bombarded with information from work, on my personal phone, on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram… it becomes overwhelming. From a learning perspective, there seems to be a trend for giving people all the information and letting them choose what’s relevant. However, I wonder if we need to stop and ask ourselves what we really want our people to know. What's critical? How can we help them to absorb it? There is so much information being thrown at people, and this can translate into a mental health in the workplace issue, which is significant issue. We all have a responsibility for making sure that we are not overwhelming our employees.

I also see an increased focus on Return On Investment (ROI) in organisations. People are starting to consider more how HR and talent development teams can work together with the rest of the business, to ensure integration in identifying the business needs. The ability to measure ROI is really important in this sense. It's a difficult thing to do, but if you can start with the ROI it really helps when you come to evaluate your progression.

What’s special about Morgan in how you develop talent from a global perspective?

Because of our size we're able to know our talent perhaps more than if we were larger organisation. The global HR community really knows our people and are great at communicating about talent, which supports us in growing it within the organisation. Furthermore, our CEO is absolutely committed to L&D, in a way that I have not seen before. He is present at all our learning programmes, for example, he recently spoke at our leadership and graduate programme , which the participants were blown away by. This makes the commitment to L&D in the organisation very evident to people.

However, what really amazes me about Morgan is the diversity across the organisation. We're all collaborating globally, and that brings incredible diversity of thought, culture and ability. This is reflected in our L&D, in which all of our leadership and graduate programmes are global. We also give people experiences in different places around the world, so that they can gain insight into the different regions and parts of the business. Historically these parts have been separate, but this practice is allowing us to become more connected. Exposing people to different sites enables them to make interesting connections, such as suggestions for collaboration or new ways of doing things.

Are there any books or apps you’d like to recommend to our readers?

Working in learning, I should always be learning myself, so I'm conscious of constantly pushing for that, whether it's reading an article on LinkedIn or just catching up on the news. When I left my last job, a colleague gave me a book called ‘The Emotionally Intelligent Office’, which covers the 20 key emotional skills for the workplace in a really interesting way.

Another good tip would be to try a six-minute diary, which is based on the practice of everyday journaling. I use one (that my boss gave me), but we also use this practice in our leadership and graduate programmes, as it really helps to bring us back to ground. Asking ourselves questions gives us the ability to stop; too often we just keep going, never celebrating success because we've already moved on to the next thing.

One piece of advice you’d like to share with fellow L&D professionals?

Work hard, keep things in perspective and good things will happen.

Heather Coker is Global Learning Lead at Morgan Advanced Materials PLC