Business success isn't solely about profit margins and market share; it's a reflection of a company's culture, underpinned by the dynamic leadership that drives it forward. In his role as Managing Partner of Heidrick Consulting, Dustin Seale has been responsible for overseeing the culture strategy of one of the world’s premier providers of executive search, corporate culture and leadership consulting services.
Dustin met with Max Webber, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss everything from the traits and habits of highly successful leaders to the importance of personal growth for success in leadership.
I’m the Managing Partner for Heidrick Consulting in Europe and Africa. We operate in three regions, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, and Europe and Africa, and we collaborate closely with our colleagues from across the group.
I really grew up in Senn Delaney. It was one of the original culture-shaping firms, and it was one of the places which made culture a topic which leaders talked about on a regular basis. When I arrived at Senn Delaney, I was early in my career, and 15 years younger than anyone they’d ever hired. At the age of 26, I found myself thrust into the C-Suite and dealing with CEOs and senior leadership. That caused me to doubt myself, and I wasn’t sure I really belonged there. But it helped me realise that the biggest determinant in success is getting your mindset right. As a young person, I always thought that people in the C-Suite had won the lottery, but when I actually sat in that seat, I discovered it can also come with fear, pressure, and loneliness. I was fortunate to have some amazing clients who took me around the world, working in more than 70 countries and learning from top leaders in many different contexts.
Exactly. About four years ago, I took a step back and reflected on the things that I had learned. I thought about all the leaders I’d met who had outperformed the market and created thriving, inclusive environments for their people. I realised that the best leaders wouldn’t choose between the two: they would have the capability to do both.
It’s not about personality or style. Great leaders come in all shapes and sizes. The biggest thing is being the chief learner: if you want to transform your organisation, you first need to improve yourself. These leaders are purposeful, but their ambition isn’t just for themselves. They want to make a wider impact. They are always learning and growing, and are not afraid to own up to mistakes.
Be vulnerable. Share your mistakes as well as your successes. If you pretend to be perfect, then you create a culture which is risk-averse. I’ve heard it described as “success theatre.” But in our fast-changing society, you can’t afford that. The best leaders will talk about their own mistakes, and encourage people to learn from theirs so that they can adjust, improve, and move forward.
When you’re in professional services, you need to make sure you practice what you preach. Three years ago, when I came back into the business, the first thing I thought about was how to develop our culture. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve tripled the size of the business. The first phase was about moving from “I” to “we”, creating strong teams to better serve our clients. You need to narrow your focus, honing in on a few key areas instead of trying to do everything. If you’re distracted, you’re going to have a limited impact. The next phase is growth: taking risks, stepping out of your comfort zone, and learning from mistakes. You also need to think about your personal growth: for me, it’s when I’m working with my clients, and stepping into spaces which are unfamiliar.
In systemic terms, we make sure teams are formed of diverse groups which are embedded in the work. People need to understand their contribution and see how their work serves a purpose. In terms of inclusion, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you need to see diversity in everyone. We often think about visible characteristics, such as race and gender, but it’s easy to forget that most diversity is hidden. For example, my eldest son has been very successful, but he’s highly dyslexic, and you wouldn’t know unless he told you. Second, you need to build inclusive teams. That’s where diversity and inclusion comes to life, and it’s where people can feel their voice really matters.
Our business has three focus areas: leadership, culture and organisation, and DEI. We make sure that all our people go through the same training we offer our clients. It’s not about a single solution: you need to be constantly working at it. Everybody has blind spots, so it’s important to recognise and reward the time people put into learning so that they are more incentivised to buy in.
Know your purpose. You need to know what impact you want to have. The work needs to have meaning beyond the financials. Ultimately, people want to make a difference. It’s also key to invest time in building meaningful connections. If you know someone on a human level, it makes it easier to act with compassion. Finally, make a space where it’s safe to fail. That’s the only way you can grow and improve.
It came from my mentor, John Clayton. One day, I was struggling with a problem, so he sat me down and told me, “Dustin, you need to get over yourself.” I realised that I wasn’t worried about the problem; I was worried about my ego, and how others would see me. Most of our own pain comes from ourselves. Instead, be there for the people around you and the wider purpose of your work. Finally, the last piece of advice comes from my Dad, who taught me to always respond. Even if it’s just a call or a text, you should show people that you care.