Just Eat’s global marketing chief Barnaby Dawe has given a frank assessment of how his leadership style has evolved to PR journal Marketing Week. As Dawe explains in the profile, prior to coordinating promotional activities at the online food service, he spent most of his career in the media. Brands he worked for included Channel 4, Sky and Heart FM.

In particular, he notes, his move from the second to the third of those organisations was a pivotal moment for discovering more about his management style. Having come from the “fast moving, quite assertive” culture of Sky to the much “smaller, familiar and friendly” climate of Heart FM he was, by his own admission, “a bit like a bull in a china shop”.

Dawe’s Heart CEO credited him for being a breath of fresh air who’d brought desired change to the station. However, the CEO also urged Dawe to grasp the value of bringing his people with him – and to see language as key to securing buy in and advice from staff, regardless of their seniority. As Dawe says: “It was really good advice, because very soon after I changed my style, people started to blossom and the business really flourished.”

According to management professor Sydney Finkelstein – faculty director at the Dartmouth College-based Tuck Centre for Leadership – the primary factor behind failures of judgment among leaders is that they rely too heavily upon past experience. As a result, they fail to see that what worked at an earlier point of their careers won’t work in the present or future.

What is the most constructive and effective way for leaders to adapt their style? And what are the main misconceptions that will hinder their efforts to do so?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Arguably the biggest misconception around adapting is when leaders think that they must create a portfolio of different leadership ‘personas’. There’s something terribly inauthentic about that. What they ought to be doing is adapting to the new context they’re in, which is framed as the organisation’s culture – and that’s defined by the people who work in it, and their interpersonal relationships. Another powerful, shaping factor behind an organisation’s culture is the state of the industry in which it works.

“So if you move from, say, a creative, informal culture to a more rules-bound, compliant one, you have to understand – and, indeed, respect – the fact that there’s something about the latter environment that those who are working in it find appealing.”

Cooper notes: “If those people are doing a good job, then trying to change those individuals to reflect the culture of the organisation you used to work in is out of the question. Because what you’d almost be saying is, ‘The people that I worked with there are so much better than the people I’m working with here.’ When in fact, your new colleagues are simply trying to deliver on a rather different business model.

“People like to change things so they’ll understand them, because they think that that’s a quicker or easier route than understanding the steady state – or the ‘what-is’ – of the organisation they’ve joined. Very often, it’s the context that makes an idea successful. That’s why I tend to have a problem with the idea of ‘best practice’ approaches: they may be ‘best’ within the organisation for which they were devised – but if you try to replicate those same processes elsewhere, they may not be best at all.”

Cooper stresses: “Understand the people you’re working with. Understand the context of the industry or market in which the organisation is operating. Then adapt in accordance to what you’ve gleaned. It’s not about becoming somebody else, or developing a new persona. It’s about doing the right thing for the situation you’re in.”

For further thoughts on the art of adaptability, check out these learning resources from the Institute