Chief Executive, North East England Chamber of Commerce
What are the key skills/qualities you need to run a successful business? Do you think these can be learnt?
To me, the key skill that’s required is to create a clear and positive sense of purpose so that everybody knows where they’re driving towards. This needs to be communicated in such a way that every single person understands what their role and responsibility is – and it needs to be continually reinforced.
Much of this is based on my military background where, as a leader, you have to work with what you’ve got and your challenge is to make the best of every single person working with you and give them the skills and confidence required to succeed. It is crucial that you are able to impart confidence when you’re asking someone to put themselves in harm’s way – so it needs a particular type of leadership to build morale in that environment.
How would you describe your own management style? Why do you think it’s successful?
I’m a great believer in the approach where you don’t tell someone how to do something. Instead, tell them what needs to be done and let them find their own way of doing it. If you tell someone exactly how to do something, they don’t feel any ownership of the process and, if it goes wrong, they have no sense of responsibility – so there’s little drive to overcome the challenge. Ultimately, it’s about empowering people and giving them the motivation to succeed.
My particular style of leadership is much more than just leading within the NEECC because we, as an organisation, have a regional leadership role. As the chief executive of the Chamber, I spend the majority of my time leading people over whom I have no authority: the wider regional community. When I started this job over ten years ago, I set out my stall very clearly to completely change the aspirations of the North East. At that time, we were a region that tended to emphasise the negatives at every possible opportunity. There’s still a lot to do but, over the past decade, I believe we’re shifting that mind-set and the North East is gaining in confidence all the time.
What’s the worst mistake you can make when leading a business?
The worst thing you can do is believe someone when they say ‘trust me’. The fact that they’ve even had to say that suggests to me that I need to be really worried. If you are totally trustworthy, you just never say that – it’s a given. Integrity and trust are so important. By nature, trust people until they prove that trust wasn’t warranted.
How do you get the best out of your staff?
It’s about building aspirations and creating a sense of purpose and positivity. Once people believe they can achieve something, they usually will. That doesn’t just apply to within the Chamber but the business community as a whole. This includes the time I spend trying to help businesses grow internationally. This work is often quite hard as it is about giving them the confidence that it is possible, because people believe that exporting is really hard, which is true, but we’ve a great team here to help companies achieve their goals.
The one thing I say to any new recruit is that for the first two months, at least, challenge and criticise us on everything you see. In two months’ time, they become part of the problem because they walk in through the front door and don’t see it in the same way that they saw it on day one because they’re no longer an outsider. They always have a right and a responsibility to challenge everything we do on behalf of members, but I encourage them to be particularly challenging when seeing things through fresh eyes.
Which business leader(s) have you been inspired by and why?
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop. She once said something that still resonates with me: ‘If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.’