The Birmingham Post has joined forces with Bournville College and Incisive Edge to run a series of events to help small and medium-sized businesses make the transition to sustainable high growth firms.

Here we report on the latest round-table hosted by the Institute of Directors at Eleven Brindleyplace and chaired by Birmingham Post editor Alun Thorne, where the discussion was around the importance of leadership.

Alun Thorne: How important is good leadership in helping to deliver growth?

Simon Boardman-Weston: I think if you are talking about turnaround businesses leadership is important. The objective is not so much growth but survival. That’s the first job, to ensure a successful turnaround of the business and give it a firm base for growth and in my experience the leadership of the team doing that is vitally important. Often you are going to have to build a new team of people. I am also very wary of any business where there seems to be one guru who makes it all work. My experience is you need a good and balanced team of people.

Andy Moss: You definitely need someone who has got flair and vision and direction but you need good management, someone who knows how to choose good people and put good structures in place. Also someone who knows how to liaise with good professional advisers, bankers, solicitors, accountants and general intermediaries.

Mark Clemson: It is about a having a balanced agenda delivering growth. A leader is someone who has the ability to help deliver a strategy which delivers growth and sustainability. Also who understands their workforce and understands how vital they are as you can’t do everything in your business. It is about accountability and responsibility, knowing what you have got to do. If you can bring that together you have got a successful business.

Gary Cowdrill: I was lucky enough to be at the West Bromwich Building Society during a very strong growth phase in the nineties and through to 2000. I think it is crucial for you to have good leadership in a team rather than just an individual. To display effective leadership you have got to get out there go and communicate with the staff and importantly learn from the feedback you get at the sharp end. That is crucial to the role of leadership – it is a two way street.

James Holden: Leaders I have worked with are very committed to their organisation and when you have difficult times leaders need to be able to stick to a plan and take their organisations forward. Of the two most impressive leaders I have worked with one was more charismatic than the other but both were charismatic in their own way on a one to one basis, because you believed in them.

Andy Williamson: A lot of it comes down to whether you are exuding confidence and can take your team and your staff with you and if you can display that confidence and find courage. In this country there is often an acceptance of the norm - that you can just carry on the way things have always been done but certainly in these times you have got to be ever changing.

If you can show courage yourself in terms of a willingness to change and impart that to others – even so people are free to fail and learn from their mistakes – if they show their own courage in trying to innovate and create you will get the best out of everyone.

Tom Collett: It is all about working with your employees and communicating with your employees – making them feel they are part of the team – and they will grow with you. Also get them to trust in you and realise that you are making the right decisions for them.

Alun Thorne: In really tough times is honesty the best policy with your team

Stuart Laight: All leaders have passion and drive and need to have that in business thought sometimes it can be misplaced and sometimes an entrepreneur that races ahead needs to be pulled back. These are tough times and we have communicated that very honestly to the staff.

Ian Priest: Being a charismatic leader is a two-edged sword but actually it’s not it’s three. It can be a fantastic engine for growth and driving a business forward but it can also, when you have got that type of charismatic leader the ego starts to take over and they stop listening to the finance and risk management teams and that’s when you start to see implosions like Northern Rock where it’s all about grabbing market share and fantastic leadership at the top but actually they let the fundamentals of the business go.

And it trips very easily into a third edge when people start to see through the bullshit but they are actually too scared to challenge. Then you get real problems. A good leader has got to be able to take on board lots of conflicting messages and be challenged. They must be prepared to listen to those challenges and actually see the bigger picture.

John Rider: It can be pretty lonely as a leader as there is no-one else and you are up there at the top. Being Mr Positive all the time is difficult. In turnarounds if there is one secret I have it is having a really sound team. You can’t turn a business around in spite of people – it’s not one man – you do it with people. You need to share with them. If you understand collectively where you are going you have a better chance of getting there.

Richard Williams: The best leaders I’ve seen are open-minded and open to suggestion. They don’t always take the suggestion but they will listen to them, react to them and say to people ‘that’s a pile of rubbish’ or ‘actually that’s really helpful and moving the business on’. Also I would say involving your professional advisers in good times and bad and have trust on both sides.

Alun Thorne: What’s the secret of a leader growing a business?

Julia Payne: A lot has been said in terms of clarity and confidence. I sat on two boards with Sir Keith Mills who founded Air Miles and is now deputy chairman of the Olympic Committee. I went to the first board and sat with him thought it would be fire and brimstone but it was quite the opposite.

He was a very quiet man but what he had was the ability to ask questions. He might start with the simplest of questions and he would build and build until he understood the complete picture and that is the trait of a very good leader, understanding the overall picture and seeing it through other people’s eyes not just your own eyes.

Continues on next page >>

Alun Thorne: Can you think of mistakes you have made and learned from that you would not make again?

Craig Fletcher: One of the biggest learning curves I had with my current business was not the fact it grew but the sudden growth. We went from five to 36 people in less than 12 months. It’s much easier to take a business from 30 people to 60 because by the time you get to 30 you have organised procedures and policies in place and people have roles and lines of responsibilities.

You take a business from five people where they are talking every day in a room every day and there really isn’t a need for these levels and layers of communication channels but you take it to 30 and there is.

You try to bring the people on board as fast as you can to cope with demand but at the same time it is very difficult to put these procedures in place because you don’t know what is going to work, particularly in a new business in an innovative sector with a new product.

I tried one sort of policy, tried another it didn’t work, that gives terrible messages to employees and that knocks their confidence in me as a leader. In hindsight I should have put one in place that should have been fine-tuned rather than lots of changes. Change management can be achieved once, maybe twice, you can’t do it four or five times.

Rose Rees: I see it from the staff side too. There is a fear factor from the staff side. They get asked to do something and say ‘yes I can do that for you’ but they can’t do it so they worry themselves. They don’t have the knowledge the leader or manager has but there is an assumption they have.

One of the biggest things is the credibility factor. If you lose your credibility from staff or customers you lose a lot of business.

David Bowler: A lot of managers are people who perform extremely well in their role are promoted but are not necessarily natural leaders and they are expected then to manage people and take a team with them within the business. They are rewarded for good performance but put into a position that doesn’t necessarily suit their character or their aptitude in that role.

John Phillips: In the IoD we do a lot of work with education, children and young people and one of the things I am always trying to emphasize is that giving young people confidence is not about being some terrible extrovert. Often entrepreneurs are not natural extroverts and are self critical.

* Participants

Simon Boardman-Weston
BRI Asset Management plc

David Bowler
Incisive Edge

Mark Clemson
New World Solar

Tom Collett
Hugo Technology Ltd

Gary Cowdrill
Board Evaluation Ltd

Craig Fletcher

James Holden
Leader Communications

Stuart Laight

Andy Moss
Lloyds TSB

Julia Payne
Incisive Edge

John Philips

Ian Priest
Ian Priest Associates Ltd

David Reading

Rose Rees
Bournville College

John Rider

Stuart Squire
Static Systems

Mike Symes
Incisive Edge

Alun Thorne
Birmingham Post

Richard Williams
Lloyds TSB

Andy Williamson
Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance