Leadership training and how it worked for owner-managers

Steve Kempster draws on the experiences and lessons learnt from an owner-manager leadership training programme.

Leadership learning is very different for owner-managers compared to the typical employed manager. An employed manager sees leadership connected with a successful career, it’s an aspiration to be seen as an effective leader. They learn to lead, stimulated unconsciously by the abundance and variety of people they have around them to learn from, and in the variety of roles they need to take on.

It’s not that owner-managers don’t lead, they can be providing a very strong form of leadership, but this kind of leadership can often be a limit on growth. That’s the irony of entrepreneurship. The commitment, skills, ambition and insight that drives the establishment of a start-up become a glass ceiling to business growth. The approach to leadership reflects what has been learned, which for the owner-manager tends to be primarily from the idea of family with themselves as a dominant parent. Research shows this approach is a consequence of dominant formative learning from an early basis that has not been modified by other learning and examples which are better suited to the range of demands of leadership, with a business that needs to embrace multiple, collective, shared approaches to leadership to cope with extensive lines of communications, decisions, exploitation of networks and empowered behaviours of many – all those factors that are important for growth.

How can these limitations be addressed? The first priority is to turn an owner-manager on to leadership itself; make the phenomenon top of mind for them. This way the owner-manager will begin to see it everywhere, on television, films, with customers and suppliers, fellow directors and managers (if there are any), and many of the employees. If leadership is important to them, then a shift occurs in terms of the sort of leader the owner-manager wants to become, the owner-manager explores how to be better at leading and they gain a new sense of their own abilities and potential. It is these changes are aligned with a desire to know what form of leading would be better for growing a business.

The LEAD programme

This is the approach taken by the LEAD programme [pdf]. It’s very different to the standard leadership training programme as it takes owner-managers on a journey. So rather than sitting them in a classroom with the hope of filling them up with the ‘right’ ideas applicable in all circumstance, the LEAD programme journey allows the owner-managers to grow collectively supporting each other.

In our new book, owner-managers talk about their experiences, what it feels like to join a leadership programme, and on a practical level, how to make it work for them and the business. The fundamental assumption behind LEAD is that any leadership development of an owner-manager has to be integrated with the business. There’s often a major disconnect between ‘what someone thinks leadership is’ (their intent), and ‘how a person learns to practice leadership’ (their impact). Bridging this gap enables business development and the potential for growth. The programme combines formal input and experiential learning within a peer group of other SME leaders, sharing and learning from experience over a ten-month period. Three large scale evaluations of LEAD have been conducted, showing how significant increases in annual sales, employment and profitability or profits were reported by 97 per cent of participating firms with an average increase in turnover of 27 per cent and an increase in employment of 13 per cent.

The book follows three owner-managers over a ten-month period. Business leaders Freddie Porter (recently taken over the family building services firm), Jane Bishop (managing director of a marketing consultancy trying to re-build itself post-recession) and Bill Richards (long-time leader of an established professional services company facing sector consolidation and radical change) share experiences from their time on LEAD. Here are some of their key lessons on how they made leadership development work for them.

1. Recognising the issue

‘Even inside my company I feel that I have nobody I can openly turn to. I can’t talk to those around me as they expect answers from me, not doubts, not questions. They want answers! Indeed, some of the issues that the organisation faces have been caused by them. How can I talk to them about problems that I believe they are part of or that they have caused?

‘And from where do I get new inputs, insights and innovation? Effectively I have had to learn on the job. Nobody has prepared me for the role. There has been no training course and there has been little or no personal development. Leadership does not apply in my firm. It’s only for ‘large’ companies. Isn’t it? Well, whatever leadership is or is not I am unaware of people who do it well in my circle of friends or business networks. And as for business networks, how can I possibly admit my doubts and concerns to strangers, some of whom may even be competitors?’

Like many business leaders, Freddie, Jane and Bill felt all of the above. They had nobody to turn to despite an ever growing number of business support organisations and consultants offering a confusing battery of similar services. All three business people had concerns about the performance of their very different companies. Due to various factors, their enthusiasm and confidence were privately waning under their self doubts. They had no training to lead their respective businesses.

2. Building belief in their own leadership

‘I have found myself constantly reflecting on every meeting that I have,’ says Freddie. ‘Which in turn has aided me to evolve in my role as managing director. An example of this is the Key Decision Makers’ meeting which I chair. I ensure that I am well prepared going into the meeting with a set agenda and forward this to directors and managers to add content/points before they meet. As this is an important meeting, it is important that I listen intently and answer succinctly any questions posed. Prior to LEAD, I was a poor listener. I also asked closed questions rather than the open questions I have been coached to use in Action Learning.’

A central element of the approach was getting used to a cycle of open questions, listening to other people’s experiences, reflection and implementing ideas. The owner-managers all developed these practices as a standard part of their way of working, to establish a structured basis of thinking and acting as leaders. This becomes a foundation for growing self confidence, and for their identity as a particular kind of leader. They now see themselves as central to developing their companies through establishing a business plan, in some instances for the first time.

3. Creating ‘social capital’

Owner-managers need to develop notions of ‘social capital’ within their business – who gets things done and how, and the value of their involvement. They have to recognise the need for a capable management team around them, which in some cases has led to a change of senior team members. The programme led to more mindfulness around future behaviour and relationships with managers to maximise the social capital through being careful to create beneficial internal networks. More broadly, aspects of social cohesion and solidarity have been improved through better communications and the implementation of employee engagement strategies.

‘I have learned from LEAD that simple improvements in communication would improve staff morale: employees should be trusted with more information, they would be and feel part of the business planning process and they would more likely ‘buy in’ to the business plan. With a better understanding they would feel confident to contribute more and they would be and feel more valued. My investigations confirmed this – my partners and staff wanted this! I was holding the organisation back,’ says Bill.

4. Keeping a network of peers

Institutional capital is developed through the creation of the LEAD Community of Practice (CoP), ie the formal structures and organisations which enhance the role of social capital and go beyond enriching the human capital stock of individual leaders. This has been enabled through the expanded network of peers – the business leaders who did not know each other previously – coming together to create a CoP. They cite the process of ‘shadowing’ a peer in another business adds institutional value to the community as well as the participating businesses. Their comments give clear recognition that this peer group has been a huge aid to their development and they recognise the peers have been a most valuable support group. The ongoing presence of the institution is reflected in their continuance of networking and socialising after LEAD has finished. The informal structures and governing rules of engagement have persisted.

Jane says, ‘LEAD has reignited my leadership. It has enabled and encouraged me to look critically but positively at my own managerial and leadership performance within my organisation. Importantly this is not in isolation. The opportunity to interact with other leaders from a variety of businesses in a structured way has helped to build my own confidence in the knowledge that I am not alone in wanting to improve or in the challenges I face. The way the LEAD cohort has formed into a close and open team has been a mark of the programme.’

Dr Steve Kempster is professorial director of leadership development at Lancaster University Management School.

Further reading on business management:

Fourteen ways to win at leadership

Here, Ben Morton looks at the fourteen most powerful and game changing lessons that he has learned about leadership

When it comes to leadership and business, every day is a school day.

The most successful leaders are undoubtedly the ones who focus equally on learning from their successes and their failures. But learning only has value when it leads to change.

In this case, ensuring that we optimise the things that are working well while ensuring we do not continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Here are the 14 most powerful and game changing lessons that I have learned about leadership.

1. Get out of your head

If you’re wrestling with something and can’t seem to find a way forward, empty your head into a journal. Turn over to a crisp, fresh page and download all that you are thinking and feeling. Write down your perfect outcome, the current situation, your thoughts, feelings, opportunities, risks and fears. There is no need to follow a prescriptive process; just give yourself time and space then allow the solutions to appear.

2. Focus on delivering outstanding value

When you focus on delivering outstanding value, you will stand out. Full stop. Period.

3. Play the long game

Anything worthwhile takes time. If your dream is really your dream, then focus on winning in the long-term as opposed to being a short-lived overnight success story.
Bonus tip: be wary of the ‘Fail fast and fail quickly’ cliché. The words we use have a powerful effect on our experience of life. Is failing quickly really what you are aiming for or is the goal to win in the long term?

4. Have a theme for the year

Invest the time in developing a theme for the year ahead. If it is strong enough and you connect to it on a deep emotional level, your life will unfold in accordance with it.
Once you’ve identified your theme write it in your journal or on a piece of paper where you will see it every day, then work towards it with relentless passion and energy. If you do, I guarantee 2018 will be a great year for you.

5. Plan in de-loading periods

I’m an early riser, a relentless learner, a constant thinker and fanatical road-biker. More importantly I’m a husband striving to be better and a proud father who is trying to be a brilliant role model to his wonderful daughter. I love my life, I love getting up at 5:15 to run and all that I cram into my schedule.

And – I’ve realised that I’m at my very best when I consciously ease of every fourth week. Work out what routine works best for you and schedule it into your diary. Your body, mind, friends and family will thank you for it.

6. Compound interest is for life, not just your finances

Lots of tiny investments, made consistently over time will add up to create huge returns. Investing your time and money in accordance with your vision will bring huge returns in the long run, as will striving to make small daily improvements in every area of your life and business.

7. Carve out time to think

I believe this is a non-negotiable for leaders. The way most of us work simply doesn’t work. We work longer and harder in an attempt to get everything done and end up becoming reactive, busy fools. We sacrifice our health, hobbies, and time with our loved ones and friends for work in the hope that we’ll get the balance back when we’re ‘successful’. That’s a broken formula.

8. Outthink outlearn and out-live your competition

Create a daily habit of thinking, learning and practicing self-care. When you do this you’ll have all of the energy and expertise to win in the long run, and enjoy life to the full.

9. Face into conflict and uncomfortable situations

If something that is important to you is not right then you have three choices. Option one – tackle it head on in the best way you can whist being true to your values.

Option two – find a way to let go and move on; that may involve ending a relationship, winding-up a project or cutting your losses and starting again.

Option three – stick your head in the sand like an ostrich, complain to everyone around you and become a victim.

10. Ask questions instead of asking for questions

No matter how many times you ask if people have any questions and no matter how approachable you think you are, people will always hold back. They hold back because they are afraid of looking stupid in front of you and their peers.

This is a lesson I recently rediscovered from my time in the Army. At the end of a briefing – we would always ask questions of our team to ensure clarity and alignment. We never sought clarity by asking our team if they had any questions.

11. One man’s wisdom is another man’s folly

The fact that you are reading this article suggests you are the type of person who has a hunger for growth and self-improvement. But this doesn’t mean that you should be a slave to all of the advice and wisdom routines that others espouse.

I recommend challenging and developing their ideas so that they work for you. Above all else, be ready to reject those things that do not work for you; provided you are not rejecting them simply to avoid doing the work or stepping out of your comfort zone.

12. Be your authentic self

The more authentic you are, the better everything in life becomes. Your health, energy, leadership capabilities, work performance and relationships all kick-on to new levels when you start to drop the mask and let people get to know the real you.

The irony is, that dropping the mask means that you have to be prepared to be vulnerable and this takes courage. If you want to know more, read about my own experience of dropping the mask here.

13. Nothing happens by chance

Someone once told me that there is no such thing as luck, just timing and judgement.

The power of this simple statement lies in the fact that timing and judgement are two things that are within our control. Where we cannot control them, we can usually influence them.

All events and opportunities that present themselves to us are a result of what we choose to focus on, the choices we make and the actions we take. Ultimately, clarity of vision supported by constant, focussed action will deliver the results you seek.

14. Discipline and structure provide freedom and autonomy

Developing laser-like clarity on the things and projects that really matter to you in life allows you to say yes and no to the right things.

Scheduling your priorities into the years, quarters, weeks and days does not reduce your freedom. It provides huge flexibility and choice because you know that the important stuff is being taken care of. This leaves you with total freedom around how you use your remaining time. It provides you with the time to apply lesson #7.

Which of these resonate most with you? What can you learn and apply in your business?

Ben Morton is founder of TwentyOne Leadership.

See also: Anthony Joshua: Five early signs of leadership greatness – George Karseras explains what business leaders can learn from how leading boxer Anthony Joshua goes about his work.

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