An evolution in leadership.

Written by our CEO, Niel Bethell.

Growing any business will have its ups and downs but one thing I always strive to keep on an upward curve is my own personal development as a leader. Rapidly approaching twenty years since taking the entrepreneurial leap of faith, I wanted to share some thoughts on how my own style of leadership has evolved. It’s very much a work in progress as I’ve found myself constantly adapting to the requirements of a growing business and learning from others who constantly inspire me. Hope some of it resonates.

Empower everybody, concede responsibility.

In the early years of High Access, like any fledgling founder, I had to wear many hats (even hard ones) and make most of, if not all, the decisions. The day-to-day, as well as the bigger picture stuff. As the business grew, I was still trying to make decisions for the entire team despite several colleagues keen to take more responsibility. However, it reached a point where growth was being stifled as a consequence of this ‘sweating the small stuff’ and decisions and actions would bottleneck around me. We’d hit a ceiling and I knew I had to evolve as a leader for the business to take the next step forward.

It took me some time to realise that by letting go I was also developing a stronger and more engaged management team around me. The likes of Phil Seaton, who started as a graduate and is now managing director of our maintenance division, blossomed and rapidly progressed through the ranks. Years later I now fully understand that if you want a team to take responsibility they have to be completely empowered to make their own decisions and held accountable – for both success and failure. The latter is often part of their own development and quite often the best training money can buy! As long as they’re clear on the overall vision and you trust their ability, then really the best role you can play is to be a sounding board, there to assist and support as and when they require. Today, I have an experienced board of directors around me and most of the time, they are much better placed than I am to make critical decisions around their particular business function.

This is the first leadership trait that I think makes any business truly scalable.

Think big, take risks.

There’s a Senna quote that captures how any entrepreneurial leader feels every week, month and year. 

On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, ‘Okay, this is the limit.’ As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.

And I think it applies in business too. I honestly think if I hadn’t have adopted this mentality early on in my career, then I’d probably still be where I started out. My interpretation of the quote is to think big and push the limits of where the business might realistically get to next.

To achieve this, I’ve always taken calculated risks along the way, bought machines when I shouldn’t have bought machines. Gone with my gut feeling and said “we’re going to do this and I think we can make it work.”

Whereas, I perhaps struggled initially with some other aspects of leadership, this risk-taking and thinking big has always come naturally to me.

And it gets others excited too. Ambitious colleagues get restless and don’t want to stay still. They want to be inspired by big thinking. I now have the experience to look into colleagues’ eyes and see who really wants it and who doesn’t. Inspiration only extends to those who want to receive it and we no longer waste much time on people of that ilk, preserving our energies and rewards for the high-flyers.

Such has been our progress to date, we’ve reset our vision several times at High Access over the years and now as part of the NSS Group, it’s happening all over again. Thinking bigger all the time.

Move fast, be decisive.

An experienced business owner once said to me “Don’t be frightened of making wrong decisions if you make them soon enough”.

It didn’t make that much sense initially but as the years have passed I now totally understand and agree with this perspective. His explanation was that procrastination or internal stalemate on decisions can stagnate businesses. Being indecisive usually means no action, offering little or no chance of success or progress, causing regression and frustration.

However, even if you make a bad decision, if you made it quickly enough and aren’t a stubborn fool then there’s always time to change your mind and do something about it before whatever course of action you initially took causes any serious damage. This chap was right as we’ve done this several times and been agile enough to change course.

At this point, I must confess. I’ve made some awful decisions down the years and done some bad deals too. But for every one of those, I’ve made countless more right decisions by going with my gut feel and making swift, firm decisions.

That said, I’m very self-aware that as the stakes have risen, then decisions and consequent actions do require ever-increasing levels of due diligence and thoughtful consideration. Decision-making processes inside a £25m+ business ought to differ from a £250,000 turnover start-up.

I’m also very lucky that I now surround myself with an experienced board of directors, investors and professional advisers that challenge decision-making and play devil’s advocate when necessary. It’s a healthy set-up.

Celebrate success, build a winning culture.

There’s going to be bad days. Trust me.

Anyone who says otherwise is a liar, plain and simple. As a leader of any business you’ve got to be the one with the brave face on, the morning after the proverbial bad day at the office. Chest puffed out, chin up, reassuring everybody that today is another day and that everything is going to be alright.

I’d also strongly argue it’s the role of a leader to ensure that the culture of a business is to celebrate the good stuff too. There’s nothing wrong with quickly setting sights on the next new business win or growth target but you definitely have to pause and enjoy a moment of success as a team for what it is. It’s in these moments that a winning culture can be built to really drive everyone onwards and upwards to the next achievement.

This is something I’ve recently recognised that I can do better as a leader and it’s right at the top of my agenda for motivating and inspiring my talented colleagues.

Keep well, preserve headspace.

I believe the wellbeing of a business is directly correlated to the wellbeing of its people. A happy and engaged workforce will go the extra mile for customers and that, in my experience, has always translated directly to the bottom line. As a leader of the business you have the absolute responsibility to make sure that the culture protects a suitable work-life balance for everyone. Overworked, stressed employees will eventually burnout or fail to perform so we try to ensure people are switched off come the end of their shift and spending quality time with their loved ones.

But in the same way a flight attendant will tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before tending to others, it’s equally critical to look after your own wellbeing first. Leaders are always working under intense pressure with the livelihoods of colleagues quite often in the hands of your own decision-making.

If you’re not in a good place physically and mentally, then how can you make sure your colleagues are? It’s not selfish, it’s just plain common sense.

And don’t fall into the trap of presenteeism either. No longer does an effective leader have to be first to arrive in a morning and last to leave. It’s also a surefire sense of insecurity in my opinion. By all means set a good example around a strong work ethic but as the old adage goes… employees work hard when a good manager is in but employees work hard when a good leader is out.

In the last couple of years, I’m really protecting and enjoying my leisure time and what I’ve observed about myself is that switching off preserves my headspace, makes me a better leader and more importantly a better person.

My release (and reward as it happens) is to spend regular time at my holiday home in the south of France. It’s a personal reminder of what hard work can achieve and is the perfect setting to allow myself the opportunity to work on the business, not in it. Every minute not spent sweating all that small stuff like I used to in the old days is now spent plotting the next chapter of the NSS Group story.

Hopefully some of the above connected but I’d love to hear about your leadership journey or what good leadership means to you?

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