Chaffron Way Open Event - 10th November
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As Commercial Director of a multi-million pound educational concern with direct responsibility for teaching leadership, among other things, you might think this is a question for which I would have a well-practised answer.
All my preconceptions were given a bit of a shake recently when I had the chance to hear Neil Murray, founder of tech company Mimecast, talk about it.
As a business valued in the billions rather than millions, one would expect such a man to have the people skills and charisma of a general, an international football captain and the leader of a religious sect all rolled into one. According to Mr Murray, that was not always the case.
He found the transition from “geek to leader,” one which required a lot of learning and personal development.
This is an emerging issue in the tech sector. Often, the people who have that entrepreneurial idea are much more naturally focused on the how and the what rather than the who. Just because they are great at coming up with a new piece of software does not automatically mean they are good at managing the people they will need as their business grows.
More and more at Milton Keynes College we are discovering a need for bespoke training programmes for individual businesspeople to help them to work out what they need to be able to do to lead their companies.
Often, it is a question of working out what you want to be and communicating that message effectively to colleagues.
For example, how does one decide what success looks like? The most likely answer to that question is ‘to be the best’. But what is the best?
Providing unrivalled products and services, forging meaningful relationships with suppliers, customers and staff and maximising profits are all key. However, defining what is “good” in terms of business practice, the way a company does things, is itself very specific to the culture of any organisation.
The answer is not always obvious. In the 1960s, car hire company Avis, famously came up with the slogan “We Try Harder.” The business was at the time the second most successful in the field but dwarfed by giant rival Hertz.
The suggestion that the company would offer superior service to customers as the underdog, trying to catch up with the market leader, was not just about advertising. It was a message about the culture of the company to the sector and to staff.
If we’re going to become the best we have to behave as if we are the best.
Similarly, I remember some years ago going to a business show where the college had a stand and discovering that we were right next to our closest rival. We decided to go all out, produced a film to show, offered the famous college cupcakes to visitors and generally went to town. When the rival pitched up with a desk and a chair and a handful of free pens we knew the effort had been worth it.
So, while success is sometimes measured in absolute terms it can also mean comparing yourself to the competition.
We are always being told to try to be better. At Milton Keynes College, that means taking on the big-hitting, heavily funded organisations offering similar management training to our own.
We do not want to just be better in terms of our performance; we want to be (and in my opinion generally are) better than them. Aspiring to improve in any walk of life is laudable but being better is not enough. If you are not trying to be the best, why not just give up and leave it to the people with whom you obviously believe you cannot compete?
If leadership is about anything, it is about driving your people on, encouraging them to share the dream that your business can and absolutely should be the best. It is about focusing on goals and communicating those to the people who work for you.
You may have the best ideas and the best products in the world but if you cannot lead, your success will be limited. The thing is, you can learn - and we can teach you.
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