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Lead me to your taker

We need leaders, but design by committee has never been a good solution and the natural order usually means one person emerges, and the rest dutifully follow. Is that right? If recent events are anything to go by, if we don’t improve our leadership, we will become a second rate nation within 20 years. Warns Richard Baker, CEO of the Executives

Committee designed leadership has never been a good solution and the natural order usually means one person emerges as the leader and the rest dutifully follow, whatever. Humans do appear to perform better with good leadership, but why do the necessary qualities appear to be such a rarity? There is a few crucial points, an inescapable truth about what defines leadership, and the person who takes the helm should, if they have the trust of the followers, be very good at leading – i.e. they should be very good at getting optimum performance from everyone under their control. Taking the UK as an example, historically why have there not been more good or great leaders? Let’s get down to some specifics to answer this question: Firstly, why do most people see the majority of leaders as supremely self-assured, or worse, arrogant and aloof? For sure, most people want certainty from their leader, and so perhaps the arrogance is an over-exaggerated response to not wanting to appear weak or indecisive, for example not asking for the opinions of others?

These days, the decisions and actions taken by leaders are increasingly in the public domain, this is the age of transparency, there is no hiding place. Therefore, leaders today cannot work in silos, from a raised and isolated platform and indeed, at every level of leadership, whether that be a CEO or a Head of Division, assembling a strong and supportive team is, of course, an essential. Further still, reaching out beyond the organisation for third-party, external input, also demonstrates a healthy attitude. Equally, good leaders will be constantly interested in the “word on the shop floor”, and what customers are thinking and saying, otherwise they are basing decisions purely on peer-level discussions and selected data. As we all know, perceptions can be short on facts and how accurate is that data, especially if it is passed through the system umpteen times? Great leaders want to see it for themselves, first-hand. Crucially too, the very best leaders utilise this collective information intuitively, and even see what customers want before the customers themselves do. From that they create new products that sell massively, and there is no finer example of this is than the late and great Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple.

In recent times, we have experienced from some quarters, the very worst that poor leadership can muster, where self-gain and shareholder remuneration have taken precedent over almost all else, and we have all suffered the consequences. “A lot has been learnt”, is the clichéd footnote of recent times, and quality leadership in reputable organisation has taken serious heed. But it would be devastating if the response is that leaders become timid and unwilling to be adventurous about new ideas and potentials. This will surely stifle economic recovery and future growth. A cynic would have it that they don’t want to upset shareholders? Perhaps too many are looking towards retirement and “leave it to the next generation” to sort out. Perhaps some don’t want to fail? Of course shareholder value and reputation is very important. But there has to be innovation. If you don’t grow you wither.

The very shareholder value that the CEO seeks should come from careful, insightful research. The company should seek fresh talent to examine trends. How can the company capitalise on these trends? How well does the company know its core customers? What’s the next thing that would really improve the quality of life for customers? How well are employees looked after? The very ones who look after customers. These are the sort of questions that add shareholder value.

Another key question is, why do we sell to foreigners so many wealth-generating UK companies – the biggest tax payers that pay for road, school infrastructure etc. that in turn make companies money? Any publicly-listed company seems to be fair game to be sold. It seems there is a city culture obsessed with earning big fat commissions for selling the family silver. Once it has gone it has gone. It is a mystery why we would sell the Royal Mail, a 500 year service to the public and lately generating a profit for the public purse, yet it is now gone for good. Some European government-owned organisations own shares in the Royal Mail. So why did our Government not keep it 100 percent owned? It makes no sense. Why is nobody noticing the development of China’s 100 plus year plan to buy foreign companies and the world’s raw materials? i.e. Why doesn’t the UK have a 100 year plan to innovate far more and make money from it? Has this dawned upon you? The UK is set to become a second rate nation within 20 years if we seriously do not pull our collective finger out.

This is a unique point in history, never likely to be repeated. This is the era of relatively high quality, cheap imported goods from China. If you examine the product and the packaging you will see a lot of work has gone into making it. That’s not sustainable. In future, the Chinese workers making these products will want increasingly higher pay and this will cost us all a great deal more to buy. A price we may not be able to afford in future. In the future many more Chinese companies will have amassed fortunes which they will want to invest into European and UK companies. This is part of their long term game plan: to dominate a lot of the world’s trade. China is, in effect, buying up whole African countries under the guise of building local government offices, schools, hospitals and roads. Naturally, the local authorities love it because it leap frogs them forward 200 years, in terms of technology and quality of life. In buying these African countries, they are also buying the crucial mineral rights. In other words, raw materials from which to manufacture many goods the western world wants. A shrewd move, because they will control the supply of much of the world's raw materials. You might say the Chinese still cannot match the UK in making highly technical components. Well, in less than 30 years Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd has become the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker. Of all calls made by the global population, it boasts of making a third of the cabling, equipment etc that transmits their calls. China is set to supply components to the US nuclear power industry, and it already makes most of the world’s solar panels.

There are more examples like this. But, the point is they have ceased to be only a “pile it high sell ‘em cheap” producer of goods. Yes, they will continue doing that but they will also sell more and more technically advanced goods well in to the future. But, where does that leave the UK? We have traditionally been very good at inventing technically advanced products and selling them. If the Chinese are better funded and better organised this represents serious challenges to the UK as a nation. It’s also worth noting 72 percent of the Chinese population are of working age. They have the largest population at 1.385 billion. Culturally they are conditioned to work very hard and usually for 12 hours a day. So, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this is a challenge for us. In short, the UK needs to be far better organised and collaborate more to innovate more between companies. Plus make more money from innovation.

So why are we so complacent, slow to commercialise innovation or not open to new ideas in the first place? Perhaps too many companies are set up with too tight a corporate pyramid. CEO at the top who sets the tone and everyone beneath keeps in line. Perhaps too many people dare not speak up to make improvements because they fear losing their job? Perhaps they are simply not encouraged to speak up to suggest an improvement? Does your company structure encourage or even target innovation? If not, why not? Why aren’t schools measured on their ability to develop the creativity of children? Too much emphasis is placed on maths and science. Creativity leads to innovation Perhaps children today are taken too much down a mathematics and science route. Perhaps they are tested too much? What if we accepted that world is changing ever faster? What if we then accepted that employees of the future need to be more creative and “think on their feet” in order to stay ahead and survive? Of course, we have no idea what life will be like ten or 20 years from now. What if we accepted that most children have natural creative abilities? They play don’t they? How could we nurture their creativity more so they are better equipped to adapt, innovate and thrive?

So, what can be done to increase future UK wealth? There are companies now in the UK that are set up for the long term. They cannot be sold and forever have to innovate. There are also successful CEO’s who are willing to mentor the MD of a supplier company. The smaller company flourishes by copying much of the bigger company’s model of success. The once smaller company then repeats the process with another smaller company. Imagine if this pattern was repeated over and over across the UK. What would it do to our national wealth in say five to ten years from now? Perhaps more leaders should be asking: “Who would be a good mentor for me to adapt and grow?”

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