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Taking Time Out to Lead

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 communication, 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 that are aligned with a desire to know what form of leading would be better for growing a business. 

This is the approach taken by the LEAD™ program. It's very different to standard leadership training 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 circumstances, the LEAD™ program journey allows the owner/managers to grow collectively, supporting each other. 

In our book, LEADing Small Business, owner/managers talk about their experiences, what it feels like to join a leadership program, and on a practical level, how to make it work for them and the business. 


Stewart Barnes and his book LEADing Small Business

Dr Stewart Barnes, co-author of the triple-nominated book LEADing Small Business


The fundamental assumption behind LEAD™ is that any leadership development of an owner/manager must 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 practise leadership’ (their impact). Bridging this gap enables business development and the potential for growth. The program 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% of participating firms with an average increase in turnover of 27% and an increase in employment of 13%. 


Infographic of statistics of LEAD


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 (MD 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 no-one 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 where do I get new inputs, insights and innovation from? Effectively I have had to learn on the job. No-one 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 no-one to turn to despite an ever-growing number of business support organisations and consultants offering a confusing battery of similar services. All three businesspeople 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," said 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 we 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 must recognise the need for a capable management team around them, which in some cases has led to a change of senior team members. 

The program 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," said Bill. 

4. Keeping a network of peers

Institutional capital is developed through the creation of the LEAD™ Community of Practice (CoP), i.e. 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 on-going 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 said: “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 program." 


Click on the image of the book cover below to download the first chapter for free


Front cover of book


If you'd like to read more about our leadership and business development program, LEAD™, you can click here for more information. Our next program starts in April 2023 so if you'd like join it or understand more about it, please get in touch here.



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