The chair of the National Trust has enjoyed a long career running some of the UK’s best-known companies. He shares some of what he’s learnt and his thoughts on challenges such as overcoming a lack of diversity at the higher echelons of business
I was lucky, because I was able to make a lot of mistakes early in my career. I was given the opportunity to run my first business – a small subsidiary of Thorn EMI based in Chicago – at the age of 26. The one thing that’s true of anyone who starts out in business is that the earlier you make mistakes, the better.
Your ability to build an effective team is paramount. The longer I’ve been a leader, the more I have understood that much of it hinges on your judgement about people. Another thing I’ve become very conscious of is the importance of being timely. Quite often organisations get into difficulties because they don’t make decisions soon enough.
The chair of an enterprise has to perform three key functions. First, ensure that you have the right leaders in place. Second, ensure that issues are properly tabled and debated before decisions are made. Third, ensure that the board is representative, fairly reflecting the people in both the business and wider society. It’s not only about diversity of background; it’s also about diversity of perspective, so that there are several points of view in the debate.
The lack of diversity in business – especially at a senior level – is a long-term challenge. Ensuring that your enterprise is genuinely welcoming is the starting point. That may seem like an easy task, but in a large organisation such as the National Trust it means being welcoming to everyone, from the people who greet you at the gate to the ones who show you round the rooms to those who serve you in the café.
It’s no good trying to find ways to speak to a new group of people unless you’re fully confident that, when they turn up, they’re going to feel that this really is for them. Tokenism doesn’t work.
Another component to this is the diversity that employees see in their leadership team. People will feel a lot more confident about their organisation if they can picture themselves potentially filling a senior post one day.
Being open and honest about the purpose of your enterprise really helps with employee engagement. When I became chair of the National Trust [a voluntary role] in 2014, I was impressed by its ability to gain the genuine enthusiasm of its staff and volunteers – the blood runs green here.
A lot of companies talk about getting their employees to believe in what they do, but the trust, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, is very clear about what it stands for. There is a deep belief in the purpose of the trust – it’s what drives the organisation forward.
The only way to unite people behind a common purpose is to be straightforward about what you’re trying to achieve. The weakness is always when people sense a lack of authenticity – and everyone has some ear for what’s inauthentic.
It’s important to learn how to handle dissent and public criticism. I’ve found that it’s best to talk with someone face to face, rather than phoning or sending them a text, say. The healthiest organisations are those where confrontation and differences of opinion are brought to the table quickly. In any venture, it’s out of difference, not similarity, that you achieve progress.
When it comes to public criticism, bear in mind that things move on. People can be very sensitive in the short term, so let some time pass before taking a view. You might also sometimes feel that everyone has become interested in you, but often they aren’t. And remember that criticism can be quite useful as a way to learn…
The full article can be read in the April / May 2020 issue of Director magazine
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