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Thursday, 20 September 2012 09:58

Inspiring leadership in tough times

Kevin Gaskell

There are many experiences that have shaped me and made me the person that I am today. I was fortunate to serve as an officer in the Royal Navy for almost 9 years). What I learnt from that experience, among other things, was to never underestimate the need and the value of mature leadership.

Leadership is not about sitting in an ivory tower, telling everyone what to do. It’s about being a source of direction and inspiration. For many of us, the recession re-emphasised this principle. It’s easy to lead complacently when the going is good, but when we’re faced with tough times we realise how important a strong leader is – at every level of the organisation.

Richard Branson has always been somebody whom I have greatly admired – mostly because I share his philosophy surrounding his employees. He once made a statement regarding the success of Virgin: “We firstly give top priorities to the interests of our staff, then our customers, third to our shareholders. This is not only a reflection of the importance of our people; it is also the most positive way of fitting together these three priorities.”
I realised this once again when my team and I sat down to draft a SWOT analysis. One of the “weaknesses” in the organisation that came as a surprise was...well, me. Customers had become so used to coming to me with all their queries that it was working to the detriment of our organisation. In short, it had become the Rick Show.

I’m glad that we’re changing that. Not only because I hope to leave a legacy – an organisation that can exist with or without me – but because there should never be just one pivotal person in the organisation. There should be many. Every single person, in my mind, should feel and act as if they are the heart of the company.

At the recent AIGS Progress Africa Conference, Kevin Gaskell (who has had the privilege of being the CEO of top UK companies like BMW and Porsche) shared his story about giving an employee the opportunity to take the reins. As his company car, Kevin had a top of the range stretch 7 series BMW, complete with chauffeur . Over time, Kevin got to know John, his chauffeur, quite well and discovered that he was dyslexic. He had difficulty reading and writing, but was incredibly logical and well-organised. He would arrive at appointments on the minute. He would plan for contingencies. He would even take time to wash the car after a long journey before pulling into a client’s parking lot. It was clear that John had an amazing talent for planning.

One morning, Kevin explained to John a task he had been given, involving the launch of two premium cars to over 400 VIPs within one morning. The VIPs – which included the press, partners, buyers, directors – were to have a breakfast at BMW cooked by a celebrity chef, followed by a viewing in the show trading centre. He had to admit that he had no idea of how to pull off this event, being that the trading centre was over 2km away, the route from the BMW offices was entirely uncovered, and that weather forecast for the launch day was for rain! Kevin was envisioning soaking wet and miserable VIPs battling their way across to the trading centre in the pouring rain. But John simply listened and said, “Leave it to me.”

I can’t say what prompted Kevin to hand the most important event of his career over to a virtually illiterate chauffeur, but he did.

“It was a thing of beauty,” Kevin said. “One week later, I came out and there were 200 of our staff members standing outside. John had organised a dress rehearsal. There were six security guards standing at each of the six doors, dressed in suits, with MI5 ear pieces. I looked around the corner and spotted a row of stretch 7 series BMWs. At that point, John gave the signal...the first four cars pulled up and the security guards escorted four people inside with a branded umbrella held over their heads. When they left, the next car pulled up. And the next, and the next...John had organised 24 stretch 7 series BMWs. To this day, I don’t know where he got them. But within 15 minutes, all 200 people had seen the cars. He pulled it off. The staff stood on the balconies of the building and cheered. It was brilliant, profound.”

That is the culture of enthusiasm and ownership I want to adopt in my company. I don’t want my employees to think of their roles as set, I want to employ their creativity and potential. Being a leader does not mean that you have to do everything yourself. Trust your staff – let them be leaders in their fields. I encourage everyone at AIGS to “live the brand”, acting as company advocates and ultimately impacting positively on corporate profitability.

I believe that the difference between companies who continuously succeed and those who flounder can be traced back to a level of personal responsibility held by the staff. If your employees feel like they matter, changes in strategy can be successful, inspiring more motivation, and more success. At the end of the day, the A-Z experience of working with your employees to bring the best out of them, could be your strongest competitive advantage.
You’d be surprised at what one person can do. The torch relay for the London Olympics is a good example. As the precursor to the biggest sporting event in the world, this torch has to go through the hands of 8000 carriers, across 1000 cities, in just 70 days. It is being broadcast live, to millions of people. Can you imagine the logistics involved? The investment? Yet that relay is organised by just one person.

It’s incredible. Perhaps even more incredible considering that that one person who is in charge was once a just humble chauffeur, working for BMW.

Published in Leadership
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