There’s a mantra to which a great many leaders will subscribe - "Sometimes problems just need solving". Back when I was a Royal Air Force Officer, it’s fair to say that I wasn’t harbouring any particular aspiration to set up and run a broadband infrastructure business in the rural South West of England. And yet when I arrived back in Somerset after several years based abroad, I encountered a connectivity problem that I simply could not ignore, and a path quickly formed in front of me.
Setting up a business and growing it from scratch is not for the faint of heart and the move from Air Force to internet infrastructure was certainly a big leap. However, I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with some incredibly influential people over the course of my career - people who I’d say truly embody the term ‘leader’ - and this meant I was starting off on a strong footing, imbued with clear lessons from these individuals about the value of taking an honest and transparent approach to leadership.
Now, every one of these individuals had their own unique personality and way of doing things. Like myself, their careers comprised many different twists and turns, sectors, industries and roles. What tied them together was their seemingly innate ability, wherever they went, to inspire, develop and motivate everyone around them.
Through spending time with these leaders I recognised that while inspiration may be underpinned by skill, knowledge and expertise, it also requires charisma, be it extroversion or a more quiet, understated quality. Furthermore, this charisma must be authentic - it has to be rooted in truth and displayed with honesty. Leaders that fail to convey a sense of their true selves will likely fail to inspire.
Leading from the front
My time in the military was also instrumental in shaping my approach to leadership, equipping me with the skills and know-how required to get our business from fledgling startup to credible challenger brand today. Working closely with my military colleagues and leading my team through extremely challenging situations instilled a great sense of camaraderie in me that I’ve tried to bring with me into my current role. And, as with charisma, underpinning that camaraderie is honesty. The very nature of the military always carries with it a high degree of sensitivity and confidentiality. True camaraderie in these circumstances means acknowledging such constraints but committing to a level of peer-to-peer openness wherever possible, one that transcends rank or role.
Camaraderie requires people to remain true to themselves and to those around them. That’s why integrity is also a core quality of a true leader. It’s always impressive to observe a CEO articulating a clear and powerful vision for their business. A true leader, however, must stand by their vision through thick and thin, displaying the same passion throughout to keep their team motivated, engaged and committed to the journey, even when it feels as though each new day brings a new roadblock or challenge.
Steadfast and unwavering, a great leader will make their vision a reality by demonstrating compassion to their staff, while thoughtfully and creatively pushing them to perform to their best ability. Equally, a great leader acknowledges and appreciates good work where it’s due, a fundamental part of keeping a team motivated and operating at an high level. How does the dictionary define integrity? As...
The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
Emblazon it on your wall, get it printed on a mug, or simply internalise it, whatever works, but make integrity your watchword as a leader at all times.
A commitment to integrity, openness and honesty is a desirable virtue among leaders across the business domain, but its importance takes on greater significance altogether when operating in a sector not renowned for either quality. When we set about building our business back in 2014, we did so with the awareness that the broadband market we were entering was awash with misinformation and opaque, sometimes plain false claims about the standard of service being provided to customers. This is not to single out any one guilty party - the entire market was communicating to customers using terminology designed to confuse, and making service quality promises that were caveated to the extent that they became irrelevant, a situation sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Sadly, the picture in 2018 is not much healthier, which is why I believe it’s right that our business speaks out and leads the call for greater transparency in our industry. We are not alone - our peers at CityFibre clearly share these sentiments and want to see a market that is fairer and an audience that is better-educated about the products and services available to them. I don’t believe in an economic rationale for deception and misinformation. Honesty and transparency improve the health of markets by forcing all players to play by the same rules, on a level playing field, for the ultimate benefit of the customer. A business that competes fairly, behaves openly, communicates with honesty and that, in doing so, is able to win and retain customers, deserves to thrive.
Of course, no business is perfect and every business leader will invariably make mistakes along the way. Back when we first began, we encountered our fair share of challenges trying to connect our initial target communities, and we didn’t do enough to keep those communities informed about what was happening. When faced with these initial hurdles, I opened my door to any customer that wanted to talk through their concerns. In the future, doubtless there will be other challenges faced and, as leader, its vital that we take ownership, assume responsibility and engage with those affected. Effective leaders also need to acknowledge where they get things wrong, learn from these experiences and take steps to ensure that any mistakes are not repeated. Critically, they should be transparent about this process. After all, if you don’t communicate the positive changes you’re making, then how will your audiences know that you’ve truly listened?
To impart one final piece of advice, staying calm will pay dividends if times get tough. Running a growing business is extremely stressful at times and, if you let the stress get to you, it’s going to impact your decision-making, rarely for the wiser. Think of the last news story you read about a business being ‘outed’ after some sort of corporate cover-up. Instances where leaders act on malevolent ambitions or with wilful intent to deceive are comparatively few and far between. In most of these occurrences, high pressure scenarios cultivate stress, leading to panic, which in turn propels the business leader down the wrong path. That’s why our business motto is ‘do everything at 55 heartbeats per minute’. Keeping a cool, calm and level head is key to making good decisions while avoiding the sort of panic-ridden situations where honesty and transparency get mistakenly rationalized away.