What you do in business matters, but how you do it matters more

There is a common perception that the only way to be successful in business is to be ruthless. Popular culture portrays business leaders as modern versions of Victorian mill owners, willing to do pretty much anything to increase profits. TV series like Dragons’ Den reinforce the stereotype and Gordon Gekko’s catchphrase ‘greed is good’ in the film Wall Street has become legendary.

In the real world though, my experiences are different. This isn’t based on any empirical evidence and there will always be exceptions but it seems to me that cut-throat business leaders tend to have short term success, rather than being able to build strong, sustainable businesses with solid foundations. The behaviours needed to create businesses to last decades are different from those that maximise immediate results. If we want to make a long-lasting change in business growth, productivity and rebalancing the economy, it is businesses that last for decades and grow to a significant scale that really matter.

I think it’s time we thought about how success is achieved, as well as measuring success in itself. Growth in sales, profitability and balance sheets is important and we should certainly shout about the success of ambitious businesses in the North of England. But so is the goodwill created by good leaders amongst customers, suppliers and staff. It’s difficult to measure behaviour as such but we all know deep down which people we like dealing with and which we will only call upon if we really have to.

What behaviours am I talking about? Well, they are fundamentally the same traits we’d look for in friends, a spouse or to develop in our children. I think we’d all prefer to spend our time with people we trust, are reliable, who have principles they will stick to whilst adapting to different situations, who go out of their way to help and who encourage others to behave positively as well.

In this context, I’d like to use this public forum to celebrate some of the positive role models I’ve come across over the past few years. I’d like to redress the balance a little, highlighting behaviours that I think support the development of really good businesses as well as really strong business communities. If I can persuade you to think about individuals you know who are similar in behaviour, we can start to change the stereotypes to create a more positive idea of what makes a good leader.

The danger in writing what I’m about to write is that the people I mention are by their very nature likely to be embarrassed by it. Sorry about that. There will also be some wonderful individuals that I could mention but can’t fit in to this short article; I promise, it isn’t anything personal, the below are examples not a comprehensive list! I’m also not about to claim that anyone is perfect, only that some people appear to me to exhibit the behaviours I’ve mentioned above.

With that in mind, here goes.

Caroline Theobald is a great example of someone who is driven to help others and does so with such drive that people can’t help but get caught up in the enthusiasm. Caroline has been involved in our events at the SuperNetwork for years and it’s always a joy to see her at work. Importantly, it’s not about her, about status or about reward, it’s about her desire to help others to succeed.

There are a couple of people I’ve had the good fortune to work with through our Tees Valley programme that I’d like to mention. James Robson and Bill Scott have been involved as speakers and as investors. The really obvious trait both exhibit is a desire to see their local area do well. They’re always open to talking to young businesses and providing that bit of advice or helpful connection that can make all the difference. And, again, they don’t do this for immediate personal reward other than the satisfaction of knowing that they have contributed in some way. They have given up their time on numerous occasions to help and always do so with a smile on their faces. Don’t be mistaken though, they are both very successful businessmen, having grown multi-million pound organisations employing dozens of people. It’s just that they’ve done it with a collaborative rather than cajoling style.

Donna Bulmer is managing partner for Haines Watts in the North East and part of the organisation’s national board. Donna joined the organisation as a new graduate and has spent 20 years there, building an organisation reflecting her person-centred style of management. It’s noticeable that the company website starts with a description of its values, not with a list of services, and this says a huge amount about Donna’s approach.

Someone you may not have heard of if you’re based in the North is Stuart Miller, co-founder and CEO of ByBox. This is a $100m company, based in Oxford and operating in 20 countries, and yet Stuart’s LinkedIn profile announces him as “Working with a great team to make ByBox a world-class company. Specialties: Hard work and humility.” When I approached Stuart to speak at the very first innovation conference we ran in Newcastle, he immediately said yes and delivered a great talk about how all the success of ByBox was down to others! I’m sure that isn’t true but it shows that company founders don’t have to be egocentrics to be successful.

Eddie Wrigley works as in innovation at Northumbrian Water. Eddie exhibits all the behaviours I’ve described, bringing commitment, energy and openness to every situation I’ve seen him in. He’s always keen to contribute his ideas, without expecting anything in return. As a result, he’s a pleasure to work with and the people around him achieve much more than they would without his presence.

Finally, we’re very lucky to be located at the North East BIC. All the team here demonstrate the qualities I’ve highlighted and this is in large part because of the example set by the CEO, Paul McEldon, and David Howell. They have overseen the development of the BIC over two decades and could only be described as being incredibly successful in this, having helped to create 7000 jobs and with the BIC now being home to 140 businesses. There is though no arrogance about the team, no gloating about success. Instead, there is a humility and willingness to help out that goes beyond what is required in their roles, reflecting their individual personalities and team ethic.

So, I’ve finished embarrassing a few people. I almost hope I don’t bump into any of them in the next couple of weeks as it might be a bit uncomfortable! The idea of this article isn’t necessarily about the individuals, it’s about the behaviours they demonstrate every day and to highlight that being positive, being trustworthy, sharing and, yes, caring, can still allow leaders to be successful. In fact I’d argue it helps make them more successful in the long term.

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