My 100 year goal: It is the norm not the exception for a business leader to be in a leadership development peer group

A while back, I updated my LinkedIn profile to show my 100 year goal. A rather strange timescale you might think, but there IS a logic! Let me explain!

This 100 year goal idea was put to me at an MD2MD meeting a few years ago. And of course the idea is that we won’t be here then, so in reality this is simply a way of thinking about your legacy, what you leave behind when you die, or how you’ve changed the world. Which, if your lifestyle is beyond basic survival, is quite a useful way of thinking.

Anyway, my LinkedIn profile now shows my 100 year goal as “It is the norm not the exception for a business leader to be in a leadership development peer group”.

So why are leadership development peer groups so important to me? …

For me it goes back to the late 90’s when I was en route to running a £5M revenue, 500 person business as Managing Director. With a brilliant degree, tons of professional training and an MBA from Cranfield behind me I knew exactly how to run a business – or so I thought – until I was appointed to my first big Managing Director job.

And I rapidly discovered that all the tools, frameworks and models didn’t give me the answers to my most important decisions. I’d do a logical analysis and it would come out as a 51:49 decision. But if I assessed one of the criteria slightly differently the answer would be 49:51 – the other way. So what is right?

Actually, as anyone who has led an organisation recognises, our most difficult decisions usually involve people, perceptions, values … and judgements. And to gain insight on those decisions it is usually helpful to talk them through … but who with?

Fortunately I was lucky enough to be invited to join a Managing Director peer group. And discovered that running my challenges past peers – on a confidential “I’ll give you my best advice if you’ll do the same for me” mutual basis – was really powerful. Even if I ended up doing the same thing as I’d been planning, I felt more confident – If I’ve run it past a dozen other streetwise Managing Directors, and still want to do it, I can’t be far wrong. And sometimes simply sharing my challenges helped me put them into perspective.

And what was most interesting was that I, as a well trained, well educated business professional working in premium, high value added services, learnt most from the manufacturers and the entrepreneurial street wise 16 year old school leaver. It’s obvious when you think about it. You learn more from people with different backgrounds, personalities and indeed values than you do from people like you.

But it wasn’t just one way. I hope I helped them a lot too. Just as I realised how important it was to be entrepreneurially focused on revenues and cash, they learnt from me how to build a business that could sustain profitable growth without them at the core of everything. Structures, systems and processes don’t come naturally to most entrepreneurs and neither does engaging their team in developing a clear and consistent strategic direction!

Indeed I’d go further. I find it amazing how many people we entrust to run our economy – and look after people’s livelihoods – with no guidance as to how to do so. I was with the owner of a printing company last week and he agreed. His staff had received more training in how to operate the machines than he had in how to manage the livelihoods of his 30 staff.

I don’t mean any criticism of those individuals. It’s just the way it is. If you work for a major corporate and are appointed Managing Director, you’ll get packed off to somewhere like Henley Business School, Cranfield School of Management or London Business School for a four to six week SMDP (Senior Management Development Programme). If you’re really lucky, as a neighbour of a contact was recently, you’ll get sent to Harvard in the US for a three month programme.

But none of this is practical to the typical small business entrepreneur / leader. For a start, it doesn’t happen like that. Over the last ten years of working with around two hundred business leaders, I’ve come to learn that many of them never really set out to be business leaders in the first place. Many of them simply started to earn a living, and then found they needed help so started to employ someone, then someone else and then, as one of my first MD2MD members said to me when I first met them, “I suddenly found I was responsible for the livelihoods, mortgages and all, of twenty odd staff – I had no idea how I got there, didn’t want the responsibility and didn’t know how to handle it!”

And the thing is, even for the entrepreneur that does set out to create and lead a business traditional forms of leadership development don’t work. How many business leaders can take 4 to 6 weeks away (or even 4 to 6 days) to learn how to lead a business? Or afford the fees?

Which brings me to my final belief: The one day a month model of MD2MD and most other leadership development peer groups, is a much more effective return on investment than traditional learning. It is applying the Kaizen, continuous improvement, principles now so well established in great manufacturing companies to business leadership. If a business leader can raise their game by one small step each month, then over a period of a few years they will undoubtedly find they are operating at a much higher level.

Indeed members often comment how before they joined they thought they’d struggle to find a day a month to attend MD2MD meetings; but that since they’ve joined they’ve found that they have more time – because they’re focused on the right priorities and not rushing around fighting fires.

And that applies both to the well-educated MBA business school graduate that needs a sounding board to develop their intuitive judgement in dealing with people, perceptions and values and to the entrepreneurial, streetwise trader that needs an idea how to build a management team that enables them to work ON their business not IN it.

THAT is why I’m so passionate about business leadership peer groups like MD2MD and why my 100 year goal is to make membership of such groups the norm, not the exception. I’ll be able to rest in peace when for all business leaders “it’s not so lonely at the top!” as it says on the back of my MD2MD business card.

Written by Bob Bradley, founder of MD2MD

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