Reflections on Leadership and Management – Just do simple stuff well

I had an interesting experience as a result of organising LeaderFest 2014, our annual conference for MD2MD members.  At LeaderFest we employ a professional interviewer to interview senior and interesting leaders and get them to share their experiences and the thoughts, tips and techniques that help them succeed – and sometimes those that hold them back.

The unusual element of LeaderFest 2014 was that we managed to get the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to come to the event and spend an hour and a half sitting at tables with the Managing Director members of MD2MD and talking to them about their businesses.  Networking on steroids!

Naturally, as event organisers, we were pleased to be able to arrange this as extra value for the business leaders present, and had, of course, hoped for positive feedback.  What I didn’t envisage was the degree to which people seemed to think we were really, really clever or really well connected in order to have this special guest attend. Given the plaudits, I don’t want to admit it, but I don’t really think either was true. It wasn’t really that difficult.

All the positive remarks about ‘Brilliant’, ‘What a coup’ and the like got me thinking though.  Just how had we achieved so easily something seen as such a success?  And the conclusion I reached was the same as I have many times before: Success in business is often the result of having a vision, a goal to focus on, and then simply doing the basics – what ought to be obvious – really well.

And in this blog I thought I’d write up my reflections on what enabled us to succeed on this occasion. I think there are six key points and two further ones that emerge from this reflection itself:

  • Think hard about how you can delight your customers
  • Focus on an ambitious vision / goal
  • Plan ahead
  • Think about what drives other people
  • Be prepared to ask (and be rejected)
  • Deliver the promise – Do the detail
  • Collect quantitative and qualitative feedback
  • Review and learn from every experience good and bad

Taking these one at a time:

Think hard about how you can delight your customers

David Cameron attending LeaderFest was no chance event.  It resulted from a conversation following LeaderFest 2012 between Allie, who really runs MD2MD, and myself about how that event had gone and how we could really make LeaderFest outstanding for our members – a process I strongly recommend.  Ask not just how you can run a good event. Ask how you can make it exceptional.  How can you stand out from the crowd? To use Seth Godin’s phrase: “How can you be remarkable?”

Anyway, we came up with the idea of inviting the Prime Minister and decided to put in the thinking and effort to ‘give it a try’.

Focus on an ambitious vision / goal

Having decided to go for it, we spent some time assessing how to make it happen.  We’d seen others have him at their events so we knew it was achievable.  We simply had to work out and focus on doing what needed to be done.

Plan ahead

We could have planned for the Prime Minister at LeaderFest 2013.  But that was less than a year away, we already had some plans in place and we didn’t think we had time to do it properly.  So we decided to take the time we felt was necessary to make sure we had the greatest chance of success both in attracting him, and in making it happen. Inviting him in 2015, when we next planned to be in Oxfordshire would be good, but then we moved on to what I suggest is the next tip from me:

Think about what drives other people (WIFM – “What’s in it for me?”)

Key to our success was, I think, our careful consideration of what was in it for the Prime Minister and how we could make it easy for him to accept our invitation.  We suspected his diary (for most things) would be planned well ahead – so giving ourselves more than a year would help.  We knew he, like most MPs, would be in his constituency on Fridays so we made the decision to locate LeaderFest in his constituency on a Friday. And then we thought about the fact that there is very likely to be a General Election in 2015, so if we stuck to our planned schedule to return to Oxfordshire in 2015, he’d be otherwise engaged.  So we had one chance – in 2014 – and when we thought about it that seemed to make a lot of sense for him as a time when he’d probably be wanting to gently set the election agenda with a group of business leaders.

Be prepared to ask (and be rejected)

Then we took the big step.  Actually Allie (she’s much braver than me) contacted his office to ask politely whether it might be possible. They said it might, as long as it was on a Friday when he was in the constituency and we could make sure he could talk to his constituents. And they said call back about 9 months before the date we were planning.

Deliver the promise – Do the detail

It’s obvious and simple, but missed so often.  We then followed through on their requests.  We planned the contact date in Summer 2013, approached them again, gave them a couple of preferred Fridays to choose from and committed to ensuring he’d meet his constituents.  And after consulting, the PM came back and said he’d agreed to do it! All we had to do then was make the rest of the detail happen – like confirm a venue, get a panel, get an audience etc.

Which just leaves two final learning points I’m drawing from this experience:

Solicit quantitative and qualitative feedback

At the ‘pinnacle’ of my corporate career I was responsible for 500 people being trained across 16 training centres every day. And we collated analysed and acted on feedback from every one.  It enabled us to be the quality brand and the market leader.

I’ve brought that forward into MD2MD and whilst the numbers are less statistically significant I still gain a good indication of how well an event (and we run nearly fifty a year) has really gone.  I like, but don’t rely upon, the nice people saying nice things and listen to the difficult-to-please pointing out how things could be better. (One even told me how the Prime Minister was a distraction – As a friend said: it’s actually a fantastic compliment on the event itself to suggest the Prime Minister detracted from it!)

So whilst the proactive comments are valuable, you can only understand how well an event has really gone if you collate feedback from the 80% of people who don’t proactively offer their views.  And it’s that feedback and the number of people making very strongly positive comments about our ‘Coup’ in attracting the Prime Minister that took me down this path of reflection.

Review and learn from every experience good and bad

And finally, it’s only because I read through every feedback form and thought about the patterns in what was being said that I got to think about the learning I’m sharing in this blog. There is an element of me that thinks what I’m saying here is simple and basic, but in some ways that’s the point.  Much of business is largely about getting the basics right, and if this blog reminds you of a few basics and challenges you to check you’re doing them, then I’ve achieved my goal in writing this blog.

My intent is that by sharing my thinking I stimulate your own thoughts and by doing so help you lead your business more successfully!

Good luck and if you are a business leader wanting space to develop your thinking , why not consider joining MD2MD?

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Bob Bradley

Bob is a specialist in running high value added service businesses, having run five such businesses as General Manager, Managing Director or Chief Executive. His last employed role was as Chief Executive of a £16M, 200 person family owned business having previously been Chief Executive of an AIM listed company for which he raised £5M funding and which he grew from £4M to £12M in three years through two acquisitions and organic growth, and a corporate PLC subsidiary where he was Managing Director responsible for delivering £10M profit on £45M turnover through 450 staff.

Bob is now following a portfolio career providing entrepreneurial business leaders with mentoring and coaching around business leadership, business growth, merger integration and exit planning.

Core to his portfolio is MD2MD. Having experienced for himself the value of having a strong sounding board of fellow Managing Directors he founded MD2MD in 2004 to provide groups of business leaders with a confidential environment within which they can support and challenge each other to raise their game as leaders and by doing so improve the success of their organisation.

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