I’ve been CEO at Inzpire since 2012. Back then we employed just 38 people. Our business has grown 600% since then. Back in May 2016, when we had 90 employees, I wrote a blog called ‘Leadership in a Fast Growing Organisation’. 5 years later, we now have 240 employees so I am revisiting that original article in the light of our continuing rapid growth and our recent experiences with Covid-19.
The world is full of people claiming to be "inspirational leaders", "brilliant communicators" and "outstanding strategists". I do not claim to be any of these things. I am just trying my best to steer Inzpire through the continual reinventions, crises and dramas that fast growth brings. In fact, I often feel like an imposter. I am continually in awe of the remarkable leadership qualities of those I work with – many of whom have had extraordinary experiences in industry or commanding warships, squadrons and whole military formations. I certainly do not claim any special skill in leadership. In fact, I realise that I have made many mistakes. However, here is what I have learned during the Inzpire years. It’s an entirely personal view.
Leadership is about the human condition. It is not a technical skill. It has little to do with spreadsheets, emails, Gantt charts, financial accounts, budgets and all the other paraphernalia that consumes and paralyses most organisations. These things are all important tools for managing a business but leading a business is about connecting with its people at a very human level.
Be visible and present. Like policing, leadership happens by consent. Unless people consent to follow, you cannot possibly lead. People will only follow if they know who you are and what you stand for. The best way to achieve this is to be present in their lives, to be genuinely interested in them and to interact with them as much as possible - a cup of coffee here, a surprise visit there, an unexpected telephone call or a note. In a company like Inzpire, distributed over many different sites, the need to “be present and visible” has been one of my biggest challenges, especially during Covid.
The job of a leader is not to create followers; it is to create other leaders. Steering the ship does not mean that you have to have your hands on the wheel the whole time. Sometimes you are better off handing control to others. This can be difficult to do but I’ve found that many people at Inzpire are better at steering than me! Given the calibre of Inzpire’s people this is to be expected! Nobody should be scared to empower others to lead, because, strange as it sounds, good leaders gain authority by giving it away. It has taken me most of my working life to realise that.
Leaders create leaders!
A shared vision has real power. A truly imaginative shared vision, jointly owned by CEO, employees and shareholders, has tremendous transformative power. Leaders should lay out a compelling picture of the future and then align everyone’s interests towards it. There has to be something in it for everyone! At Inzpire, our shared vision is to become the most respected and trusted defence company on earth. This is a soaring ambition but it is one that we believe in.
It starts with a single question: why? Organisational leaders should focus on the really big things like - Why does the organisation exist in the first place? What is its overriding purpose, other than making money? What does it actually do for the world and society? What is its social value? Why should anyone care about it? At Inzpire, our employees know that our purpose is to “create a revolution of honour, integrity, trust and excellence in defence”. We are building a new sort of defence company that looks, feels, smells and acts differently to what has gone before. This powerful unifying purpose drives everything that we do.
Be who you really are. People are intuitive; they can sniff out a fraud a mile away. Therefore, leaders should just be themselves and not try to imitate anyone else (however impressive that other person is). What people want most is authenticity. They need to know what you stand for and where True North points on your moral compass. They will accept you for what you are so long as you are not trying to be someone that you are not. My advice is this: don’t be scared to be different, people like a little kookiness!
Try to make yourself irrelevant. This seems a very counter-intuitive thing to say but it is absolutely true. Genuine leaders don’t want to be missed after they are gone. It is their job to ensure that the organisation can prosper without them. Leadership is not about building a personal legacy; it is about securing the collective long-term future for everyone after you have left. It is about ensuring that the organisation can function just fine without you - better even.
Use simple clear language. It is so important for leaders to communicate clearly and to be able to reduce complex ideas to simple concepts that people can actually understand. Communication is definitely one of the key skills of leadership. Coco Chanel said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. How right she was. General Colin Powell noted that, “great leaders are almost always great simplifiers”. How right he was. Simplify, simplify, simplify, that’s the trick.
Focus on building a team round you. You cannot possibly grow a business on your own, no matter how brilliant you think you are. What actually happens is that you build a team of people around you and they grow the business for you. Therefore, it is critical to surround yourself with great people, believe in them, support them and get out of their way. This is something I have had to learn. At Inzpire, our success definitely belongs to everyone. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, we are all “stood on the shoulders of giants”.
Embrace challenge. It is very important to encourage ‘constructive dissent’ because no one should be above challenge (including the challengers!) A questioning attitude, rather than the hierarchical corporate obedience that pervades many businesses, is a very healthy thing.
Give people autonomy, mastery and control. People desperately want these three things; they free the human spirit. Good leaders detest the permission seeking behaviour so prevalent in many organisations. They try to push decisions to the lowest possible level and they resist the temptation to meddle. They understand that, if everyone is constantly waiting for permission to act, or waiting to be told what to do, then nothing ever gets done. Instead, leaders should make their overall intent clear then allow others the space and freedom to deliver it, within mutually agreed parameters. The Military calls this Mission Command. I call it common sense.
Be prepared to act with incomplete information. None of us will ever have all the information that we would like. Making decisions when you don’t have all the facts is scary. However, that’s the job of a leader: to be prepared to act with incomplete information. It is why you are in charge! Constantly seeking more data leads to that old cliché: paralysis by analysis. We have a saying at Inzpire: we don’t need to see the whole staircase, we just need to decide to climb the first steps.
Be prepared to take risks. There is a wise saying: a ship is safe in harbour but that is not what ships are for. Being a leader of a growing business is a bit like that – you often need to expose yourself and your organisation to unforeseen storms. This is a good thing because a smooth sea never makes a skilled sailor. At Inzpire, we believe that organisations that risk nothing, risk everything.
Make time to learn and grow. Often the best teachers are those who are still learning themselves. So it is with leadership. I read dozens of books a year and from each one I try to learn something new. I also try to learn from everyone I encounter in day-to-day business, both within Inzpire and our customer base. I have learned something useful from every boss I have ever worked for and every colleague I have ever worked with. The growth and development of people (especially yourself) is one of the highest callings of leadership.
Be enthusiastic and optimistic. You can’t light a fire with a wet match! If you aren’t enthusiastic, then what chance is there that people will follow you? Don’t ever be afraid to show your passion, emotion or excitement because, more than anything, a leader is a dealer in hope.
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