‘Successful leaders put less emphasis on spin’ says leadership expert

Education | Interview | Latest News | South West

Veronica Hope Hailey

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey is the Dean of the University of Bath’s School of Management. Before this, she spent many years working in business and industry – which culminated in her working on a major series of research that looked at trust in leadership post-global financial crisis.

Veronica is also the University Vice-President Corporate Engagement.

Here, she talks to Business Leader Magazine about the challenges facing today’s captains of industry.

In your view, what are the immediate challenges that business leaders are facing?

The most obvious challenge is establishing what a post Brexit world will look like, and how we can best navigate it.

The second major challenge that businesses face is around talent management and retention. We have universities in the South West that are producing very capable graduates but if we’re not careful, many of them will leave the region to find work.

Thirdly, there is a challenge around the role of business and its reputation; and ensuring it is a force for good in the world. The global economic crisis has heavily focused public opinion on this issue.

We need to re-visit the ethos of the original traders and entrepreneurs that built Britain.

If you go back historically to the textile factory owners in Manchester, and companies like Cadbury and Rowntree – they wanted to grow business, but they also saw themselves as having a civic role in creating opportunities for all the people in the town they were based.

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You have previously carried out some research into what makes a good modern-day leader – can you tell us more about this?

We carried out some research looking at leaders of both private and public organisations, post financial crash.

All these organisations were going through a negative change programme – whether restructuring, redundancy or divestment. What we expected to see is that the workforce had lost trust in their management and leadership.

For some of them, this was true, but we were amazed to see that for the majority this wasn’t the case. Although the organisation had been through a tough time, it had maintained trust amongst employees and customers.

So what were they doing to lead people through difficult times and not lose trust?

From a personal perspective, the leaders at the top of the successful organisations all had some common traits.

Firstly, they saw themselves as creating a legacy for the next generation. They managed to successfully show that you may need to take tough decisions in the short-term to benefit long-term sustainability for everybody.

Secondly, they saw themselves as serving their workforce and community. They had a different mindset to the more aggressive form of superman leadership that had come before.

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Paul Polman – CEO of Unilever – is a good example of somebody serving their community and workforce.

Thirdly, the successful leaders had a sense of history and that they were here for the long-term.

Finally, they tended to spend a lot of time out of their office – engaging with staff and customers. They were all highly relational people.

What other trends did you find?

Interestingly, highly trusted organisations also put less emphasis on spin and much more emphasis on honest communication. Even if they were telling staff unwelcome news, they were showing integrity.

‘Do you want uncomfortable truths or comfortable lies?’ is a good way of summarising how they view information. Wherever possible they shared information too, whether that was with staff, trade unions or partnership organisations.

They gave commercial data that justified why they were making the decisions they were.

In your view why does the UK have a productivity issue?

Firstly, we need to be careful that if we compare ourselves internationally – we all need to measure productivity in the same way.

Regarding the influencing factors around our low productivity – I would argue that infrastructure is one. Can we be better connected and ensure people can get to and from their place of work quickly?

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In addition to this we know what good management practices are at top multi-nationals, but we don’t always do the best job of distilling this down through our supply chains. We have highly talented people in the UK, but we don’t always invest in them as much as we should.

I’d also say that international trade is a factor. Businesses that export tend to be more productive – there is something about trading internationally that seems to lift an organisation.

In your view what makes the University of Bath’s school of management stand out?

The University of Bath has always been noted for its academic rigour, but equal attention is also paid to practical experience – with 90% of the School of Management’s undergraduate students undertaking a placement within industry, a growing number of which are overseas.

Our undergraduates enjoy very good graduate employability. After five years the average salary for our Business Administration graduates is over £47,000.

The school is fifty years old and is deliberately called a School of Management rather than purely a business school. We want to nurture ambitious graduates that can lead and inspire people in business and also take on challenges in management across a range of organisations in our society.

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