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Leadership & Strategy


A look at the management style changes made by successful business leaders

Management style in business
The subject of management style can be divisive but is an important part of the productivity puzzle

Whether they realise it or not, leaders in everything from business to sport have a management style. What separates the best from also rans is the ability to change this style as the environment around them evolves.

Donald Trump’s was recently described as “Darwinian” because he seems to favour replacing weaker people with stronger ones. The late Steve Jobs, meanwhile, was often described as a micro-managing autocrat.

There are arguably as many management styles as there are managers, and often they will shift as a business ebbs and flows. These behavioural changes are a necessary function of a successful business.

For SME owners, knowing their style is often more important than they realise. If they blindly stumble along, said Chris McCullough, CEO and co-founder of Rotageek, there’s a big risk that they’ll hire the wrong people and that growth will be sluggish as a result.

Being open to change

“There’s a point at which knowing your management style becomes critical,” he said, “although I think at a broad level you need to settle on one early on. When we launched, I had quite a strong feeling of how I wanted the company management style and culture to be – which was very open, but also very challenging. This then affects the type of people you recruit – and your goal is to hire people who will be with you for the journey.” If there’s a dramatic change of management style, he commented, you’re likely to churn through staff.

McCullough has stuck to his guns as his business has grown from a part-time pursuit in 2009 to the fully-fledged enterprise with a team of 29 that it is today, but he readily admitted to having made significant changes. Coming from an A&E background – he is a former doctor – McCullough was used to being very inclusive and taking on board the opinions of his team. However, when he adopted a similar approach for Rotageek, he quickly came to see that his colleagues thought this meant he lacked direction.

“I was probably too open and too collaborative,” he said. “It gave the team a sense that I was asking questions because I didn’t know the answers when in fact I was asking because I wanted people to understand that I’d considered everything.”

The solution, explained McCullough, was to make it clearer that while people’s opinions were still sought and would always be considered, he would be making the decisions, and that he would carry the can if they turned out badly. “Today, I have no problem saying, ‘Great, thanks very much for your opinion – I think you’re wrong and here’s why’,” he said.

McCullough admitted to a degree of “imposter syndrome” in the early days of running the company – it was a big leap from A&E doctor to business owner. He thinks that SME owners who are uneasy about their new role will often feel that the team member shouting the loudest must have something important to say. “You get people who have the bravado and in those early days you go, ‘Well you must know what you’re doing’ when actually they don’t. It can take a while to realise that no one really knows all the answers.”

A mentor, he said, has helped him to refine his role as CEO – and his changing style, he feels, has helped the business. “If I’d stuck with my original management style, I don’t think we’d be where we are today,” he said. “Nor would we be in as strong a position for the future. I think we wouldn’t be making decisions effectively and we’d have been bogged down in endless discussions.”

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Growing as your business does

Karen McLellan, managing director of the Hereford branch of national accountancy firm Haines Watts, has also had to adapt as her business has grown. Where once she was comfortable running a fairly small business and being involved in every aspect of how it was managed, her approach needed to change when her firm merged with another in 2010.

“I think that people generally start a business because they are very good at something and they want to work on their own,” she added. “But as a business develops, owners need a different skillset. When I first started, the business was significantly smaller than it has become and it was a case of being involved in everything.”

That was fine at the time, McLellan said, but as the practise got bigger, things had to change. “First of all it just wasn’t physically possible to maintain that level of involvement as there weren’t enough hours in the day,” she said. “On top of that, the journey that I was taking the firm, and to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve, I needed to bring in some pretty specialist people – and if you want to attract the best people, they don’t work best under that level of control. So I had to learn to adapt my business style and learn to trust.”

McLellan believes it’s vital managers are open to change as their business grows – moving from a situation where the business is “your baby” to one in where growth may only come if you let go of the reins a little and start to develop the people that you have around you. “You then let go a little bit more and you get to the stage where you realise you don’t want to be involved in the level of detail that you had before – that’s not your job any more,” she said. “My role now needs to be far more strategic than being hands-on.”

Using outside help

Like McCullough, she leaned on a mentor – as well as a business coach – as she set about transforming her management style, and she heartily recommends other business owners do the same as it offers them an excellent “safe space” in which to bounce around new ideas.

Fast-forward to today, and business at Haines Watts in Hereford is booming. Turnover increased by 120 per cent last year. McLellan now has a broader overview of the company and a solid management team in place, and the rewards of embracing a winning management style, she said, go far beyond the financial.

“I think for the majority of business owners I talk to and also for myself personally, there’s a sense of self-fulfilment, because you are developing as a leader and as a business person and there’s a real pride in seeing the business grow in different directions that you perhaps couldn’t have taken it on your own.”

Better still, McLellan has seen her work/life balance, that was once so off-kilter that it was causing her stress, tip back in her favour.

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