An industrial park just outside Southampton city centre may seem an unlikely place for a revolution in corporate leadership.
But there, not far from the city’s traditional industry, the docks, exists a company that could become a template for the ways businesses are managed and led in the future.
Staff at World Class International (WCI) voluntarily arrive at the offices at 7.30am and because of their enthusiasm for the job, share a common company ethos and take part in community projects.
Turnover is low among the 300 or so staff and there is a real sense of belonging.
‘People feel they are recognised as individuals,’ says Kit Bithrey-George, marketing manager at WCI. ‘People from those installing the hardware, answering the phones and driving the vans all feel that. They all want to achieve and feel they get recognition for what they do.’
The Southampton operation used to be known as 2GL, a computer services company, until a merger earlier this year with WCI, a management consultancy business. The fact that its staff seemed so positive was one of the reasons WCI wanted to get involved says Bithrey-George.
What WCI appears to have tapped into are some of the new rules of business leadership: enthusiasm, recognition and inclusion.
‘Effective leaders seem to have the capability to be able to connect with people across the organisation from the bottom to the top,’ says Murray Steele, head of strategic management at the Cranfield School of Management.
But away from the little slice of corporate heaven in Hampshire, there seems to be little sign of a major change in the ways businesses go about their work. Hierarchical management structures remain prevalent. This might have been an organisational structure that would have changed was it not for the dotcom collapses that struck through much of last year.
The proliferation of small, dynamic companies which operated on a much faster basis than the more established companies, says Steele, could have had a major impact on the way we work. The only problem was that they did not make any money.
The role of outsourcing, increased mergers and acquisitions and technology may also lead to changes in the way firms are led.
But, for many companies, the traditional ways of working and the established principles of leadership with the closed world of the boardroom are still very relevant, something that Steele believes will stay true for some time.
‘Leadership is a bit like double-entry bookkeeping. Double-entry bookkeeping will still be here when I have left the planet and the principles of leadership are almost as timeless.’
Although the nature versus nurture debate is one that has run for centuries, Steele says the focus should be on other areas. To succeed, he claims leaders must combine a variety of other ‘internal’ and ‘external’ factors.
These internal factors include a ‘very significant’ degree of self-belief, humility, integrity and trust. The external ones are qualities such as being a role model, being enthusiastic and having direction and vision.
Steele uses the analogy of ‘bringing up children’. All these skills apply to being a parent and are also relevant to establishing a successful business.
However, he does not recognise the need for some changes. In a rush to be seen as inclusive he feels some businesses are too eager to please and avoid criticism.
‘Hurting people’s feelings in this country is still a major impediment to effective leadership in this country,’ he says. Steele believes this will change only when there is greater emphasis placed upon performance rather than harmony.
Richard Mallett, director of technical development at CIMA, says three of the most important factors are vision, strategy and the ability to motivate others to perform.
‘I don’t think that will change,’ he says.
Such a view backs research published by CIMA last year. Vision was seen as one of the single most important skills by business people in Europe, the US and Asia.
In the future this will be matched by the need for better communication skills and the ability of business leaders to respond quickly and efficiently to change.
Mallett believes there has to be some flexibility in examining the rules of leadership. Indeed what may be good for Richard Branson may not be good for Jack Welsh at GEC or Olympic champion Steve Redgrave in galvanising his team.
And innovation, as well as a willingness to break conventional rules, goes a long way too.
Martin Myerscough, a chartered accountant and ex-Big Five man, is among those leading – and innovating – from the front. His company, Monotub Industries, aims to do for washing machines what Dyson has done for vacuum cleaners.
It is a vision that has suffered setbacks in recent months – the launch of its new Titan washing machine has been delayed for the second time while the company’s chief executive resigned last month after the company’s share price plunged – but the vision remains intact.
But, as Bithrey-George says, when it comes to leadership a one-size-fits-all approach is not realistic. However, what seems clear from the lessons at WCI is that whatever approach is taken, businesses will have to include their employers ever more and make them feel they are wanted.
‘People feel they are part of a team that is more than a working relationship.
There is a good camaraderie,’ says Bithrey-George.
Until more companies adopt the approach which is taking root at WCI, it seems that the traditional route to leadership will remain the one most used by a majority of companies.
For the Harvard Business School’s take on leadership and general management issues, visit www.hbs.edu
For more of CIMA’s views see www.cima.org.uk.
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