The UK Futures Programme is a series of productivity challenges that target specific workforce development problems. The challenges trial innovative ideas with industry to test what works in addressing current or anticipated workforce development problems identified by UKCES research. The programme takes a learning approach and shares learning from all projects with industry and business.
The fifth productivity challenge looks at leadership and entrepreneurship skills in small businesses, working with “anchor institutions” with a strong presence in their local community. One of these is the Leadership Forge project, led by Teeside University. This project will develop skills in small businesses by creating a community of experiential and shared learning via workshops, coaching, site visits to large employers and peer learning sessions.
This series of posts features the reflections of small business owners who have been involved in the Leadership Forge, and presents their thoughts on how their experience has helped their business.
If you’d asked me 12 months ago I would have told you that you simply can’t learn how to run a business better, by sitting in a classroom. I mean, what does an academic know about business? So I was rather cynical when my business partner suggested that I attend a leadership programme at Teesside University to grow my business.
She managed to persuade me though, and I’m so very glad that she did. Because, by taking part, my business and my life changed.
What I was expecting was for the course leaders to lecture the attending group and for us to listen. But actually they barely spoke. Instead they allowed me and the other business leaders within the group to talk and develop our own solutions. We did this through ‘peer-led learning’ which basically means sharing experiences and learning from each other. Hearing the perspectives of other small business owners was incredible. We all had something to share and we learnt so much from each other. As a small business you don’t get much opportunity to meet and share problems or challenges with other businesses. We were encouraged to suggest solutions to each other’s challenges, but also to develop our own solutions. This helped me identify new ways of doing things.
It wasn’t just about different ways to tackle business challenges though. What I didn’t expect was that my personal life was about to change too. I thought managing my work life balance was all about finding a way to shut off at 5pm each day. But that’s impossible. Business is too a big a part of my life to just ‘turn it off’. Instead I realised that I had to find a way to delegate more effectively, to take some of the pressure off me.
That was actually the first big change I made to my business. I restructured. I can now delegate better because I’ve put a simple hierarchy in place – something I didn’t think was needed as a small business. Now, I can communicate tasks to managers who then communicate tasks to their teams. It’s far more effective and time-efficient. That’s massively improved my work-life balance. I didn’t believe that leadership training could deliver something like that.
The other element I found really helpful was the one-to-one coaching that was provided. Talking through business issues with my coach was really helpful. It allowed me to work through my thoughts and drive my own development. In fact I thought it was so useful I’ve implemented a similar approach in my own business. So now my managers can develop their own leadership skills by drawing on the knowledge and experience of others. We’ve even included an element of coaching in the service we offer to our clients.
If you were to ask me to list my priorities for growing my business before I took part in this course, improving my leadership skills would have even made my top 5 but I didn’t expect it to have much impact. Instead, it’s not just changed the way I work, it’s changed the way my whole team works. We are more productive and more organised. And that has directly led to our revenues increasing by 25%. We’re even looking to expand internationally.
So what’s my view about leadership training now? Well, put quite simply, any small business owner who doesn’t focus on improving their leadership skills is mad, and missing out on a big opportunity.