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In conversation with James

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

James (CEO)

For me, my greatest influence isn’t specifically around the area of leadership but I think it's probably the greatest influence in terms of where I am today and that was a family friend called Anthony Hitchens.

His advice to me when I was leaving school probably encouraged me to do some of the things I have done, not least my University aspirations to go to Oxford as he had. I didn't feel I had the capability or confidence to go there and he was influential in encouraging me to apply at time when otherwise I probably wouldn’t.

I think he had influence on my future career choice too. Anthony had an MBA and my thinking was developing my career through an MBA route or having a profession to give me flexibility and create options.

My view is that having options is a good thing whether it's one's career or in business or life or more generally.

I think Anthony started out as a Mining Analyst and ended up being an FD and then a CEO and Chairman in a range of businesses across Mining, Construction, Building Materials and financial services. He is someone I've always admired so he was an influencer for me particularly around career choice. He also was influential in equipping me with some other skills and qualifications to allow me to have done a lot of things I have done. I’ve worked in a wide range of industries and businesses and roles.

So he was a strong leader but not someone who I can say has specifically influenced my leadership style. I don’t feel I've even got one style that I can particularly describe.

So what has influenced the way I act and perform in the role that I do or the roles that I've done? Those influences have been from many different people and largely the people I have worked with, worked for or worked alongside. I’ve seen a range of different businesses with different styles and different situational environments all of which have required different styles.

I must have a style but I think for me it's more about adaptability of style. I always encourage people to think about that particularly when one is in a change environment. It’s not around the survival of the fittest but it’s those that can adapt. So I suppose if I were to give it a title it would be a Darwin style of leadership.

It's really important particularly when you have people coming through an organisation; I think it's often those rising stars who have dealt with adversity and adapted themselves through a period of change who make exceptional leaders. A lot of the people who I would want to work with in different or challenging situations, are people who have been through that.

I think it is important to be aware of the different styles and when those different styles maybe appropriate. I can’t pretend for a minute I get it right all of the time! But I think if you have got that awareness and understanding it is a step in the right direction. In my previous business and role I was managing in a period which was just after the financial crisis. It was a time of adversity within a professional services firm where there were some quite big egos. I had to make some very tough decisions, often driven by short-term financial considerations and in an environment where there was a split Board so there was no consensus for a long period of time and where we were dealing with a very difficult external stakeholder. Now in those sorts of situations a leadership style that relies on building consensual decisions is going to fail. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reach a consensual situation but actually the reality is you're not going to get there and the pace of change that is required often requires a different style. That contrasts very differently to where I am today.

When I first came into the business I’m in now it was a very different situation to where it is today. Probably more like the dynamics of my previous organisation so it was quite a strange introduction.

Initially there was some difficult stuff to do, some unpopular decisions to be made in a short period of time. The business evolved at the time very quickly, to a point where it became about rebuilding it to take it to growth and building the teams and structures around that. That requires a very different leadership style and a significant amount of adaption going through that process. It required me as an individual to change and also to change others’ perception of me as an individual through that time. That was harder to do and certainly takes time!

I think that is one of the main reflections for me and I think that you never stop learning about the right style - you are always on a journey . That’s why being aware and adaptable to different leadership styles is important.

I’ve learned from other colleagues and leaders around what's good, what works and adapting to one's own self.

Role models are so important and at a very early stage in a person’s life. Antony was quite an important part of my growing up and undoubtedly those couple years around the age of 16 17 18 absolutely he was and he did influence where I am today.

In a different context this has resonance with the work I have been doing with the police. One of the challenges there is is to have a police service that is representative of the communities that the police serve. The only way you will ever do that is ultimately by engaging with people from a very early stage so that joining the Police is a career people are thinking about when they are six, seven, eight onwards.

And people perceive those in these roles as role models rather than people to be feared. The problem we have got with policing is that, whilst there is no shortage of people who do want to be police officers, it is not attracting the diversity we need.

I think influencing behaviours, styles, career choices, life decisions at a very very early stage is imperative. Yet in my case my father died when I was 21 and I can remember towards the end of his time in the Hospice, he was aware of some of the potential career choices I had, and he said to me that one thing I shouldn't be is an accountant! So I didn’t listen to my father!! I don’t regret it but it sort of haunts me!!

I hope he’s looking down and feeling proud of what I have done. Clearly parents and other people you meet in your early days are huge influences.

The differences that one may see in approach I think depends on the role one is expected to play. In some sectors inherently you see the leaders generally have come up through that business or organisation - certainly in the Construction sector.

And if I take the complete extreme, something like a the police force or military services where you are only going to be a leader if you come up through the ranks.

I certainly think in construction the majority, a significant majority of senior leaders absolutely have come up through the ranks. And some of those successful leaders are people who started out on site and have come through the ranks in that organisation. I think that does allow them to be successful in their organisations albeit that a lot of that success is driven through their depth and breadth of knowledge of that organisation. I think that works particularly well in a steady state environment or a growth environment. In periods of adversity I think sometimes that can be more difficult for an individual in those circumstances at adapt. I’m not saying it’s impossible by any means but that goes back to the need to be adaptable and to adapt quite quickly to different circumstances.

I’m fortunate enough to have come into the organisation when they needed someone to be involved and help affect change from a financial perspective and to some extent from an operational perspective, and to be honest I thought my tenure would be shorter than it has been. But, having to come in to do what could have been described as a more transactional job, I’m now passionate about the business, about what we do and the people I work with. This place has been the best place I’ve worked.

I think the risk if you come into an organisation having to affect a lot of change it can be more transactional than relationship driven. I see a lot of people coming into those environments who don't necessarily adapt to a different phase of evolution of the business in to a more steady state or growth phase. Albeit if you're in that steady state you are ultimately better off with a through and through industry leader as opposed to somewhere who comes from a different skill set or style. It's not necessary right to have the same leader forever.

Many businesses are all about the people and much less about leadership and if it is all about the leadership then there is a problem.

One core skill you want of a leader or leadership team is picking the right people and as long as they do that job well it is a core part of getting it right. If it is all about the leadership that might work well for a period of time but ultimately you are storing up problem for down the line.

I don’t know whether you can call these life lessons but they are things I think about a lot - things to abide by in terms of what I try to do day-to-day. And it leads on from what I was just talking about - surround yourself with the best people. Not just the best from the best CV or the best experience perspective; for me the best is having the right person in the right job at the right time. Just because you work with someone who is a great finance director in one organisation doesn’t mean they are the right person for every organisation or situation.

It’s not the single act of hiring the right group, it is around working with that group and assessing the skills that meet the needs of the business and the situation continuously. Because actually I think one of the things that I often say to myself and others, you never regret getting rid of someone too early but many of us have regretted, too often, not asking someone to move on.

It’s not about the individual but about the situation they are in. It’s one's natural instinct to be protective around people and individuals but often your gut is getting there quicker and you tolerate things for too long.

Next it’s about making sure individuals are motivated. I generally look for people who have the right attitude, work ethic, drive as this is often more important than their experience or CV. I would rather hire someone with the right attitude than a full skill set - that’s much easier to develop. Ultimately you end up achieving a lot more.

Inn terms of motivating people, one of the things I hold very close is understanding what that individual's aspirations are. The best people are the people nibbling at your heels and wanting your job. I’d far rather work with those individuals to ensure they get the skills and experience needed to either get my job or get my job elsewhere. It’s often the sort of conversation I have early on with someone I’m working with. It creates a very open environment to have broader discussions because if they know that ultimately your interest is in their success, not just the organisation's success, or one's own personal success, I think it allows very quickly to help build a trusting relationship with that individual . As a result I have lost a few people to external organisations but for me ultimately I know they've gone for the right reasons and I view that as a success.

So life lesson one is surround yourself with good people, motivate them, build their trust and look for people who have got the right attitude and work ethic.

I think the second thing that I live by and talk to colleagues about is that if you don’t make mistakes then you aren’t trying hard enough. If someone isn’t making mistakes then they aren’t trying hard enough or they aren’t telling you about it. Both are sins in my book and I think it’s important that people must not fear making mistakes.

We all make mistakes, and as we all do, what’s more important is how you react, what you do in most situations and what you learn from those things. You become stronger as a person or a business or organisation if you learn from those things. It's about how you problem solve collaboratively; and actually collaborative problem-solving builds strong teams, it builds trust and transparency - all of those good things.

I think you have a much bigger problem if you're in an environment where people are not prepared to admit their mistakes. Things stay hidden for too long, become toxic for an organisation. If you have a fear culture in an organisation, that may drive some short-term wins, but it would be setting yourself up for failure.

The third one for me is taking the time to thank people. I think you go through your working day, your working week with a lot of people working extremely hard.

It may be easier to pick up on the things that are going wrong rather than recognising the things that are going right. It is not just the big successes. It’s the things that people do day in - day out to build the success. It’s important to take time to recognise that and a simple thank you - in person, by a phonemail or a note or email carries a huge amount of weight.

It’s important that people are being recognised for what they do every day because most people are committed towards the organisation - they work extremely hard and don't necessarily see the big results of what they do.

This probably hit home to me most about 15 years ago when I was working at The Smiths Group. I was selling a relatively small business for the company but I took the sale of that business very seriously. It went well and for the group it was relatively small but I still remember that after the transaction I got a handwritten note from the CEO saying thank you and well done, congratulations on a fantastic job - you got a brilliant price! That meant far more to me than getting a slightly bigger bonus. We don’t often take the time out to do the simple things.

So these are not big life lessons - that may be the wrong term fo me but they are things that certainly I think about daily when I’m doing my job.

In difficult times I don’t think there is a single way of dealing with things but you certainly require a different skill set. Some words that spring to mind are: lots of resilience, you need to remain focused, a degree of optimism. Most certainly not to be someone who quits at every hard hurdle. You have to go at every challenge with a view to successfully navigating it. You’ve got to be not afraid making some pretty difficult decisions and make those decisions in a very timely fashion.

You still have to do things in in in the right way but those are tough decisions which probably only get tougher if you don't take very decisive action.

Also you have got to be able to deal with conflict because in those situations with colleagues, stakeholders, Boards, shareholders, even clients, you may find yourself in some fairly difficult conversations. It is then around how you deal with conflict in a very high pressurised environment. I can’t say I've got it right all the time - I go back to my point about you can’t be afraid to make mistakes! That’s a tough environment for anyone to work in and some would not be able to operate in those types of circumstances

It doesn't mean you throw everything out else that you’ve learned because in those sorts off environments you are even more dependant on your key people, and retaining them and working with them through very difficult times, long hours and adversity, so sometimes the people skills are almost more important if not as important as anything else.

It’s important to be prepared for difficult and robust conversations - you may need to

persuade an employee to stay with you, or a client to stick with you or an external stakeholder to see why they need to support. You have to wear a number of hats all at the same time!

This is a slight repetition but I go back to a key thing for a leader is building teams.

A business is about the people throughout the organisation. A key reflection for me around the construction industry, certainly for someone who has worked in the manufacturing industry too, is it’s easy to think ‘you are just putting stuff together’ . However, when you are building a home you are really dependant on everyone throughout the organisation - from the skill of the bricklayer, the electrician, the plumber, the plasterer, the painters, right the way through to the person who sells the home and manages the customer journey. Without having skilled individuals who are committed to what they do in the organisation, then you are going to fail at the first hurdle.

Then if you go through the organisation and meet the people who design the homes in the right way, buy the land in the right way - plot a place to live - again it’s not just around pretty houses on a map but it’s creating communities - places that people want to live. And then there are the people who manage those regions and businesses - and yes - you have to have process and control in an organisation - and that works well in a say a high-tech manufacturing business where there is volume; high-volume transaction financial services business but actually in our sort of business it is about the people. On the face of it we may look like a nitty-gritty construction business but actually I think the need to manage people intelligently is imperative. So when things go wrong in business it’s generally where you have had a failure of people; something they have done rather than a failure of systems or processes. In our business the pyramid is inverted - everything starts with the frontline. It's the people building the homes and dealing with the customers. This may be true in other businesses too but particularly here. It’s about how you empower them and hold them to account - it is relatively easy to empower people but it can be more difficult to hold them accountable. I think that is a skill of leaders and the organisation to do it effectively.

It is around setting clear direction and goals so people know what they're working towards and what they are going to be measured against. Setting clear direction - the milestones - the goals and communicating them out clearly to people. It’s important for people to understand how they fit into the strategy and how their roles help deliver and execute strategy.

Part of the importance of setting clear direction is keeping it relatively simple. I think you can make a business strategy too complex - if you can’t articulate it in relatively few sentences I think it is going to be difficult for a whole organisation to understand it. Let alone individuals understanding their role in delivering.

The third part is around good communication. That's ensuring clear channels of communication, that's down an organisation, up an organisation, across an organisation.

It links back to building effective teams, getting people to operate as a single team. As a whole business - ultimately there are a series of teams but organisations operating well are operating together as a single team, where effective communications surface problems and encourage collaboration. People are clear about their goals and what other people are trying to achieve in terms of their part in the bigger picture. It is important for people to have an understanding of how they connect together. You are far more likely to set yourself up for success if they do rather than if you have a series of silos where the left arm doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

So clear communication is imperative - in short!

And that leads me to another important thing which is listening. I think this is often either underrated or ignored. There is no point putting a good team around you yet not listening to them. They are smart people and they are there to be listened to! Ultimately you cannot make decisions in the organisation or as a leader if you're not listening to what people are telling you.

It’s part of the decision-making processing and it is about genuinely listening and understanding rather than just listening and ignoring. Or just not listening in the first place. It may result in changing one’s perspective and I think that's very important.

This is something I've certainly learned over the years and shall continue to do. It’s recognising that someone may come in with a totally different perspective to one’s own and not dismissing that but actually listening to what is being said and understanding why there is a different perspective. Trying understand what that person is trying to get across.

It may not necessarily change your outcome but you need to understand why that person is saying what they are saying and therefore to be open minded to changing your mind. I’ve probably seen that in a couple of people I’ve worked with who are quite strong and dominant leaders and that can often drive people to say what they think the leader wants to hear which clearly drives the wrong behaviour! But I’ve also seen some of those individuals where if you do communicate a difference of opinion

the positive is actually a huge credit when someone is prepared to listen and understand and change a point of view. I think it means you are more likely to make the right decision, people are more likely to have the conversation in the fist place and it

builds the right environment for good communication, trust and teams. I think that's why all that is critical actually

It goes way beyond the listening ; it’s what you do when you listen. So super-important for me and again to go back to things I try to live by daily it’s always worth reminding oneself to take time to listen - even to those things you don’t want to hear or feel like you haven’t got time to hear.

My fifth and final point of this is ‘be lucky’ ! It may sound a little bit flippant but I remember someone saying this to me many years ago - it’s better to be lucky than be good. There are many other things that may influence luck including being in the right place at the right time! You can’t always be lucky but actually you can create your own luck. It goes back to something I talked about valuing earlier - through the right attitude, hard work, through resilience, through having the right people alongside you, collaborating with them, working with them, listening with them - I think you can create luck.

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