In conversation with Jason
I feel really lucky - I’ve had three phases in my career. Firstly I was in the Civil Service, I worked with Senior Civil Servants and Ministers and what some would call Spin Doctors so I saw various things. I then went into Management Consulting and did a number of projects on Strategy Organisation, Design Organisation, Development, Leadership, Performance Management working in a wide range of companies from Private Sector to Public Sector. Now, I’m in this job - managing an SME of around £15 million. So I’ve had three very different paths through my career.
In each of them I’ve met and worked with really interesting people and my influences have come from peers and people I’ve worked with.
By nature I’m a very curious person so I’m always looking to learn from people, always looking to take from the good you see in others and trying to copy it. And similarly you can see things and think ‘do you know what? I really don’t like what I see’ and sometimes recognise those traits in yourself which makes me think I must be more self-aware and reflective and not do those practises myself. Because it’s very easy to slip into bad habits!
There’s a big structure in the Civil Service around development - a lot of it is very specific to the Civil Service so you have to look hard to find things you can take away that are relevant to other careers. There are always things that are relevant and I think that one of the things a lot of Civil Servants don’t recognise is that they have a lot of transferable skills - often people think that once you are in the Civil Service you are stuck there but there are so many things that do transfer.
There are so many things that I use here in my every day leadership role that I learned from the Civil Service. Some of that is the attention to detail and the fact that I know that doing one thing over here leads to something very different over here - and that’s something that I think the Civil Service is very good at - scanning the horizon and looking for pitfalls and traps.
The training was wide ranging - they are very hot on certain topics - things for example like diversity. I learned a lot about that in the Civil Service and it’s admirable. You can learn a lot about that in the Private Sector as well. For example, the recent issue in Starbucks where they had to close every branch to train everyone in diversity - how did they get to that point where they needed to do that? Surely they should have been doing something like that in advance. The Civil Service is really good at that forward thinking.
Someone the other day said to me ‘you are really PC’ - they were probably saying it in a pejorative way but I took it as a compliment and I said ‘yes we are - isn’t that great.’ I thought it was a really good thing. What he meant was the world of photography is very male dominated and male orientated and you go to a photography trade show and they still have girls in tight tee shirts and men with big lenses taking photographs. We don’t go to those because of that. That isn’t reflective of the customer we want and the aspiration of our Brand. He thought that was PC. These sorts of beliefs are still held out there. So the Civil Service taught me about diversity, thinking differently and having a wide view.
Consulting provides you with the opportunity to learn all the time. You just can’t stop because as soon as you do you are out of date and then someone who is sharper than you takes over. A lot of what I do I’ve picked up from reading, from talking to people - you are either one of those people who is curious about life and curious about work and the nature of work and leadership or not. You have to inherently have that curiosity.
Our business sits within a unusual place - within the photographic trade we are an oddity. We are right at the top end - premium brand, not mass manufacture. Most of our products are hand made and quite often demand is higher than supply. That can be a challenge when you want to grow and attract new people to the brand and how you can manage that. We have one foot as a luxury brand, one as a camera brand and, like the Isle of Man, a third foot in the world of culture which focuses on the world of photography, so it’s an interesting relationship that you have to manage. It’s really easy to alienate one or the other.
You can alienate photographers because they think you are the ‘handbag’ brand which is a phrase you hear. And then to appeal to that certain luxury you have to have a certain status - so we have partnerships with Hermès and Paul Smith and those sorts of brands. And it’s about how you make sure it’s authentic enough to not damage the other parts of the business. I don’t think you can be authentic in either camp unless you have a really good product that really does deliver - and I think that’s the good thing about Leica - it does have incredible products and its products will serve just as well for someone doing reportage in Syria as it will for someone walking around Chelsea doing a bit of street photography. It works in both scenarios.
What all that means for leadership is that you have to constantly be aware of who your customers are, of who you are targeting. You need to have a clear strategy about your marketing and sales and to have balance. Probably about 35% of our business is our own retail and the rest is wholesale and again you can have conflicts and tensions between those.
There’s a self interest to sell through your own retail but there again you don’t want to alienate 65% of your business. Now for me it’s about being very transparent and being very honest and open with everyone. You have to value both bits of your business equally. The danger is it is very easy to shut off from one thing or to not listen to people - you have to listen. It’s a key thing for leadership to listen more than you talk. Once you stop listening to people - actually stop listening properly not just paying lip service but actually listening, taking it on board and reflecting - once you stop doing that then you are in trouble. There are plenty of brands out there - you only have to look at House of Fraser recently - an example of a brand that stopped listening and stopped being aware of its customers. For example - a local House of Fraser that I have visited over the past twelve months was a very different experience from say three or four years ago. They just completely lost their sense of identity - why go to House of Fraser? What’s the value?
It’s really important that our stores are a point of experience not a point of sale - it’s not just about coming here and buying a box - it is about coming in here and starting your journey in photography if you are new to photography, or somehow helping you advance your photography. This a genuine brand - a family owned brand and you see that running through the whole of the company there is a genuine wish for people to enjoy photography. That’s why we have 19 galleries around the world - which on the face of it might not make the most commercial sense but actually what it does is make a very important brand statement. And say ‘you know what? Photography is what’s most important to us’.
Of course our products help you create this beautiful photography but ultimately it’s about the photography which is why we have Akademie programmes and work with these amazing photographers teaching people.
The things I would say are most important - as I said earlier - really do listen and take on board others’ points of views. And it’s important to have vision. You have to be very fixed on that but not necessarily on the way to get there. You may think this is the right path - but you know what - there are many other paths to get there. You only find those other paths by really listening to people and involving them. Everyone has a value. We are a small company in the UK - part of a much bigger global company but we still feel like a small company. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘I want to go to work and do a bad job’. If people are doing a bad job it’s usually because there are some sort of barriers or obstacles in their way - so how can you get rid of those obstacles? You only understand what they are by listing and communication. And having a good degree of empathy. This is really important. Not just with your staff but also with your customers as well. It’s important to have a really good sense of what’s going on.
I remember in the Civil Service very early on, we were working with a company on emotional intelligence and it was still quite new as a concept. There were a few raised eyebrows at the time but now it’s fully recognised as an important thing and is in everyone’s toolkit. Things like #metoo and mental health - all of those things can be tackled in a better way if you have an emotional intelligence about you.
My next point is be bold! It’s very easy as a company to think ‘we are doing OK’. OK is good enough but then you tend to be very middle of the road. And if you stand in the middle of the road you get run over!! Don’t just settle for something - it’s very easy to do this particularly when you are running a company and there are so many other things to do. Make sure you are pushing yourself and then others will come with you.
Sometimes you just have to do the right thing - regardless of the cost. It’s about how you do things as a company. There can’t be any company that exists where things don’t go wrong. It’s how you respond to that. Burying a problem or denying it - you just know that there is no good ending to that story. If you hold up you hands and admit when things go wrong I think most people will give you a second chance. And it’s the same with leadership - if you make a mistake no one here is going to say ‘ that’s it - you’re out, you’re finished!’ but rather we look at it as a big piece of learning. We value that.
If you don’t have that sort of culture within your company, you will still have people making mistakes but they just won’t tell you about it. And that’s just the worst thing that can possibly happen. It will come back and will have multiplied by the time it does.
You need to be aware of what’s going on around you - but it’s not always necessary to change. If you have a strategy in place and a vision for the future, of course scan the horizon but don’t just change because things aren’t necessarily going they way you thought they would. You wouldn’t run your company into the ground because you are so pig-headed that you won’t change but you can’t react to every thing that happens. You don’t need to react to everything. You need to be aware of what’s going on around you but if you have the right strategy then stick with it. You need to have a well reasoned strategy and make sure that it is right, but if it was right yesterday and it’s right today then it will be right tomorrow. Stay alert but don’t just jump direction.
Part of being a good leader is having good judgement - and part of that is you know which course to hold and where to change and adapt. We are facing a very complex and intricate set of circumstances at the moment and I’m yet to find anyone who understands what they are going to mean.
Curiosity is a key trait for leaders and shouldn’t be underestimated. Just be curious about things - you’ll pick up a book or a paper, or you’ll have a conversation with someone and there are things to be learned and really interesting opportunities in each of them. So always keep your mind very open, keep looking around you. We specialise in binoculars too and we have a guy called Urban Birder who specialises in bird watching in cities. Most people think that when you are walking around somewhere like Mayfair you won’t see birds but he has a view which says ‘look up’. He’ll walk you around here and you’ll be amazed at what you see and it is that looking up that makes the difference. Most of us focus on the pavement or a smartphone! It’s the same with leadership - keep looking up and you’ll see amazing things.
I can’t remember who said this but it’s a quote from a speed snowboarder - a chap who comes down mountains at breakneck speeds. Someone asked him how he managed not to hit the trees and he said ‘I don’t focus on the trees. I focus on the gaps’. And it’s like that with leadership - focus on the opportunities.
Humility is an underestimated quality of good leaders. There are no shortage of examples, both in the past and the present, of egos driving very successful companies into the ground. I think it’s important to be humble and thankful for what you have achieved and share that thanks. Because invariably it’s not you. Most of what happens here isn’t me - I’m only so many hours a day. Add together everyone else’s hours and what everyone else does far outweighs what I do. Share what other people do and don’t ever be afraid to promote other people rather than yourself.
We try and be very non hierarchical here - maybe this is something else I learned from the Civil Service! Hierarchies are one of the worst things! If I’m in the store and a customer needs serving then I will do that and I will encourage anyone else in the company to do that. So everyone has to understand why we are here and have that as their main focus. It’s not about them and it’s not about me. This company is 103 years old so me being MD for 3 years is nothing. It’s a blink in the history. But I’m looking after what is a very precious and well respected brand I am very aware of that I don’t want to do anything that damages that. I’m just a custodian until the next person comes along.