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Michael : Firstly can I just say that I’m very pleased to have you on this podcast this morning, I’m really interested in listening to what you have to say – and firstly could we kick of by introducing yourself to our listeners, saying a little bit about who you are and what you do.
David : OK, thanks Michael, I’m pleased to be here as well. My name is David Sales, I currently run my own company. I am managing director of my own company called First Ascent, but my background starts about twenty-five years ago when I left university – I joined BT and I moved through a range of sales and marketing positions in my early ten years there.
I went off to do an MBA. I came back to BT where I started to run stand-alone businesses while I was in the company – one of which was BT Conferencing, which we’re going to come back to – and then some other start-up organisations.
About three years ago I left BT, to start my own company and became passionate about the subject of leadership and so that’s what I’m doing now.
Michael : Building on from that, what does leadership mean to you?
David : It’s a very personal thing I think, and different people like to use different words. But for me really the essence of it is really around three things, in terms of the person. I think it’s all about bravery, I think it’s about excitement, and I think it’s about determination – all focused around creating change in an organisation, and obviously that change can vary greatly depending on what’s needed and what’s appropriate.
But for me the change has to have meaning, to the organisation and to the world, and it has to be sustainable – so leadership is about the kind of energies and skills that you bring to create change.
Michael : For the sake of the rest of this conversation – because I’d like to go into one area where you were a leader in a bit more detail – give us one context, which would be useful to discuss leadership in?
David : I think the one that would be most useful, because it was certainly one of my most impactful, informative experiences, is when I was the CEO of BT conferencing. Which was a stand-alone business, a global business running all of the telecoms scene with video-conferencing technology that BT provided to its costumers.
Michael : What are some of the issues that you faced in that leadership role?
David : There were several, and my role their changed over time for five or six years – so when I first joined, the big issue that hit me in the face straight away was the organisation, that had grown fairly rapidly, but had grown in a process way so that customers had been forgotten.
The purpose of the business was to run an efficient process and give the customers a satisfying experience.
So the first issue was to remind people that customers were top of the pile – that if they were going to have a successful business, that is where the focus would be, not internally.
And during the time, as we began to expand on that business ethic, we had to change the business from one that was really serving equipment, like business conferencing terminals, to a service business, audio-conferencing and video-conferencing services. So that was a big system change – a big change internally.
In parallel with all of that, we were expanding globally – originally it was an English business, and by the time I left we were operating in twelve countries. And the US, currently the biggest market, was coming up the rails as it were to chase the UK in terms of sales.
Michael : I know you’ve talked about what you see the role of the leader is, but what did you see as your role as a leader there? And what were some of the main indicators that you were doing a good job?
David : The key aspects of leadership for me there were, number one, that we were going in a good direction, for everybody in the company – and there are different aspects of that – but overall you must have the handle of where you’re aiming to take the organisation, in both the short term and the long term. You must be consistent, every day of every week of every month.
Now over a year or so, of course the market changes, and things might change, but it’s your responsibility to maintain the direction of the business.
The next thing is to champion customers as I’ve mentioned before. In any reasonably sized organisation, the work that we’re doing now would suggest that an organisation of less than twenty people is very good at focusing on customers, but when you start getting bigger than that, the company and the internal processes – sometimes people forget that the customers are the reason that we exist.
So being the customers’ champion in an organisation of seven-hundred people is important for a leader today. There are a couple of internal things, I think, for a leader to do. One of those is to remember that it’s your role to help people through the changes that you’re instigating – and that at the end of the day change does not stick in an organisation unless the people are behind it, with it, and happy about it.
And that’s much more difficult than just announcing a reorganisation. You need to understand the psychology of the people within the organisation as well as how to make them feel comfortable with the ongoing changes.
And then finally, and this is specific to the fact that we were an organisation within a bigger organisation – was to provide air cover. So the politics, and the pressures that exist within a bigger company, that constantly try and distract a small organisation from its task – if a leader can deflect those, with an efficient use of the time, and not have seven hundred people trying to deflect them.
Michael : In stepping out of that leadership role, what were the key resources that helped you achieve it?
David : There are lots of resources, but the more that I thought about it at the time – and I have to say, the more that I look back at it – only one resource really matters, and that’s the people.
Michael : Just talk a little bit more about it – why have you come to the conclusion that people are important?
David : You’re right. Lots of people talk about it, but very few people do anything about it in a way I think is appropriate or effective in the long term.
Why have I come to that conclusion – Because every time that we had needed to make a big change, or a change happen, without me instigating it to happen, is because someone had the initiative, someone had the commitment, the belief to make it happen – and whether I triggered that or if it was self-determined, the organisation moved on, performance improved when someone took on responsibility and had belief in themselves to do it.
The rest of the resources then we’ll work around. There was money, technology, whatever, the people brought those resources together and worked with the resources available.
So I suppose, being the character that I am, I observed it happening, and therefore I believe in it.
Michael : When you took that job as a leader, you said that you had a number of things, like being customer champion, air-cover, all of the other good stuff that you’ve said – did you have some sort of time-plan? How did you work out what to cover first?
What was your approach to time as far as that role was concerned?
David : The very first thing, for a new leader, in a new position, whether that’s a company where you’ve moved into a new role, or perhaps you’re starting up a new organisation – The very first thing that you have to do is work on your relationship with your people. Build up a trust.
And that means spending a lot of time listening, talking, thinking before you open your mouth about your future plans, so you really understand. We would call it today system leadership – you understand all of the implications of something that you’re about to do, on the whole system, on the whole community, and you’ve thought about that before you begin to initiate it – so when you initiate it, you are sympathetic to the repercussions of what you’re about to do, and you’re ready to help people through that.
So that’s the first thing to do. To take the time and the commitment to get close to your people.
Michael : How long do you think that takes to get to know people and get to know the issues?
David : I think you’re right – you have to keep maintaining it, you can’t just do it once and forget about it – you have to maintain the relationship and the trust and you have to work on that over time.
But I think that the initial phase for getting people to know you and you to know them – it varies on the size of the organisation. Sometimes in a small organisation of less than twenty people you could do one-to-ones with people three times in a month and you’ve got a good relationship.
If there are seven hundred people there I’d say it would probably take three to four months before they really feel comfortable with me and trust me – and in that time I spend an awful lot of time talking to the whole group, going to team-meetings, one-to-ones, chatting.
And that can be quite a challenge to do sometimes. From a character point-of-view, I’m not the world’s biggest extrovert, so that was a challenge for me to do that.
And also it’s a challenge for people to accept you to do that, so if you’re following a leader that keeps their office door shut, they’re going to think, “Well what’s up? Why hasn’t he come to talk to us?”
So it can take a lot of effort and thick skin sometimes, to keep going at it – but you have to believe that it’s the right thing to do.
Michael : The next set of questions sort of builds on how you approach leadership – and the first one is where do you actually do it? Do you go out and meet people? Do you do it on the Internet? Do you do it in your office? Do you do it in conferences?
Where, as a location, do you spend most of your time as a leader?
David : I think it varies a huge amount actually. What I mean by that is that you don’t just try doing one thing – you try doing a lot of things – so it’s all those things you’ve mentioned – it’s definitely not just sending out emails to people.
It definitely is just talking to people one-to-one, face-to-face, in as many situations as you can that are relaxed for them. And it’s definitely about customers alongside your people, not just on your own, but alongside your people. Being there to help, and seeing how you yourself interact with customers, and the kind of questions and conversations that you yourself have with customers.
And you’re a kind of role model, partnering with customers as I would call it.
Michael : What would you say is one of your key behaviours as a leader? What do you actually spend most of your time on?
David : I think behaviours are slightly dependant on your personal style. A lot of what we do with people now is we help them to understand their personal style, and that’s good, but how to flex it as well.
So for me personally, my behaviours that I exhibit as a leader are – being calm, I’m not someone that gets flustered even in a crisis, I might internally, but I don’t exude that. So I try and help people to remain calm under stress.
I try and be a visionary, I never lose sight – I quite frequently move between helicopter vision and pragmatic practical stuff, but I’ll always bring it back to the helicopter stuff so people know that the stuff that we’re doing right now and what we’re talking about right now fits in the overall picture.
And I think part of my style as well is to try really hard to listen a lot, whether that’s to customers or to people – now part of that is a good thing to do because people like to be listened to because they feel involved, but to me it’s really important to not just do it because of that, but to collect data on a situation so I’ve got as many different perspectives before I make a decision about how to move forward.
I think sometimes it could be argued, and my team have said to me for too long.
Michael : I have to ask you this – how did you learn some of the things that you’re talking about?
David : I think that the calmness is just a personal, genetic thing. I guess you could learn that, but I guess I’m just lucky that I’ve just got it. I don’t tend to fluster easily.
The listening side of things I think I did learn, that was a learnt behaviour. When I was younger and more impatient to get on, I probably wasn’t the world’s best listener – Along with that, I started in sales, where you would think you would need to be a very good listener, which indeed you do – but internally, with the organisation, I didn’t spend a lot of time listening.
So I guess I’d say listen to the right people, but practise it. Those skills are something that you can just develop. I still learn everyday how to listen more effectively and also how to filter what matters and what doesn’t matter.
Michael : What do you believe about yourself as a leader?
David : I believe that I try and be a good leader, I try really hard to do that – and what I mean by ‘good leader’ is have the ethics of leadership. I think it’s really important to yourself and people around you to know that you are seen to be doing the right thing in your situation.
And that can be really big stuff like you’ll only work for an organisation when there’s a strong ethical basis for doing it. I wouldn’t’ work in an organisation where the products or the service and the ethics were not right. That’s one thing.
And then there’s bravery. For a leader to be brave and to be committed and sustained in not backing off, when things get difficult, from a vision, is important. Now of course, you could be panicking like mad internally and having all sorts of self doubts, but you mustn’t show that. And I try very hard to do that even when the chips are down.
Keep calm, keep the vision in place, and it works. 90% of the time it works, and that belief exudes and the situation resolves itself.
Michael : What do you believe about the people that you’re leading?
David : I believe that they’re all coming to work to do a great job – no one comes in to be awkward of dis-involved – it’s the system that can distract people and upset them, and I believe that everyone has a huge energy that’s just there to be released if you give them the right environment to work in.
Michael : What is your vision or identity as a leader? Who is David leading?
David : I think this varies depending on the situation that you’re in. But I think generally people would say that David is someone that has a clear vision for business and is good at setting strategy and ensuring that all paths lead towards it.
I think my ability to flex my style to the situation is also something that is part of my identity as a leader. I can be quite flexible in terms of interacting with people of quite varied personal styles of their own.
Michael : If you had to chose somebody to replace you in that particular role, how would you know who to chose?
David : If I was in the happy situation where I had to chose, if there was a candidate who in the immediate team was rising the ranks – I would have observed that person, both trusting the organisation and being trusted by them. And them demonstrating how to drive things forward.
If I was interviewing people that I know then I would be digging deeply to understand how they created visions and how they were brave to follow those creative visions, in difficult situations. And two, how indeed they generate trust in other people around them and whether they trust other people around them.
And that’s quite a difficult thing to try to explain, but it becomes intuitive, you just know if someone is an honest, straight-forward, energetic, visionary person. And early on in life I think you can be deceived in interviews, but you get a sixth sense don’t you, after a few interviews.
Michael : OK, strange question but I’m fascinated by your response to it, if you were to describe leadership as a metaphor, with cartoon characters, cartoon characters or animals or anything from your imagination – how would you describe the relationship between a leader and the people that he was leading?
David : I think this one is a bit situational, I’ll just give you an example:
Just going back to BT conferencing, the leader the preceded me, and the leader that would follow form me, we were three very completely different and we all had very different relationships with our team, but we were all right at the stage that we led that business.
The guy before me was a start-up merchant, and he did everything that you would expect a start up CEO to do, in the innovation and growth phase, and after I left the business had to mature to some degree, and put more process’s and systems in place.
So three different people with there different relationships to their team, but if I was to generalise, the cartoon character that I would engage with, it would be the Lion King. The Lion leading the animals into the future, but also training the future leader and knowing when to hand over.
The other leader that I know, he’s not a cartoon character, is Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, I just think that film is a brilliant illustration of how a good team and a good leader can pull you through.
Michael : Before I ask you to give us your contact details, and stuff – is there anything else that you would like to bring in that’s new, or emphasise, that you think is really important for leadership?
David : I think there’s three things I’d emphasise quickly.
One is to listen, listen, listen, collect as much information as you can from all different sources before you go into action – but then go with your instinct and you’re experience tells you, don’t let data overwhelm you’re intuition.
And then be brave in driving it through, that would be the three things.
Michael : OK, you’ve been kind enough to talk to us about leadership and your experience for twenty minutes – would you like you give our listeners a plug, something about what you do, or something that you’d like to let them know that you do?
David : Well our company is called First Ascent, and we specialise in leadership development for individuals and for teams, and organisations. We work with teams whether it’s an operational team or a whole division or company – we develop their team performance skills.
So if anyone is interested in that area, we’d be delighted to hear from you. Our contact details are 07802467148 and that’s my personal mobile, and our website is First Ascent Group.,
Michael : David, thank you very much indeed for your time.
David : It’s a pleasure, good to talk to you Michael.
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