Agility, learning, confidence — your top three tools when you tackle the unknown

Stephen Martin, Director General of the Institute of Directors describes why he loves the don’t know — and how he dared to be one of the first bosses to go ‘underground’ in his own business for a TV series.

In February, Stephen Martin hung up his hard hat as CEO of construction, property and logistics firm Clugston to take on the role of guiding Britain’s businesses through Brexit.

Stephen Martin, Director General of the Institute of Directors

His role at the IoD means that every day he witnesses businesses having to be agile, and react to the unknowns thrown at them. It’s a big job, even for the man dubbed the “boss of bosses”.

But why do it? What convinced him to move from one of the UK’s largest private construction firms, that had featured in the Sunday Times Top Track 250, Profit Track 100 and where he’d had considerable success? After all, if it’s about loving a challenge, the construction industry is not exactly short of them. Demand is huge, skills are in short supply and innovation is transforming building.

Agility to tackle not BAU

Stephen’s just visited Westfield Sportscars in Kidderminster and describes how after the EU referendum and fall in the pound, Westfield switched to sourcing all their components in the UK. “I was impressed by the agility of the company, how quickly it made decisions and implemented them.”

“Leaders need to be agile because this is not business as usual,” affirms Stephen. “I’d never previously considered running a professional members’ organisation, even though I knew it was an interesting role. What clinched it for me was the referendum result. It’s not just the UK that is going to change; Brexit is is going to have global ramifications.”

“What an exciting and challenging time to be involved in an organisation like the IoD.”

So what was the genesis of Stephen’s fondness for the unknown? In 1996 his boss recommended he went on a Leadership Trust course, “and the experience was the most powerful training I’ve ever done.

“It was totally immersive and interactive. I learned a lot just working with different people from different cultures and companies around the world.”

“I got carried away with it, and every day I woke up refreshed from what I’d learnt. I had the confidence to say what I felt, and I became a more effective part of the management team as a result. In fact the next two years were the best we’d had. “

“It completely changed my outlook. You didn’t know what was going to happen next, and when it did, it was a shock. But then I’d look back and realise I’d learnt something new.”

That first big test of Stephen vs uncertainty

Stephen’s first major test was as CEO at Barhale Construction “and as soon as I said yes, I realised the job was way bigger than I’d imagined.” Within a few weeks he was wondering if he was the right person for the role, but decided to stay and give it a go. “I was doing things I’d never done before and it was tough, but it was also an amazingly rewarding two years. It taught me that it needs self-belief and confidence to tackle the unknown.

“The big thing I learnt at Barhale was the responsibility for our people, their jobs, families and livelihoods. That motivated me to take on the challenge.”

Seeing situations through the eyes of employees also became key, with Stephen noticing directors often sending staff off on training, but never undertaking it themselves. “I thought I had to set an example. It was intense but all the people from the company could see I was doing it. It helped me relate to the staff and they could interact with me as a person, not as a chief exec. I got a lot out of it.”

How far should a leader go to learn?

Learning has become a conviction that he says keeps him engaged, focused and happy. It may almost be an obsession. For example, after puzzling over how army discipline managed to keep so many soldiers in step and ready to fight for a cause, he decided to do his own research — and promptly joined the Army Reserve.

Not exactly risk averse, he also elected to be a guinea pig for Channel 4’s Undercover Boss series, assuming a new identity and going undercover in his own business — even though everyone, including Clugston’s board, advised him against it.

“I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to ‘go underground’ and see what people really thought.”

It was the first series so nothing had been aired, and it was mid-recession so a lot of companies refused. He effectively went in blind, but now says the show was pivotal in how he changed the company. “Before I did it, employees wouldn’t talk to me. Afterwards they came to tell me things and I could make changes.

“I learnt to be totally honest, and openness is vital. To have no difference between work and personal faces. To believe in yourself and do what you think is right.”

Having confidence to be in it for the long term

Stephen’s passion for leaping into the unknown now gets more exercise than ever — a TV interview, a policy paper to review, a meeting with leaders at no10…

What advice does he give fellow business leaders as they enter a feverishly uncertain period?

“What we have got now is short-term uncertainty which could be a year, two years, perhaps longer. But most business-planning cycles are more protracted than that, so firms must look long term and continue to invest. If that means opening offices overseas, if it means growing different markets, then exploring them … trial things and see what happens.

Our hour is up. After 20 years leading, turning around and growing businesses, a day in the life of the boss of bosses is brimming with the unknown. And he’s loving it.

The last word

“Agility is the most important characteristic of business today. The speed with which you can adapt to change is vital, otherwise businesses are stuck in paralysis. I’m meeting businesses every day that are doing extraordinary things, taking risks and trusting their intuition. Giving it a go.”

“At more than any time in our history, UK Businesses need to embrace the unknown.”

19 October 2017

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