Let’s be honest, we are living through challenging times.
COVID-19 has been a nightmare. We are slowly but surely both learning to live with it and perhaps even beating it.
We are also moving from an old way of doing things into a brand new post-Brexit world. We face the kind of climate calamity that could have an existential impact on the human race. We’ve got inflation running rampant, currently sitting at over 5% and looking likely to hit 7% by April. People in the 6th largest economy of the world are facing such a cost of living squeeze, they’re having to choose between heating and eating. Social care is a horror story. Our much-loved NHS is creaking. Social mobility has stalled. Individuals and large organisations are arguably becoming sovereign from nation-states. Nationalism is on the rise. Trust in politicians is at an all-time low. People around the world question if democracy even works.
So absolutely, these are bloody challenging times.
But you know what? Look around and think about what we’ve just been through. People have stepped up and worked wonders. New businesses have grown, businesses have diversified, innovated, showed the level of determination that demonstrates the capacity and skills we’ve always had in our economy: that sometimes latent ability to succeed at all costs.
What made this happen? Sure, we had a pandemic but the symptom of that pandemic was leadership. Arguably we’ve seen leadership from the government and from establishment institutions, but the real leadership came from the decision making of millions of people throughout the country.
Leadership emerged as a response to a crisis, but that leadership is in decline as we return to living our lives in a business as usual mindset. We can see this in all strata of society, Whatsmore, there is a very real sense that something has changed in the way leadership is done in this country; there is a sense that leaders cannot be trusted and their integrity is questionable.
We’ve seen a breakdown in the trust of leadership in every sector. There have been scandals in charities, religious organisations, academic, care settings, communities etc. Often poor leadership is either to blame or directly implicated. We can see the same in both politics and business, and that’s where I think we need to focus on getting better in this country.
I remember in 2009, I was hauled in before my then managing director because one of my clients had sent through a very expensive hamper, to thank me for all the work I’d done for them that year and how it had changed their business. There was a bit of consternation that this was some kind of bribe and the leadership team questioned if I should be allowed to accept it or if we should send it back. This was the first time I’d experienced anything like this. In my first role in marketing, I’d worked for an agency for five years that actually congratulated staff members who received gifts from clients and encouraged staff to try to get gifts. This was the first time I understood what the difference in leadership can do for the culture of a business and perhaps the first time I had thought to question the attitude of my first employer.
The reaction to my receiving a very expensive hamper from my client greatly increased my perception of the leadership of that company. It probably helped that they decided it wasn’t a bribe after all and they let me take it home.
More recently, we have been faced with a problem of quality assurance in GrowTraffic. It’s something we’ve always felt we have instilled in the team but we recognised we perhaps haven’t reinforced this focus on quality and we realised this has to be a fundamental part of our corporate culture in order to deliver our service as we scale up our business. My mantra is often “how can we do it bigger” but I’m thinking it should now be “how can we do it better.”
We have also recently recognised that we have grown the business to this point by being loosely responsible for various parts of the business. But we can see that no one is truly accountable for specific things. This is both damaging to our relationships and to the business. We have now taken steps to start to hold each other more accountable and to properly define our roles.
There are things we do well and things we do poorly. We not only need to improve the things we do poorly, but also the things we do well and that takes proactive leadership. I think we have finally come to terms with the fact we have to be accountable and now we are in that mindset, I think no stone will be left unturned.
The GrowFos are likely to be bored to tears by my “How Can We Do It Better” mantra. But I hope we’ll build this to be a core part of our culture. I know we’ll have won when they start saying it themselves. I also recognise that people have to buy into it, first, the key leaders have to modulate their language and maybe even change the way they think about something. From there it’s getting genuine buy-in from the team so that it becomes so ingrained that it’s not just something that we all say amongst ourselves but it’s something that automatically happens in each piece of work.
I am the biggest enemy when it comes to quality. I have always argued that the best course of action is to get things out and fix them as required. Quality has never been a big part of my thought process when it comes to marketing. I’ve baked in velocity as a core part of what GrowTraffic does because I always worked with marketers who were of the opinion that slow and steady creativity wins the race. Whilst I never want us to be the kind of business that will spend weeks creating blog posts, I know I have to change the way I think and I know I will be seen as a hypocrite.
The businesses that focus on ensuring there is quality in their products, services and processes are those that survive, grow and scale. Without this interest in quality, companies can grow. In fact, I’ve worked for companies that didn’t feel quality was important and they operated with a mindset of doing the bare minimum and just scape by. Needless to say, those organisations were shambolic and chaotic. I also note that it was those businesses that struggled the most to fight their way out of the 2008 recession and the 2020 pandemic.
Quality is also a focus on doing the right thing and this isn’t just about delivering a quality service or product, it’s also about acting in an ethical manner. Quality shows that you care and it’s essential that this is reinforced in your corporate culture. But this takes leadership and I fear the necessary kind of leadership is currently a bit lacking throughout the nation. We can see this most clearly when we look at how the political class and the governing elite has behaved. We see lying, cheating, nepotism, fraud, waste, and such a complete lack of integrity in every station of society.
As business leaders, we must focus on integrity and the quality that naturally emanates from an organisation that acts with high levels of integrity. This is also something our employees expect from us but when we don’t act with these principles in mind it results in a cascading flow of poor behaviour and poor choices.
When I was growing up I recall the super-rich investing in their communities. That’s how they spent their money, sure they got their names on buildings and projects, and I doubt we could say it was totally altruistic but something has changed. Proportionately fewer well-off and super-rich individuals are behaving in a philanthropic manner, they are blowing their fortunes on shiny things like silly yachts.
It is these very standards that have held together our society for so long, which are now under threat. We knew, on the whole, those leaders in bye-gone eras would act with the strictest morals and if they did something wrong, they would resign. We now enter a new phase where we can’t rely on people in positions of privilege to do the right thing and resign when they’ve been found to have done the wrong thing.
I am going to be the first to hold my hands up and say I haven’t always acted in a manner that I am happy with. I’ve made mistakes and said and done things I regret. But I try to hold myself to higher standards than I would hold others to and I think that’s a good way of looking at it.
I’ve experienced the beginnings of hubris syndrome. Hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power. The power that comes with success. I didn’t like what it did to me then and I’m not prepared to let it happen to me again. It’s a lesson our national leaders don’t seem to have learned. Yet. Perhaps it’s time the business community demonstrates and demands the moral rectitude we expect everyone in our society to live by and we can start doing that by instilling and constantly reinforcing in our businesses, an ethical culture based on integrity.
When we see poor leadership, in society, our businesses and in ourselves, we should act and point it out and demand better.