To be a great leader you must first earn the trust of your team, according to this year’s crop of finalists for the Black British Business Awards, as they share advice to inspire the next generation of businessmen and businesswomen.
That connection with your team happens by “authentically caring” about the people you manage, Natalie Ojevah MBE, the creator of the Barclays Black Founders Accelerator, says.
“If I think about the leaders who had an impact on my career… the first trait that springs straight to mind is being an empathic leader; truly understanding the individuals you work with, what drives them, what gets them out of bed in the morning,” she explains.
Far from leaders ordering their teams around, Adesuyi Agbede, chief data officer at asset manager Wellington Management, wants to flip the whole system on its head. Instead, he believes leaders can deliver the best results by supporting their colleagues to fulfill their potential.
Clear communication and empowering others are key to this success, while Agbede also encourages leaders to “always question the status quo”.
Fellow finalist Sean Alleyne, who works as COO of Credit Suisse’s London branch, adds that you must “create a culture of openness” underpinned by trust and fairness.
All are finalists in this year’s Black British Business Awards, of which The Telegraph is the media partner. The event, now in its ninth year, celebrates the achievements of some of the UK’s top corporate bosses and entrepreneurs, with the awards ceremony taking place tonight in London.
Learning from mistakes
Good leaders are not born, Ojevah argues, but instead are the result of serious self-reflection – not only on your strengths, but also your weaknesses.
“Whilst understanding your colleagues is important, understanding yourself is pivotal,” she says. “Where do your strengths lie, what is the impact that you want to have on the organisation and how will you empower others to champion and challenge?”
All would-be business leaders must ask themselves these questions, not once but repeatedly. This may prove to be a painful experience for some, especially reflecting on mistakes made in the past.
But Alleyne believes this is a crucial part of self-development, arguing: “Mistakes are essential for growth in your professional life. How you react to them and what you learn from them is key.”
Becky George-David, who heads up business banking partnerships at JP Morgan Chase, adds: “Each mistake has led me down an alternative path through which I’ve uncovered new experiences and perspectives – leading me to the person that I am today.
"So long as you stick through it, there is a way out and things tend to work out in the longer term.”
Rather than allowing mistakes to discourage you, the lesson from this year’s batch of finalists is that there is always a lesson to be learned that will help you improve.
Building a culture
Establishing a strong culture will bring out the best in your staff, but this goes beyond coming up with an inspiring mission statement, says Ojevah.
“Having a company mission statement is great but what does that mean for colleagues and how do leaders embed this culture on a day to day basis within the team? If you want people to believe it, they need to see it. Organisations get carried away with the optics of what is popular, to the extent that reading through company values these days, everyone sounds the same,” George-David complains.
Instead, “culture is what happens when no-one is looking”, she says – a sentiment echoed by Agbede, who says employees create it from the bottom up.
While business leaders cannot control workplace culture, they can influence it by ensuring they recruit not just for the skills that match the job, but also the behaviour that matches the organisation, George-David advises – and by stepping in when things go wrong.
She says: “Leaders owe it to their employees to not only be vocal about calling out dissident behaviours, but ensuring that all employees are empowered to do the same.”
A diverse environment
This year’s finalists argue that diversity is key to fostering a strong culture by introducing a wider range of thinking and creativity.
It also “removes unwanted bias and can increase employee satisfaction and boost morale”, according to Agbede. Hiring a wide range of people ensures organisations have flexible problem-solvers, because their staff will take different approaches informed by a variety of life experiences and attitudes.
“Diverse workforces are more innovative, make better decisions and are more effective at problem-solving,” argues Alleyne.
Ojevah believes there is also a commercial advantage to hiring a broad range of people: “In the simplest terms, having a more diverse workplace means that businesses can effectively market to a wider diverse consumer market.”
Now is the time for the next generation of leaders to ensure their companies finally turn all the talk into action, according to Alleyne. “Organisations need to be action-oriented and not just talk, and invest in creating an equitable environment where cognitive diversity is truly valued.”
Founded in 2014, the Black British Business Awards celebrate the achievements and exceptional performance of black professionals and business owners in the UK.