Strong leadership skills are vital for founders of growing businesses. While these skills can be honed through training, coaching and mentoring, it is an entrepreneur’s individual style of leadership that determines their success, and this can be moulded by many different factors.
Virgin founder Richard Branson is as famous for being an inspirational leader as he is for being a daredevil. And that ability to engage with people and take them with him on the most challenging of business journeys he says is down to his mother, Eve Branson.
“My mum shaped my leadership style,” he says. “If I ever said anything ill about somebody as a kid, she would send me to stand in front of the mirror for 10 minutes because she said it reflected so badly on me, and this has always stayed with me. It’s far more effective to praise people than to constantly criticize them; it brings out the best in them and creates a more open environment for creativity and innovation.”
And that approach to leading people continues today. What Virgin values most in its leaders today; the ability to show a genuine interest and duty of care for their teams.
“We want the opposite of the entrepreneurial stereotype, who will step over people to get where they want to in life,” says Branson. “That’s never been the Virgin approach. Most people want to be listened to and appreciated at work, and focusing on these attributes as a leader will work better for everyone in the long run.”
Some entrepreneurs have been influenced by other business leaders. Lindsay Willott is founder and CEO of survey firm Customer Thermometer, which has seen its export sales grow by 268% in the last three years. It recently won a Queens Award in International Trade. Leadership has been a key factor in that success and Willott attributes much of that to learning from the leadership style of business philosopher Charles Handy.
She says: “He has always written about businesses being a force for good in the lives of employees and customers and I’ve tried to apply that philosophy in the businesses I’ve founded. His heart-warming approach unifies people and capitalism in a way I’ve never seen attempted before. As he says ‘we were not destined to be empty raincoats, nameless numbers on a payroll, role occupants, the raw material of economics or sociology, statistics in some government report’.”
A number of factors have helped define the leadership style of bitcoin exchange CoinCorner cofounder and CEO Danny Scott over the years. The most obvious one was the role of his parents in his upbringing, which contributed to his work ethic. A less obvious one was the time his boss asked him to clean the toilets.
Scott says: “Just to clarify, I wasn't working as a cleaner, I was a lifeguard, but my boss went on to explain how he would never ask me to do something he hadn't done himself. This stuck with me and has certainly influenced my leadership style. Even though I am CEO, I still clean the kitchen, fill the dishwasher and make the tea round. I believe leading from the front is a great way to help encourage good team spirit.”
Experiences of bad management at work can also influence the way people approach leadership when they decide to launch their own business. Jen Fuller founded baby brand Etta Loves back in 2016, whilst juggling a full time role as managing partner at a media agency with a new baby. The business now has a team of 11 people.
She says: “Having worked for someone else for my entire working life until recently, I have witnessed the good, the bad and the downright ugly when it comes to leadership. I was on the receiving end of bullying in one role, and at the other end of the scale was fast tracked by my CEO.”
Her key takeaway from those experiences was not to be afraid of someone else’s success and to find the joy in seeing others doing brilliantly.
“I also think it’s vital to quickly understand people’s strengths and weaknesses and determine how they fit and complement your own,” adds Fuller. “I make a point of employing people and teams who do what I can’t do, or don’t want to do, and bring positive energy and ultimately a sense of fun to the grueling hours, highs and lows.”
For Paul Nicholson founder and CEO of property development firm Luxor Group, it was the wise words of his businessman father that defined his own style of leadership.
He says: “It was such a positive influence and I learned so much from him. I remember sitting next to him in the car on a Friday evening when he would take my brother and me to swimming. I’d hear how he rewarded good staff, gave credit and thanks, empowered people by helping them to develop as leaders themselves, and encouraged them to learn from their mistakes.”
Nicholson was also taught to welcome challenges and to recognize that he doesn’t have all the answers and should therefore seek different views and expertise from others.
“I’ve also become less of a talker and more of a listener, thanks to my dad’s advice and where possible, I always make myself accessible to the team,” he says. “At the same time, I’ve also learned about balance, the art of delegation and when to intervene and when to get out of the way!”