‘If you have talent, you have a lot of choice about where to apply it’

Steve Dalton, Amicus associate and former managing director of the Sony UK Technology Centre Picture: SUPPLIED BY AMICUS

Competition between employers to hang on to talent can, in part, be addressed through quality leadership, delegates to an Amicus conference were advised. Emily Moore reports

GOOD leaders have to be responsible for looking after their people and developing their collective resilience so that they are able to cope with the pressures of the modern workplace, while also leading them in a way which ensures that the organisation achieves its results.

This was one of the key messages delivered to the 120 or so attendees who took part in Amicus’ first leadership conference, which took place recently,

During a day of workshops, panel discussions and presentations, participants also heard two keynote speeches, the first from Amicus chief executive General Sir Peter Wall, who, when he retired from the military in 2015, had achieved the rank of chief of the British Army.

In his opening speech to the audience of government, private business and charity leaders, Sir Peter identified key trends in leadership, focusing on three key topics, the first of which was motivation.

“A modern workplace has certain characteristics which leaders have to acknowledge and take into account if they want to acquire and hang on to the best talent, building teams with loyalty and continuity,” he said. “It is no secret that millennials – many of whom are now at significant levels within the workplace – and Gen Z have a different view of the world from that of the boomer generation, which joined the workforce 30 or 40 years ago.

“Younger generations are less deferential. They don’t see themselves spending their whole working life at the same company, which makes it very much a workers’ market because, if you have talent, you have a lot of choice about where to apply it. That means there is a lot of competition between employers to hang on to talent, something which I think can, in part, be addressed through leadership.”

While his speech also focused on the implications of technology, such as artificial intelligence, in the workplace, and the responsibility that leaders had to instil resilience in the workforce, Sir Peter also highlighted that, underpinning all of these areas, were “the basics of leadership”.

“You can achieve 80% of what you need to just by being really good at the basics of leadership,” he said. “Therefore, I would caution against getting too distracted by shiny, new ideas because success or failure hinges on getting the basics right.”

Those basics, he contended, revolved around knowing, and communicating with, teams.

“You have to know and care about your people, and you have to give them absolute clarity over what you want them to do and why,” he stressed. “It’s vital to empower them and give them ownership of outcomes, so that they can make decisions and learn. It’s also important to remember that you need good communication both ways. Not only do you have to explain what you want to happen and why but you also need to listen to your team, involve them in the decision-making process and take their advice. All of this sounds pretty basic but it’s quite hard to do all of these things all of the time.”

Further challenging this, Sir Peter said, was people’s natural reticence to “give their leaders bad news”.

“People don’t generally feel it’s conducive to their own prospects to give those above them bad news, so you generally get filtered information,” he acknowledged. “However, this can be improved by having more conversations with people, especially those closer to the shop floor, who appreciate being able to give you their point of view.”

Admitting that social media and external geopolitical pressures created some “additional challenges” for leaders to contend with, Sir Peter maintained that it was a “massive privilege to be put in a leadership role”.

“The commercial space is a hugely competitive one but if you take your leadership role seriously, you can become very competent and make a real difference to the life of the people who work you and for you,” he said. “The real idea at Amicus is that everyone in the workplace has the right to be inspired, motivated and supported, so that they are able to give their best at work. The soft messages are critical to that but we mustn’t forget that these support the overall purpose of delivering results, something which was put across very clearly at the conference by Steve Dalton, a former managing director of the Sony UK Technology Centre, who focused on the importance of innovation.”

Amicus chief executive General Sir Peter Wall Picture: SUPPLIED BY AMICUS

Indeed, in his keynote speech, Mr Dalton reflected on his 40-year career with the technology giant, during which time he oversaw the opening of the firm’s incubation centre for start-up companies.

“This was quite ground-breaking at the time but it was a great way of supporting entrepreneurs launching businesses after leaving university or companies relocating to Wales,” he explained. “It gave them a soft start, taking away some of the fixed-cost burden associated with getting a business off the ground and helping them to overcome those initial barriers.”

Having started as an electronic engineer, Mr Dalton rose through the ranks of Sony in a career which has also seen him sit on various boards, including some for the Welsh government, as well as serving as an independent non-executive and chair of the board of directors for the Football Association of Wales.

Now an associate at Amicus, as well as being a founding partner of Sunrise Leaders, he is keen to share the knowledge gained through his experiences with young people venturing into leadership for the first time.

“Becoming a leader can be quite daunting and can feel quite stressful but it can also be hugely enjoyable if you master a few techniques and way of thinking,” he said. “While you can read all sorts of books and learn lots of theories, when you are in a situation, the pressures and timescales are very different. That is where events like the Amicus leadership conference come into their own, as you learn from leaders who have been there, made mistakes along the way and learnt from those experiences.”

In his keynote speech, titled Developing a Culture of Innovation, Mr Dalton focused on how, faced with a competitive economic landscape, leaders could encourage a culture of innovation, in which they were constantly striving for improvement.

“In a competitive world, someone is always trying to eat your dinner and if you don’t think that they are, you need to wake up a little bit,” he warned.

“How do we respond to that? In the world I lived and breathed in, it was all about developing a culture of innovation, constantly exploring and being curious about things.

“The question is how you get your team to feel like that. It’s all very well having away days focused on innovation but you want people to think about and do those things naturally and automatically every single day.”

To foster this environment of constantly learning and trying to be the best, he said, it was vital to know what “the best” looked like.

“How do you get ideas? You need to benchmark and understand who is the best of the best, bearing in mind that the best will constantly change,” he said. “You have to understand what your customer wants from that value proposition and find the best way to deliver that.”

But achieving greatness, he added, did not necessarily require groundbreaking innovation.

“Things like the internet, the telephone and the car engine don’t come around that frequently,” he said, “but sometimes it’s the smallest things which can lead to innovative solutions. And those ideas may well come from the lower-skilled and lower-paid members of the team, those on the shop floor, who are doing the repetitive tasks and who see potential solutions to improve or speed up the process.

“That is why it is so important that the leader of any organisation is the champion of innovation, and that they create a feeling of authority which enables all team members to make suggestions.”

This, he says, is vital for safeguarding the long-term future of the company.

“Innovation drives competitiveness, which drives sustainability,” he said. “If your objective is to grow the business and give everyone a good livelihood and the opportunity to build a career, then innovation naturally plays a key part in achieving that because, if you carry on doing everything in the same way, you will only last so long before you start going backwards.

“Does this mean that innovation is the most important part of leadership? It’s one of them, but you can’t be innovative unless you have a vision, a purpose and you make people feel valued and as though they belong. You cannot do any one of these things without the other.”

Echoing a point made by Sir Peter, Mr Dalton said that central to each of these areas was communication.

“You have to communicate really well, accurately and frequently,” he said. “Whether you are sharing good or bad news, you need to communicate it, so that it is your message which is conveyed.”

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