Forging a culture, learning to lead

Christiane Wuillamie founded CWB Systems, an IT services company, and grew it 100% year-on-year into a multi-million pound enterprise before selling it in 2001. Here she shares her lessons in what it takes to build and lead a quality management team, and  how to develop a strong corporate culture.

“I love it when, the minute I enter their doors, I feel the culture of a company. Sometimes it hits you smack right between the eyes; it’s the way that people look at you, and the way that they engage with you. There’s one company that I know where you instinctively feel that you should stand to attention once you are in the building; it’s so powerful that some might find it intimidating but there’s nothing wrong with that.

“A strong culture will foster a highly productive environment. And once you have a highly productive environment, you have a winning business. A strong culture is also the natural outcome of good leadership. So the development of leadership skills is vital for the healthy growth of any company.

“It comes from the top. I believe that the honesty and transparency of the CEO’s behaviour is absolutely key. Good leaders give and receive feedback constantly and with integrity. So much of a leader’s role is about listening to staff, customers and suppliers, gathering ideas and feedback and then implementing them.

“Founder-directors who have set up their own business from scratch can often find it difficult to listen to their people, especially when their business is successful. It requires open-mindedness and patience for a successful founder to genuinely think that other people’s ideas count and could contribute to further success. It is a big challenge. But leadership is about recognising the time to be humble and being prepared to change your decisions.

“A founder can’t carry the culture of a company by themselves but must be a figurehead. The real trick is to get the whole management team to buy into the culture – otherwise sub-cultures will emerge. This where the leader has to be strict, in order to ensure that things are discussed openly and frankly but without politicking. While confrontation can be healthy; politics is always bad.

“It is also a challenge to keep the magic of a successful culture when you are growing quickly, perhaps hiring tens of people every month. That can be very hard to make them work as a team. How do you engage with all these new people? How do can you be sure that they understand the company’s strategy and values?

“First of all, I would say that you should always hire people for their attitude, skills and values. A good strong culture will push out those people who don’t fit during their probation period. It is a healthy process of natural rejection.

“I believe that people work for three things. They want to gain personal development, to be part of a good environment and team, and to be rewarded properly for their efforts – in that order.  So if they are unhappy about the first two factors, then money becomes an issue.

“So this where the quality of the management team – one with shared values but with plenty of different strengths and personalities – comes into its own, because only a team can deliver this, not a single person.

“All too often a founder will hire in their own image, with the result that the management team lies forever in the shadow of the chief executive. It has to be the other way around; a good leader will persuade his team that his or her presence is not required all over the place, all the time.

“A quality management team deploys different skill sets; like a football team, it doesn’t just depend on its star strikers. A quality management team will have safe people, process-oriented people and creative people; I look for that strength and diversity when I evaluate a management team.”

Christiane is currently managing partner at Principia Group.

The Business Growth Service offers match funding of up to £2,000 for every senior manager involved in the strategic direction of the business, to undertake leadership and management training recommended for your business.

Tap into the experience of others through using a mentor. More information is available at Mentorsme

A helpful starting point for thinking about the development of leadership and management skills is this UKCES booklet.

The Business Growth Service is now closed to new customers. Contractual commitments to existing customers will be honoured, as long as all support and related activity is completed by 31 March 2016. If you’re looking to find what business support is available in your area, your local Growth Hub may be able to help.