Local heroes

Mar 07 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Local businesses and their leaders make up the backbone of British business. Practically every well-known company began life as a local enterprise. So how do those entrepreneurs take the first steps to becoming major players?

Sue Cheshire, managing director of the Academy for Chief Executives, describes this process as, `leaders learning with leaders`. Members work together in local groups of up to fifteen, meeting for one day every month to hear an expert business speaker and to discuss their own business and personal development issues. They share details of real problems, challenges or opportunities with CEOs of other organisations.

Monthly meetings operate in an environment of integrity and confidentiality. Members are drawn from all sectors of commerce and industry and from not-for-profit organisations, and groups are organized to avoid competitive business interests. The diversity and impartiality of the members ensures the free sharing of ideas and support. In this way, they know that they can get valuable, objective advice born of experience. The resolution of issues raised at meetings can often produce direct business benefits

One of the first Academy members and now a chairman of a group, Robi Bernberg of Rocket Medical plc describes the value of Academy membership in terms of a non-executive board of 12 other managing directors who can comment on an issue with no axe to grind. He describes the process as "stealing with pride and copying other people's good ideas that work".

Between the monthly group meetings, each member meets with the group chairman for a performance coaching and mentoring session. There is also an annual two-day retreat where each member presents and is challenged on his or her personal and business goals for the coming year. The group then commits to helping each member achieve the goals, which are tracked over the year.

Jacqueline deBaer, Chief Executive of corporate clothing company, deBaer plc joined the Academy on the recommendation of her Chairman. At the time, she was employing a Managing Director as she'd had three babies in quick succession. However, the company was experiencing some difficulties and Jacqueline was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the direction in which it was heading.

According to Jacqueline, The Academy helped her to identify goals and gave her the confidence to achieve them. "Having benchmarked myself against other members, I gained the confidence to be a leader. I became Chief Executive in early 1998 and within the first financial year after that our profits doubled.

"Over the five years' I've attended the Academy, the advice and support of other Academy members has helped me to create a healthier, less political company culture and I have also been able to discuss creative solutions to specific issues. Recently, my story came full circle when, with four young children to care for, I decided to step back from the company to achieve a better work-life balance. The Academy helped me to recruit a new Managing Director with the appropriate skills to run the business," says Jacqueline.

The principle of knowledge sharing is carried through in the form of the Academy for Chief Executives' extranet. This extends the local group work into a national network for knowledge sharing and networking. Members can also use the site as a source of experts and speakers, The Academy is not a cosy gentleman's club. It helps entrepreneurs to confront tough issues in order to succeed in a competitive commercial environment. Members of the Academy address this challenge in imaginative ways.

For instance, March 2002 saw Academy chief executives embarking on a trip to Bangalore and Mumbai in India as part of Leaders Quest, co-founded by Sue Cheshire to increase the awareness of CSR issues amongst UK business leaders.

The trip was split between meeting business leaders and local entrepreneurs as well as charity and voluntary sector leaders. It included visiting their work in the field tackling some of the challenges of great poverty and inequality from hospices to slums. Feedback was so positive that a second trip is planned for November and a third to China in 2003.

David Grayson CBE, author of Everybody's Business, says that this ability to balance wider social and environmental concerns can benefit members' businesses: "Issues which until now have been 'soft' for business such as environment, diversity and human rights are now hard; hard to ignore, hard to manage and very hard to control if they go wrong," he says.

Sue Cheshire concurs and is an advocate for the CEO as the embodiment of all that is good about the culture of their company and that Best Practice needs to be integrated, not preached.

"Real work on coaching yourself results in the ability to coach others, something we recognise with our own Academy Certificate in High Performance Coaching. Our alliance with Leaders Quest and our visits to share learning with inspirational leaders around the world are not done because they are seen to be the 'in-thing' but because they help our members to address the harder, 'crunchy' skills of performance management" concludes Sue.