CEOs reveal secrets to leadership and delivering change

By Isabelle Bell

6 April 2015

The Chief Executives of Johnston Carmichael, Scotmid Co-operative and the Law Society of Scotland revealed the skills needed to deliver transformational change at a recent ICAS event.

Sandy Manson CA, CEO of Johnston Carmichael 

Sandy Manson has been CEO of chartered accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael for seven years. With fee income approaching £40m and 600 staff, Sandy has overseen a period of considerable change within the business and the sector.

Speaking to ICAS members in Edinburgh, Sandy said: "When it comes to business, nothing is more certain than change.  To survive in business, I believe that business leaders need to positively embrace change."

He said that a good Chief Executive should "energise, excite and enthuse the people in an organisation".

Sandy added: "An organisation is a complete mirror of its leadership. If the organisation is uninspired and de-energised, it's because the leader is uninspired and de-energised. The first thing I learned about leadership, is that leadership is about serving others. The CEO is a servant, and needs to put the aims and success of the business ahead of absolutely everything – least of all personal agenda.

There is no manual, textbook or checklist on how to be an effective leader. It all comes down to what type and style of leadership is most effective for an organisation.

Sandy revealed that when he became CEO, he created a 100-day plan to deliver change and create a clear vision for the business.

He said: "When you take over an organisation you have that moment – that window – of impact. So I consulted extensively, I listened, I articulated our vision, our values, and got everyone to sign up to them. To create engagement, you must win the hearts and minds of your people."

Autonomy, development and purpose

Sandy works hard to ensure that his staff have the right amount of autonomy and opportunities for training and development. He said that it is also vital staff feel that they have a strong purpose and work for a cause they believe in – and an organisation whose values they align with.

He said: "Leading a professional services firm has particular challenges – you're dealing with very talented, high cognitive skilled individuals, who can believe that their way is the best way. But as challenging as it can be, it is incredibly rewarding. "

"The deal is, with my partners, that I am most accountable. I am the CEO, and my head is first on the block. But as partners, they need to be prepared to be managed and accountable too."

Sandy said that his CA qualification had helped prepare him for his role as CEO and had given him the leadership skills needed to create lasting change.

"Being a CA is a great qualification for a leader. It helps you to navigate your way through the maze that is business.

"I think it also gives you ambition, if you go for the best, the gold standard of accountancy qualifications. Why would you not replicate that in business and aim for the top of your business?"

John Brodie CA, CEO of Scotmid Co-operative 

John Brodie has been CEO of Scotland's largest independent co-operative society, Scotmid, since 2005. With 5000 staff and turnover approaching £0.5bn, John has transformed the business during his 10 years as CEO.

He was headhunted to join Scotmid from practice in 1993, and worked his way up from Financial Accountant to Deputy Chief Executive and Head of Finance by 2003.

When the CEO left the business, John was appointed acting CEO. He went on to become the youngest Chief Executive in the Society's history, and although he did not have a track record in retail, the Board of Directors were impressed with his integrity and business acumen.

He said: "It was a difficult start. I had to preside over our largest ever loss in our 150 year history, and create plans to sort out three out of our four businesses."

'Plan, do, review' culture

John said that the first phase of rebuilding the business "was to go back to basics". He added: "I wanted to get away from the stop/start growth we'd had in the business by investing for the longer term and establishing a pipeline of new business opportunities.

"The very first thing I did was appoint a new management team, which only had one member of the previous team in it."

John introduced a "continuous improvement mindset" and a new culture of "plan, do, review" at Scotmid.

You cannot exist as an organisation for over 150 years without constantly reinventing yourself.

He said: "I made it ok to trial things, and an acceptance that we wouldn't get everything right first time. I believe that it's better to try and fail than fail by not trying. And this was a significant change culturally for us."

John has since presided over Scotmid's highest ever profit, and although profits have gone back in the current environment, he takes a long term view.

He said: "We are on a journey – we are not heading to a destination – and sometimes you have to come down from one peak before you can go to an even higher peak. An issue we all face is that everyone likes straight-line profit growth, sadly life is not like that in organisations that exist for a long period of time.

"You cannot exist as an organisation for over 150 years without constantly reinventing yourself."

John said that his CA qualification has given him access to a rewarding career. He said: "The challenges were often about doing what's right, and pointing out what's not right. Regrettably, I have faced that a number of times in my career, but very seldom do you regret doing the right thing."

Lorna Jack CA, CEO of the Law Society of Scotland 

Lorna Jack has been CEO of the Law Society of Scotland for six years. As both the first female and non-lawyer CEO of the membership society, Lorna was recruited to bring about significant cultural and operational change.

When Lorna took up the post, one of the first things she did was to set a benchmark for staff satisfaction. At that time, a survey revealed that only 29 per cent of staff felt satisfied.

She said: "You really need to bring people with you – we needed a benchmark, so we did the Great Places to Work survey.

"The only common things about successful CEOs or successful leaders, is that they have people willing to follow the picture that they paint. The organisation needs to have a very clear vision about where it's going – that's the number one priority of the CEO."

Articulating the vision

Lorna said that many leaders stumble when trying to bring about change, because they fail to articulate why the change is necessary.  

She said: "If you can't explain why, you will always meet resistance. This is fundamental to being able to get people to move forward with you. You need to work with people across the organisation to create that vision.

"Alongside articulating the picture of what we were trying to achieve, we articulated how we wanted to achieve that".

The CEO is the upholder and the keeper of whatever the corporate values are. You need to be the person who is consistently talking about it.

Lorna and her team started by addressing the values of the organisation. She said: "It was important the values were owned, that they weren't my values and I was telling staff 'you must be like this'. We worked the values from the top down and from the bottom up. We arrived at: respect, openness, progress, integrity and inclusion."

Lorna added: "The CEO is the upholder and the keeper of whatever the corporate values are. The CEO must model the values. You need to be the person who is consistently talking about it. There was  a point in which I was repeating our five values and I was thinking 'I'm now boring myself', and that's a point at which you are probably just beginning to get through.

"It needs to be consistent, it needs to be regular, it needs to be top of mind."

The Society's most recent staff survey revealed a satisfaction score of 79 per cent, and they were also awarded the prestigious Investors in People silver accreditation.

Lorna said that her CA qualification and her experience in managing audit teams had given her not only technical and leadership skills, but also solid ethics and values.

She said: "Most of all, the thing that CA qualification gives you, is the values. You are recognised as having incredible integrity, that you are an authentic article. Being an authentic leader is very important, particularly in the world of business and commerce nowadays.

"That's something that you need to hold on to, because reputations are very hard to earn but they are very easy to lose."


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