Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Breaking into the business world: the secret to becoming a better business leader

Entrepreneurs are navigating a plethora of challenges in today’s business landscape. Lynn Sheppard, Director of Masood Enterprise Centre at Alliance Manchester Business School, highlights the key ingredients to become a successful business leader following a visit from entrepreneur and former Premier League footballer Gary Neville, who recently spoke at the School’s Entrepreneurs@Manchester event series.

Gary Neville’s thriving business empire spans the restaurant, hotel and property development sector. Having transcended the world of football into business in his early 20s, the entrepreneur has encountered various obstacles during his experiences across a variety of industries but has learned a number of valuable lessons as a result.

Due to the increasing rate of technological and social change, business leaders today face entirely new challenges to their predecessors 10 years ago. According to Deloitte’s latest Global Human Capital Trends survey, 80 per cent of respondents rated leadership a high priority for their organisations, but only 41 per cent felt their organisation was ready to meet their leadership requirements. With directorships in more than 30 companies, Neville spoke to us about the skills crucial to a successful career in the corporate world.

Prepare to fail and don’t take it personally

Experiencing failure is important no matter what business you’re in – a small start-up, a scale-up or indeed a larger, well-established organisation. The concept of failure is no secret to business leaders in any sector, particularly in today’s competitive climate. Ultimately, the process of addressing failure is a learning experience and makes for better business leaders.

Attitudes towards business failure in the UK are changing – the speed at which the number of small businesses and start-ups are emerging demonstrates this. The ability to accept failure can encourage entrepreneurs to take risks and deal with uncertainty, pertinent in today’s turbulent economic and political landscape.

“Every single day in my business life is a new challenge”, according to Neville.  “What’s gone wrong the day before is irrelevant – how you learn from those mistakes and move on from them that is key. You have to maintain a level of understanding that each day can bring good and bad, but it’s starting each day again with a fresh canvas and tackling the next challenge that helps to keep business leaders level-headed.”

Learn to celebrate success – but be realistic

But with failure comes success – the two go hand in hand. Failure is a necessary vehicle for delivering success. And while we mustn’t dwell on failure, celebrating success in an organisation is important in motivating teams and delivering results in turn. Finding the right balance is the real skill.

“Celebrating business wins – whether it’s selling a business or acquiring a new contract – can really help to increase engagement and of course improve productivity. It’s easy to spend a lot of time obsessing about the future or the next big deal on the horizon but taking a step back to acknowledge something that’s gone well can increase focus and reinforce a company’s vision or purpose”, Neville added.

Engage for Success – a UK organisation committed to promoting employee engagement alongside the CIPD – released a survey that indicates only around one third of UK workers say they are engaged. ONS statistics also reveal a UK productivity deficit with productivity falling in the last three quarters of last year. With a clear correlation between engagement and productivity, celebrating business success within the wider organisation has a huge part to play in getting employees on board and driving efficiencies.

Delegate: don’t step on other leaders’ toes

Entrepreneurs today can have their fingers in many pies. In Gary Neville’s case, his investments span from property to leisure, requiring an in-depth knowledge across several industries. Business leaders who don’t delegate will never succeed. Delegating isn’t about getting rid of responsibilities or tasks you might not want to do, it is about empowering those around you to carry out a task to deliver the best outcome possible.

“I’ve had three or four businesses fail l in the last 12 – 18 months,” Neville admits “and I’ve had to stand back and learn where I’ve gone wrong. Ego can often get in the way but learning to surround yourself with a good team who you can delegate to helps you to navigate those risks by combining sound judgement from various departments.

“Spreading yourself too thin is a recipe for failure. In the first few years in the business world, I was trying to get involved in everything at an operational level, but after five or six years, I realised I wasn’t being as efficient as I could be and was therefore harming the management teams. Now, I attend all the board meetings and am on hand to help with a decision but operationally – I’ve learned to take a step back and not step on others’ toes. Good leaders will trust the people they employ around them.”

Learn to navigate your own instinct

The concept of risk in today’s climate is perhaps more acute than it’s ever been but leaders cannot move an organisation forward without taking some form of risk. Uncertainty is a concept all business leaders will have to grapple with in some capacity.

Organisations are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their innovative qualities due to fast-moving consumer demands coupled with a pinched economy, so having a gut instinct informed by knowledge and experience is highly sought after in a business leader. A Fortune Knowledge Group study reports that 62 per cent of executives feel it is often necessary to rely on gut feelings and soft factors when making big decisions on partnerships and proposals.

“I’ve invested into many things that incur real risk, football clubs, property and hospitality ventures being some examples that are tricky to make a good deal of money from unless they’re done right. Instinctive decisions are part of doing business, but instinctive decisions that aren’t formulated with sound judgement and planning will fall flat.

When you don’t plan, when you don’t prepare, or when you don’t know the subject, you won’t reap the good fortune and that’s why businesses have fallen flat in the past. Yes, you need the number-crunchers, but trusting your instinct is trusting your combined knowledge and life experiences.”

Recipe for success

Finally, surrounding yourself with varied personality traits is vital in keeping up with the diverse landscape of today and determining a leader’s level of success. Your personal success can ultimately be driven by other people. The people we surround ourselves with impacts the way we think, act and make decisions. A good CEO, for example, needs to be the best marketing director, the best financial officer and the best lawyer, but they cannot possibly achieve that alone.

“You can’t be a specialist in property, football, digital and leisure – you just can’t keep up across it all. The key thing for business leaders is to surround yourself with good people otherwise you’re never going to achieve anything, you can only get so far.”

Varied personality traits – whether it’s cautious financial directors or risk-taking entrepreneurial figures – will help you to achieve a balance and all-round judgement. Many personality profiling systems help us to predict job performance and employee motivation. With this in mind, the best business leaders know they cannot ‘go it alone.’