Chartered Management Institute: In my Opinion

Neville Richardson, group CEO of Britannia Building Society and Chartered Management Institute Companion, suggests how leaders might respond to the economic downturn.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Businesses reveal their true colours when the going gets tough. If you want to know my values, don't ask me to list them - watch how I behave under pressure.

When the pressure's on - as it increasingly is today - it's easy to abandon those touchy-feely people policies and slash marketing and people-development budgets in the name of 'protecting the bottom line'. But in tough times, more than ever, the way to secure your future is to be true to your values and live up to your promises.

In his seminal works on how companies become and remain successful, Jim Collins established that truly understanding the core of what you're about, and remaining true to that core through good times and bad, is what separates winners from also-rans. For me, this is the first rule for any business: to remember why you're here, ensuring everything you do helps you achieve your strategy and purpose.

At Britannia, everything we do is to make membership worthwhile. With the housing market in free fall and the wider economy potentially entering recession, we're focusing on maintaining our financial strength, but not at the expense of other things we stand for.

In turbulent times, it's good to work for a business that knows what it's about. By preserving the core of who we are and what we do, we ensure that everyone is clear about the business and our priorities. Knowing that our strategy and values remain constant in a changing world is one reason why levels of employee engagement at Britannia are among the very highest: 94% say they're proud to work for the organisation.

It's my role to ensure that this remains the case. Our people need to believe that their leaders are accessible, and this means having frameworks in place to communicate and listen. It can take courage to stand up and speak - but it also takes courage to sit down and listen. Engaging with your people means understanding what's going on and being in touch with every part of the business.

Authenticity and integrity are key to making this happen. You simply cannot say that you're going to listen and then not listen, because you will quickly lose people if they see double standards. You must act on feedback and show people that you're doing so, or explain why you're not.

Having a consistent strategy gives our people a clear understanding of the organisation's values and where we're heading. We are clear about the game we're playing and everyone understands the rules. This helps keep them engaged, makes them feel valued and helps them understand the importance of their role. If we're playing football, we can't afford to have some people playing by the rules of rugby instead.

Behaviours demonstrated by leaders are the single biggest influence on business culture. Research shows that 80% of culture development in an organisation is determined by how leaders behave with their teams.

The title of 'leader' does not come automatically with a role or job description. Leaders are people who, wherever they are in the organisation, shape and tell the story of its journey. At Britannia, our mission is to be known as Britain's best mutual, a great organisation to which our members and our people are proud to belong.

Our leaders are expected to empower others and develop the leaders of tomorrow. Leaders don't create followers - they create more leaders, and coaching is how we make this happen. A coaching environment offers space for our people to live the values and helps us to support them in identifying their own business goals, finding their own solutions and exceeding their current levels of personal and professional performance. Most importantly, coaching enables people to recognise and fulfil their own potential, developing the leaders of tomorrow.

We also look for our leaders to be far-sighted and build a shared vision of the future. They display emotional sensitivity - understanding both themselves and others and recognising individual aspirations and contribution. They maintain momentum during ambiguity. Leaders create an environment in which others can live the values of the organisation. The way in which we do that is by living the values ourselves. Leaders are role models, and people watch you all the time.

Leadership also means not being afraid to have courageous conversations, encouraging learning and change and challenging our own and others' thinking. To live our values, we must create an environment where courageous conversations are welcomed, one in which customer feedback influences how we do things, and in which we're open to giving and receiving open and honest challenge to improve.

Of course, this leadership philosophy is nothing new. Two and a half thousand years ago, Lao Tsu wrote: 'A leader is best when the people are hardly aware of his existence. Fail to honour people, and they will fail to honour you. But of a good leader, who speaks little, when his task is accomplished, his aim fulfilled, the people say: "We did it ourselves".'

These words continue to offer a lesson to leaders across business today.

CV - NEVILLE RICHARDSON, 51, has been group chief executive of Britannia Building Society since 2002. Britannia was ranked second in this year's Sunday Times list of the best big companies to work for, in which Richardson was recognised as best leader of a big company. He joined Britannia in 1998 after 21 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Richardson is also deputy chairman of the Building Societies' Association and a member of the Court of Lancaster University.

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