Denise Kingsmill: 'A great idea is not enough'

It takes the right people to make things happen and to create a viable business.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 24 Sep 2014

'You need a hacker, a hipster and a hustler,' says Max Campion, a young Boston-based internet entrepreneur, as he describes the essential roles of the team he has built since turning his back on the sort of conventional career in law, banking and politics that many of his Harvard contemporaries have chosen since graduating a year ago.

Finding the right people to work with is the most important part of building his business,, he insists.

Instead of sweating alone over a hot laptop in a nearby coffee shop developing the killer app like so many other tech hopefuls, Max took space in the Harvard Innovation Lab, raised an impressive amount of money from friends and family as well as some venture-capital funding, and set about finding a skilled computer techie and a creative thinker/designer, while taking on the role of development lead himself.

'The last thing you want to do is recruit your best friend,' he says. Instead, it is vital to find people who have the essential skills, who want to be part of a team ('there are a lot of weird "loners" in the tech industry'), but, above all, who have the resilience and staying power to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks and disappointments along the way.

Whatever success or failure Max may face in his first foray into the tech world, he has already learned the most important lesson of all: that a great idea is not enough, and that it takes the right people to make it happen and to turn it into a viable business.

Team-building is an essential skill for any leader, whether in business or politics, and keeping the team together and functioning well is crucial to the success of any organisation. Analogies with orchestras and choirs are overworked cliches of teamwork, but so too is that of the hero CEO. The idea of the charismatic visionary at the top of an organisation has come to shape our image of the ideal leader.

The belief that real change and transformation will come from this source may have an immediate appeal to some, but all too often this can prove to be a shallow myth rather than a reality. Frequently, boards of companies that are in trouble look for a corporate saviour from outside rather than choose the internal candidate who may have a better understanding of the problems of the organisation and how to solve them.

Grand strategies that never come to fruition, demoralised people whose voices are not heard and innovations that are stifled are all too often the real result of this preoccupation with the hero leader. Dare I say that this is a particularly male image of leadership ?

It will be interesting to see how Philip Hampton, chairman of RBS, a bank where a previous leader went from hero to zero in the financial collapse, manages if he moves to GSK, as is rumoured. It certainly seems like a case of jumping from the frying pan into a particularly hot fire. The FT has described his current job as the most challenging boardroom role in banking, and the troubled pharmaceutical giant is facing serious bribery scandals - the superhero chairman, perhaps.

I particularly dislike the idea of the 'fast track', a sort of eleven-plus for leaders, whereby certain people are identified as potential leaders early in their careers and are sent off on expensive courses to 'prepare' them for senior management.

Not only does this reinforce the notion that leadership is the preserve of the chosen elite, it also disempowers those not selected, and more often than not leads to stereotypical behaviours and styles.

Too many large companies with traditional human resources departments cling on to their training budgets this way, all in the name of so-called 'succession planning'. In fact, what they should be doing is enhancing the opportunities for teamwork, and recognising that leadership comes in a variety of forms and at different levels throughout an organisation.

The thoughtful person who can influence her co-workers over a sandwich lunch may be more of a successful potential leader than the one with the big personality who dominates the discussion. Being part of a good team of people bound together with a clarity of purpose and equipped to fulfil their roles is what people most want from work. Leaders who perceive this and can work to keep people happy, recognising and rewarding their diverse skills, are the ones who will achieve the best performance in their organisations.

Having the confidence to build a team of people who may be more skilled than they are, working with them and using power productively to develop them, are the characteristics of 21st-century leaders.

These qualities may be more readily found in younger, smaller organisations and in the newer sectors. The big, traditional companies are increasingly finding it harder to recruit talented young people, who prefer to build their own working environments in which they can flourish like the Max Campions of this new world.

- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. She can be contacted on

Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill.

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