Leadership Lessons: Reed's psychological MD

Every month Hashi Syedain talks to a business leader about their personal management issues.

by Hashi Syedain, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

LAURA FRITH, MANAGING DIRECTOR, REED CONSULTING

Laura Frith started her career as an occupational psychologist with the Metropolitan Police in London and went on to work both in other HR positions and in consulting. Five years ago she was headhunted by the Reed family, owners of the eponymous UK high street recruitment agency, to set up a human resources consultancy. Since then Frith has grown Reed Consulting into a £10 million turnover business with 160 staff, focusing on improving recruitment processes, assessing staff performance and managing change.

- You must be a good leader, given your line of business?

I'm blessed by being a psychologist, because if I didn't understand what motivates people, who would? I've always been intrigued by the synergy between good performance and happiness. I'm very clear on the outcomes I want for the business and how to get there. Having a clear vision and direction comes up as the top critical success factor for good leaders across all industry sectors. I'm also very energised by the work and I'm definitely a glass half full person, which is absolutely vital.

- Do you mean that a 'glass half empty' person cannot be a good leader?

If you're a pessimist, you spend too much time looking inwards. You're always lifting rocks and finding problems underneath, rather than grasping opportunities that come your way.

- How have you built up your business so fast?

A lot of running a business is about discipline. You have to keep measuring and checking that you are achieving your targets. I am very rigorous. We have four objectives in our corporate mission and they translate down to everybody's job description. We set targets every three years, measure progress every year and I communicate every six months with staff on our targets. Our targets cover sales, client service, people and innovation. The people part relates to our own staff. It's not just important to achieve targets, but how you achieve them. Everyone has targets in those four areas and you have to score a satisfactory level on all four to get a performance-related bonus. It's no good having fantastic sales if you have a bad score on your people targets.

- What ethical issues do you come up against?

The most common issue is to do with confidentiality on staff surveys that we conduct for clients. Sometimes a chief executive will look at an answer and say: "I need to know who said that. Come on, I'm paying you and I need to know." We explain that the survey was done on the basis of complete confidentiality and that we can't identify anyone. They usually understand once they've calmed down.

- How do you deal with your own mistakes?

I'm a perfectionist and I think things through carefully in advance. I have a Plan B on everything. I'm very self-critical - which gives you an accelerated learning curve. When I make mistakes, I always critique them straight away and move on.

- Who do you turn to for advice?

Advice implies asking someone who's been in that situation before, but every situation is unique. When I'm faced with a problem, my first instinct is to ask more questions. When you understand everything, you can usually find a way around it.

- Like what?

We had a negotiation a little while ago over the renewal of a contract that was dragging on and on. There were a lot of staff jobs riding on it and it was getting to the point where I felt the uncertainty was becoming unfair to those staff. I had a meeting with the client and asked lots of questions about the project. It became clear in that meeting that nothing would be resolved. So I made a decision to give them an ultimatum. I said that we weren't going to leave that day without a decision, even if that meant a no. It was a judgment call and it was daunting, because there was no guarantee what the decision would be. They went off and came back with a positive decision. I hadn't gone into the meeting intending to deliver an ultimatum, but it became clear that it was the only way we'd get an answer.

- What is your next ambition?

We want to do more global work, especially with the call centre industry, which is one of our specialties.

- Can you do that with UK experts?

I believe so. We have the advantage here of being so multicultural and it would start as work with UK companies abroad. We've already had experience of dealing with the difference between the UK and Irish work ethic, so looking at cultural differences is something we've done. Psychologists understand people. And, of course, I'm sure we'd hire people locally too. Leadership lessons is sponsored by DDI.

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