Why you're never as good a leader as you think you are

Telecoms CEO and former Sage exec Paul Stobart thought he knew all there was when it came to management, but he was wrong.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 01 Mar 2019

As CEO it's easy to suffer from the hubris that you’ve developed your leadership style much as you can. After all where else is there to go once you’re at the top?

If anyone can sympathise with that it is Paul Stobart, the CEO of the UK’s largest independent broadband provider Zen.  

Prior to joining the £70m Rochdale based telecoms challenger - and before top seat stints in healthcare and finance - he spent 15 years on the exec team that grew software giant Sage from a £100m disruptor to the FTSE 100.

Stobart admits that when he joined Sage, he thought he knew what good leadership looked like, but he was in for an unwelcome shock.

"My early career was spent in the high pressure environment of 1980s investment banking, where returns had to be immediate. Your senior manager told you what to do and you did it as quickly as possible.

"So for the first half of my career as a leader I did the same thing because that was the way that I was treated. I managed all the teams I had furiously, creating no small amount of havoc along the way.

"The turning point for me came when Paul Walker (then CEO at Sage) sent the leadership team on a training programme called The Living Leader. It came home with crushing reality that I was personally aping what I'd been experiencing my entire career and was truly wrong.

"It’s a three day course that really forces you to reconstruct and reflect on your management style. The idea is fantastically simple, based on the idea of leaders taking responsibility. It breaks down the distinction of when you’re working as a manager - pushing people from A to B - and when somebody is working as a true leader - when you’re inspiring others to do it themselves. Both these forms of leadership are equally important. One is not better than the other but they are different.

"I thought it sounded terribly obvious at the time, but I’ve realised that so many people can get this wrong. It’s so easy to see your role as leader as someone who just commands, tells people what to do, never letting their people have an idea or input.

"It completely changed how I saw myself as a leader. So I changed my behavior from that time on.

"At Sage we moved from single digit  to double digit organic growth after the programme. Leadership was not the sole reason behind that, but it was a major factor behind why the growth was successful. Employee engagement went up by 20 points and net promoter score went from very low numbers to plus 40-50 across a number of our different customer segments.

"I’ve now introduced the programme for the senior leaders at Zen and now we're working to roll it out to managers across the entire organisation."

Further reading

Image credits: tomertu/gettyimages


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