Soaking up the "sunshine strategy": CMI chairman Peter Ayliffe

27 February 2015 -


If you love what you do, stick with it. CMI chairman Peter Ayliffe on why enjoying your role should be a mantra across leadership styles

Jeremy Hazlehurst

Passion is a word that is used far too often in business, and you might be forgiven for rolling your eyes at yet another mention of it. But it’s hard to avoid the P-word when confronted with the impish enthusiasm of Peter Ayliffe, chairman of CMI. His isn’t the phony kind of passion that you might find in the latest Silicon Valley snake-oil salesman or TED-talking smoothie, but, instead, is of the rather down-to-earth and practical variety. Ayliffe has a leadership style you'd strive to emulate and is the sort of bloke you would trust to get things done, whether that’s galvanise a trade body, run a multinational company or – more of this later – organise a disco.

Although Ayliffe has held some impressive jobs – formerly chief executive of Visa Europe and before that a board member of Lloyds TSB – he comes across as a humble sort of chap. Rather than having some grandiose vision of work and its meaning, his ideas about management emanate from a refreshingly straightforward philosophy. “I think that life is for enjoying, and if you start with that in mind, then quite frankly that means that whatever you do work-wise you have to enjoy it because so much of your life is spent working,” he says, sitting in the plush offices of Monitise, the mobile money firm of which he is chairman, with views over the City of London’s skyline. Monitise develops mobile money solutions designed with one clear purpose, he says: “To help consumers bank anywhere, pay anyone and buy anything from their mobiles. We simplify the complexity of mobile money.”

This belief gives him a sceptical view of the benefits of climbing the greasy pole. “Some people find a niche in life and they love and enjoy it,” he shrugs. “If you enjoy it then great. Don’t think you need a bigger salary or to be at a higher grade or whatever, because if you get into something you don’t enjoy, then life’s hell. I often say to people that if you find a niche in life that you love, stay with it and just keep improving yourself in that role.”

The day I meet him, it’s not career advice that he wants to talk about, but his work at CMI. Less than two years after taking on the role as CMI chairman he has overseen something of a revolution. It’s clearly something he cares about deeply. “I got involved with them because I care about leadership and management,” he says. “Growing businesses and getting that focus on growth in businesses is something we’ve not been all that good at in the UK, and to do that we need to really improve leadership and management. It really is a priority for us.”

This idea of growing businesses to create long-term wealth is “almost a principle of what business is all about for me,” he says. “It is not just about creating wealth for the owners and the shareholders, it’s about more than that. Yes, that’s important, and they’re the people who invested in the business so you need to make sure they get a good return, but it’s also about creating wealth for the people who work in the business, and for the partners that you work with – your suppliers.” In the UK, he says, we can learn from the US, where “they are far more long-term, particularly on start-up and tech businesses; they realise that it takes time to grow businesses”.

Change in forecast

Right at the start of his tenure at CMI, Ayliffe realised that, if he was going to preach the gospel of growth and change, he would have to bring those things to CMI itself. “I guess the slight embarrassment we had was that we weren’t a growing organisation,” he admits. “We had reached a plateau for the past five years. It was pretty obvious that if we were going to play a lead role in saying, ‘Right we need to change leadership and management, and look for the growth opportunities’, then we had to do something ourselves. We couldn’t say, ‘We haven’t been growing but we can help other businesses grow’.”

Ayliffe has been deeply impressed with CMI’s new chief executive, Ann Francke. She has, he says, engaged all the CMI staff in the changes and helped create a collaborative strategy. CMI is increasingly working with higher education and employers, generating a rise in local engagement. “Rather than being top down, we are looking for increased input from the regions, and there will be more events taking place in the regions in the future,” he says.

Mentoring is also a strong focus for Ayliffe. “When you look to the membership of CMI there are so many people who have been there, done it, achieved a lot in their career, and we had lots of people starting out; it was blindingly obvious that you could match those two up,” he says. He also wants more managers to get the Chartered Manager accreditation. “It gives you great knowledge and input in terms of what you would need to be a leader in the future, so trying to promote that and make that more accessible, it’s tough but it is really critical.” Promoting diversity, he says, is another priority. Under Ayliffe, CMI has also been working closely with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Management (APGM) on a report that will come up with a few very clear principles for improving leadership in the UK. While the details will come out in July, some of the main themes are clear. For the project, the APGM has met several very successful British leaders, and Ayliffe says that they all have one thing in common: “They have a clear vision and purpose for their business that delivers long-term sustainable performance. They all have long-term goals that they can express very simply and they are challenging,” but “they are very focused on delivery as well, and that’s quite a trick. Often you get people who are innovative and have a great vision, but they are not good at implementation. The successful leaders have got that, too.”

Tips for a brighter future

The best leaders, he says, are also role models, something that more managers should aspire to be. “I think that 80% of people say they don’t see their manager or leader as a role model; that can’t be right,” he says. One intriguing insight from the APGM project is that really good managers don’t just focus on what people do, but “on behaviours and how they do it”. Some even “put as much weight on the behaviour of leaders as on their delivery and that, to me, is fantastic.” The reason is that they want to create businesses that behave well, and that employees can take pride in. A part of this is that good leaders are keen to support society and their own local areas, and many are starting apprenticeship schemes. Great leadership in the future, then, will be a far wider thing than just creating profits. It’s about inspiring people, and creating sustainable wealth and value for the whole of society.

Ayliffe says that many of the most impressive leaders he has met are naturally good at communicating with people from all walks of life. So is leadership something that is natural, or can it be taught? He thinks that a big part of leadership is good communication, and “communicating across, and upwards to boards and so on, can be learned and it is not time wasted,” he says. And you have to make time for it. “The most important thing in a business is understanding what is going on, talking to people in branch networks or the IT department; you learn so much more getting it direct. It’s hard to create the time to do that, and many leaders don’t see that as a part of their job. But you have to, and it’s a question of time management.” He loves reading management books, though only gets time on holiday (“you never stop learning”).

Rise to the challenge and shine

He thinks that leadership skills are more common than people sometimes realise. “I wouldn’t mind betting that everyone is a leader somewhere in their life; if you play football, if you are in Scouts or Guides, or whatever, most people do something that puts them into a leadership position.” Sport is an important breeding ground for leadership and business skills in general, he thinks. He played football and rugby for many years (“I was a rightback in football – the animal who stopped the creative winger”), and he and his wife love watching Bath rugby team.

His first experience of running something was during his second year at university, when he organised sporting and social events for his halls of residence. “If you ran something you got to stay there for three years, rather than one,” he explains. “I didn’t do much work. It was like running a little business, though I didn’t know that at the time.” As an all-male halls, dances proved a challenge. “We had to go out and encourage girls to attend, so you learn all about marketing, and promotion,” he laughs.

Leaders, he says, are people who set out long term goals for a team. “Too many people read the job description, put a boundary around it and think, ‘That’s all I can do,’ and actually, it’s not. I don’t know anybody who I’ve worked for who’s said to me, ‘Great job, but I didn’t want you to do that.’ They always say, ‘That is really good, well done.’ The fact you have maybe overstepped a little… Well, it’s always better to say sorry afterwards.”

His biggest mistake, he says, was backing down when a chief executive asked him to deliver a transformational change in six months that he knew would take 18. He went along with it and “we dropped the ball on several things”. He adds: “That was a big learning point for me. It’s great having visions and strategies, but you have to have an implementation plan.” What’s the most overrated skill in business? “Driving short-term profits. Too many people are put on a pedestal and look at profitability in the business, but look at what they have done – they have fired 10,000 people and there is no growth in that business anymore.” The most underrated skill, he says, is “growing a business”.

It’s hard not to be excited by Ayliffe’s vision of more socially responsible, people-centric, growth-oriented leaders. Perhaps you could sum it up by saying that he wants to see more British businesses that inspire another P-word: pride.


2013 Appointed as non-executive chairman, Monitise

2012 President, CMI

2011 Non-executive director on the board, Monitise

2010 President Elect, CMI

2006 President and chief executive, Visa Europe

2003 Director and group executive director of UK Retail Banking, Lloyds TSB

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