Learning as leaders: advice from Sir Charlie Mayfield

Written by Ann Francke Tuesday 28 April 2020

Admit you don’t know everything. Work on your business, not just in it. Innovate at speed. Just some of the ways leaders need to develop themselves in this crisis

Sir Charlie Mayfield

Last week I was delighted to speak with Sir Charlie Mayfield, CMI Gold Medal Winner, chair of Be the Business and QA Training, and former chair of John Lewis. Here are his views on how leaders can – and must – learn in this crisis.

Sir Charlie Mayfield

Businesses respond differently – we can learn from each other

Sir Charlie believes the first shock of the crisis is over and we can now move to a more considered view of how businesses and organisations are coping. He cited his work with Be the Business, where an analysis of about 500 small and medium-sized businesses has turned up four different types of responses.

The first group are what he calls 'hibernating’, because their business has just dried up completely. The second group are basically in survival mode – revenues have perhaps fallen by 70% but they are trying to keep going with the 30%. The third group are what he calls ‘pivoters’ – those who have realised their current model isn't working and so they've switched to something else that does. Sir Charlie believes they are perhaps the most interesting of all. These are businesses where “there’s been a bit of flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship coming through.”

Lastly, there are those who are thriving. PPE-makers for example are facing huge demand. But the instinct they all share is one of survival. And that always comes down to understanding cash flows and liquidity.

Sir Charlie believes that businesses should share their learnings with each other as to how they've coped with the challenges. He encouraged his team at Be the Business to create a community where businesses share their tips with each other in short videos. CMI will also be building on this member-community thought leadership in the next few weeks.

Work on your business, not just in it. Take the opportunity to innovate faster

One aspect of the crisis – almost irrespective of the group to which you belong, is that the enforced disruption gives you time to work on your business, not just in it. “One of the big challenges with a lot of leaders is that they spend so much time working in the business that they don't actually have the distance to work on it. And this is a great opportunity to reflect and use the time to think more broadly and differently about where your business would be,” he says.

Part of this means recognising that whatever happens in the future it will not be like the present. As Sir Charlie says: “One of the cathartic things now is to say that the old plan is dead. It’s gone.”

People adapt swiftly to dramatically different circumstances – for instance, we couldn’t imagine where we are now eight weeks ago. He recommends using scenario planning to extrapolate forward where your business might be in two or six months’ time. Imagine that the world keeps changing in new ways and how you might respond to that. Start testing things that may not work, but just may sow the seeds of the future. As he says: “Some of the best businesses and the ones that will thrive in the future are the ones that take decisions now and take the opportunity to do things much more quickly. Whereas things used to take months, we are now doing them in about a week. That’s actually quite exciting...” All this is “encouraging us to be bolder and faster about driving change.” One example is QA’s swift conversion from classroom to 95% online learning, including digital end point assessments offered by CMI.

Keep training digitally, and brush up on digital skills

Pursuing training is even more important in the crisis, Sir Charlie believes. “This is a great time to get that training done and complete it.”

Take advantage of the vast amount of digitally delivered training available to learn a new skill. Sir Charlie himself, though not a “techie”, is using the time to better understand cloud computing. You can start a professional qualification that you have never had time for before. He encourages everyone to find training opportunities that fit the time available. If you’ve got a month, what can you reasonably do in that time? He advised a furloughed guest on the webinar to “find the best course and crack on with it.”

Sir Charlie welcomes the greater clarity given by the government that all furloughed employees can carry on training – and should do so wherever possible; and that many training providers, QA and CMI included, offer digital tools and end point assessments. He cites research showing that people are embracing virtual training as never before, and developing new, exciting tools for digital engagement. Learning digital skills is even more important, alongside greater leadership capability to deal with uncertainty and risk.

Admit you don’t know all the answers

For Sir Charlie, leadership is all about how you manage others in times of uncertainty. Admitting you don't have all the answers is a key place to start. “One of the fallacies of conventional thinking about leadership is that leaders know all the answers.”

He cites a moment early in his career when he was “told by someone older and wiser that sometimes the best answer to a question is “You know what? That’s a really great question. And I’m going to take the time to figure it out before I get back to you.” Sir Charlie believes that honest communication is paramount, particularly in times of uncertainty. “There’s an inclination for management teams to want to protect people from bad news. It doesn't work. If you treat people as adults, they behave as adults.” Resilience, using better risk and scenario planning to deal with uncertain futures, and the ability to recognise the impact on individuals are also key. Don’t underestimate the need to see people as people. Virtual pop quizzes may be good things to do, but there is no substitute, he believes, “for picking up the phone to somebody and saying, how are you? How's it going?”

Recovery is everyone's responsibility. And skills play a vital part

In the end, Sir Charlie believes that recovery – and learning – will be everyone's responsibility. “There will be a greater expectation of businesses to play a really important role in the recovery,” he says. “And of course, skills and training and developing yourself with a view towards helping your company be more successful is a wonderful marriage of the individual’s interests with those of the company and, ultimately, of society.”

For more excellent resources to help you manage through the current crisis, visit CMI's Leading Through Uncertainty hub.