The Unexpected Rise of the Everyday Leader

Tuesday 04 June 2019
Adam Marshall, director general of the British chambers of commerce, in conversation with Ann Francke, chief executive of the chartered management institute. On the agenda: Brexit, devolution and ‘everyday leadership’
Adam Marshall

When the dice roll, you just have to make the call.

In March 2016, Adam Marshall became director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) in unexpected circumstances. His predecessor, John Longworth, publicly declared himself a Leave supporter, resigned, and departed the organisation, all within the space of 48 hours.

Overnight, Marshall had to step up to the role of interim DG (he was formerly executive director for policy and external affairs). After what he describes as a “try before you buy” period, Marshall was appointed to the role full-time in October 2016.

The Brexit storm was raging. Under Marshall’s leadership, the BCC plunged quickly into the detail of what Britain’s departure from the EU would mean for business; its ‘Business Brexit Risk Register’ has since become the go-to status report on progress.

The son of American parents, Marshall is in some ways a role model for progressive leadership. He consciously plans his working life around his family commitments – he admits to cancelling telephone conversations with government ministers because of unexpected family emergencies. Married, in a single-sex partnership, he describes himself as a “hands-on dad” to his young daughter. He also observes: “It’s sad that it takes a man with family responsibilities to attract attention when so many women in business have been doing this for so long.”

Marshall wants the BCC – celebrating its 160th birthday in 2020 – to be a similarly progressive employer. The 30-person organisation is an agile working business, with team members who live as far away as the West Midlands and the south coast (BCC HQ is in central London). The BCC’s policy directorate is now led by a job-share partnership who between them have five children. “What we care about is what they deliver, not where they deliver it,” says Marshall. “If you want to be the change, you have to show the change.”

He describes the Chambers of Commerce as “a modern and forward-looking business brand”, miles off any preconceptions of “middle-aged white men having lunch”.

In an honest, wide-ranging conversation, Marshall and CMI’s chief executive, Ann Francke, tackled the biggest business and political issues of the day.

“frustrated, Disappointed, Angry”: on the Brexit Process

Ann Francke: More than three years after the Brexit referendum, what’s your view on the way everything has been handled?

Adam Marshall: Business people out there are hugely frustrated. They’re angry and have been really disappointed by the way this has been handled. They’re concerned and worried about the future, even though many of them remain confident and are still trading pretty well.

We dove into the detail from the beginning. Businesses were asking: who can I hire and how long can they stay in my business? Who’s my regulator? What rules do I need to follow? Will my goods get across borders? Am I going to be stopped going to see a client in another country?

We asked very practical questions literally the day after the referendum. And we were then treated to a political phoney war. Three years later, the fact we still don’t have a final answer for many of these questions leaves businesses in a pretty difficult position.

I was reading a poll the other day about which song lyrics would best suit Brexit. The one they came up with was: “A little less conversation, a little more action.”

AF: So you don’t accept the argument that the business community lobby kept their powder dry for too long?

AM: No, I don’t. We put out a risk register, composed of the 24 most common questions we get from businesses. We’ve been doing that over and over again since the beginning of the process and monitoring progress, because those are real-world issues for which businesses need answers.

AF: At CMI, we surveyed our members, and four in five supported a soft Brexit. They wanted access to skills and the single largest market in the world for their goods and services. We felt comfortable saying: “Actually, business doesn’t want a hard Brexit.”

AM: The one thing – the golden thread – that’s run through chamber membership all across the UK has been the need to avoid a messy and disorderly exit. What they want is managed change.

People and Infrastructure: Britain’s Real Business Priorities

AF: What do you wish the government would be doing for businesses if there weren’t this obsession with Brexit?

AM: People, people, people. We’ve got some of the most amazing businesses among our members that have done everything they can locally to train new job candidates and their existing staff, to invest in management and leadership skills, and to improve their diversity. But they need the systems around them – controlled by government – to function as well. If you’ve got a skills and training system that changes every five minutes – many businesses can’t even get to grips with what the qualifications mean – or if you have a migration policy that means it’s really difficult to get talent from across the world when you can’t grow your own talent, no-one’s interests are served.

Infrastructure is the second one – everything from the digital network through to the roads and the railways. Chambers of commerce have been worried about these issues since they were founded. According to one survey, we’re in 34th place globally [for digital networks]. We’ve got not-spots in many urban areas, not just rural areas. Those sorts of things affect all of our businesses. I’m talking about things like the capacity of the railway network – I’m a huge fan of HS2, as well as a new railway corridor across the ‘northern powerhouse’ – getting the roads up to scratch, expanding our airports, our energy infrastructure…

We must get back to these fundamental projects that will transform the UK for the future.

Botched Execution: the Apprenticeship Levy

AF: I’d like your thoughts on the infamous Apprenticeship Levy. Why is so much of it going unused? What needs to happen to unlock British investment in people skills?

AM: We’ve always said that the levy was a good idea, but that the execution let it down.

Is it right that businesses should be investing more in training after 40 or 50 years when, actually, they haven’t done enough? Yes. Absolutely. Is it right to try to compel businesses to invest in that training in some way? Yeah. But introducing something on the fly and making businesses feel like they are basically paying yet another tax – a payroll tax – rather than getting a new resource or investment in the future, is botching the execution.

Right now, it’s just adding to business costs. Yes, some businesses have been able to get good results out of it but others are fed up with trying and have given up. Others still don’t yet understand what they can do with it.

So there is an education mission too.

AF: Was a trick missed in terms of driving awareness?

AM: Pensions auto-enrolment is a great example of a situation where driving awareness was front and centre right until implementation. That’s a long way away from how the Apprenticeship Levy was brought in.

Devolution: Adding Value to the Network

AF: I know that you’re a fan of devolution. Has this suffered because of all the energy put into Brexit?

AM: Undoubtedly. I have been in the economic development space for 20 years, and I’ve watched it go round in cycles.

The cycle starts with raising the question of greater devolution from the centre to our cities or counties. It then builds a head of steam. We then see one or two political decisions that mean a small amount of money or power moves downward. But then we see the pendulum swing back in the other direction and go back to the beginning again.

Devolution and decentralisation are, therefore, an unfulfilled promise, a debate that keeps recurring without the kind of radical change that would really empower some of our places to achieve their best.

The British Chambers of Commerce is actually owned by 53 accredited chambers of commerce across the UK, so I have owners in Inverness, Cornwall, Northern Ireland and Norfolk. And those chambers in turn are owned directly by their members. So we are a business democracy in that sense, and we are here to represent the interests of chambers and chamber members and add value to that network and make it more than the sum of its parts.

Peer Mentors and Everyday Leadership: the Marshall Plan

AF: Tell us about your journey from being a senior manager to being the CEO.

AM: I came into the DG role unexpectedly. My predecessor resigned and I had to step up quickly. Even when you have a well-planned transition, I don’t think there’s anything that can fully prepare you for that transition from senior manager to CEO. For me, it was a learning journey, and it still is three years later.

AF: What was the hardest thing about that learning journey?

AM: Giving up the day-to-day running of something you love in order to improve your skills in a number of other areas so that you can be a good CEO. You have to look at some aspects of the role with humility and say: “This is difficult.” I have to create headspace, new ways of being and new ways of acting to do this role correctly. It’s not easy, but it has been really positive.

AF: Who are your role models?

AM: I have so many! But it’s not always a hierarchical mentoring relationship. I also have what I call ‘peer role models’ – a number of friends who are going through similar sorts of stages in their career. We can have a kind of mutually beneficial psychotherapy session, as it were, about the opportunities and challenges we face. I think peer role models are underrated.

AF: What advice would you give your younger self?

AM: I have been lucky. Interesting things have come up at particular moments and I’ve been able to go for them. But what I’d say to my younger self is: “Try to develop a stronger sense of who you want to be in three, five or ten years.” And try to revisit this constantly. Because sometimes you do have to plan more proactively. So I would say: “Think more proactively about purpose, and what you want to be when you grow up.”

AF: What kind of leader are you?

AM: I like to think of myself as open, informal and accessible. I don’t want to be one of those leaders who closes themselves off in an office. And I hope my team would describe me as committed, authentic and still learning because, like most leaders, I’m far from the finished product.

More broadly, I think public discourse in the UK has over-emphasised political and ‘celebrity’ business leadership, as well as male leaders. I hope the tide is now turning more towards recognising leadership by people from all walks of life and at every level. The sometimes small, everyday actions of individuals who bring people together, spark innovation or deliver results need to be celebrated more.

This sort of ‘everyday leadership’ is happening all the time, in businesses and in our communities. We should be looking to find new role models for the next generation among these everyday leaders, who make their place of work and our society function better. All of us in business have a big role to play in making this happen.

This article is the cover story of the spring 2019 edition of Professional Manager, CMI’s official publication.