What qualities should a good business leader show?

From the autocrat to the laissez-faire leader, there are many management styles executives can employ to get their team to perform. We turned to three of the top-rated companies for their senior leadership to find out which styles are the best
From left to right
Jo Malone, co-founder and CEO, VetPartners
Ian Charlesworth, regional managing director, Awin
James Doyle, head of operations, Octopus Energy
Dawn Quigg, client services director, Awin

The best leaders should be capable of setting their team’s direction and inspiring and motivating others to make that vision become a reality.

A good leader is a key driver for employee satisfaction, ranking only second to culture and values for UK workers, according to research from Glassdoor

Despite the importance of good senior leadership to an organisation’s success, it can be challenging to define the key qualities of a successful manager. 

Instead, Glassdoor’s Economic Research team decided to speak to the people they manage, to find out which companies have the best senior leadership teams

Here, four business leaders from three of the top-10 ranked companies share the secrets of their success and their advice for other executives on how to improve their leadership styles.

Jo Malone, co-founder and CEO, VetPartners 

When our senior management team was first put together, we did a lot of work looking into our purpose. Of course, implementing the overall business strategy is important but, ultimately, the purpose of our company’s senior management team is to ensure our employees are at the heart of everything we do. The key ingredient for anyone looking to join VetPartners as a senior manager is the ability to adapt their style to the organisation – because our culture is unique.At other companies, you need to show what you’re delivering individually. We’re diligent in maintaining the focus on our success as a team. The word ‘staff’ is banned from all our literature because I think it’s quite a derogatory term. We describe people as ‘team members’, ‘colleagues’, or ‘employees’. It’s that attention to detail which makes a difference.You also need to be able to explain why this culture is important for our organisation. In other businesses, if something goes wrong there might be a cover-up or a blame culture. In a veterinary practice, if an animal dies under anaesthetic we hold a significant event meeting to understand what happened and to prevent it from happening again. Until you explain that to somebody, they might not understand why our approach is helpful. It’s just about giving people time.The biggest challenge in the last few years, I’ve found, has been the structural change in the organisation. We’ve grown so much as the company has grown from 100 employees and a revenue of £1m, to 8,000 employees and £600m in revenue in the space of six and a half years. Because we’ve grown so quickly, it is important to regularly touch base with people. I have to be disciplined with my diary. More than anything, it’s important to care about each person as an individual and try to understand what makes them tick. Always put your team members first and yourself last. Try and understand yourself and who you are as a leader and what someone else’s perception might be. Learn how to take feedback. Sometimes it’s easy to feel someone’s feedback is a personal dig, or that the person criticising you has misunderstood what you meant. Instead, flip it around and ask yourself why they’ve interpreted it that way. It requires a mindset shift. Try to stretch yourself; everyone can get better.

James Doyle, head of operations, Octopus Energy 

We built the business on autonomy and decentralisation. Our Leicester office is thriving, not because the C-suite come from London to visit every couple of weeks but because they have a highly empowered leadership team who can make significant decisions for their sites and their customer base without having to go to the C-suite for permission. We want to give people the full breadth of autonomy to solve problems without having to go to some central function to do so. That culture is across the entire organisation.We also develop a lot of our leadership talent ourselves. There’s nobody within the company who isn’t capable of motivating others or who cannot influence people. Some 95% of the people who are our team leaders and operations managers have all come through the ranks at Octopus. The company has different programmes to prepare people for leadership positions, to give them the necessary skills before they start in a management role. Since January, 200 people have come through Accelerate, our leadership programme. We refuse nobody and we give everybody access to the skills and the programme to begin to start practising the behaviours we expect of our leaders. The most successful are focused on problem-solving, are good communicators and have a positive outlook. Positivity is one of the key characteristics we look for. Some of the tangible benefits that come from senior leadership can be equally contributed to the culture and the empowerment our people have and our shared purpose. Senior leadership is important, but it isn’t the only factor. This is reflected in our ability to retain talent. In operations, our attrition rate is 12%, while the industry average is around 35% to 36%. Across the business, attrition is lower again, at around 8%. People at Octopus are allowed and encouraged to be themselves and not some version of what an ideal worker is imagined to be. I think that’s what makes it such a good place to work.

Ian Charlesworth, regional managing director, Awin 

What sets Awin apart in terms of its culture is the level of trust and engagement that we’ve developed between management and the rest of our team. We’ve tried hard to humanise leadership and that’s been particularly important during the transition from pre- to post-pandemic. We have a culture based on trust and the assumption that people want to work hard rather than the inverse. We look at the consequence of work and the outputs that people generate, rather than trying to monitor inputs. Trust is the backbone of the company culture. Once you have that trust, everything else flows more easily. There is a great reassurance that comes with leadership stability and predictability, which helps the organisation during a period of transition. If we were to suddenly make changes in our approach and the culture started to feel different, that’s when you push people into feeling less secure or less certain about their work environment. Equally, if your expectation as a leader is for your team to follow you and willingly align with the company strategy and goals, then you must exhibit that willingness to take on new things and be frank with people. Owning your mistakes can help with that process of humanising leadership, which improves approachability and empathy. A leadership team that’s willing to roll up its sleeves and try new things and not be afraid if they don’t go right is a critical part of our leadership DNA. This has helped to produce a workplace that is more energised and there is an increasing willingness for people to come forward with their own suggestions. These things aren’t developed overnight. If you want a culture that is empowered, then people need to get the experience first. 

Dawn Quigg, client services director, Awin 

Trust is important and it extends to being able to employ and promote future leaders at quite a young age within Awin, which is unique for us as a business. We empower them to step into early management roles and to drive their own career changes.The level of visibility and accessibility our leadership team gives to the rest of the business extends throughout the business. We host monthly updates in the UK to make sure we’re constantly talking to everybody on a personal level, about the things that matter. And we open that up to question-and-answer sessions, where any question can be asked. Introducing a shorter, flexible working week has been a huge benefit for all employees, ourselves included. We need to believe in it as a leadership team to push these ideas through and make them a reality. But we also invited the rest of the business to join us and help us work out how to implement it successfully. We ended up with a lot of good ideas to improve office culture and ensure that we got the transition to a shorter week right. It shouldn’t only be the leadership team sitting in a room working out the best way to solve an issue. Involving employees in working out the answers and sharing the successes of those when they go well has brought many benefits.It isn’t always completely rosy. We perform well as a business at times and then at other times, it’s a struggle. We’ve always been open about the business’s performance and shared that information with staff, so they are aware of how things are trending.To see retention rates continue to be strong for us in recent years when we’ve had to have those difficult conversations is very reassuring for us. It shows that people are invested in what we can offer them internally and not just the external performance of the business.