Strong leaders are a must-have

There’s one thing a design consultancy absolutely must have to succeed and flourish – exceptional leadership says Roger Huhes


The rapid dismantling of our traditional industry model in recent years has ensured a plethora of ideas on the pages of Design Week on how to make your business succeed and flourish in the brave new world. Is the key to success specialisation, generalisation, collaboration, moving your studio to a barn in Cornwall or opening an office in China?

We’ve read about all these things and they are, of course, valid and work for the people who wrote about them – and quite possibly for you, too. But clearly they aren’t all for everyone and thank goodness they’re not – creative groups are, after all, about uniqueness.

However, there is one thing which a design business absolutely must have to succeed and flourish, and having worked with more than 100 design businesses in the past decade or so, I believe it is this: exceptional leadership. This has to be at the top of the tree, but, and certainly in larger businesses with a management structure, be an obvious quality in all of the individuals heading up specific parts of the business.

Let’s focus though on what an exceptional leader heading up a design business will ensure. For a start, they’ll have a clear vision for the business. This vision won’t be set in stone, but equally it won’t change unless there’s a sound commercial reason for doing so. Next up, they’ll ensure this vision is shared with their team – and quite possibly their team has helped create it. Then they’ll ensure the workplace culture is positive, non-political and stimulating. They won’t bring their personal problems to the office, and they’ll deal with day-to-day business problems in a rational, objective and sensible manner. They’ll be consistent, fair, decent, approachable and likeable (but still the boss).

What does all this mean to the leader’s team? For starters they’ll respect him or her, they’ll be motivated, inspired, look forward to coming to work, be loyal and more likely to stay for the long term. They will want to do a great day’s work and go that extra mile for their employer and the client.

However, isn’t strong leadership central to most business success, regardless of sector? It is, to some degree, but especially so in design, and the reasons are clear. Compare a design consultancy to, say, one which processes complex insurance claims. The latter will function well with just a capable manager at the helm rather than a great leader, but a design business won’t because it requires all those involved to constantly adapt, imagine, interpret, predict and create (as if I needed to tell you), and such requirements need focus, help, support, encouragement and praise.

There’s another reason why this issue is so applicable to design consultancies: their typical size. Generally, design consultancies are not of the size that they have supporting departments in the same way as, for example, their larger clients would. These larger clients will have HR departments and part of their role will be the development of people – leadership being a key one for the more senior.

You’ll know if you work for an exceptional leader and equally you’ll know if you don’t. If you are the leader it’s a tad more difficult to know how good you are, but if your business is doing brilliantly then chances are there’s nothing to worry about. If it isn’t, then questioning your leadership skills is a must. Where do you start?

Well, talking to those around you and asking for an honest opinion is one way, but keep in mind that a poor leader probably won’t have a good enough relationship with his or her team to allow this (team members will either be too scared, or the whole discussion is just too awkward). Ultimately, it’s about thinking hard, thinking deep and probably facing a few demons.

And facing demons is tough because it requires breaking through years of built-up pride and ego to reach them. If that’s achieved, though, then the next stage is about professional support – just type in ‘leadership coach’ on Google and you’ll find no shortage of experts. And if you don’t like the idea of professional help, then ask yourself why not?

Exceptional leadership isn’t the only thing a design business will need to succeed and flourish in our changing world, but it is the one thing it absolutely must have.

Roger Hughes runs the Hughes Consultancy

Inspirational leadership at a glance

• Especially important in design consultancies

• You can survive without it but not flourish

• If you think you could do better, face the demons and change

• There are plenty of experts around to help

• The prize for upping your game is massive

• Whatever the business model, it’s the one thing you must have

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