When Sally Ainsley walked in on day one of her Productivity through People course, and realised the room was full of manufacturing sector businesses, she did wonder if there was any value in taking part. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
As operations director at Lifecycle Software, Sally Ainsley is involved with many parts of the business. “SME leaders have very wide-ranging jobs and are expected to turn their hand to things like customer service, operations, compliance and HR all in a single role,” she explained.
It was this need to wear multiple hats that drew Sally to the Productivity through People course. She identified it as a way to combine both the value of mentoring-type relationships with exposure to fellow SME leaders going through similar challenges.
“I was having a one-to-one with our MD at the end of the year and got talking about what I do next, what I need to be doing differently,” she said. “I wanted to support the business and drive growth, but knew I needed input from outside the business.”
Her conversations with the University of Bath School of Management convinced her of the programme’s value, but day one had her wondering if fellow cohort members would have any relevant advice or insights.
What became apparent very quickly was that, despite there being a skew towards manufacturing businesses on the course, the challenges and opportunities found in every business had a lot of similarities.
Sally wanted help, from both experts and peers, with empowering staff at Lifecycle Software to take on some of the responsibilities being held onto by senior management as the business grew in scale. Another key area to address was discovering new and improved ways of sharing how the business was doing to secure that all-important employee buy-in.
“I was really surprised with how much I was able to learn from other organisations which, on the surface, appear to be so different,” she revealed. “Managing people, engaging staff and being streamlined is the same for a manufacturer making widgets as a company writing complex software – there are just different flavours.”
Having started her Productivity through People course in January, Sally has already started to implement changes despite the programme not finishing until the end of the year. She’s talking about objectives and strategy more, asking for feedback and knowing that she and her senior team can’t just tell, tell, tell. They’ve also started taking a more detailed look at how the company recruits, thinking about how this will work in the larger context of succession planning.
Lifecycle Software is also making sure first-time managers are getting specific training so that they have the best possible chance of being successful in people management roles. Two other businesses on her course were doing this, giving Sally the confidence and help to do something similar.
“Another thing we’ve done as a result of Productivity through People, and through me having exposure to like-minded SME leaders, is change the emphasis of our MD briefing. It was a quarterly update quite heavy in facts and figures that has now become driven by objectives and how we’re getting to those.” Sally commented.
“There have been subtle changes taking place since January – but you only need a few nuggets to make some real impact.”
While 15 days outside of the business might seem like a big commitment, Sally thinks it has been “well worth it” so far. However, she does believe it’s vitally important to completely disconnect yourself from the day-to-day of a job for those days spent working “on” the business, not “in” it.
“Part of the value is just talking to others. People aren’t on their phone during breaks as they just want to be interacting.”
So far, the Productivity through People course has exposed Sally and her cohort to the internal workings at BAE Systems and Leonardo. Site visits to larger organisations are a key component of the course, giving SMEs access to the systems and processes that often make corporates more efficient.
The network she’s also been able to build is also one big value Sally was keen to point out. “It’s really reassuring to know I can email our group, outside of our once a month day together, to see how things are going,” she said. “There is real relevance in looking at others, those small businesses that have so many similarities.”
While wanting to bend the ear of those in her industry might seem preferable, Sally has found that taking the competitive edge away often makes people far more likely to open up and share valuable learnings and insights.
That first day when she walked into a classroom and found herself surrounded by such different businesses seems a long time ago now.