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How to become a disruptive leader in a family business

Barry Leahey MBE is the award winning ecternal MD of Playdale Playgrounds

We spoke with Barry Leahey MBE about what it means to be a disruptive leader – especially when you’re at the helm of a family business.

When Barry Leahey became the first external MD of a ninth-generation family business, he set out to make big changes.

The family business dates to 1735, when it dealt timber and steel, before becoming Playdale Playgrounds in 1978. Barry’s vision has again transformed the company – it’s gone from a domestic business selling playground equipment to an international supplier now exporting to 49 countries.

The team’s efforts and successes were recognised with a Board of Trade award in early 2019 in acknowledgement of its excellence in international trade, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism.

We sat down with Barry to find out about becoming an external MD in a multi-generation family business and how to innovate while still retaining original values.

What do family businesses stand to gain by bringing in an external MD?

“You can gain a great deal from a new set of eyes. The root of many frustrations within a family business is that they have taken it so far and can’t go any further. Often, an external managing director is brought in because the family have already recognised a need for change.

“At Playdale, nine generations of the same family ran the business without external management. John Croasdale was the MD before I came in. His big realisation, after taking some management training, was that to move a level up you have to surround yourself with better people. He and the other family members realised that bringing in an external MD would be key to developing the business.”

Do you think it’s important to retain the values of the family business?

John Croasdale (Chairman) and Gillian Croasdale (Company Secretary), are the 9th Generation owners of Playdale

“I went in as MD with the mindset of respect for history and people’s legacies. My transition in to the role was a learning experience. There were a lot of nuances to pick up on, particularly around familial connections and employees.

“I’ve come from billion-pound businesses where the major difference is that it’s more transactional. People are numbers. They’re told what their role is and what they’re required to deliver. In a family business it’s about looking after people and ensuring we’re not as cut throat. No family wants to be known as a ‘bad’ family – they want to be upstanding leaders in the community.

“The good and bad side to that is it can be a little bit nice. You need to be mindful of creating that family feeling without it coming at a cost for the business. In some ways, a family approach can make it easier to be more direct when you’re unhappy with something. You can be less corporate about it and it feels more real and honest. This ‘family’ approach is something that corporates themselves are now trying to replicate.”

What is your approach to leadership?

“Business leaders are there to cause disruption and then help with the flux left behind. I spend 40 per cent of my time working on strategy, 40 per cent outside of the business looking for strategic disruption, and 20 per cent on the day-to-day tasks. The world is constantly changing, and you can’t stay still.

“I’m also a big believer in developing people. I mentor my team members and make it my mission to move people in to new roles. At Playdale we create a culture that celebrates change and continuous improvement, rewarding people with great ideas. We have collected 180 ‘continuous improvement ideas’ from employees and, from the ones we implemented, have saved £70,000 and made our work easier in the process.”

What’s an example of a change that you have made at Playdale which has driven up your productivity?

“In 2010 I asked the question, ‘why do we only work in the UK?’. At the time, we predicted that the UK market would contract by 30 per cent, and it ended up contracting by 44 per cent. Today, 50 per cent of what we manufacture is exported abroad to 49 countries. If we had stood still and maintained status quo I wouldn’t be speaking to you today.

“The other thing I did when I first came in as MD was to create accountability. We formalised what everyone was responsible for both internally and with customers. A few people may have stamped their feet, but we began to see immediate gains. It’s those tiny incremental changes that can lead to huge gains.”

What’s your top productivity tip for family businesses?

“Productivity is about making us better in everything that we do. At Playdale we measure this through benchmarking. We use benchmarking because we want to be sure that we’re performing better within our sector, but also across different sectors.

“Once you know where you stand, the next step is to empower people, hold them accountable and set goals. Holding people accountable can be a challenge, especially in a business that values relationships and people. But if a family business learns to have those difficult conversations, this gives them an edge.”

Barry will be involved in judging the “Non-Family Leader/ MD/ CEO/ NED” award at the North West Family Business Awards on the 6th March 2020. Be the Business are sponsoring the award and will be looking for non-family managers in a family business who have delivered success and innovation while being sympathetic to the culture of the family business. For more information about the awards or to make a nomination please go here.

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