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I felt like I was in my dad’s shadow

Liz Smith LG Davis
Liz Smith (left) has worked hard to develop her own leadership style

It took Liz Davis a long time to realise she didn’t need to be her dad after taking over the family business – she just needed to be herself.

It’s a situation many find themselves in when assuming the mantle in a family business. First there’s the pressure of not dropping the ball, making sure those years of hard work don’t go to waste. Then it’s the inevitable grumblings of nepotism and the inferiority complex that helps cultivate.

All of those emotions went through the head of Liz Davis when she took over the running of LG Davis, a print company located on the outskirts of Birmingham – despite having spent her entire career in the business.

Unplanned route

She joined after leaving university, as a stop gap, but never left and spent time in most departments. A spell as finance director came before taking the top job. Being in the family business had given Liz a passion for the industry and its customer base, but working in that kind of a safe environment meant she’d never had to experience any real failure.

“That was at the front of my mind when I took over. I’d worked in the business my whole life, but now it was time to take the reins and either sink or swim.

Looking back, Liz wishes she could have grabbed herself by the collar and told the new MD that she didn’t need to worry about emulating her dad and uncle – or take every single problem on herself.

“Those early years were really hard and characterised by a lack of transparency and honesty on my behalf,” she revealed. “I hid things from my staff during the bad times, preferring to bring problems home and deal with them in isolation.”

Communication failures

LG Davis staff feedback
Staff at LG Davis now know their thoughts and feelings will be heard

Taking over in 2006, just before the 2009 global recession, meant conversations around how the business was doing were inevitable. “Chinese whispers saw rumblings taken way out of context,” she remembered.

It was only through becoming more open and transparent, after seeing the whites of people’s eyes when she shared information, that Liz started to feel more comfortable in the job. “You don’t have to know everything as the ‘leader’ as that makes it a pretty lonely place.”

Trial and error helped Liz create the best ways for staff in her business to feed back on what they think is working well and the bits in need of attention.

“I used to take criticism personally, getting flustered and defensive, which meant I wasn’t acting on what was often quite good feedback,” she admitted. “I could have learnt so much more back then by not seeking validation for what I was doing but letting people challenge it.”

Outside help

In recent years Liz has taken on an external point of view through the Be the Business Mentoring for Growth programme. Despite David Low, her mentor from GSK, coming from a completely different sector (pharmaceuticals), Liz has learnt so much through the experience.

“I can’t possibly know all the answers and having an external point of view has been invaluable. Someone like David looks at things differently as they’re on the outside.”

It’s helped Liz learn more about her own leadership style from someone who had no real vested interest in the success of her business – unlike a paid-for business coach. It’s also made Liz believe she could add value to other people’s businesses – not something that would have crossed her mind when she stepped up to MD.

“It’s taken me a while, but I’d like to think I’ve emerged from my dad’s shadow and taken the business somewhere it wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

Find out how a business mentor helped re-unite a family firm behind the same vision.

Read the advice Liz would give her younger self

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