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How leadership skills programmes helped founders find focus

Leadership skills
Dovetailed is a human experience design studio.

The founders of two tech startups – one based in Cambridge, the other in Oxford – chose to pursue executive education to hone their leadership skills. Taking time out of the daily running of their businesses to learn from experts and peers proved to be an invaluable experience.

Vaiva Kalnikaitė is founder and CEO of Cambridge-based company Dovetailed. The business was founded in 2011 and now has eight employees.

Kalnikaitė describes Dovetailed as a human experience (UX) design studio and innovation lab that uses behavioural science to design better products and services. It focuses on the design of human-machine interactions for Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, medical and other complex areas.

A year after she started Dovetailed, Kalnikaitė decided to enrol on an executive education diploma course at Cambridge Judge Business School. The course consisted of a series of five modules, each lasting two days.

She chose the ones she felt would have an immediate impact on her new business by boosting her leadership skills: how to build a strong brand, managing innovation strategically, successful negotiation strategies, transformational leadership, and finance and accounting for non-financial managers.

There’s no substitute for meeting real leaders

“Despite reading up on various relevant topics, I felt that I wanted to talk to experts who knew about these areas,” she explained. “I also wanted to meet other participants and share experiences, which proved invaluable.”

She chose Cambridge Judge Business School for the relevance of its courses and the fact that they were short. “I didn’t have to take too much time off from running my business, although I was still on calls with clients during breaks!” she said.

It wasn’t just the content of the courses that was beneficial for Kalnikaitė – the social aspect was highly valuable too. “It was incredibly beneficial for networking and meeting other participants from other, often larger organisations. I also feel that I learnt faster when I was able to discuss the course content with others who were covering the same topic,” she said.

Leadership skills - Vaiva Kalnikaite
Kalnikaite gained from the social aspects of studying.

Some modules also included impressive guest speakers. “They had incredible knowledge and I was able to network with them and learn more from them.” For Kalnikaitė, rubbing shoulders with other leaders was as important as working directly on her leadership skills.

After the course ended, participants were encouraged to keep in touch through LinkedIn, which Kalnikaitė says she continues to benefit from. “The programme exceeded my expectations. It was definitely worth it, and I would do it again,” she said.

“By joining an executive education programme, you are not only learning new things but also building your network globally. You have access to expertise that is often hard to find. You’re able to discuss concerns and ideas for your business with a highly experienced group who are leaders in their field.”

Find a combination of mentoring and structured learning

The co-founders of Oxford-based tech startup Adaptix also extol the virtues of taking time out to pursue executive education to improve leadership skills.

Evans, an ex-Siemens vice president, and Gil Travish, an American former academic at UCLA, launched the business in 2009 and now employ 36 people. Adaptix is developing technology that will help to transform radiology by allowing 3D imaging to be low cost and truly portable, particularly in dentistry and medicine.

Evans is no stranger to executive education – he is a chartered accountant, corporate treasurer, chartered director and MBA. Travish, though a highly qualified scientist, had not done any executive education before helping to found and run the business. Together, they undertook the London Stock Exchange’s Elite programme in November 2017 and the Royal Academy of Engineering’s SME Leaders Programme.

The SME Leaders Programme supports promising leaders of high-growth UK-based engineering SMEs to develop their leadership skills. The award provides a £10,000 grant to fund their choice of leadership training courses, six months of one-to-one coaching, masterclasses and workshops, and the provision of an experienced mentor.

For Evans, the combination of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s mentoring and the London Stock Exchange’s structured day-release programme was ideal.

New leadership skills can bring focus and clarity

“The Elite Programme is a structured one, designed to support the scaling of a high-potential business to create opportunities for employees and value for shareholders. Undertaking the programme forced us to work on the business rather than just working in it. It also forced us to take the time to re-plan how to achieve our goal of more than $100m of revenue,” Evans said.

Evans and Travish had looked at what they wanted to do with the business and identified good ways to achieve that goal.

“One of those ways just happened to be through executive education,” Evans explained. “We took our first venture capital in 2014, and so we’re beginning to come into the period when we need to raise material capital and allow a realisation opportunity for early investors. A programme focused on doing exactly that was closely aligned with the business’ needs.”

The key motivation for Evans and Travish in pursuing executive education was to enable them to have some time away from the business. They needed to think about how to define what they wanted to achieve, get top-level advice from a range of professionals, and develop a shared language and updated plan to achieve their business goals.

“The benefits of the course were to give us time and structure to reset our goals and plan. Only time will tell if we achieve a successful listing – it won’t be before June 2020. But we believe that the Royal Academy of Engineering and the London Stock Exchange have at least helped us create more high-value jobs in the UK and a plan to accelerate our business so it can meet its full potential,” Evans said.

Match your education to your business goals

According to Evans, the only downside to pursuing executive education is “the reality of balancing the tyranny of day-to-day management with the need to invest time to create long-term growth in value.”

His advice to other SME leaders when it comes to choosing executive education is to “ensure alignment of the course with what you want to achieve for the business.”

If you’re looking to improve your leadership skills, then having access to more experienced and successful leaders must be part of that criteria.

And no bunking off. “It’s not a break, it is room to work on the business.”

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