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Top lessons from an MD: 1. Enhance leadership, enhance work culture

After many years leading teams and supporting a range of businesses, Firebird Director Chris Thompson is sharing some of his top lessons. Read on for the first of a new three-part series including actionable tips for owners and MDs.

Interview a young person for a job in the sector today, and chances are one of their questions will be: “What’s your work culture like here?” It’s a question that many long-serving business leaders won’t ever have considered, yet it gets to the heart of what many employees naturally want from their chosen career: a positive workplace and role which not only match their ambitions and help pay their bills, but support them to thrive week on week.


Get that work culture right and it’s a win-win for all parties: we all know that happy teams are more likely to be loyal, hard-working and committed to achieving shared work goals – meaning they’re also less likely to grow apathetic and leave for greener pastures.


Of course, there are many and varied ways to foster positive work cultures, and I’ll be covering the core points in this series. But for me (as you might have spotted from the title of this piece), enhancing leadership practices comes at the top. 

“A leader’s energy has a massive impact on a team”

As a leader, your energy sets the tone for the entire team, and acknowledging the massive impact your presence can have is crucial. You are the person from which most staff will take their cues, even unconsciously. Everything you do is magnified, every compliment and critique you give will be remembered. It’s vital to be fully alert to this.


The best business leaders I’ve worked with have had an energy that’s typically relaxed, while also proactive and clear. They actively listen to questions and issues, address those concisely, and make sure people have the right tools and resources to do their job. They encourage development by promoting continuous learning, acknowledging that individuals will seek growth beyond their current roles.


They are also empathetic, recognising that team members have full lives beyond work – and they don’t cross those boundaries. In short: they see their team members as fully-rounded people and show them the appropriate respect.


This respect extends to respecting the time team members invest in their work, ensuring staff receive meaningful returns for that (whether financial or otherwise) and proactively seeking to understand each team member’s individual goals and motivations.

“Provide building blocks – not blockers – to support creativity”

As with many areas of business, I haven't always practised what I preach and I have often learnt by seeing the impacts of getting things wrong! Early on in my career as an MD, for example, I witnessed my impatience and stress having a directly negative impact on the work culture around me, which only highlighted the importance of patience and clarity to me long-term. The truth is that leaders are not infallible, we will all mess up from time to time. The key thing about making mistakes is to learn from them.


Demonstrating humility, acknowledging your own personal flaws and challenges, is a real strength when it comes to building a strong work culture. I found this myself back in 2019, when I spent a chunk of time in a firm outside the travel industry with a business model that was fundamentally different from anything I had previously experienced. By being completely clear on the limitations of my knowledge, as well my desire to learn from the people around me, I took a huge amount from the experience that continues to inform how I work today.


It is far better to be transparent about any gaps in your knowledge, never pretending to know something when you actually aren’t sure. By doing so you create a space for other team members to offer their experience and knowledge. You may also set a helpful example for younger managers within your team: those who may otherwise resist showing their vulnerabilities, fearing this will be perceived as incompetence, when in fact, this is an opportunity for growth and better connection.


Consistency of behaviour here, as well as other areas, makes it far more likely that others will act consistently in turn, behaving in ways that align with your expectations, even in their absence. Just as it is important to clearly define your work processes and policies for your team – laying these down as building blocks for growth and innovation, rather than blockers – this consistency is all about providing sturdy structures that support creativity.


In my experience, this is especially valuable for small businesses, where leaders alone will often need to define the aspirational culture of the company – involving team members in maintaining it, rather than asking the team to define that culture themselves. In other words, by setting clear foundations yourself, small teams can focus properly on building from there, later letting you know what’s working (or not) for them. 

Actionable tips for leaders

Enhancing work cultures is a proactive process, so in this piece and others for this series I’ll be including actionable tips for any MDs and owners who want to embed new practices.


So here’s your first starter for ten (or two!):


  1. Understand interactions

Take time to clearly define how you want your team members to interact with each other, with customers and with suppliers. This means establishing behavioural expectations and setting them down clearly so they can be understood and adopted by everyone.

  1. Regularly reflect and invite feedback

Seek regular feedback from team members about your leadership style, the leadership styles of others and the impact this is having on work culture overall. Reflect on actions being taken as part of ensuring these align with your company’s values and cultural goals.


Next time, I’ll go deeper into exploring how to create and maintain teams that are highly engaged – and high-performing.

Chris Thompson is a Director of the Firebird Partnership, with almost 20 years’ experience of leading and growing businesses in the travel and tech sectors. His focus is on creating strategy, building teams, and devising processes that are both efficient and value-building.


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