In the latest of our BGF Executive Summary series, Tim Cobbold – CEO of UBM, and former CEO of both De La Rue and Chloride – shared with an audience of portfolio CEOs, Chairmen and other BGF friends, his experiences of taking some of the UK’s largest businesses through varied and challenging times, and the lessons about leadership that he has learnt along the way.

Tim has earned a reputation as one of the UK’s most successful CEOs. During his tenure at Chloride, it became the UK's largest supplier of secure power systems to hospitals and other public buildings and facilities, before being sold to Emerson Electric for $1.5bn. Tim subsequently moved to De La Rue taking on multiple challenges, including the fall-out from production problems at its UK paper mill and a hostile takeover attempt from French rival Oberthur. Over three years, he successfully led the restoration of the Group’s reputation and delivered a significant turnaround in financial performance and prospects.

Tim’s thoughts on leadership:

There are no rights and wrongs in leadership. Everything is personal – reflecting your own personality, but also more critically the culture and personality of the people and organisation that you lead.

We can’t all be Churchill. In fact, in peacetime not even Winston Churchill was always that “Churchillian”. Your leadership style should reflect your personality and the context in which you are operating.

We can all learn to become better leaders.

The importance of self-awareness, good communication and always taking time to understand people should be your guiding principles. With these three principles at the front of your mind you will be armed to tackle the challenges every leader will face:

1. Big Picture & Eye for Detail

A leader must be able to see the big picture, to set the context for their company and for everything that it does. But showing a willingness to get immersed in real detail as and when it is required can sometimes demonstrate leadership better than any grand strategy.

2. Flexibility & Consistency

People appreciate consistency and strong leadership. But know when leadership becomes dogmatic or inflexible. A good leader listens to others: actively canvass other opinions and prove that you are prepared to change your mind when needed.

3. Confidence & Uncertainty

It is important to project confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself or your leadership, neither will the people that you are leading. But it is not a sign of weakness to express uncertainty or to ask for help in some situations. Indeed, at the right moment your willingness to admit uncertainty can create stronger relationships and ultimately result in better decisions.

4. Directing & Taking Direction

You may lead from the front, but a boat is steered from the rear. A leader must provide overall direction for the company, setting the strategic course. But delegating to others and allowing them to lead in your place when it is appropriate can introduce new energy and ideas, as well as developing the skills of your senior team. Reflected glory often shines much brighter.

5. Demanding & Giving

Conventional wisdom says that a leader must demand action, but how much more powerful is it when your people are self-motivated to act. Create a culture where action is encouraged and rewarded and where people set high expectations for themselves.

6. Strength & Humility

People like strength. Look for opportunities to show that you are willing to make decisions, and to accept the consequences, and that you are willing to protect and defend your team. But don’t let your strength as a leader obscure your identity as a real person with a life beyond business. Show a human side in the way that you deal with people and that you recognise your own fallibility.

7. Learning & Teaching

Learning is a two way process. Never stop wanting to learn, and don’t underestimate the power of asking your team to share the benefits of their own experience. It will earn you respect as well as developing new skills and knowledge. Likewise take the time to teach, coach and mentor people within your organisation.

8. Sending & Receiving

A good communicator thinks about their audience, and that process starts with listening. Always make sure you are prepared for the hardest questions, and think through the answers before they are even asked. Don’t be afraid to use a range of communication methods to get your messages across – words, phraseology, body language, facial expression – to help you connect with each individual.


BGF’s Executive Summary series will resume again in 2015. If you would like to receive information about forthcoming speakers, please get in touch via the BGF website.