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When it’s time to go, it’s time go.

Tom Bowtell is Chief Executive of the British Coatings Federation. He helps represent the interests of an industry whose products range from printing inks and wall coverings to industrial and decorative coatings, and boasts 300,000 employees across the country. His success and his work earned him a “Leadership of the Year Award” from the Trade Association Forum. Yet his original career plans were very different, until they were pulled up short by a blunt and crushing realisation that every senior executive secretly fears.

So how does your story start? What was the personal shock that galvanised you to change and be where you are now?

“I’d joined a multinational as a cocky graduate, thinking ‘one day I’m going to run this company!’ I’d been there for 20 years, I was almost 40, and one day a colleague took me aside and said, actually, your face doesn’t fit with the new management team. Your best plan is to get out because, in this environment, I just can’t see it working out for you.

“And that was completely devastating. It was a real slap in the face.

“In the end it took me about a year to leave, and it was difficult. I’d invested so much in them, they’d invested so much in me, but ultimately they didn’t really try to keep me — which was also upsetting.

“Unlike other people who find themselves in similar situations, there was no payoff or big cheque to take. So I just resigned.”

Didn’t the prospect frighten you?

“Yes, it did. I left behind job security and a comfortable final salary pension, but then what was the option? Stay there, drop a gear, accept you’re not going anywhere and wait for that pension? It just wasn’t me.

“And I also realized that even though I’d moved about within the business and had had five or six different ‘careers’, on paper I looked like a one company man. I figured that if I was still in that situation at 50, I’d be unemployable in the outside world.”

But you did move on and now you’re leading much smaller company but with a more rewarding job. You achieved the change you wanted. So how does it feel?

“I suppose the biggest difference in moving from a large corporation to companies with fewer than 50 people is you feel the handcuffs drop away. There’s so much more autonomy, and that’s fantastic.

“Also in a smaller business you really see the impact of your leadership. I’ve tripled the amount of cash we have in the bank and we’ve just been awarded trade association of the year. You are close to those things and they feel like real accolades for what you’ve done and recognition of the difference you can make.

“Yet… I still have inferiority complexes I suppose. How important is the turnover of your business and the number of people you manage compared to the complexity and seniority of the dealings you have?

“In large corporations the power bases are always turnover and headcount.

But here we are, a trade body that corporate people might say doesn’t have much scale, yet what we’re doing is representing £4 billion worth of turnover in the UK to government, which is quite a heavyweight job.

“I still struggle with that, I guess, but what I have learned is that there’s more to scale than turnover. It’s also about intellectual scale, the level you’re working at, networking at and negotiating at. Those are big, rewarding areas.”

What was your first experience with the Leadership Trust?

“Strangely it was as that cocky graduate when I did the Leadership in Management course, and then maybe 20 years later when I went back to do the Executive Programme. I’ve kept in touch ever since and I’ve sent a variety of people there as part of their own personal development.

What’s good about leading in a smaller business?

“The nice thing is you know how everyone is feeling for most of the time. You can tell if things are going wrong quicker.

“In a smaller company you’ve got to get your hands dirty and get involved — which I don’t mind at all — but you need to work harder to find the balance between being strategic and exactly how hands on you are. Sometimes you feel yourself drifting into detail you know you really shouldn’t be involved with.

 

“The fact that you can engage with your whole team and get feedback is also great. I’ve done 360s — which is something I learned from the Leadership Trust — and shared everyone’s objectives with everyone else. It makes for a very open culture, and people know how they can help each other.

“I’ve taken things I’ve learned from bigger companies, such as making my own appraisal system, but I’ve kept it informal. We talk; it goes in the drawer. There’s none of this big company ‘calibration’ where a certain number of people have to be outstanding and a certain number useless. That’s nonsense. What if they’re not like that? Why do they have to bend to a graph?

“I have a board of directors, but as long as we hit the numbers and deliver the lobbying outcomes, they pretty much leave me to get on with it so it feels like running your own business — and I really enjoy that.”

And how different is the job of being a leader?

“In a way it’s quite easy to lead a team of highly motivated, senior, competent people within a large corporation. The issue is managing them, because they’re likely to be very strong personalities. But when you have to lead people who aren’t motivated in the same way, who don’t have the same drivers, who may not be ‘career’ people but just want to do a really good job… that’s a different challenge and it brings you down to earth.

“I suppose I just go back to one of the first things the Leadership Trust ever taught me, back when I was that cocky year old graduate: lead with humility. Certainly not a talent I possessed at 21…but hopefully now.”

And if you could go back and whisper in the ear of your 40 year old self on the verge of that decision, what would you say?

“Have courage and do it. When you’ve been in one place for too long you no longer wake up each morning and wonder ‘what will I face today that I might not be able to do?’ And that’s not good.

“Life is too short not to challenge yourself.”

 

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