It’s been 20 years since Debra Charles decided to ditch her managerial role with Westinghouse in favour of founding her own business. Totally driven by her vision for using the emerging internet to make life easier for companies and their customers, she barely thought about what this would mean: becoming a leader. Now that she’s had two decades to get used to the idea, it’s time to find out about her journey from rookie boss to award-winning leader.
How did you feel about being a boss when you set up Novacroft?
I set out with a desire to use my love of technology and its ability to simplify complexity to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. Any thoughts of a new job title or leading a team just didn’t get a look in! I did, though, have a sense of the kind of business I wanted to create, influenced by my corporate experience where the goal of being the last to leave the office felt completely wrong.
When did it hit you that you were a leader - and did you do anything differently?
As soon as the team started to grow I saw how I could make a difference in terms of helping people on their journey through life and I think the natural nurturer in me came out. It wasn’t until we were a team of about 30 that I recognised I was a leader. With that realisation came another: instead of spending 90% of my time working in the business I needed to modify this to 20% in it, 35% taking a helicopter view and 35% on the future vision. I also started thinking and reading more about leadership and signed up for the Business Growth and Development Programme at Cranfield School of Management.
Did this experience make a difference to your leadership style?
My leadership style was assessed as strategic, which I was pretty chuffed about. It helped me appreciate that I am visionary and can translate vision into action for others to turn into reality. I also learned about some mechanisms that are helpful as a leader but I was struck that nobody talks about things like kindness, to yourself and to others. The experience clarified for me that leadership is about being receptive to the ideas and expertise of others and being able to interpret and adapt what’s right for you as an individual. I came away with the confidence to do things my way, guided by the values I hold dear.
Has that confidence in your leadership ever been really tested?
Oh yes! In the last 18 months I’ve had to make changes. Novacroft had lost its entrepreneurial essence and transparency had eroded. Left unattended, this could have been catastrophic. Somewhat unconventionally, before launching a major change initiative, I decided to stand in the middle of a circle of team members and tell them of my shame that I’d let the problems happen - and my idea for sorting it out. Since that day I’ve coached this group to support my role and they have flourished as ambassadors for the Novacroft way of doing things. Together, we have put entrepreneurial spirit back into the business, now have a business full of highly engaged people and have got the business back on track. The fact that we have become more effective and collaborative confirms for me that I was right to go with my gut instinct and be open - people responded to my transparency.
Has anything else affected your leadership style?
It’s very helpful to have people you aspire to be like. I found a visiting fellow at Cranfield very wise on leadership and Richard Branson has always inspired me because he does things differently, and that’s what I do. Parenthood has definitely given an extra dimension to my leadership. As a parent you use different tones of voice in different situations and in business I’m a believer in adapting my leadership style to suit different occasions. When the business nearly hit the buffers, for instance, I met individually with every member of staff and they experienced the rawness of it all. Now I don’t need to show that side of me, now it’s about bringing rigour and discipline into how we do things so we can move forward.
Now that you’re the seasoned CEO of a multi-award winning business how do you feel about being a leader?
I certainly didn’t envisage having this level of responsibility 20 years ago and I do sometimes think it is a lot for one person to be responsible for supporting and protecting their team and their clients. Much of it is about organisational resilience and ensuring that your business has firm foundations and strong financial control and is on top of compliance and cyber security. And then there are the everyday dilemmas and decisions to deal with, not to mention the big, unexpected challenges. That’s where a group of local business owners I set up six years ago has been really helpful. We share our business problems and ideas for how they might be solved. We have also started to use our skills and networks for social action. I know from experience encouraging educators and employers to see dyslexia as a gift that being a business leader can enable you to make a difference beyond your own business. And that’s a real privilege.
There’s no denying being a CEO can feel like a pretty big job, but it’s also the most exciting one I can think of - apart perhaps from being a racing driver!