Leadership: Lessons from the past

I find it both uplifting and insightful to read about great leaders, even more so to work with them! When thinking about what a great leader means to me, it is not just about the broader metrics of success, but the way in which it is achieved. Leadership is one of our core values as a business, along with passion, integrity, and collaboration. These values underpin the way in which we work with each other at Seeblue, and with our clients. They are living values, which we assess ourselves on every month. A moment for reflection and learning.

Looking to the past

When considering the recent turbulent times, the rapid shift to home and now hybrid working, along with the ongoing diversity challenge – it is timely to revisit the story of a truly inspirational leader Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley, through the lens of her leadership style and the culture that she engendered.

Leadership has been described as a process of inspiring collaboration to achieve great things. This definition is undoubtedly pertinent to Dame Shirley’s transformational and authentic leadership.

Leading from the front

Dame Shirley founded an all-women technology business in 1962. Frustrated with the low promotion celling, she committed to the creation of a successful business in which she, and other women would thrive. During her lifetime leadership understanding significantly progressed from the Great Man theory, which described leaders as unique characters who were born not made.

From inception Dame Shirley was dedicated to the greater good, driven by ethical principles – core elements of transformational and authentic leadership. Her approach applied to her business and the individuals within it.  It wasn’t a case of commercial success at all costs, despite the challenges she faced. The organisation refused work on ethical grounds. For her team, she pioneered flexible working in the 1960s. She enabled staff to select between pay rises and increased holiday; and offered part-time, job shares and home working. She created a culture of no fear, and an openness to admit weaknesses, to be mutually supportive of each other. Instilling a growth mindset.  A culture today which is referred to as psychological safety – identified by Google as the uniting trait of high performing teams and fuelling innovation.

Putting culture first

Dame Shirley underlined her commitment to her team; twenty-five percent of the company was ultimately owned by staff. Seventy became millionaires when the business floated!  Even in times of challenge such as closing new international operations, Dame Shirley demonstrated an unswerving concern for staff and for task; to do the right thing for the business, and its people in the right way.

Dame Shirley’s team were (unsurprisingly) intrinsically motivated to follow. The culture mitigated the fear of failure, thus enhanced the probability of achieving organisational goals. The perceived value of the goal was heightened by the unique opportunity to contribute to a business in which they were share-holders. The environment cultivated self-efficacy through supportive skill development, role modelling and positive encouragement from Dame Shirley. The flexible and understanding work environment, described as collegiate may have also negated potential stressors – a growing concern in the modern business.

Dame Shirley had an acute cultural sensitivity and understanding of working with the ‘out group’ of men. She changed her business signature to Steve from Stephanie, when the latter proved a barrier.  She was mindful not to appear as a threat but to build her business through value.  She identified the opportunity for software development, and then services when the sector was focused on hardware. In line with the concept of leadership as a development process, Dame Shirley learnt from past failures.

The culture of Seeblue

The wider context of commercial limits for women, and Dame Shirley’s drive to make a difference created an optimal environment for her development as a leader. She identified the need for change and delivered it, through her transformational and authentic approach.  Dame Shirley’s leadership provides a powerful example of an inspirational leader, so ahead of her time. As founding sponsors of the Women in Tech Forum, her mission is close to our heart at Seeblue.

When I joined Seeblue I was returning from a maternal career break. I welcomed the opportunity to explore the culture whilst a freelancer, to ensure a strong fit on both sides, and for our clients. Many of the values that Dame Shirley demonstrated can be found at Seeblue. I love the flexibility that I am offered, working predominately remotely. The knowledge sharing across our different areas of expertise ensures a constant process of learning and growth, enabling us to collectively deliver the very best for our clients. I also relish the challenge of exploring different niches in the tech sector – taking a different perspective on an existing challenge, or addressing a new objective – identifying a fresh approach or proposition. There is also a commitment to the greater good, with supporting a charity which makes a positive difference with technology, a mutually agreed objective of our team. The cultural values at Seeblue come from the top of our small and rapidly growing team – and you can learn all about creating a winning brand and culture in our podcast episode with Gemma Hood. We are always committed to doing our best for each other and our clients, and are intrinsically motivated to do so. We are also absolutely delighted that our clients say the same.

Author: Fiona Hopkinson, Head of Strategic Communications, Seeblue Marketing

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