Case Study: Optima Control Solutions – Michael Hill and Adrian West
“If I had to use one word to sum up LEAD it would be ‘inspirational’” – Michael Hill
Michael Hill and Adrian West are directors of Optima Control Solutions, a specialised engineering firm from Blackburn. The business has been established for 10 years and was in a secure and reasonably successful condition, albeit one which was not challenging the directors or the potential of the business. Optima’s Business Link contact suggested they apply to the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development’s LEAD programme with a view to encouraging their business to grow by focussing on the leadership skills of the directors.
Before the LEAD programme, Michael and Adrian felt they were trapped in a “comfort zone”. Their business was reasonably successful and secure but both men had a feeling of suppressed ambition, they were searching for inspiration. Optima was developing a new product, a technical data-hosting collection service, which would allow the company to diversify and expand into a new field. However, a lack of management training was combining with their current safe and comfortable situation to undermine their confidence. “I felt like the company had boxed itself in and we were punching to get out. There was something stopping us. It felt like I couldn’t breathe properly,” Michael explained.
Michael and Adrian both knew that they had to step back from the day-to-day running of the business to concentrate on launching their new product and allowing the business to grow. Although they had worked together as engineers before Optima was established, they had naturally fallen into their current roles with Adrian as a technical director and Michael in control of the commercial and personnel management aspects. Adrian was concerned he didn’t have the training to get the most out of people and Michael, a more natural leader, was feeling less confident in his leadership abilities with the business on the cusp of expansion. Having not taken many risks in the past, the expansion plans were making them nervous. In short, they needed something to show them they were doing the right thing.
The Power of LEAD
The LEAD programme’s varied activities have given Michael and Adrian the opportunity to interact with other business leaders and they now see that the problems they face are faced by countless other SME leaders. The confidence this has given them is enormous. Michael now realizes he is a good leader and always has been. Adrian also has had his leadership style reinforced and has more confidence in dealing with staff whereas in the past he tended to immerse himself in the technical aspects of Optima. “People are absolutely key to the business. Keep them happy. Keep them working for you to get the best out of them,” said Adrian.
The masterclasses have contributed to what Michael describes as “a profound effect on the business.” Neither of the directors was keen to take risks but the financial and business growth elements of the programme have given them the confidence to be more adventurous with their money for the future of the business.
Michael has seen that a business run on gut-feeling and personal attachment can never be objective. “When you start making decisions based on facts and not just what you feel then that makes a difference. It allows you to let go and look at things objectively,” said Michael. Adrian agrees: “The more calculated the risk you take, the more likely the business is to grow.”
Both directors agree that the coaching is another very useful element of the programme. Having an external coach without the emotional attachments to the business allows them to focus on certain key issues and to get to the root of the problem.
Changes Are Afoot
The LEAD programme has been exactly what Michael and Adrian needed. It has inspired them, given them renewed confidence in their abilities and re-focussed them.
The company has taken on two new staff, now employing 11 people full-time and two part-time. Michael and Adrian have stepped back from the everyday activities to allow two managers to take over their roles. This has given them the time and space to concentrate on the new product which is just about to go to market. In addition to this, the company has purchased its own premises, giving them a more secure and permanent footing.
Delegation has been one of the biggest and most important changes. Adrian and Michael knew that staff development was one of the most important parts of the business but LEAD has accelerated their move away from the core activities, empowering their people and encouraging them to make decisions for themselves. “What we did on LEAD in the Lake District about giving people responsibility has led us to taking the safety net away a bit at work. I have said to them ‘don’t come asking me about things like that – make a decision and deal with it,’” Michael said. Both men agree that giving the right job to the right person with the right skills is essential if Optima is to grow.
With the new product imminent, growth looks like a distinct possibility. Participating on LEAD has given Optima the confidence to take calculated risks which they might not have taken in the past. Michael and Adrian are excited to see what the future holds for themselves, each other, and their business.