Martin  Leuw
Martin Leuw Non-Executive Chairman
15 Aug 2022

A few years ago I was walking along the banks of the Ganges when I came across a guru engaging a crowd with the thought-provoking question:

"How would you define a wise person?". After the usual age-related responses, someone said: “A wise person is not someone who thinks they know everything, but someone who is incessantly curious, questioning and open to continuous learning".

I’ve been reflecting on this as we grapple with the challenges of global conflict, trade wars, inflation, staff shortages, crises in energy and transportation and supply-side shocks. If ever there was a time to be open to continuous learning, it is now.

While economic cycles are to be expected, we need to distinguish between changes that are systemic versus those that are transitory. While supply-side constraints are likely to ease, the tight labour market is probably not going away any time soon. Since March 2020, the number of economically inactive 50 to 64-year olds has reduced by about 250,000 and the unemployment rate overall stands at 3.8 per cent, the lowest since the mid-1970s. There are 1.3 million job vacancies.

One of the businesses that I chair, Ground Control, is facing an increasing number of open vacancies. We are growing and creating jobs, but those vacancies are slowing us down. We are also addressing issues in our existing workforce, such as around personal development and mental health, exacerbated by both Covid and inflation.

Job vacancies in a tight labour environment require a more innovative and flexible approach. Being clear about what your business stands for helps; for Ground Control, it is caring for the environment. To pique people’s interest, we use social media to share “day in the life” stories. Some of them may surprise you. Andrew Sullivan, one of our plant operators, managed to rescue ten ducklings from the A470 in Wales after their mother had been hit by a car. He tracked down Caerphilly Bird Rescue and handed them over to start their new life.

We also make full use of apprenticeship schemes, while hybrid working has encouraged us to work more efficiently away from our base in Billericay, Essex, and tap into job markets further afield to find talent.

Our recruitment team has also been testing out candidate-tracking software to improve our recruitment and onboarding experience. The software lets potential candidates connect with you, even if you don’t have suitable roles open. As soon as you post a job within their relevant department or role, they will receive an email with information about the position. The software also improves the word-of-mouth recruitment that you can do with contacts of your existing team. Reconnecting with our alumni is also a priority, as the return of regretful leavers has so many positive benefits.

In a tough economic climate it is tempting to look for savings in HR. But we think learning and development is a vital investment and not something we want to cut back. That said, its impact needs to be continually assessed. In fact, the US research firm Gallup has found that when companies get it right with development initiatives specifically linked to people’s strengths, there is a 19 per cent increase in sales, profits are 29 per cent higher, there are 59 per cent fewer safety incidents and staff turnover is reduced by 72 per cent.

Ground Control has its own training academy and we have learned as much from what hasn’t worked as what has. For instance, we now realise that it is vital to review the needs of each layer of management. Team leaders and the first level of management are where the cracks often appear, as they have so much pressure from both above and below. Our academy scheme now has three areas of focus, which we describe as:

develop; manage; lead

We are prioritising coaching skills, time management, project management and handling difficult conversations. Today’s managers and leaders require a more agile — rather than hierarchical — approach and while mentoring still has an important role to play, coaching people to help them make better decisions themselves is more important than ever.

When I was running software businesses, our team seemed to fall into three different categories where learning and development were concerned. First, there were those who sought out development for career advancement; then there were those who wanted it to do their present job better; and finally, there were those who weren’t interested at all.

The reluctant ones could be persuaded through buddying systems, job rotation and other ways of making them aware of the jobs their colleagues had to do: they needed to see how their role fitted in the total customer experience.

Time spent by a software developer in customer service or sales and vice versa can not only break down silos, but can also improve teamwork.

The guru I bumped into on the banks of the Ganges certainly taught me the value of continuous self-reflection and learning. It’s something I’ve brought into both my working as well as personal life. I can fully recommend it.