Jan 22 2018| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
In the first of a new series of interviews with some of the Channel Islands’ most influential business leaders, we spoke to Ian Kelly, Group Chief Executive of Sure Group.
Ian leads Sure’s business in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, South Atlantic and Diego Garcia and is a Director of all of Sure’s operations.
Before moving to Guernsey in early 2017, Ian was CEO of Sure South Atlantic and Diego Garcia, and was on the Board of Sure in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. In 2007 he became Group Director, Mergers & Acquisitions at Batelco Group, where he was responsible for Batelco’s international expansion and its Group Strategy. Ian started his career with AT&T NCR in Australia before moving to Singapore with British Telecom and has also held senior roles with subsidiaries of SingTel Optus. He has lived and work internationally for all of his career.
Ian holds an MBA from the University of Melbourne and Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology and Marketing.
What would you say are the top qualities for a great leader and, in your experience, where do these qualities come from?
Just a bit of background – as opposed to being an executive who purposely set out to become a business leader I have worked my way into the role from mostly executive strategy roles rather than operational roles.
My views on a business are often outside in, due to my background in mergers and acquisitions and strategy. I am used to looking at strengths and weaknesses of a business, and I have always made evaluations of people and leadership on that basis, rather than looking at characteristics of leadership per se.
In my mind, leaders who are good are those are not just successful in specific periods of time; successful CEOs can work through cycles – up and down - and work through things going wrong as well as making the most of the opportunities that arise in the good times. So for me, vital characteristics of a good leader are flexibility and adaptability.
Also, as an international executive, I value people with an ability to work in different business cultures and the ability to work with diverse groups of people and organisations. If someone has only worked in one business or one country, that is a weakness when I think of senior leadership. That experience of different cultures is essential for me.
I also think leaders need a good sense of humour; having a thick skin is critically important. A touch of humour even when in the middle of a very serious crisis helps because when things are falling apart, the ability to lighten the mood is important in terms of getting contributions and encouraging leadership. When things go wrong you want people around you who can maintain a balance and are not just operating in a binary crisis mode.
I don’t like micromanagers, I want to have someone in that leadership position who is happy to have five or six people working for him or her who want his or her job, and the leader is actively encouraging that. It takes leadership maturity to develop people to do your job. If I see someone who is purposely moving people on from their job because they are a competitor, then that is a bad sign. It says that the person is running the business for themselves, not the organisation.
How do you find that out?
If you go through a process of evaluating a business, you will see what’s working and pick up on the culture of the company and the leader's impact on that culture. It annoys me when I see senior people who think they are the most accomplished person in the organisation in terms of all functions.
I think you can tell very quickly, for example in a meeting, if the only person who speaks is the CEO and no one else says a word, that it’s a command and control environment and this to me is not healthy.
Can you learn how to be a good leader?
Some of good leadership can be learned, the ability to create an environment where people want to lead. I believe that a leader’s role is twofold - to lead the business for a period of time and to develop the next leaders. I also believe that leaders have to want the role.
If you are the leader I believe you have to say to the people who work with you: ‘you can have this job’. It’s important to explain that the better job they do and the better they can demonstrate their ability to do more, the better I will be in my role. I will benefit from that person’s ambition and success. Of course, politics can come into play, but I balance on the side of optimism!
What do I do to motivate the people who want to develop and lead? I tell them to keep doing a good job; there is no reason why they can’t become the next leader.
Who for you represents a model of a great leader?
The business leaders who stand out for me are those who can work through cycles of highs and lows.
If you look at people around me, the ones that I respect are the ones who have open relations with people they work for, they lead by example, show what is required from a balanced perspective and demonstrate that hard work is essential, but so is enjoying the benefits of success.
I don’t go for textbook inspirational leaders; I don’t go for the ra-ra, that’s my
personality. I don’t see it as standing up and delivering a famous speech every time; if that always made the best leaders, all CEOs would be salespeople. However, some people do want that inspirational leadership and I respect that. For me, it’s about track record, respecting the people who work for you and your knowledge of the issues and situations a business might face.
I’ve worked in Australia, NZ, Japan, the Middle East, Singapore, Indonesia and India as well as Guernsey and those experiences have informed me; I have learnt to contain my sometimes ‘brash’ Australian self, and working in the Middle East taught me to be more understated. I can be a bit more myself here in Guernsey and maybe I am falling into habits that I had wiped out 20 years ago, regarding how I might talk or react!
That’s why I respect people who have lived and worked in multiple places; you will
learn that flexibility when faced with different cultures and people.
Which leadership skill do you think you’ll need to draw on most in the coming year?
I will need my diplomacy skills to to work through some challenging decisions with stakeholders in multiple jurisdictions
One of my aims will be to work with and engage people who are better at this than I am, so I can learn how to be patient with certain decisions.
The telecoms industry is changing, and we need to make decisions about how we can transform; I need to make decisions as to how that transformation will look.
I certainly don’t have the answers so engaging with those around me will be key to success.
Looking back, is there anything you would handle differently?
Hindsight means that you always see how you could have done better. Certainly I can look back at 2017 and see times when my reaction could have been better, it goes back to diplomacy skills and managing discussions in a better way – I have to not overreact and, if at all possible, to let many events and issues settle before reacting.
Last year was culturally challenging for Sure: the CFO was new, the CMO was new and of course I was new to the island. Those three senior roles set the culture of an organisation – we were all new, and we’ve had to adapt.
I have not purposely set a pace regarding culture, as a leader that’s not my style; there is a wider group of people in multiple geographies who have a better ability to influence that. I am of course having an influence in terms of operating culture, and the way I work will influence the way people work.
What is the best leadership advice you have been given and by whom?
I think in business I look to inspirational sporting leaders for their approach to engaging as leaders in sport, I don’t necessarily believe that all qualities of a sporting leader translate into business though.
I admire business leaders who act out balance, those who can physically demonstrate they are more than a workaholic, functioning corporate robot. I like to see that in business. I admire very successful female leaders who have managed to bring up their children and still be successful in business. It’s not all about the job.
A few people back in Australia who I admire and examples such as the senior All Black players - they are the ones who clean up the changing room. That is a demonstration of what great business leaders are about. I don’t want people to run around after me.
Do you have a daily motto or practice that helps you to lead?
I don’t lose sleep over my job. There are plenty of other things to lose sleep over. I get competitive about business, I might get angry, but I don’t lose sleep. If I let the job get to me, the personal compromises would be more difficult.
How do you want to invest in your own leadership?
For me what I would want to do is probably get outside of my industry, spend more time with people to understand their job, how they deal with complexities, the crisis, how they get people to work for them. Our business has tremendous technical complexities, so it is hard to find industries that are the same. But in terms of dealing with a crisis, it is interesting to see how other sectors might respond.
I would also benefit from engaging with someone who has had a senior transformation experience – who has gone through and radically transformed the structure of an organisation.
I have been through a transformation from the top down, on a maths basis, rather than bottom up. We need to do that here so it would be good to understand someone’s experiences.
If you’ve enjoyed reading our interview with Ian Kelly, why not tell us what questions you’d like answered in our next interview?