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Global Business Leadership: Is there a 'Welsh way'?

06 Apr, 2021

When people talk about Wales they tend to wax lyrical about our sporting prowess, especially rugby and more latterly football.  We clearly punch above our weight in other areas such as acting, music and many of the arts.  Our country is recognised as having a stunning mythical landscape with its rolling hills, mountains, valleys and extensive coastline.  Our cultural history and unique language are hugely celebrated as is our industrial history, as the cradle of the industrial revolution. 

Less understood, and rarely celebrated, is our hidden success as leaders of international businesses. Welsh business people often build their careers outside Wales as much as in Wales itself. They assimilate readily into communities all over the world and are often thought of as ‘British’ success stories, compounded by the fact that a Welsh accent can quickly soften out of necessity as I found myself having left Wales nearly 40 years ago only to return.

"A lack of ego, natural humour, humility and the warmth of the Welsh character are the foundations of Welsh leadership. We love to cwtch in our family lives and adopt the same approach to our business family."

Business success outside Wales is not surprising since Wales exports many talented people every year as they seek opportunities to achieve their dreams, pursuing experiences that are currently limited here in Wales.  One irritating trait, when successful Welsh people receive coverage in the media, is to refer to them as British, which for many interpret as English.

So where is the evidence that Welsh people make great business leaders and what are the Welsh traits that provide the basis of their success?  It appears that no academic research has been carried out into this subject although I hope that this article might encourage one of the nine Welsh based universities to do so.

"Many management tools and processes can be learned, personality, character and leadership traits are much more innate – maybe these are more prevalent in us Welsh?"

My thesis is based on the experience of seeking out our high-profile diaspora and constantly being surprised and amazed by the Welsh who are leading some of the UK’s and the world’s most successful companies.  Did you know that the CEOs of the following companies are Welsh:

  • Rolls-Royce
  • Halma
  • JoJo Maman Bébé
  • Starling Bank
  • Capita
  • Mountain Warehouse
  • Aviva
  • National Grid

And in Wales itself we have business leaders that are taking on the world such as Adrian Sutton, CEO of Vortex IoT and Wayne Preece, CEO of Hydro Industries both passionately building environmentally focussed global businesses aimed at improving air and water quality respectively.  In the Fintech space, returning diaspora Gareth Lewis, CEO of Delio, is a young business leader demonstrating global ambitions and a strong desire to help Wales become a leader in Fintech.

"In 2020, Halma plc was judged Britain’s most admired company. Halma's Welsh CEO, Andrew Williams, is one of the longest-serving and successful FTSE 100 CEO’s."

So what characteristics do we Welsh have that makes us successful business leaders?  Central to leadership is the ability to communicate with passion in a way that people can relate to.  To show genuine interest in the whole team and the roles they perform whatever their seniority and to acknowledge the importance of everyone pursuing the same goals.  A lack of ego, natural humour, humility and the warmth of the Welsh character are the foundations of Welsh leadership.  We love to cwtch in our family lives and adopt the same approach to our business family. Many management tools and processes can be learned, personality, character and leadership traits are much more innate – maybe these are more prevalent in us Welsh?

Where is the evidence for such assertions?  When Warren East became CEO of Rolls-Royce he dispensed with the CEO’s chauffeur driven car in favour of public transport.  His passion for education saw him donate to his alma mater to support the teaching of science and engineering and help Welsh students from less advantaged families. More latterly he has donated to help with Covid-19 hardship support.

JoJo Maman Bébé founder and CEO, Laura Tenison, a returning diaspora, has built her international success from the company's HQ in Newport. She has gone on the record to say that the most important things in her approach to business are longevity, her employees and customers and not necessarily maximising profits or looking to sell-out.  She has also managed to get JoJo to certified B Corporation status. B Corps are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. It would not be unusual to see Laura in the warehouse rolling up her sleeves picking and packing or any other manual task such as fixing a leaky roof (yes, she did).  

In 2020, Halma plc was judged Britain’s most admired company. Halma's Welsh CEO, Andrew Williams, is one of the longest-serving and successful FTSE 100 CEO’s. In a recent interview for Management Today, Andrew said “I may not have got a great academic education, my social education was fantastic. I’ve never been in awe of people above me, and I’ve always tried to treat people lower down the organisation with respect. That’s important – I’ve seen as many people struggle because they can’t be authentic around their boss as I have people who get ahead and then forget where they came from.”

"And in Wales itself we have business leaders that are taking on the world such as Adrian Sutton, CEO of Vortex IoT and Wayne Preece, CEO of Hydro Industries both passionately building environmentally focussed global businesses..."

In the banking industry, where the barriers to start-ups are exceptionally high, we have an amazing and evolving story of Welsh business leadership success in Anne Boden.  Anne launched Starling Bank because she wanted to offer people a fairer, smarter and more human alternative to the banks of the past. She has done something not many others have and generously shared her entrepreneurial journey and learning.  At the end of 2020, she even found the time to publish a book ‘Banking on It – How I Disrupted an Industry’.  A brave and confident style that can only inspire all around her to succeed in the most challenging, David versus Goliath, of industries.

Capita, the international business process outsourcing and professional services company, recently recruited Welshman Jonathan (Jon) Lewis in 2020, to transform the company.  His management style is unashamedly and progressively inclusive. For example, Capita is the only FTSE company to have two employee directors on the board.  To quote Jon: “It wasn’t a gimmick – it was just the right thing for Capita to do. It means we have a 34-year-old millennial in our midst who provides us with insight that I guarantee we would not have gained without that individual on the board.”

So, while my thesis is not an academic study it does strongly indicate we are onto something that could form the basis of an interesting academic research project, which GlobalWelsh would be keen to  collaborate on.

If any Welsh university would like to explore doing something on this please get in touch.

Walter May, founder & CEO GlobalWelsh at walter@globalwelsh.com

Ymunwch â GlobalWelsh

Dewch yn rhan o dyfiant rhwydwaith ar-lein o bobl Gymeig sy’n cydweithio ar gyfer y gorau i Gymru gan gefnogi eraill, archwilio cyfleoedd busnes a rhannu gwybodaeth.

Ymunwch â GlobalWelsh

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