In 2000 Mike Gaffney, along with co-founder Tricia Cunningham, established LEAP as a leadership development and management training consultancy. Armed with twelve years experience working at Nortel Networks he embarked on a new role as an executive coach. Over the past thirteen years he has developed substantial leadership programmes for owners of Irish and international companies. Mike’s philosophy is that leadership skills can be learned like any other skill. Here he discusses why leadership development is about developing the right habits, which ones have served him best as managing director, and the person who influenced him in his role as an executive coach.
You’re a business leader Mike. What leadership habits have helped you the most?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned in my journey is to be self-aware. It’s crucial to be aware of how you behave and keep that awareness to the forefront of your decision making, particularly in interactions with your team and with your customers.
Can you give an example of self-awareness as a business owner and leader?
I learned a valuable lesson one August a number of years ago when I came back into the office after getting some business from a new client. My team asked me ‘who is going to deliver the work?’ I said I talked to the client and I volunteered myself after having sat down with them for a couple of hours and gone through their challenges. One of the team then said to me: ‘Mike , we have a problem. You don’t trust us.’ I got on my high horse, I was annoyed at the comment. Of course I trust you! But they were right. When push came to shove I didn’t trust anyone else in the business to do as good a job as I could do. As I have since learnt: Ego is a poor Amigo.
What was the leadership lesson learned there?
As a leader, I had to stop thinking that if I don’t do it, it won’t get done properly, because that’s not leading a team. I’m just playing the role of the hero with the hundred helpers, which is unfair on the helpers, and it hugely limits the capacity of the business to grow. So that myth I was telling myself, that if I don’t do it, then it doesn’t get done properly, had to stop. Unless I found a way to leave that out and move beyond it, I could not grow LEAP as an organisation. You have to be willing to trust your team, that’s the lesson. As Harry Truman put it so eloquently: “If you don’t mind who gets the credit, you can achieve great things.”
So self-awareness plays a key role for leaders when growing a business?
It’s critical. Without it you keep making the same mistakes. Particularly if you are successful, the skillset that made you successful will need to be fine-tuned to get you to the next level. Take sport for example. What drives a team to win their first All-Ireland will not work second time around. They will need something more if they want to win back-to-back, because the same hunger won’t be there. They need to frame their challenge in a new way and they need to tap into new approaches in themselves to make that work.
The same thing applies to a business leader who wants to grow the organisation. The skills that get you to succeed initially in the start-up stage can be the same skills that hinder you as a leader. Your own drive to be successful – doing it your way -may work in the early stages, but that can hinder you in the later stage in the context of managing a team and growing the business. The challenge as a leader is to let your team be themselves identifying areas where th ey can apply their strengths, which is where their contribution can be maximised for the company. Then give them space and support.
What are the skills that you have developed that have served you best as a business leader?
For me it’s being creative. We are a consultancy service in leadership and management for businesses, so providing creative and practical solutions for our customers is a good selling point. That’s a natural flair I have that has served me well as a leader.
But I think behaviours are more important than skills and a key behaviour is persistence. In times of recession there are going to be challenges but the longer you stay in the ring the better chance you have of landing that knockout blow, and maybe more importantly you are still standing.
What trait as a business leader has served you well?
Persistence; to keep going when it looks easier to give up and it feels like you’re pushing a stone up a hill, to trust in yourself and your team and keep going and keep looking to improve.
What leaders have influenced you, who are the people you admire?
I had a very good friend who passed away last year: Tom Touhy. The two of us coached rowing in the NUI,Galway for 14 years. He was the recognised front man and rightly so. I learned from Tom how best to support the leader, and advise him and steer him (when needed) and that has stood me in good stead. I was becoming an executive coach without realising it.
Being the leader is a lonely place, having someone who can eye-ball you and call a spade a spade, is a great help. My time as a rowing coach has helped equip me with a framework to work with business owners and leaders in an unobtrusive and supportive manner. This enables them to be themselves, while having someone to question them in a constructive way regarding they’re thinking and decision making.
In interview with Des Kirby
Are you a company owner or team manager? What are the leadership traits and skills that serve you best. Leave a comment in the box below.
LEAP’s Make Leadership Happen Programme was designed by Mike and his team specifically to support company owners in growing their business and helping them get the most out of their teams. Contact us to find out how we can help you take your company to the next level.