Growing as a business leader

03 May 2022

Executive MBA participant, Francina Stobart, shares how she has tackled imposter syndrome, leadership and confrontation as her promotional products business grew rapidly. 

In 2003 I founded my own promotional products business with a friend. Initially, the business was intended to be a small part-time and home-based operation to fit in with our young families as we had both been made redundant from our jobs during pregnancy. Flexible working was not an option at the time and neither of us wanted to return to the office full-time. However, despite our modest plans, the business quickly grew into a thriving full-time operation requiring an office-based team. Sixteen years later, having reached a turnover of £2 million, nurtured a dedicated team of fifteen, and built up a loyal client list including organisations such as Facebook, Microsoft, and the BBC, we were acquired by a large US distributor.

Growing the company was an incredible journey, start-ups can be extremely unpredictable at times. I absolutely loved running the business, but I was not at all prepared for the sudden and unexpected growth. We had not planned to be leaders of a business this size and it felt like a runaway train at times, we had no experience and no time to seek advice and learn elsewhere. We felt as if we had little choice but to make it up as we went along and learn from our mistakes, which at times must have been tough for our team. 

A successful team needs many different attributes and my partner, and I are both quite creative and at times chaotic. I encountered imposter syndrome in my dealings with those team members who had greater skill and knowledge in their focus area than I.

As a natural people-pleaser that avoided confrontation at all costs, initially, I found it very difficult to communicate with total honesty and be authentic when problems arose within the team. I spent hours agonising about how to bring up feedback that could be perceived to be negative or address problems that could be controversial without causing any upset. Partly because I am sensitive to the feelings of others and partly due to a lack of confidence in my own opinions.

As a business leader, I felt that I needed to set an example and be good at every part of our business to lead the team effectively, and inevitably that’s impossible. It was overwhelming at times to come into our Monday morning staff meetings and be confronted with a host of expectant faces, having the responsibility to make all the right decisions and give the impression that everything was carefully considered and planned. In reality, change occurs at such a fast pace in a small business that quick decisions must be made all the time and they often have a huge and unavoidable impact on the team.

Over time I became more aware of the areas that I struggled with and focussed on my strengths, acknowledging the role that they had in our success. I found it easier to be open and honest when I needed help and to set goals for others with different skillsets than my own, knowing that I may not have the same ability.

The best lesson that I have learnt from the business was that to be authentic and inspire trust and loyalty in your team you must be direct and communicate openly and honestly even when it feels uncomfortable. If you find yourself talking about someone within your business, always ask yourself why you are not talking directly to them.

If you are not used to this kind of open communication, it can be excruciating at first and can often give the impression that the problem is much worse than it actually is. However, the more often you practice, the easier and more natural it becomes and as a result, you earn tremendous trust and respect from your colleagues.

My advice would be to welcome those uncomfortable moments and actively seek out opportunities to tackle them head-on, the confidence that can be gained from knowing that you survived and usually improved the situation is invaluable.

Find out more about the Executive MBA programme here

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