Tony Danker is Chief Executive of the Be The Business, a new business-led organisation created to close the UK’s productivity gap. Be The Business was set up in 2017 by the Productivity Leadership Group – a group of senior business leaders chaired by Sir Charlie Mayfield. Tony was previously the Chief Strategy Officer at Guardian News & Media (GNM), where he had responsibility for the Guardian’s strategy, business development and analytics functions. Prior to this role he was International Director, responsible for GNM’s international expansion. Before joining GNM, Tony spent two years in public policy and was a Special Adviser in HM Treasury. He previously spent 10 years at McKinsey & Company, with expertise in government and organisational consulting. In 2004 he completed the mid-career Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Tell me how you define a successful leader.
I think it’s a two-card trick. First, you should develop a strong vision of where the organisation is headed; articulate it in a way that makes it clear to people and inspires them; and then draw on your team to find the smartest ways to get there.
My current role requires me to take a lot of people with me into unknown territory! We are trying to build a movement of British businesses to improve our productivity and competitiveness as a country. And that also means trying to build a central organisation of 20 staff to drive that movement.
So there’s a clear north star but a million ways to get there.
I’m trying to unpack for everyone what this could look like and set out a course: what we mean by company productivity and competitiveness; what success would look like in terms of numbers of businesses achieving stated financial goals; what we mean when we say “movement” – what would that look like. I’ve got to say enough to inspire people yet also bound what we’re doing to make it achievable. Then I’ve got to look to them to develop plans and projects to get us there.
The second part is to constantly develop your team as leaders as you do this work. That’s a daily task not just for year-end reviews. It means repeatedly asking them to explore solutions with me, using me more as a coach rather than a boss who gives direction. I try very hard to resist the temptation to give answers – but that can be really hard when you have very strong instincts. Being able to do both of these leadership tasks simultaneously and seamlessly is the hardest thing.
In terms of career impact and retirement I hope the work I do with teams I lead makes a difference to the country’s shared prosperity and I hope I’m remembered by those I’ve worked with as someone who really accelerated their development as leaders.
When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?
Whenever I played “individual contributor” roles, the leadership impact was visible through my ideas or my language being adopted by others. But when I played team leadership roles, I realised the impact came from the people in my team having a bigger impact because of my coaching. That was an exhilarating thing to see – it still is – and it’s even more exhilarating because only you see it.
I always get a kick when one of my team works through a presentation with me that they have to take others through to engage them in our work. Walking past them in the office delivering it and getting others excited is brilliant. Then when they come back to propose changes to our approach, based on learning what works and what doesn’t, is even better. Meeting other people in the organisation who play back what we’re trying to do because they’d been taken through it by one of my team is another great proof point. Hearing senior colleagues enthuse about ideas they’d heard from my team is the best feeling of all. It tells you your leadership is shared.
Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.
It’s the people who worked for me who took greater risks and therefore greater strides to be the best they can be. I remember the people as much if not more than the projects. And of course, they are intrinsically linked – every “big achievement” story I remember from my career comprises stories of members of the team stretching to be the best they could be. I remember seconding a team member to the other side of the world to be our person on the ground, launching a new market business. They were anxious about having to step up to a leadership role, interact well with new colleagues and adapt to living in a new country, all at the same time. The start was really hard: lots of late night calls and pep talks; lots of judgment calls on whether to intervene to help them or let them fight alone. But the launch was a total success. They came home having had a really difficult experience but one where they really learnt a tonne and their whole leadership capacity was transformed. When they had to repeat the experience, they did so with gusto.
Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?
The thing I always find most challenging is judging when it’s right to lead the way because you think you know best versus resisting that temptation and allowing others to lead even if you fear their approach won’t be as good.
When I worked in media it was about my vision of a partnership deal; in my current job it might be which marketing message I think we should lead with in our campaign.
I’m still not sure I have this right – but I’m trying to change my default position i.e. to begin with the assumption that one of your team can drive a better answer and intervene only when you are completely sure and can convince them to share your approach and lead it together. But to be honest, this is hard!
Who have been your greatest mentors? Were they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth?
There are many mentors and I think a great leadership apprenticeship is to have many teachers. You can learn something from them all. I frequently today reflect on how some of the actions I take in leadership are drawing on previous leaders I worked for. My current chair – Sir Charlie Mayfield, John Lewis Chairman – inspires me in terms of his consistency, his ethics and his strong ethos. My previous CEO – David Pemsel, Guardian Media Group CEO – inspires me in terms of setting high expectations for the organisation and for my direct reports.
A recent coaching experience helped me considerably: my coach encouraged me to not try and lead in an inauthentic way to fit an objective vision of the role. He encouraged me to embrace the biases of my own style but not to rely complacently on that. He urged me to be a better version of myself by complementing my authentic style with some of the specific attributes the role required that I needed to work on.
Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person?
Yes, but I try not to think about it in those terms any more. I think there is a successful formula: to both set very high expectations of the people who work for you but in parallel to then enable people to meet them. Doing the first and not the second is ruthlessness that doesn’t get sustainable results; doing the second only gives everyone a warm glow but doesn’t benefit the business nor the development of your team. “Stretch” is good because meeting it is so fulfilling and developing.
I made sure they engaged the whole leadership of the business to share ownership of the target and support them to get there. I helped them recognise that the more heroic they tried to be, the less successful it would make them, and the more it would expose both them and the company to failure.
Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?
In short, I pause and trigger the inner pep talk! I have only once “lost it” with colleagues. After lots of prep for a very difficult meeting, they messed up the logistics which impacted the dynamics in a way we’d been trying to avoid. I was so angry that the small things which I didn’t even presume to check could have undone us.
I raised my voice for the first time ever in the debrief. This is something I never do so they were pretty stunned. In a brilliantly British moment, I marched out saying I needed a cup of tea to calm me down.
We really laugh about it – now.
At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?
I’m an extrovert and therefore the motivators are always the people around me. I start wandering the office to reconnect with folks I haven’t talked to in a while or I launch spontaneous expeditions for coffee or chocolate! It drives some of my team mad I’m sure. But really what I’m doing is seeking energy from my team. And in general, I always find they over deliver and surprise you when you’re feeling low or need a fresh take.
What are your top three book titles that were most impactful for your leadership development?
Dan Pink’s “Drive” really appealed to me. Dan articulates how people today want autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work. Pay people well for sure – but that’s the stuff that makes for great workplaces. But most of my learning comes from coaches, courses, and applied learning. I’m not a big reader of management books anymore.
Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.
In my new role I am the CEO for the first time in my career. I’ve hired someone to do our strategy for us, even though that’s always been my expertise. They’ve really taken it into places I never would have gone yet respected my overall vision and strong instincts in certain areas. It’s also engaged them in developing new ideas for the organisation which I’ve now asked them to lead on.
I always delegate technical or expert tasks to the best person. That’s the straightforward bit and the bit that allows people you have hired to achieve “mastery” in their field.
The more interesting opportunity is to delegate something that you are the best at and sits at the heart of your leadership.
Here, I try to ask someone in the team to lead it, obviously with my oversight. It’s a great leadership and development opportunity for them and allows them to better understand your vision and approach. Plus, in my experience, all answers get better when there’s a few heads working on it.
Team building has become a buzzword in the corporate world, yet many still do not see the value in applying it to their group or organisation. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?
I think it’s very important to develop a shared assessment of where the business/organisation is. Dedicating real time to let a team talk through in a relaxed way their hopes and fears around what you’re trying to achieve just creates understanding and trust. Acknowledging everyone’s different angles and concerns – even if you don’t share them – further enhances trust. In my last role, we had a small subcommittee of the Exec team, work together intensely for 5 months to consider where the organisation’s main challenges were and what that meant for our strategy. There were some real common points of alignment but also some very different biases and worries. We managed to build a very aligned view together but for the two years after, always remembered each other’s particular concerns. And the debates kept going to solve them. That was a brilliant team dynamic.
The old mantra – forming, storming, norming, performing – is right. Teams are only high performing if they do the hard stuff together.
So, build enough trust and reveal enough about different styles (MBTI or other) so that people can knowingly go through the phases together, confident it’s for the best, even when it’s tough.
When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?
We’re a small company with 20 employees and a management team of 5. We do a 90-minute Monday morning management team meeting followed by a quick all-staff stand up for the week ahead. We then all do a “lunch and learn” together on a Wednesday which allows us to learn together as well as just work together. Finally, I do half hour bilaterals with my management team on a Wednesday to quickly help unblock and tackle what’s coming up.
How do you decide to be available to your team? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?
I rely heavily on my PA, but I also give very clear direction to my team about when and how to get the best response from me! The sooner you are clear about that the better for everyone.
How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team? Is there a chance you could attempt this one? A lot of people have asked this question in one form or another.
Obviously, transparency of information is a good thing.
But the truth is that sometimes leadership need to withhold some information. What I think teams want much more is transparency around conflict or uncertainty.
I always try and update my teams about the difficult stuff so there are no elephants in the room. I will tell them that we are working through some tough issues, there are different points of view, and that in a specific timeframe we will make a decision. Everyone knows that’s the reality so pretending there aren’t hard questions or conflicts is what really engenders a feeling of no transparency. You can share a tonne of data and have no meaningful transparency.
How do you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing?
I have always found that you have to give recruiters a very colourful feel for what you are looking for yet be honest about your own inner biases about how you react to candidates. This allows the recruiter to source good fit candidates but also to challenge you to consider alternatives and ways in which to make them work. Recruiters need to get inside your head.
How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?
In the past, I missed what was happening until it escalated. Now I anticipate it better. It’s about understanding stress levels and whether those levels are appropriate. Your team will handle stress in very different ways, and some have a real determination not to show it. I think it’s important to have an open and explicit conversation with people about how they’re feeling, what they’re enjoying and what’s frustrating them. This will usually throw up some clues.