Julian Woodman talks with Keith Jackson, CEO of Brandon Medical about leadership principles learned during his career.

Tell us about your early career?

“I began my career as a design engineer at Jaguar Cars in Coventry, sponsored through my mechanical engineering degree at Leeds University. I was designing chassis components and worked my way through the management training programme. I was seconded to various departments across the business and learned a great deal.”

What came next?

“At Leeds University there is a lot of expertise and research in the medical field and my final year thesis was on artificial knee ligaments. In the late eighties, there was a lot of consolidation in the motor industry and I decided there were more interesting and greater opportunities in medical engineering. This was something that I felt an attraction to, having a strong sense of purpose.

After a year in East Africa, travelling and getting involved in some voluntary work, I came back to the UK to take up a Masters degree in Bio-Engineering at Aberdeen University. It equipped me to get my first job in the medical arena, which was in sales.”

Tell us about that?

“I was selling medical devices. I was quite excited about getting my company car, which was my first ever car, but then was less excited when the reality kicked in of driving a thousand miles a week. I was covering existing accounts but also generated new ones, providing support and advice in the operating theatre with the surgeon and the clinical team to help them use the products effectively.

I was successful, building credibility and relationships of trust, both of which are key in business.

One thing I learned from this experience, which I’ve carried through my career, is to always get close to the customer. Spend regular time with customers in their environment. Whether you’re designing products or creating marketing activities, really know your customer.”

Did anyone act as a kind of mentor to you in your early career?

“Early in my career, I relied upon my line managers, but what I’ve learned, is to actively look for mentors outside of my business. This way you learn different things.

When I took my first MD role, I deliberately looked for an executive coach to help me with the transition. We have been fortunate that the relationship has been two-way, learning from each other.”

Over your career you’ve accomplished much, but are there any particular highlights?

“Quite early in my career I set a strategic challenge for myself. The business was very dependent upon one supplier in Switzerland for a key process, which was not sustainable. My challenge to the MD was “Why don’t we try and bring that knowledge in-house?” His response was (because he was an ex-Brigadier), “Yes, Jackson, go and find a way.” My immediate thought was, “ What have I done?”

Following discussions with the supplier I realised that they were looking at other ways of developing revenue streams and one of them was to license their know-how and technology. I managed to get in at the right moment to negotiate all the equipment plus the know-how to get it up and running in Sheffield. It was very advanced technology, the only type of its kind in the UK and was opened by HRH Princess Anne. It was a memorable milestone in my career and put the company on a much more solid footing.

A few years later, I recognised that the company had outgrown its tired rented premises, so the strategic move was to build our own premises, a modern 5,800m2 facility on a brownfield site. Again, relatively young in my career, the challenge was to go and make that happen. I became project manager. This is the world of SMEs; you get extra hats, not extra heads!

I led this to fruition. This was delivered on time, on budget, with no back orders, no upset customers and no departing employees. This took a huge amount of effort and coordinated teamwork, but was extremely rewarding.

My third highlight was going on a journey to develop business in China. Starting from thinking about whether we could source some key components in China, to flipping that around and working out how to realise the huge market opportunity.

I was able to establish and carefully nurture a business partnership over the best part of five years. Ultimately, the Chinese partner acquired the business, which was a good result for the shareholders and brought much needed investment into the company.”

Just as there have been highlights, what has perhaps been the biggest challenge?

“The single biggest ‘disused mineshaft’ that I stepped into was within a month of starting in my first MD role.

It was a combination of the business suffering rising debt, having maxed-out the overdraft facility and a contractual dispute with a key partner that had become very emotionally charged. Sorting these two major issues was going to cost an inordinate amount of management time to try and resolve.

The most acute issue was to resolve the multi-million pound contractual dispute. We quickly arranged mediation and approached this in a very pragmatic way. I managed to negotiate an amicable agreement to part company, avoiding the significant time and expense of the courts.

Then I focused the senior team on turning around our financial predicament. We embarked on a campaign of cost reduction and continuous improvement across the whole business, involving all the employees. This generated hundreds of initiatives releasing millions of pounds worth of savings back into the P&L. From half a million cash negative we achieved four million cash positive in just 18 months.

The whole experience was very much about strong leadership and getting others to buy into the objectives. It’s all about context too, so part of that equation is – have you got the buy-in from shareholders? Sometimes this can be more difficult than it needs to be.”

Apart from the communication, were there any particular lessons you learned when you were tackling those twin challenges?

“There are only 168 hours in the week, it’s what you do with them that’s important. It’s about prioritisation, agile decision-making and setting realistic goals, otherwise people can get demoralised,

For several years now, I’ve lived by the mantra, ‘vital few goals’.

Whatever your strategy for success might be, it needs to be broken down into bite-sized chunks. The vital few goals should cascade for the senior leadership team, for each department and for individuals, making sure they are all aligned towards achieving the same compelling vision.”

How would you describe your own leadership style?

“I think my most important job as leader is to develop the culture and other leaders, right across the organisation.

It’s about encouraging, supporting and stretching the people around us, so they become ever more capable. The principles of continuous improvement apply to ourselves, not just to the business and we’re not going to do that, if we continue to do the same things. For example, giving people the opportunity to experience other parts of the business and in particular to experience things outside the business, whether that’s contact time with customers, spending time with our sales people, assisting with troubleshooting or visiting key suppliers.

Also I believe in visiting other beacon businesses. If you observe your competitors, all you’ll do is, at best, be slightly better than them. The real learning comes from exemplar businesses that are doing something completely different, in a different sector, because that’s where you’ll find a wealth of new ideas.

My leadership approach is inclusive and about distributed leadership. We need a number of capable leaders at all levels in the organisation, who are taking the lead; taking the initiative; taking the ownership. If we grow the people, we grow the business.”

Is there any advice that was given to you in the early days that you’ve carried through your career?

“There’s a quote I came across in my early twenties: “The better is the enemy of the good.” That is something that has been a thread through all the things I’ve tried to do whether it’s in my personal or business life. Whatever you have, it can always be improved.

The minute that we start to talk about something being “good enough”, well it isn’t, because the world keeps changing, competitors keep changing, the market keeps advancing and the pace of that progress just seems to get faster and faster.”

When it comes to recruiting people, have you looked for particular attributes?

“There are some obvious benefits of having someone who understands your industry sector, and your product. However, my most transformational appointees have been people who don’t, because they bring different perspectives, knowledge, ideas and ways of working. This diversity of thinking and approach really helps to fuel innovation and for a business to advance quickly.

I look for that personal energy, that constructive challenge, even at interview – “Why are you doing that? What’s the plan?”

Also I would look for a holistic view; someone who gets the point that it is all about customers. Without customers, none of us get paid. So we really need people who have insight about the customer experience – it’s so important.

Ultimately it’s about attitude. You can train for skills, you can enrich peoples’ capability by exposing them to different experiences, but I think everything comes back to a can-do attitude.”

You’re involved in the Institute of Directors, both in Yorkshire and nationally, what can the IoD offer businesses today?

“Two principal things. Helping directors to be better leaders, as it doesn’t matter how much experience you’ve got, there are always things that you don’t know and you can always be a better leader.

The other important aspect is to connect leaders, which supports organisational learning; learning from outside what your company is doing and meeting other business leaders who have similar but often different challenges.

I think those are the two strongest aspects of the work the IoD does – opportunities for both formal and informal learning and opportunities to connect with other leaders. These have been the rationale behind why I’ve been a member since I first became a director.”

So Keith, what’s next?

“I’ve spent most of my career in SMEs and I enjoy this environment, because it is collaborative, agile and I can make a very tangible impact. I think you develop more personal connections in a small to medium-sized business. I am fortunate to be leading Brandon Medical, a very innovative medical technology business, at a very exciting time. We have ambitious plans, which we will achieve with our capable and dedicated team.

Building on a lot of international business development experience that I’ve gained, particularly in the Far East, I’d like to utilise that and my cultural fluency to do much more. I’ve developed cross-functional teams, built and commissioned facilities, developed product portfolios and established new markets. I’d like to do more internationally, the UK is a small island.”