For the first of our 2019 Executive Interviews we turned to Syed Balkhi for inspiration. A 28 year old award-winning entrepreneur with a strong 8 figure online business Syed was recognized as the top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by the United Nations. His blog is packed full of insightful ideas and his article on ‘Brilliant Questions to ask other Leaders’ poses questions that we can all learn from.

We took Syed’s questions to John Geenty, Managing Director, IQPC UK to find out more about the Leader of our thriving UK business and get the inside scoop on life at IQPC

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the journey that our business has been on since 2013. I took over in April of that year and we were the smallest business within IQPC London and having a pretty bad time. We’re now the largest business and have grown massively both in terms of profit and scale. And that’s really down to the people that I work with and years of hard work.

I like to think we run our business a little differently, with a real people first approach. If we hire well and then create an environment where they can run with their ideas and develop their skills then everything else flows from there. In a business like ours your people are your products, so you’ve got to really focus on your team first. So that turnaround and our collective story is what I’m most proud of at work.

Which one thing do you wish you’d done differently?

I wish in the early months I’d been more decisive around certain decisions in the business. I knew the road-map I wanted to follow, but could have done it faster. I don’t mean rushing things – its critical you learn a business and your people before you start making changes – but sometimes we all know what needs to be done to make things work. So if you do, do it!

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

It’s a really geeky one, but I read “The Rules Of The Game” by Andrew Gordon. It’s a book about the biggest naval battle in history during the First World War when two huge fleets clashed off the coast of Jutland with hundreds of ships and thousands of men involved. But the reason its so good is its not really about the battle – its about the cultural development of the Royal Navy and what had happened to an organization that was dominant for a hundred years but then found in its next war it had lost its edge. The attributes of taking calculated risks and seizing the initiative and opportunities had been lost in an attempt to give senior figures more and more control. They forgot what had made them great and it caused the whole organization to make key mistakes at the time of maximum stress. There are lots of lessons for us in the business world from that! Plus Hillary Clinton’s book about the 2016 US Election is fascinating! 

Who are your role models or mentors?

I’ve got three really. First and I know it’s a cliché, but my Dad. He really had a tough start to life and definitely didn’t have the opportunities that I’ve had and yet he forged a life and a career and a family from basically nothing. He finished up his career as a Chief Constable in the Police and I’m immensely proud and inspired by him. Secondly I’d say my boss Joby Turner, our Regional Managing Director. He’s been a real mentor to me throughout my career, he’s taken big risks to promote me and push me but is also always supportive and insightful and endlessly patient, he’s been a big influence. Lastly I’d say a little known NASA astronaut and test pilot named John W. Young. John Young flew in space six times, twice to the moon and walked on its surface. He flew the first Space Shuttle mission, set air/speed records and lots of other stuff. I find his thirst for new challenges and his work ethic and drive throughout his career to be an inspiration – plus he did it with a huge amount of modesty!

How do you keep your team keen and motivated?

I think the main thing is to try and create an environment where they feel they can thrive and succeed. Its important they feel both supported when things are difficult, but also challenged to constantly raise the bar. They need to feel that the organization is helping them to achieve. When we do that I find that people will always surprise you with their capacity. Its also key to make sure the business retains a human face. Sometimes the temptation is to punish success by just demanding more and more or higher and higher targets, no matter the context or history, or whether its achievable! Sometimes people need to know that you really value their efforts and their performance and not just pay lip service to it. This is a tough industry, so it needs to be at all times, fast paced, fun and realistic. 

What’s the most important factor you consider when hiring someone?

Attitude and Aptitude. I know that we can train skills and build experience, but is the hire someone who is driven and passionate and focused in the right places? I’m always interested in who the person is at their core, what do they believe in? What motivates them? Am I excited by them as a person? Its important that the hire is culturally a good fit for the business as well. We have some values within the IQPC UK business that we’ve ‘appropriated’ from the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team (the most successful sports team of all time) and one of their values is simply put, a ‘no dickheads’ policy. They believe the team comes first, it doesn’t matter if you’re really good – if you are going to erode our team and culture then its not a fit. I agree wholeheartedly with that ethos. 

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Probably towards the end of 2017 when we had a huge record year, we took the decision to promote a whole range of new managers. It would have been easy to keep things tight and just try to protect what we had, but I believe we have to grow and evolve to the next level. The eight new managers promoted have all come up from the ranks internally and they are young and hungry. They’ll make mistakes (just like I did!) and will progress at different times – it’s a risk for sure. But it’s an essential one since they represent the future of the business and they will bring the next generation after them through as well. We’re seeing this really start to pay off in 2019 results and I’m so excited to see this new group come into their own. 

What are your current goals?

I think I’ve eluded to it a bit earlier on in the interview, but we’ve come a long way. The big goal in 2019 is to make sure that we stay on this journey and keep growing the business, keep developing our people. I’ve got new managers coming through and new hires in all the teams as we expand. I want to make sure we stay a business that helps them succeed. I’d like to see us go from not just being the biggest IQPC business unit in Europe, to being one of the biggest in the world. And while doing all this make sure I’m being a good Dad to my beautiful new baby daughter!

How do you help new hires quickly “get” your businesses’ values?

The values have to be real for a start off. They can’t just be words on the wall. That means that I’ve got to live by them, my management team have to live by them and the whole business has to believe in them. If we do that, and you’ve got to keep working at culture, then when new people come into the environment it’ll just be normal to them and they’ll quickly get it.

When would you make the decision to let a difficult employee go?

After a lot of soul searching. If we’ve done a good job of recruiting someone then in most cases we owe a new hire a duty of care to support and train and develop them. The first question I ask myself and my managers is – have we done our bit? Was the training good? Do they know we aren’t happy with aspects of their performance? Have they had a chance to improve? If we haven’t done that bit we should proceed. But ultimately if the performance simply isn’t there, or the attitude is wrong then you have to make the tough call to protect everyone else and the business. But its never easy. 

And last question… how do you choose who to promote?

Carefully! A bad manager in a key position can be a killer for a business. But I guess its similar to the hiring criteria… what is the person’s motivation? Why do they want to be a manager? People who want more money or the glory are the wrong type. You need people who want to help others, to develop others and build something. Then I want to see that they can (in their own way and we are all different) lead and support people. Can they empathize with others in the business? Often you’ll see managers emerge as leaders amongst their peers long before they’re officially promoted. And finally don’t fall into the trap of just promoting your best people in a certain function into management. Management is a totally new job with different requirements, success in the previous role doesn’t equal success as a manager 

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