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Real leadership requires courageous decisions

Square One Law interviews their client, Bill McGawley, chairman of the TDR Group as the company moves into its new, totally-bespoke training headquarters at Quorum Business Park.

It is well publicised that there is a skills shortage in the North East, but without investment what will the shortage look like in the years ahead,  if business leaders don’t start developing their workforce  today?

Bill McGawley explains:

“Long-term people development is analogous to a pipeline, with inexperienced youth at one end, mature expert elders at the other and those with varying levels of competence in the middle. Currently, that pipe is full at each end but relatively sparse in the middle – hence the skills gap.  We urgently need to kick-start the process. If you look at a good welder working today, she will probably have 15 years’ experience under her belt.  We need to be training young people now. The people pipeline needs to start in schools and colleges, showing young people the benefits and opportunities of working particularly in STEM industries (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing). The “just-in-time” delivery model , embraced universally by business, works in most production scenarios. It does NOT work with people development though. The 38 year old competent employee is only available now because he entered training 18 years ago!”

“Our society has changed. When I was young you finished school or university and went into a job. There were large organisations such as, the National Coal Board, British Steel, BT, Ministry of Defence, Central Electricity Board (CEGB), British Leyland, British Rail – all supported by a large manufacturing base. Apprenticeships were the usual route and these helped young people understand the basics and underpinned their knowledge. There was a strong work ethic, people were diligent and these large organisations gave opportunities for people to develop skills, careers and social cohesion. Most people migrated seamlessly from education into work. However, all of that has now changed.”

Bill is a Chartered Graduate Engineer and Fellow of The Institution of Engineering Technology (FIET) and has over twenty years’ experience in profit-responsible roles for both UK and overseas markets. He was awarded an OBE in 2010 for “Services to business and skills” and has an excellent track record in both SME’s and large organisations engaged in the power generation, fluid control, aerospace, defence and transport sectors. He joined TDR in 2001 and is currently chairman of the TDR Group.

TDR is an independent, business and market-led charitable trust holding company with subsidaries that deliver people solutions at all levels and for all ages. Operating primarily in the science-based sectors, the deliverables range from apprenticeships to management disciplines embracing operations, safety, lean, marketing, sales, customer care & specific bespoke requirements. The charity works in schools to develop a seed-corn pool of young people ready to undertake STEM-based careers.

Bill continues: “Embracing training is crucial and we need leaders who take a longer term perspective. Although there is now evidence of a recovery, we are not seeing an impact on productivity. This is due to years of short-term decision making, an uncertainty of what is happening in the marketplace, last minute procurement decisions along with the patching-up of inadequate assets. This scenario impedes productivity growth. We must take a longer term view and invest to produce more, better, quicker and low-cost deliverables and to supply promptly as orders come in. The whole system has become unbalanced and growth in companies will only happen if they are able to invest and recruit people with the right skillset. We must empower and strengthen our organisations from the bottom up. You only have to look at the hardworking culture and skills approach in India to see where the benchmark is set.”

Bill’s approach to leadership is simple.

“It’s about assembling a squad of good people together, developing them,  giving them an implicit brief and then getting out of the way to let them deliver – just keep an eye from a distance so you can guide, mentor and provide occasional interventions.

He believes too many people in leadership positions don’t let their teams perform and interfere too much. This may be because they have had inadequate training themselves to do the role.

Bill said: “A leader has to be able to see the bigger picture, have joined up thinking and plan for the longer term. However, a leader must understand their market totally. You need a national, even international picture, not just a local overview. Our region at times can be too introverted.”

Bill believes that leadership embraces 4 key values:

  1. There is always a lot of hype about growth, but a leader should be PRUDENT and not become over ambitious or let their egos run ahead.
  2. RESTRAINT – leaders need to know restraint. You can stretch one bridge too far and this lack of restraint was seen in the recent financial crisis.
  3. MORALS and ethics – so important in leadership. There are so many recent examples of the wrong behaviour in senior management – and what does this say to the younger generation?
  4. COURAGE – an ability to make courageous decisions is crucial. Many leaders crave popularity and are risk-averse . But you need to make the right decision for the business, which may be unpopular and challenging in the short term – and that takes courage. Expedient short-term decisions often generate terminal long-term outcomes.

Originally from Rugby, Bill did a “sandwich course” degree, where you alternate six months in college with six months in industry. Prior to becoming a Chartered Engineer, his first job was as an apprentice at GEC Large Machines Ltd. He worked his way up the company and was mentored by some great people over a 17 year period. He then moved on to two more manufacturing companies in the Midlands, first as a Manufacturing Manager, then as Operations’ Director until he was recruited by Vickers in 1989. This meant moving his family to the North East where he became Divisional Operations Director for Newcastle and Leeds. Six years later he was promoted  to Managing Director of Vickers Bridging Limited based in Wolverhampton, but as the whole family were settled in the North East, Bill decided he would commute each week to the Midlands.

He said, “In the early nineties, many loose conglomerates began to unwind.  Several Vickers’ divisions experienced reductions in demand and cuts were made across the group. Although the Wolverhampton division was the most profitable in the group, I unexpectedly found myself brown boxed and shown the door.  Nothing can prepare you for those situations. Losing your job can really hit your confidence, but by reflecting on and applying my 4 leadership values, I was able to stay focussed and move on.”

Bill was soon appointed Managing Director of the European Division of an American manufacturing group.

“Although I had the management skills to run the company, it was soon obvious that the parent company had not done good market research. Although I was back in a well-paid management job, I quickly realised it wasn’t the right career move for me.

“A year later the position of Chief Executive of NDI was advertised and it was an opportunity to work back in the North East, even though it would mean taking a large cut in salary. It meant I could go back to a market sector I was highly qualified in and most importantly to live at home again with my family.”

Bill joined NDI in 2000, One North East was promoting the formation of supply clusters and, because of his expertise in the industry and extensive network of contacts he increased the Defence cluster from 40 companies to 100 inside a year.

Bill continues: “I was really enjoying working at NDI when I got a call from Ron Dodd, then Chairman of British Engines Ltd and a founding director of TDR. Ron, an engineer all his life explained the vision he had to grow a sustainable learning and training company that developed regional skills. He wanted a leader who understood the engineering and manufacturing marketplace. It felt like fate, so I took on the role at TDR and 12 years later I’m still navigating the TDR ship.”

To fully understand the marketplace, Bill spends much of his time out of the office in companies, at national and international industry conferences and exhibitions and sector events – morning, noon and night.

”We need to keep abreast of where the industry is going and by networking and making good contacts you gain an understanding of the market. By attending Farnborough Air Show – with exhibitors in the aerospace industry from all around the world, I can gain intelligence from a wide range of people in the sector.  Recently I spent two days with the Director of Development at Embry-Riddle in Florida, the best aviation university in the world, where they have their own airfield and 35 planes to train their students. I have also undertaken a one-man trade mission to Bangalore, India researching their learning marketplace .”

Bill is well-networked due to his roles with the Chamber, IoD and additional activities at regional and national level, together with other Non-Executive Director roles.

“Leaders need to invest time understanding their markets and visualising future opportunities. Economic growth only comes from 4 areas:- consumer spend, exports, investment and government expenditure.  By fully understanding market appetite, potential investment from those categories can be anticipated.

“We need to see leaders taking more courageous actions. At TDR we’ve made the brave decision to invest our own funds in our new 40,000sqft learning village at Quorum Business Park. This acquisition has enabled us to achieve one of our long-term strategic objectives of owning our own comprehensive,  purpose-designed facility. The fact that we have not used any public funding, reinforces our independence and makes us virtually unique in this region, where spending other people’s money is often the prime driver for apparent (and often unsustainable)  growth.

“The property is aspirational for the students and is large enough to mean all the company’s training and development programmes will be delivered from one site where we have conference facilities, smaller teaching rooms and laboratories where the students use machinery and learn the basics which will underpin their knowledge before going into apprenticeships.

“The acquisition process was a complex transaction and we assembled a really great team of professional advisers. For legal advice we chose Square One Law, as I have enjoyed a long term working relationship with Ian Gilthorpe. We knew they would deliver exceptional service. Barney Frith, their property partner showed a great understanding of our business in the forensic way he patiently handled the acquisition process.

“TDR is an “actions speak louder than words” company and we only work with like-minded organisations.”

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