Lessons in Leadership: Kevin Gaskell, CEO of Four World-Class Brands
A key focus of our Scale Philosophy & mentoring programs is Leadership, and never has it been so vital than right now during these unsettling times. Leadership doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so here’s some useful insight and advice from one of the most capable leaders of his generation – Kevin Gaskell.
At the tender age of 32, Kevin was trusted with the crisis command of Porsche GB, where his team rebuilt the brand and turned a business close to bankruptcy into the UK’s most profitable car business. During this period the company bought and revitalised Lamborghini GB Limited and reorganised and remodelled the AFN motor retail group.
Five years later, Kevin accepted the role as Group CEO of BMW GB Limited where he led the repositioning of the BMW brand and four years of record growth. He left BMW to follow his vision of remodelling the automotive sector by the establishment of CarsDirect.com, one of the first generation of online retailers of new cars.
Working in the automotive industry, our paths crossed many times, and eventually Jacki and I worked with Kevin during our time at EurotaxGlass’s. I was impressed with his proven record, common-sense approach and business acumen. But the #1 lesson I learned from Kevin was his natural ability to lead and this came down to his passion and determination in whatever he put his mind to.
Whilst globally steering the helm, responsible for 650 employees operating in 30 countries, he still had time to walk both the North and South Poles and has since conquered the world’s highest mountains! He recently joined The Ocean5 taking on one of the world’s greatest physical challenges, rowing unaided for 3000 miles across the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.
He obviously still enjoys a challenge. So, over to Kevin…
Q1. If you were setting up a business now, what would you do first?
Today I tend to invest in other leaders and their companies. I help them to get going, I provide them with coaching along the journey as well as access to funding. Whether I am the leader or not, the principles haven’t changed. The first thing I see is the killer idea but more importantly I look for the leader who is going to manage the business and take the idea to market. I tend to look for business ideas which are easy to understand. If I can understand it then the market can understand it. We don’t need to be the first to market (a good number 2 is often a safer place to be) but we need to be the best at what we do. It is the leader who will make that happen.
Q2. Once you’ve done this, how would you align that? What sort of things would you do?
We build a 1,000 day plan – it is a simple plan but it gives us a Vision of Success and defines the key aspects of the business which we will work on to get there. In my experience, we can build a successful business in 1,000 days. The plan allows us to set priorities and to ensure the whole team are aligned on what we are setting out to achieve. We focus on the main themes: people, operations, product, marketing, finance, etc and we prioritise ruthlessly. Speed is critical – we need to get to market and start to generate income.
Q3. On the journey, how would you measure success?
We set objectives for each stage of the journey. Build the team. Create the product. Get to market. Win first clients. Control the finances. Each of these stages has its own measure of success. But we ensure we stay flexible and adaptable. We will learn so much during the early phases. We need to incorporate that learning and so the targets will adapt as the business develops. We keep our costs as low as possible – no fancy offices, chairs, desks, or such. Cashflow is king at this stage. We invest only in what we need to get the business going. The fancy stuff can all come later. We celebrate every single win and share it with the entire team.
Q4. How do you create an environment for lessons learned?
This is why I look so long and so hard before I back a leader. They must be able to create an environment where the team can speak openly, where we can challenge each other and where we can be ambitious for the company and its goals. We use some tools in the businesses which are designed to record ideas and suggestions – I firmly believe that everybody is at least 5% genius. If we can align 20 of those 5%’s towards the same Vision of Success then we have a complete genius. My job is not to be a genius but to be a genius creator.
Q5. How would you remove yourself from the day-to-day / operational side of the business?
This is always challenging. I do it by setting the agenda at formal management and board meetings to focus on the higher level strategy and business development. I believe in hiring the smartest people I can find and then letting them do their job. We make it very normal for the team to ask for help but they don’t need me or others looking over their shoulders. My teams are far better at what they do than I am so I have learned that the business achieves more if I stay out of the way.
Q6. Our recent topic was Leadership; what’s your best piece of advice for this?
I am frequently asked this question and recently wrote a book titled Inspired Leadership. I have included in that book much that I have learnt over 25 years of being a CEO or Chairman of growing businesses. My biggest lessons have come from my belief and application of the following principles: dare to dream; clarity of objective is critical; most limitations are self-imposed; move fast, make mistakes fast, learn fast; success is only temporary, keep moving. If you can create a culture where the team share and apply those beliefs you will build an outstanding company.