Deborah Meaden: respect and integrity are crucial for leaders

Deborah Meaden gave a variety of tips at MHR's HR Directors Club at Claridge's.

Deborah Meaden: respect and integrity are crucial for leaders


Everyone always hears that Deborah Meaden is hard, blunt and straight talking. That latter part may be true but it was all jokes from the get-go when she took to the stage of MHR’s annual HR Directors Club at Claridge’s. Openly admitting she is like marmite, she provided some genuinely personal insights about her experience of Dragons’ Den and the wider business world.

It was inspiring to hear her views on the necessary building blocks of leadership, and how we can all improve these skills in the workplace.

Leadership expectations are changing

Deborah started her talk discussing the changes she has noticed in leadership behaviour, where normal rules no longer seem to apply. Deborah questioned why the world has suddenly started taking people at face value, with no demonstration of their skills, just their word. The traditional leadership traits of honesty and integrity within leadership seem to have gone wrong and there are some in the current political landscape who seem to be mocking these qualities.

Luckily, it’s not all bad news. With social media and other growing technologies creating new levels of transparency, business leaders are beginning to uphold these crucial values more. They must remain honest and consistent as it’s almost impossible for secrets to remain that way for long. It’s ok for leaders to make promises, but demonstrating those promises is how businesses create trust. When it’s lost, it can be a death sentence for your career, demotivating the workforce and impacting the bottom line.

When leadership is supposed to be given, and not taken, surely it is important that those who take up the mantle are fully equipped to do so. This is particularly crucial in the workplace where an organisation’s culture can be affected by bad management and difficult environments, so it’s important to hold leaders to account. 

Avoiding stereotypes to keep leaders learning

One of the great things about Deborah’s speech was her refusal to use labels. She joked about her Google search into leadership, and the ridiculous listing of ‘types’. Deborah was keen to point out that you shouldn’t be any specific ‘type’ of leader, you should be all of them, and know when to bring each leadership style forward depending on the situation. This flexibility is a crucial tactic for great leaders to succeed and is built from developing existing character traits and skills, whilst continuing to learn new ones. 

It was great to hear someone openly state that leadership qualities are not a given or part of someone’s personality, that these traits can be learned, and should be improved over time. She pointed out some critical areas that can help people to deliver these skills and highlighted that managers should encourage everyone in their team to develop them.

This is incredibly important, and something all HR teams should encourage within their organisations, to ensure that every employee continues to develop themselves. This process will also help to improve hiring strategies for succession planning. Looking for internal talent and developing them will increase motivation too and show that your organisation is invested in your people.

Deborah’s key characteristics for great leaders

With leadership, you always think the opinion at the top is the most important one that must be listened to, but this isn’t always helpful. Deborah highlighted that in Dragon’s Den, there’s a room full of leaders, whose opinions are all based on expertise and could compete for attention, creating discord among the team. However, the show works because the Dragons share mutual respect, and have healthy competition when listening to new pitches. This comes from understanding each other and having strong communication – key traits for any leader to have and crucial for successful team work.

Other key skills Deborah highlighted include:

  • Good judgement – Good leaders will pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t. Storing this information away means that there is always experience and evidence to help inform choices further down the road. This matches the frequent cliché that mistakes should be made in order to learn from them.
  • Communication – Communication skills can always develop and improve over time. You have to keep talking to different people, paying attention to how they work and choosing your words based on how they will resonate with your audience.
  • Charisma –It’s a trait often assumed to be either part of your personality, or not. However, Deborah saw charisma as something based on feedback and energy. It’s about showing you care and are interested in the person you are talking to. This is crucial in leadership as it shows you will support your people and keep them safe, even during failure.

Many leaders and organisations simply let their personality happen, and it creates a reputation. But good businesses know who they are, and their strong leaders will define this to engage their workforce; “An organisation’s values are their brand.” Internal and external reputation should walk the same line.

How does Deborah choose who to work with?

One attendee asked Deborah how she decides to back someone. Her answer showed a lot of compassion. She said she likes investing in people who are open-minded, those who innovate and grow their business, and are willing to try new things to take their business’ future down different paths. She said no one has it all, it’s about making sure we can “get enough stuff right”.

She said: “Gut instinct comes from experience”. Communication comes from more than just a conversation; body language and facial cues can reveal a lot more and so listening to your senses is important.

Listening to Deborah, who has built a career based on her smart business sense, and often cut-throat reputation, I was a little surprised to see how deeply she cares about people, and giving those who try the chance to succeed. It’s not the side you often see on TV.

The changing faces of leadership

Good leaders cannot stand still, they must continue to develop. Deborah thought her personality and principles had been with her from an early age, and have stayed pretty much the same – she doesn’t surprise herself. However, she is constantly checking what does and doesn’t work, and one area that has improved is her delivery. One example she gave of this was that she used to come across quite forcefully. What she wanted was to discuss ideas, not scare people, and so she learned to self-police, stopping herself from going ‘rabid’ when getting passionate in conversations. Deborah admitted that she could always force people to do as she wanted, but the best and most valid results come from collaboration and buy in. She enjoys working with people who can give her what she wants, not people who tell her what she wants to hear.

Deborah said that as a leader she is constantly tweaking her approach and is always adapting to the changes in our ever-evolving world. But she isn’t structured; she simply talks to people and senses what’s going on. It is important to her that people can trust her - she means to do the right thing, and that’s what counts.

It’s a lesson we can all learn in the workplace, no matter our role, as we should all aim to do the right thing. There’s always a new skill, or new experience to try that will help us to develop and improve ourselves. That’s important, whether you aspire for a leadership role or not.

Deborah and the Dragons

Deborah entered Dragons’ Den with an attitude of trying new things. She had never done TV before, so why not? Planning on a couple of years in the spotlight, Deborah is now going into her 14th series, and is doing what she loves. Hearing her speak, I have no doubt that this confidence to try new things and see what happens has helped multiple leaders achieve their success.

So what’s so great about Dragons’ Den?

Deborah said: “How many people get to see inside thousands of businesses and people, who are putting themselves out there?”

She said that the people brave enough to present themselves in front of the Dragons, and give it a go, are her absolute inspiration. She enjoys the chance to give good people great opportunities, and praised the editors of the show for the way they can pull out the most important parts and tell people’s stories from hours of footage.

With no prior knowledge in advance, the show is about as real as it gets for representing what it’s like in business, although it only provides the highlights. What audiences don’t get to see are the 12 hours a day the Dragons share together listening to pitches – the longest one went on for more than three hours!

Her pride and passion for the show was clear, and it was great to see her enthusiasm and belief that the programme has changed the way entrepreneurship is viewed. She thought the show had taken some of the ‘stuffiness’ away from business, and made it take a more human shape. After all, “business is fun”.

In several comments made during her speech, Deborah repeated the story that hard work, and trying new things, were behaviours that should be respected and appreciated in the business world – and it’s something that we are all capable of.

Love her or hate her, that’s what makes her such a great leader.

Many organisations can learn a lesson or two about rewarding honest hard work, and valuing integrity in their workforce. When an organisation can trust its people to do their job well, engagement will soar. And when productivity is encouraged and rewarded, profits will too. Could your company culture be improved by placing more value on honesty and integrity across your organisation?

Thank you Deborah for inspiring us all to improve our skills and aspire to be great leaders.

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