Steve Cohen co-founded a small entrepreneurial business that has grown into a corporate enterprise, but he still believes that real leadership takes place in the trenches with his team.
Steve Cohen, managing director at Sage Pastel Accounting and one of the founders of the Softline Group before it rebranded to Sage, believes that true leaders should always be ‘one of the guys’.
It’s a fine line to walk, particularly because as a leader you need to have the full respect of your team, but you also need them to feel comfortable coming to you with any issues they might be facing.
“I’ve always believed that as MD, there’s a danger of my team pandering to me, telling me what I want to hear because of my title, instead of being upfront and honest. I don’t believe that type of behaviour is good for anyone, employees, leaders and businesses alike,” he says.
“It’s important to remember that as a leader, you work for your team. Let them know they can always come to you. If they have a question, answer it. Know who they are as people, and what makes them tick.
"They’re your biggest and best resource, and they know what’s happening on the ground – never lose sight of that. If they can’t come to you, honestly and openly, you’re losing a valuable opportunity to truly understand the ins and outs of your business, its employees and even what your clients think about you.”
Honesty and approachability
So how do you balance looking like a leader while still being approachable as ‘one of the boys’?
“First, I make time for my team outside of work hours. We have a bar where anyone can have a drink after work, and I’m often there. When my team sees my outside of the office, I start looking more like a ‘real’ approachable person.
"They feel more comfortable chatting to me, and I pay attention to their interests and what’s happening in their lives. They need to know that I care.”
Second, Cohen has an open door policy that’s not just lip service. He doesn’t have an office, and instead moves his desk around between departments, from sales, to R&D, to support.
“Being on the floor lets me stay in touch with all aspects of the business, and it maintains my open door policy because I don’t have a door - I’m always available.”
Finally, he believes that customer support is the MD’s job. “I get cc’ed in on every single complaint.
"It makes a big difference to our customers that top level management cares about their issues, and it allows me to see where we’re going wrong, and get involved in finding a solution. But it also lets my team see that I’m willing to be down in the trenches with them.
"No one likes dealing with unhappy clients, but I don’t pass the buck. Ultimately, I’m responsible for how well the company does, and my team knows that – and respects me for it.”
Letting bad seeds go
Of course, this doesn’t mean that employees aren’t held accountable for their own actions.
“When we launched the company, we sat in on every hire ourselves. As we grew, we couldn’t be that involved anymore, and so hiring the right managers became critically important. We hire for attitude.
"Skills can be learnt or fine-tuned, but attitude can’t. The great thing about attitude though is that it filters down. Hire the right managers, and they’ll hire for the right cultural fit as well.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone always gets it right, and this is where Cohen believes it’s the leader’s role to step in.
“I believe I’m approachable and fair, but if you let me down you’ll know it. I won’t beat around the bush. Ethics and attitude are the only career-limiting attributes in this company.
"If you consistently let me down, I’ll take you out for coffee and have an honest chat with you. I’ll be straightforward and say, ‘You know you’ve let us down and it’s affecting the team.’ 30% clean up their act, and 70% leave. I’ve found that honest conversations are the way to go.”