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16 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:57am

You don’t know which skills your employees need – but they do

Since Will Butler-Adams OBE joined Brompton Bicycle in 2002, the company’s turnover has increased by an astonishing 17 times. What was once a niche product has become a popular status symbol, selling 50,000 bikes in a year with 80% being exported. Butler-Adams, who trained as an engineer, says an open-handed approach to skills is key to Brompton’s success

By Will Butler-Adams

First principles

There’s a weird cultural convention within business that if you’re the boss, you tell people what to do. I’m not sure I agree. If you’re the boss, and you need to grow your business as we’ve done with Brompton, you need skills that you don’t yourself have. So, for example, you need someone who is very good at marketing, and someone who’s an expert at 3D design. So, you’re recruiting people who have skills that you don’t have, and then the day that they arrive, you start telling them what to do; that seems bonkers to me. because you don’t know what it is they’re going to do. What you need to do is tell them what you want to achieve, and them leave them, give them the tools and the resources they need and leave them to deliver. That’s how we’ve succeeded at Brompton, and this applies to everyone in the company: employ people who are better than you, and allow them to do their job.

That’s the starting point, but it’s very important. If you have that approach, your employees tell you what they need to do their jobs. And inevitably, one of the main things they’ll need is to acquire more skills. If you have a culture where you’re delegating, where you encourage people to take responsibility, then personal and professional development become so much easier. You’re not deciding that you’re going to send everybody on a management training course – you’re giving them the skills they actually need. And the interesting thing is, you’ve got to trust them on that. There will be skills they need which will be good for you, and there will be skills that will be good for them, for their career development – and you shouldn’t shy away from that. Too many companies get caught up in the idea that if you’re in the same sector, you’re competing. In fact, if you stand back and acknowledge that we’re in a globalised economy. Yes, people do tend to move around within their sector, but anyone that works for you is probably not going to emigrate outside the UK. So if you train somebody and give them skills, it benefits everybody in the area; it’s not about you versus the factory next door, it’s about the UK competing with the rest of the world.

Open-source expertise

In the past, we had formal training sessions where people came in, they spent a day training everybody, there was a ridiculously easy test and at the end of the day everyone got some sort of qualification. To be honest, it didn’t do much for us. What we’ve found to be truly effective is to say, let’s go and visit Herman Miller chairs, or Triumph, or Charles Tyrwhitt, the shirtmakers. You might ask what shirts have to do with Brompton: Charles Tywhitt is a £140m business selling shirts, all distributed from one hub in the UK to places all over the world. The logistics are breathtaking; all of their sales, apart from a handful of shops, are online. So, we took our head of online retail and our head of logistics to seem them, because that knowledge is invaluable. We created a relationship with them, because there will be things we do that they’ll learn from, and vice versa. That inter-company network is really, really powerful. And if you’re going to operate in the UK, you need it. You’ve got to be bloody efficient, because we’re not a cheap place to operate.

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People are often interested in looking into their own sector for best practice. If you do that, you will only get as good as there already is in your sector. If we want to go to the best place to train a 17-year-old to deliver amazing service, we don’t go to another bike shop. We go to the hotel industry, because they are brilliant at training people in that area.

Learning as a constant

When it comes to skills, I’ve got a few hats: I’m a Commissioner on the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, I’m a trustee of Investors in People, and I was also involved in setting up the Education and Employers Taskforce, a charity that sends volunteers into schools to let pupils know what the world of work is about. I love going into schools and talking to 14-18 year olds. They’re sll very cool, and they’re thinking, here’s this bloke with a naff fold-up bike. They don’t really want to be there. Then I talk about our business, how much it’s grown, how much I earn – they always want to know that – and they start listening. They like the sound of a job that’s fun and lets you travel all over the world. And then I say, “who do I want, from you lot? I’ll tell you who I don’t want – the trendy bunch, the cool kids. Because you’re all the same. You’re normal. I want the outliers, the oddballs, the freaks, the ones who don’t fit in. Because in business, if  all I get is the same as everybody else, how am I going to innovate? How am I going to create anything but the same that already exists?” I need people who think of the world differently, because innovation is the thing that means you’re still in business in five years’ time. And the skill of your workforce is the most important factor in staying ahead on innovation.

That’s why it bugs me that engineering and ‘creativity’ are seen as separate in schools. When I was at school, I was good at maths and terrible at english. So, off I went to do engineering. If you were ‘creative’, you went into a different stream, and you talked about imagination; if you did engineering, you talked about differential equations. That is such tosh. You’ve got people who sit in front of screens all day who are seen as doing something cool, because they sit on different coloured bean bags, but those jobs are boring compared to what we do. We create real things that affect people’s lives, and we can make anything – we’ve got 3D printers, we’ve got amazing modelling software – if you can imagine it, we can prototype it. Engineering is such a fun career and yet, somehow, through school, the talent is not aware of what a fun industry it is, making things.

We have plenty of talent at Brompton, the place is brimming with it, and my challenge is giving them the space to innovate, to test themselves and to make mistakes, because they learn from that. Learning isn’t just a course or a visit, it happens day in and day out – if your staff are stretching themselves by experimenting, learning and making mistakes. At Brompton we have a system to ensure this: we have our homework, which is our core business, which has to be done and delivered, and then we have the wild stuff. The wild stuff is relatively small but really fun, and because it’s small, we can afford to fail with it. The key is not to ask yourself what would happen if it goes wrong, but what would happen if you don’t try.

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