Darren Lewitt: “Become a good listener and fast”

Become a good listener and fast — Listening to your team is essential. It is so important to always be available to listen for when members of the team may be struggling, but you should also be open to listening to when team members bring forward new, innovative ideas. Embrace those who think differently to you as […]

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Become a good listener and fast — Listening to your team is essential. It is so important to always be available to listen for when members of the team may be struggling, but you should also be open to listening to when team members bring forward new, innovative ideas. Embrace those who think differently to you as this could be the newest, big idea you’ve been searching for.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darren Lewitt.

Darren Lewitt is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the East of England, UK and a great role model of how someone can start at the bottom and rise to the top using pure determination, self-belief and an abundance of creativity. Having transformed Midwich, a small IT company in Norfolk, from a £10 million pound business to a £370 million pound international operation, Darren had achieved his goal and subsequently sold his ⅓ share in the company. Keen to embark on his next challenge, he has since focused his efforts on mentoring and coaching, working with people from all walks of life. He is particularly passionate about mentoring young people who are leaving the care system and received the National Mentoring award in 2019. Most recently, Darren published his debut book ‘Dream, Create, Believe, Achieve’ (Amazon, £10). For more information visit www.darrenlewitt.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

As a normal lad from the streets of Leicester, like many, I dreamt of one day becoming the next footballing sensation. But like so many young lads I had to accept that my initial dream wasn’t to be and refocus on some perhaps more realistic goals.

Instead, aged 18, I decided to join the Royal Air Force where I learned self-discipline and team ethics. For 7 years, I worked as a technician on surface-to-air missile systems and early-warning radar before leaving to embark on a new journey when I joined a small IT company called Midwich in a sleepy Norfolk town in the UK.

I started at the bottom and faced innumerable challenges, all the time trying to saturate myself with knowledge of the business. Who would have thought that a few years later I would find myself ‘morphing’ this tiny IT company into the world’s largest specialist audio visual distributor, acquiring 13 companies and operating in seven countries. Today, it is the 5th largest company in East Anglia with a turnover of £700Million. If I can do it you can too. After 24 years with the company, I decided to sell my ⅓ stake in the company.

I am keen to give back to others and so I set up the just2Achieve Academy, which has allowed me to mentor and coach business leaders and individuals. In addition I volunteer my time to a number of worthy causes. As an Academy advisor I inspire young students, some under privileged and some with complex care needs. As a Grandmentor for the charity Volunteering Matters, I mentor young people leaving the care system; this work led me to proudly help the charity win the National Mentoring Award in 2019.

I am also proud to have recently published my debut book ‘Dream, Create, Believe, Achieve’ which is available on Amazon.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The Celestine Prophecy is a book by James Redfield that discusses various psychological and spiritual ideas rooted in multiple ancient Eastern traditions and New Age spirituality. I’d just finished reading it and what became clear to me was that coincidences in life were more common than one thinks and, actually, more of an everyday occurrence. It’s my belief that, if you are open-minded enough you will begin spotting these coincidences for yourself.

‘Have you ever sung a song to yourself and then heard it on the radio a few minutes later?’

‘Have you ever thought about someone, and then they just happened to call you?’

Some might say “their ears must have been burning” but I believe there is a lot more to it than that.

I had just climbed aboard the early train to London with three of my colleagues one bright and sunny midweek afternoon. A supplier had invited us to a football match at Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea play in the League Cup.

En-route, we found lots to talk about including our business and social networks. We discussed how we could sell lots of products and we worked on our latest business plan. Once finished the topic of conversation then switched to the latest BBC Top Gear episode, which saw the presenters take three supercars around France before ending up in Paris. It featured the latest Ferrari, which was so new that none of us had ever seen one in the flesh — but it did look stunning on the screen. We unanimously agreed, however, that the grey colour used on the show didn’t have the same ‘wow factor’ and what was needed was that Italian Racing Red look.

Upon arrival at Liverpool Street station, we headed for the long taxi queue. There was no panic though as we had lots of time and there seemed to be plenty of taxis. All the taxis had advertising on the side and we passed the time by reading the ads as the queue gradually diminished. This is where the first coincidence occurred. We couldn’t quite believe it as we spotted a Pioneer-branded Taxi in the distance. I was immediately convinced that this was a coincidence, and fate had us all climbing into that specific taxi. After a 30-minute ride across London just as we were entering into Chelsea, you won’t believe me now, but the same new Ferrari pulled out in front of our taxi and we began to follow it, our jaws wide open. Not only were we gob smacked but, you guessed it, the car was painted in Ferrari Rosso Red.

Making our way to the hospitality suite, we were greeted by two old Chelsea legends of the game — Peter Osgood, probably Chelsea’s best ever striker, and Chopper Harris, a great defender of his time. I was very lucky and managed to have a decent conversation with Peter, he was such a nice man and he actually showed a lot of interest in me.

Peter asked me if I was a Chelsea fan but I quickly made it clear that I was born and bred in Leicester, at which point he began to tell me a story about how his best mate for many years was a Leicester player and still working there like him as an ambassador all these years later, and how he’d lost touch with him.

Peter called him the Birch; a Leicester City legend called Alan Birchenall. I think I amazed Peter by telling him that, not only did my brother know him, he also had his contact numbers. Peter left me his card and before the end of the match, I had messaged him with all the details.

A few days later, I received a message from Peter informing me that, not only had he been in touch with ‘Birchy’, he was going to meet him at the Southampton game that weekend. Peter also said that if there was anything that he could do for me to reciprocate to just let him know. Wow, what a guy I thought as he didn’t have to do that. I’d be lying though if I didn’t think ‘Cup Final tickets’ to myself.

Just a few short weeks later this story took an extremely sad turn.

The news came through that Peter had suffered a heart attack at his uncle’s funeral and had died. I couldn’t quite believe it as he was only 59.

With all this happening I felt drawn into watching the next Chelsea game as they were playing at home that weekend. I’ve never seen anything like it, with so many high profile people paying their respects on the pitch. Peter had scored over 100 goals for Chelsea and was worshipped, not just by the Chelsea fans but by everyone in football.

The real emotion came though as the minute of respect played out. The cameras panned down the line of famous people and, when they reached the last person in the line, who should that be? None other than his best mate, Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall.

I couldn’t help but feel that, if it hadn’t have been for our chance meeting and all the other coincidences that day, those two best mates wouldn’t have met again before Peter passed away.

“In business you must never underestimate the power of the mind. Whether merely a coincidence or an idea for the next best thing, having a great team around you with the ability to be imaginative, presents you with the best opportunity to think of ways to evolve your business. Remember this ‘No Man is an Island’ so don’t think you have to do things alone, keep looking at the horizon and that will help bring you the success you need.

The amazing conclusion to this story which is featured in my book is that I sent a copy to Peter Osgood’s widow 10 years after this event and she wrote back, thanking me for my lovely words. She then came out with the best coincidence of all saying I’ve passed the book on to my son and his name is also Darren”.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll never forget my first ever presentation in the Hilton hotel in Watford, UK on a blisteringly hot day and we were all set to show off one of the world’s brightest projectors, along with a new range of digital cameras. Back in 1995 things were done on a budget, we managed to set up 3 or 4 trestle tables in a hot and stuffy room before laying the products on top of neatly ironed white tablecloths. That was about it in terms of presentation! As we nervously waited for the first customers, up came a new challenge. I reached down to push some empty boxes under one of the tables and heard an unpleasant ripping sound. Unfortunately, it was the rear of my trousers and I mean they were ripped! I asked my colleague Lee to take a quick picture and show me, the tear was probably 5 or 6 inches long no wonder he was on the floor in stitches. In the event, I now had to think on my feet, the only solution I could come up with was to put on my suit jacket and keep my back to the presentation screen at all times.

I had to put up with a lot of strange looks and grins from Lee the whole time, and I did wonder if people thought I was mad for wearing a jacket on such a hot day. Sweating profusely, I made it through the day and despite the stress it caused me I managed to see the funny side, telling the story to my customers and colleagues for years to come. So remember — Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

One very important way to retain great talent is to keep praising your staff, and then praise them again. Buy as many carrots as you can and throw away the sticks! It is clear that positivity breeds productivity, which will ultimately generate success. By praising your staff you create a positive working environment which they will want to continue working in. This positive environment will also help to instil confidence in your employees, in both their own skills and the company, and create a trusting relationship. If you are seen to be praising and open, they will be much more likely to approach you if they did have any issues which will in turn stop these issues from reaching the point they consider moving on.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

There are three things that you can do to synchronize large teams. Firstly, Make sure you are always available to help the teams that are struggling to succeed, rather than being excessively critical and negative. Emphasis should remain on solutions as if problems remain the focus, this can create a blame culture within the teams. Similarly, remember to praise the teams that do well and encourage other teams to emulate successful behaviours. Secondly, employ personable managers from within that people can relate to and respect. Managers will be the first point of contact for team members so they need to be people equipped to support and be approachable. Finally, you could bring in some friendly competition, perhaps through team building exercises or some targets without severe consequences, and make it enjoyable to foster relationships.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

These are my top 5 things you need to know to successfully manage a team:

  1. Become a good listener and fast — Listening to your team is essential. It is so important to always be available to listen for when members of the team may be struggling, but you should also be open to listening to when team members bring forward new, innovative ideas. Embrace those who think differently to you as this could be the newest, big idea you’ve been searching for.
  2. Earn the respect of your team — The most effective teams are built upon a culture of mutual respect. As mentioned, the carrot should always be the priority as this helps to establish respect. Respect needs to be earned so demonstrate your skills and passion to get off to the most productive start and remember people respect you more when you are being yourself!
  3. Become the popular conductor of your own orchestra — Just like an orchestra, you want your team to be working in sync. Also like an orchestra, each individual will have his or her own specialism and it is your role as a leader to help each person maximise this skill. Your role as conductor is to play to each individuals strengths and help them work together in unison.
  4. Don’t make quick and rash decisions and don’t become a yes person — When leading a team a common pitfall is to feel like you have to become a people-pleaser, always saying yes to everyone all of the time. However, you were put in your role to utilise your judgement for the benefit of the business and sometimes this will involve saying no. A well-thought out ‘no’ demonstrates your critical thinking. Take the time to make reasoned, evidence-based decisions but also be open to changing course when required.
  5. Be professional at all times — As a manager, it is important that you develop strong relationships with all members of the team but remember to retain your professionalism. You are a representative of the business and should always act in the way you would expect others to act — remember team members will copy behaviours they see.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Be personable and available. Don’t hide away in your office and if communication is not your strongest suit, delegate this to someone more skilled in this area. A big part of leadership is maximising the strongest skills of individuals to the team’s advantage. In my experience, I’ve seen many leaders whose skills lie with the numbers thinking that they are all of a sudden good at sales and marketing too when promoted, rather than utilising those who are truly skilled in this area.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would introduce a new political party called ‘The Common Sense party’. There are just so many common sense things that need doing in business and life, but unfortunately common sense just doesn’t seem as common these days.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite quote of all time is ‘Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail’. I have seen far too many people simply turn up into the office and think they can hit the ground running without any preparation for the day ahead. I used to challenge myself with one question regularly

“What if?”

What if I could plan my day ahead, the day before and what if I could go to bed earlier. What if I could get up earlier, look the part and arrive into the office first. And what if I could make more calls and make more profit than normal. And what if I could work out what I was going to do the following day before I left the office. What if I could get everyone thinking like me? And what if one day I could be the boss? Productivity is all in the mind because if you fail to prepare then you are preparing to fail.

Thank you for these great insights!

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