Putting leadership into words – Interview with Mia Forbes Pirie

Authored by:
Claudia Limbach

Claudia Limbach

From those who get to choose teams in high school to those who run countries, many people in this world are said to have leadership qualities - but what does that mean and, can it be taught?

As an eLab instructor, leadership is one of the trickiest - and most important - aspects of a course, we sit down with our eLab leadership instructor, Mia Forbes Pirie to get her perspective.

Leadership is particularly hard for young start-up founders. Can it be taught and what advice would you share to them?

Yes! Absolutely, it can be taught.  We sometimes don’t think of it like that but there are definitely skills required to be a good leader and those skills can be broken down and taught. In terms of advice - that’s a big questions! Come on the course!

The key to good leadership is having a clear vision and knowing how to communicate it in a way that inspires and motivates the people you need to bring along with you. That means also understanding and caring about those people. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses too.

People often think of leadership as a form of power (which it is), but I prefer to turn it on its head and think of it as service. Good leaders serve and inspire their communities. Find the balance of being humble and strong - quiet confidence.  And ask for help when you need it.

When I teach leadership, one of the core elements of the module is communication.  This is partly because participants vociferously asked to learn about communication! And partly because the inability to have difficult conversations well has been identified as one of the key concerns of leader. So that’s where we start. 

At the end of the day, you have to be yourself (appropriately) as a leader. So I provide students with what I hope are thought provoking questions and information to help them decide how they want to lead.  One of the course participants said “I have a masters in Leadership and Management. Why has no one taught me what you just have?” Often people say they are teaching leadership but are actually teaching management. Management is important but so is leadership - and they are different skills.

You work with a lot of business leaders to teach how create effective and engaging conversations, does this also translate into the start-up world?

A lot of start ups fail due to founder fall out. That is a failure in communication or a failure to get help with communication. That’s why, as a mediator, I help organisations with founder and partnership fall-outs (miaforbespirie.com). Day-to-day as I mentioned in the previous question one of leaders’ greatest weaknesses seems to be having difficult conversations. Leading is all about communication. If you have good conversations with people and understand not only what they’re good at but also what they enjoy doing - you can help people in giving you the best work they can and being really committed. 

Start-ups can be a bit like families - close-knit and intense. One of the participants in the last cohort sent me an email after the communication and leadership part of the course. She said: "I just wanted to say thanks for the amazing sessions, although it hasn't even been 24 hours I've already seen changes in the way I’m communicating. I had that difficult conversation with my social media manager and I can already tell our relationship is stronger because of it. “

If we can tackle issues head on with confidence, clarity and without blaming but taking a forward-looking approach - being realistic and understanding that different people have different ways of thinking and working than we do - we are so far ahead of the curve.  Business and relationships get so much easier, more efficient and also just more pleasant and comfortable for everyone. Through having good conversations, you will be able to create a committed and effective team.  Communication is a game-changer.

Start-up founders are supposed to be focusing 100% on their start-up but focus little on their own on wellbeing?

 Who is in charge of your business?

You are your most important business asset - without you (at this stage) - your business probably doesn’t operate. If you had a machine you relied on fully to make your product, you would take care of it.  Finding your “formula" (i.e. what keeps you in balance) is going to be key to building a successful and resilient organisation. You may think you are saving time by not taking care of yourself but you are storing up problems for a later date.  Getting to know yourself and what you need is essential - it will also vary over time.  For example, at some points in my life going for a run has been an unnecessary depleting form of torture and at other points it has been an amazing, energising, clearing use of time. So you need to keep aware and keep paying attention. Sometimes, you will be “out of balance” for a while - that’s okay but don’t make a habit of it. Your business will suffer. Learn what happened and notice how the cycle worked for you, so that you can adjust.

I have a free programme called “Intelligent Start” that helps people make small changes that keep them in balance.  It lays out the basic foundations that people need to stay healthy, happy and productive. You can access it at: https://intelligentchange.life/free-resources/

How important is it for founders to have a coach to support them?

It’s a myth - and quite a cruel one - that we can do everything alone.  Most successful people have a lot of support. Early on in my career I made the mistake of thinking that asking for support was a weakness. Now I know better!

Get as much support as you can - from friends and family but also a coach and/or a mentor - someone who can give you independent and impartial and help you work through any difficulties you have. Someone who cares about what’s best for YOU but doesn’t have a personal stake.

Finding the right coach can make the difference between plodding and flying. I work with coaches who help me develop my business efficiently and effectively, alongside those who help me stay authentic, fair, and true to myself. Don’t work with a coach who doesn’t have a coach!

Many of the eLab cohort are from an international background, do you have specific advice for International Entrepreneurs?

In the module on Organisational Culture we talk about this in some detail and I show a video I shot of a Kashmiri trader in India who has understood and applied the wisdom of the best academic textbooks and literature!

If I were to sum it up in one word, it would be “Glocalisation” - not blankly assuming that what works in one culture will work in another.  It might but it very well might not. You need to adapt to your local market and the culture.  People all too often apply the latest American or British “wisdom” all over the world - without finding out what really works in the culture they are operating in.

 

-What would you say to aspiring Entrepreneurs looking to join eLab?

You are in for a ride! Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. This is a great way of finding out if it is for you and giving yourself a head start with a genuinely supportive community. You will meet great people and get access to people and ideas that it could otherwise take you years to get access to. Stay curious and open. This is a great opportunity.

 

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