5 MIN READ
Al Kingsley is Group CEO of NetSupport. He’s been at the helm of this Peterborough-based edtech company for 25 years, helping to mould it from a small business to a multinational that serves more than 18 million customers in 120 countries. So, it’s not surprising that Al’s opinions hold great sway in the edtech world, nor that he was Management Professional of the Year (Education Technology) 2020 in Corporate Livewire’s Innovation & Excellence Awards, nor that he sits on Forbes’ Tech Council.
Discover the critical nuggets of how Al Kingsley has created a successful global company. The relevance of his insights stretch beyond his sector, so whether you’re an up-and-coming manager, a product developer, an entrepreneur, or simply passionate about business, they are worthy of your time.
1) The best leaders prioritise other people.
Al says: “Good leadership is about recognising that success depends not just on yourself but on other people. So, the best leaders understand that the most effective way to evolve their businesses is not to drag people with them but to have everyone willingly marching in the same direction.
Over time, as I’ve improved as a CEO, the word ‘people’ has risen up my priority list. It’s very easy to focus on the next project, the next market, the next product, but actually, your ability to grow as a company depends on having people who are motivated and invested in the business. Your colleagues, not you, are the facilitators of progress.
You hear a lot about well-being at the moment. The best leaders create well-being by communicating regularly with their teams, supporting them, and mitigating some of their stresses and fears.
Doing that becomes more challenging as you move from small business to medium-sized business. How do you retain a ‘local team’ ethos as the numbers grow? How do you keep the glue that provides a feeling of togetherness as you open new offices? I don’t have all the answers, but I have found this to be true:
When you’re busy or worried about the bottom line and competitors, it’s easy to forget to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and to fail to say, ‘Thanks, you’re doing a great job, we appreciate you.’ Saying those small things and meaning them is not just small talk but the foundation of your business. Lose sight of that and it will become almost impossible to achieve your targets.
At NetSupport, we have just over 100 staff in the UK. Our average UK tenure is nearly 15 years. Bearing in mind we have quite a few newer arrivals, I’m very proud of that.”
2) Predict where the market will go – rather than focusing on where it is now.
“Every year, the pace of technological change accelerates. You can either look at that as a challenge or as an opportunity. In truth, it’s both. I often compare it to shooting ducks at a fairground. If you aim straight at the target, you miss. You’ve got to aim ahead and predict where the target is going to be. It’s not crystal-ball gazing; it’s understanding the problems that customers are facing and identifying those that are becoming more significant. In education, you do that by rolling your sleeves up and getting involved. Look for the pinch points, recognise where the tech is moving, understand where it will be in a year or two, and create your product plan, aiming for that point in the future. Then, release when the marketplace is ready.”
3) Get deep under the skin of your target market before wading in.
“I have four tips for anyone looking to grow their business overseas.
First, understand your market. This is obvious but often gets overlooked. Don’t assume every market is the same; there will be nuances in every region. Be willing to adapt your tech or solution to fit.
Second, understand your market from a commercial perspective. Who are the movers and shakers? Which players make the most noise? What channels do they use to amplify their noise? Who are the key players in terms of PR, social media and online?
Third, how are different products delivered to the core market? Find out by attending trade shows and events. Engage with some of your potential customers and work with them directly to create reference points and case studies. By working closely with a small number of customers, you get to know the main media outlets and discover potential sales partners.
Fourth, make sure you capture user feedback. We do this by joining user communities and focusing on social media. This tells us where the pain is and reveals the main groups. By following and engaging with thought leaders, you gain insights and language to build your credibility.
If you’re engaged in the conversation, people start to trust your knowledge and understanding. So my advice is to grow your credibility (and experience) by writing articles on best practices or being available to speak at events or sector roundtables. Then potential customers gain a good level of confidence that your products are fit for purpose because they are shaped by people who ‘get it’.”
4) Confidence plays a massive role in business success.
“There are two types of confidence: effective confidence and ineffective confidence. When I was in my 20s, I was full of the latter. I was sure of myself, but my faith wasn’t always justified. Over time, you learn – often by your mistakes – that you can’t rely on yourself alone. Instead, you must learn from others and work in partnership with your team. As you grow to understand this fact, you gain effective confidence.”
“Confidence also plays a big role among customers, especially in the tech sector. What we’ve seen in the past few years is the rapid adoption of technology. The single biggest barrier to rapid adoption is a lack of confidence. If people aren’t confident using a product or solution, it fizzles out quickly. It’s not about who can develop the most all-encompassing solution; it’s about who can develop the easiest solution that meets the need. And sometimes, developing an easy solution is harder than developing a complicated one. Why? Because every click, every button, every signpost must be intuitive.”
5) Listen first, speak second.
“You are born with two ears, two eyes and one mouth. Use them in appropriate proportions. It’s easy to be the person who, in your self-confidence, always starts the conversation and wraps it up. But don’t miss the opportunity to listen to other voices. As you get more experienced, you learn that listening carefully to the room first is best. Then, when the time comes for you to say something, you speak from a position of knowledge and empathy. That’s especially vital if you’re trying to move a project or business forward. In those situations, it’s never wise to be the first person to speak. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for others’ opinions or advice but a sign of strength.”
6) Listen again
“No matter how much you know or think you know, assume you know nothing. Go back and check again. You might be convinced that you understand the opportunity or the project, but I guarantee that you will always discover something else whenever you take the time to look again. That something will, especially if you have peers around the table, give you extra. It might only be 0.1% extra, but it will be worth it. Trying to find out more can only benefit you, even if you discover you’re an idiot, not a genius. After all, it’s better to know before hanging your hat on it.”
Al Kingsley has spent 25 years working in his industry yet remains as motivated, excited and keen to learn as ever. His overriding message – one of his many great pieces of advice – is to elevate the skill of listening. Over time, he’s discovered that one of the keys to success is to suppress one’s ego and natural desire to ‘run the show’ and instead focus on learning from colleagues, customers – just about anyone else in the room except yourself. By bringing other people along with you on the journey, you have a greater chance of evolving your business, growing it and achieving genuine longevity. Just as Al has done.