Tim Ward is the recently retired CEO at the Quoted Companies Alliance (QCA), the independent membership organisation championing the interests of small to mid-size quoted companies. Here, he reflects on his time in the role, what large organisations can learn from their nimbler SME counterparts, and what good governance can do for SMEs.
What have you learned about leadership during your time at the QCA?
I didn’t have much respect for hierarchy when I was younger, so when I became a part of this fabric I had to think about it differently.
There are two key things I’ve learned about how to lead since then. The first is to involve others in decision-making. As CEO there are times when you have to push something through, but you have to bring people into the decision process and take them with you, or let them take responsibility. For example, if someone is leading a project that I come into, I see myself as just another member of the team working to support them.
Another thing I’ve learned is to be consistent in your messaging. It might feel boring to say the same things over and over but if you’re sincere and you believe in it then it isn’t boring. You can always find ways to make the same point more compellingly, or provide more evidence — but it’s vital to keep the messaging consistent over time if you want to make sure that you are actually reaching people.
“‘Sincerity’ is the word. If you are truly sincere, and if the business is sincere about what it does, then you’ve got a really powerful combination.”
What can the leaders of small- and medium-sized businesses do to get more value from corporate governance?
This is really important to get right. The danger lies in seeing governance as a distraction and a tick-box exercise rather than as something that can be used to help you build a higher-performing and more sustainable business. When it’s done right, it ensures your board is asking the right questions — resulting in better conversations and ultimately better decisions throughout the organisation. Research we conducted 18 months after the launch of the QCA’s principles-based corporate governance code showed that a significant proportion of our members had seen this benefit.
We’d like this proportion to be higher, though. And perhaps one of the problems lies in the name: “corporate governance”. It’s too passive. And it just doesn’t get across that it’s all about enablement — helping you move from one stage of your journey as a business to the next. Done well, it will inspire investors to take you seriously and lower your cost of capital.
“Governance itself doesn’t do anything, but it does allow people to be their best — not just as individuals, but as a team.”
Why do you think smaller businesses are seen as more agile than larger ones — and what can larger organisations do about it?
Large businesses face the same fundamental challenges and issues as smaller businesses — the differences are often just a matter of scale. But smaller organisations tend to be much closer to the people they impact, viewing their staff, investors, suppliers, and customers as communities they need to engage with. This works to their advantage because it puts them in a position to more readily identify the pressing issues that they need to tackle. It may be about gathering insights that help you spot and address issues with staff retention. Or the direct feedback you get from investors when you deal with them directly, rather than through a PR or investor relations company.
I remember hearing a story from early in the pandemic where a company had switched production from candles to antiseptic fluid. Now, my feeling is that it wasn’t the CEO who came up with that idea; the team were empowered and energised to do good work for a purpose, and the organisation’s culture and processes meant they could get on with it quickly. It all comes back to innovation, which we see so much of in smaller organisations. People spot an opportunity to disrupt a market and then just go out and do it. Larger companies aren’t incapable of this — but those who view their stakeholders as communities, and engage with them frequently and directly, find it much easier.
“I’ve been in the small-cap world for ages — I love the people, and I love hearing all the fantastic stories about how people have taken an idea and made it happen.”