Thomas Coles started Software Solved 25 years ago. We interviewed our chair and founder to reveal his leadership style.
From graduate to Managing Director
Thomas started Software Solved (originally known as MSM and MSYSM) with his father shortly after he had finished studying Computer Science at the University of York. “I haven’t had a difficult career path at all in the sense, of learning and observing other bosses or colleagues’ mistakes. I ran my own business all the way through, so my career path involved running my own business, by first expanding all the skills needed alongside my qualification in Computer Science and then later developing sales and marketing skills, and so on.”
Thomas went on to discuss his education, “I did a computer science degree, which is where I met Jon Stace our Director of Technology, we were in the same tutor group. I had a job for nine months working as a programmer and a developer, but I had always wanted to run my own business one day. I decided, with my father George, to resign from my job and create Software Solved.”
Thomas then went on to discuss the reasons behind his decision: “One of the reasons for starting Software Solved was my interest in the advancement of software development, plus the variety of work the industry entails. It is a lot more interesting for everybody in the team to work on a broad mix of projects rather than just on a single monolithic product. I think over the years, if you look at the mix of clients we have had, there has been a lot of job satisfaction for our team.”
Hiring quality and talented individuals
Thomas revealed his biggest lesson learnt is within recruitment and hiring quality individuals, “It’s so important to choose wisely with the type of people that you surround yourself with. In business, most problems and solutions arise from and are fixed by, one of two big issues and these are usually either people or cash flow. Cash flow is easier to get control of whereas people issues are not so black and white.
He stated, “It’s much easier to employ people who are really strong in their specialism so that you don’t have to worry about any particular aspect of the business and you can be hands-off. This allows others to deal with the challenges that occur and in turn, gives them opportunities that arise in their sphere of influence.”
Transparency and honesty
Thomas highlighted how it is unusual for people to talk about financial success but that he has always been a very firm believer in honesty, “Over the years, colleagues, former colleagues and clients would all talk about how honest we have been as a business.” He revealed how he measures success, “The first is how people perceive our honesty; in the past, we have been criticised by clients for being too honest. I always saw that as a big compliment. The second is that as a result of being honest, I will also be clear that financial results are one of the measures that we’ve always attached to the business. This then gives us the opportunity and ability to reinvest, to take it forward in whatever direction we might be planning, plus hearing the financial results that we deliver for customers is a huge measure of success.”
Outcomes matter hugely to Thomas as well as the impact on the business, he said, “When we did a rebrand, the key personas that we adopted at that point were about being genuine, honest in action and transparent. I still get the impression that clients are impressed because we have such long-term relationships with them.” Thomas also points out that, “most relationships are founded on good communication which includes trust that goes two-ways.”
When asked who was the key mentor that influenced him, Thomas found this question hard to answer but said: “Back in the day when we started the business, there weren’t any podcasts. I saw that IT was the future and thought that every job going in the future was to involve IT. He continued, “Of course, in reality, I suspect there are many people who influenced me in the early years, when I was very young and running the business. I was quite heavily influenced by some of our clients because we have such close trusting relationships. People buy from people.”
Watch and learn
Thomas talks about being involved with leadership development and making sure to spend time regularly investing in oneself: “I am involved with Princeps which has been my primary activity and the speakers that they have every month are a massive influence.” Thomas said he prefers traditional methods of meetings: “I much prefer face-to-face whether that takes the form of dinner or coffee, this has more influence than online style meetings and enables clear decision making.”
He demonstrates how he continues to learn: “I continue to absorb from those around me, so my full-time career now is within consultancy. I get exposure to many different types of organisations and lots of different individuals. Learning from observing them whilst assisting them. I am exposed to dozens of different businesses each year and understand the challenges they face, and I help solve them.”
Recruit people who are better than oneself
Thomas revealed two business challenges throughout his career to date: “The first is that finding and recruiting the right people is the biggest challenge because it’s always best to try and get people who are better than oneself. This takes bravery but also a challenge to actually find them. People who want to work in a business rather than starting their own business whilst being that talented, is relatively difficult.
“The second big challenge is when cuts have to be made. For example, during the Dot.com crash in 2001 and the financial crisis in 2007-2008. The sorts of decisions that had to be made in those circumstances were really painful, but the only way to keep a team together, keep the team functioning with high morale and continue to be committed, is by being honest with everyone, continuing to earn people’s trust and respect rather than doubting the messages they hear.”
Trust the team
Thomas said that it is key to trust your team, “If everyone is honest with each other and an example is set from the top. Once you get to the point that everybody trusts each other, then a team functions so much better.”
He continued: “It means there’s no politics because everybody can be honest with each other about their thoughts. Politics are a tremendous drain on energy and time and ultimately financial success, so that is one aspect. I think it’s crucial to recruit people who are different, I don’t mean diversity in the tick box sense, I mean, in the sense that it makes a difference to the conversations you have when you go to the pub. So, the different age groups, different backgrounds, all of those tools are different aspects. Leading a team with honesty has all the same benefits as being honest with the client.”
Let the team go for it and flourish
Thomas stated that delegation is much harder for the person delegating, “The single biggest learning that I think any leader needs in order to be able to delegate effectively is actually remembering what outcome is needed. It doesn’t matter how the person goes about the task, as long as they achieve the outcome that you’re asking them for.”
He offers an example, “If someone comes to me as a leader with a problem, I would say, let’s solve it and ask for their suggested solutions. Which is your preference? Let’s agree. That’s right. OK, go and do it. So, then they own the whole thinking process. If they can use their own initiative and you give them the platform to flourish within their role, they should intrinsically know what they can and can’t do, and will solve it themselves the next time they face a similar decision.”
He acknowledged, “Every leader needs to remember that not everybody is motivated in the same way. People are generally motivated by money which may not be the case with everybody in the team. You have to understand the motivation of the individual. We have a monthly ‘Three Cheers’ award when someone is voted for and nominated by the team for going above and beyond, they get a shout-out and a gift. There was an example of a team member who was doing a house renovation, so we gave them a B&Q voucher.”
He concluded with some leadership advice on honesty and relationship building: “I think the IT industry is quite guilty of having buzzwords that change over the years led by the media and press. I’m not a great one for following the crowd. I am more interested in delivering value for the client. I remember telling a client who had asked for something we didn’t want to quote for because it wasn’t the right move for the client, “You are setting your project up to fail and we would prefer not to quote because we would prefer not to be involved in a failing project. But if you are interested, we have this advice about how then you could tackle it as an alternative.” Now that has to be delivered in the right way and has to be received in the right way. I have to say where we have got a personal relationship with people they respect us, and you should never be afraid to say what you professionally think is right and honest.”
Find out more about the people at the forefront of what we do on the Meet the Team page.