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When I was asked to be a judge at the Business Leader Awards I had no hesitation in accepting.  "It's a lot of work", I was warned.  It was - but it was still an absolute privilege.  The last 18 months has been incredibly tough for businesses, and I was intrigued to see how the best leaders had adapted to the challenges thrown their way.

I was on the judging panel for the following awards:

·        Employer of the Year

·        Customer Excellence Award

·        Export and International Business Award

·        Business of the Year - 51+ employees (sponsored by Thomas Westcott)

It seems an age since I read through each of the entries, and submitted my scores, but, at the ceremony last night, I was reminded again of the key themes that stood out to me during the judging process.  

Management and leadership in the pandemic

You don't need me to tell you that this has been a tough year, but I was impressed at how businesses with strong leadership were far better placed to survive the pandemic.  Strong leaders communicate the plan, so that everyone is clear on the business's objectives, and their role in achieving them.  The best examples were those who found innovative ways to communicate with their teams and keep them motivated while they were working in unprecedented circumstances.

Flexibility towards market and product

Some businesses had their markets turned upside down or eliminated at the start of the pandemic.  The entries were awash with companies that adapted their product, or sought out new markets to survive.  Whether it was switching to the manufacture or sale of products we suddenly needed - hand sanitiser or PPE for example - or, when local restaurants closed, pivoting to sell to consumers across the globe, there were some impressive examples.

Commitment to evolving working practices

If 2020 was all about working from home, 2021 has seen the emergence of the hybrid working model.  In my view, the best employers embrace this model. They know that, if they want to attract talent in future, they can't tie people to a desk in an office from 9-5 each day.  But you have to make sure everyone feels connected and knows that they'll be treated fairly. 

I'm sure we haven't seen this play out in full yet - keep your eye on next year's winners to see how the best businesses make this work for them.

Leading a disparate team

Be honest: had you heard of a mental health first aider before March 2020?  This is just one of the ways that businesses are supporting their teams better.  The best leaders recognise that someone suffering from mental health issues needs support.  Not only will they win the loyalty of those they support, but their whole team will see that they take mental health seriously, and will be better for it.

Really embracing diversity 

Being unbiased at the recruitment or promotion stage is just the beginning here.  The best businesses go much further, seeking to do their part to redress the inherent imbalance in society. Initiatives among the shortlisted businesses included actively seeking out recruits from universities with a more diverse population, taking part in black internships programmes to give everyone the opportunity to have a paid internship, and taking active steps to greater gender diversity.  

Exporting the South West

We can all agree that the South West is a great place to live and work, but some of the best businesses here spend a lot of time thinking outside the region.  I love to read about the fantastic products and services that businesses on our doorstep have to offer the world.  Many of these businesses referenced the impact of the pandemic on the global shipping and transport infrastructure, as well as the challenges brought about by Brexit. 

Businesses had to adapt. Some increased stock holdings, others made sure their offering remained competitive in a more challenging market, such as producing animated training videos to support customers abroad, or switching UK shift patterns to match their customers' working hours.

Reflecting on this again while I was enjoying the awards ceremony last night, I realised that you could boil all this down to just two themes: the team and the customer.  And wasn't it ever thus?  The leader who gets the best out of their people, while understanding, and then addressing, the needs of their customers will have the strongest business.  And this is true especially in the midst of a pandemic.