He was raised on a small island called the Isle of Man, between England and Ireland, 21 miles long and 12 miles wide with a population of about 50 000 people. It was a simple life where everybody knew one other.
Kneale was however keen to ‘get out’ into the big world, which is what he did when he turned 18 and left to study in England. Still, he acknowledges that the way he was brought up made him eager to succeed and he also brought with him into adulthood a keen love for reading, which today he continues to do a lot of.
His view is that in part one learns leadership. It is a continuous journey where one is always learning. The time to quit a specific leadership responsibility is when you no longer have the desire or passion to learn to do better.
How does he believe this journey begins? Leaders firstly develop a technical skill and because they are good at it they are promoted. But, for the rest of their career journey a fragment of that initial technical skill remains with them and influences how they lead, their ‘style’ of leadership.
In other words, someone that started out as a financial expert will partly lead in a specific way due to a financial background, but also partly influenced by his / her personality. However, the technical background informs or influences the lens through which leaders see life and leadership situations.
In Kneale’s case he started in the buying and marketing field and was of course eventually promoted. So, he believes part of successful leadership is marketing – your personal brand; what you are trying to persuade people to do; and so on.
Also, on one’s leadership journey are several pivotal experiences that changes or clearly affects a leader. In the eighties he was asked to run a business and was told that it will decline and that he had to simply manage this. But, he went to his team and probably ‘marketed’ the opportunity to prove their leaders wrong, which they did.
Not only was this an interesting experience on his personal journey, but he also discovered that a leader can galvanize a team by convincing them to prove someone wrong.
Then he was also asked to lead a business across several countries, which again turned out to be a pivotal point as he now had to lead people that were 11 hours away rather than sitting at desks next to him. He learned that leading from a distance necessitated some degree of structure and process.
Somewhere on his journey he had to lead Waterstone’s, a book business during the dot com era when Amazon emerged. At the time the largest book stores could physically stock about 60 000 books while Amazon stocked a million via the internet. So they had to change their entire business model in order to not compete on range but on other fronts.
Kneale believes that one should continually learn and reflect on how one could have handled situations better. This is what he did with his experience at Waterstone’s. Looking back he believes that he did not do that job terribly well, even though most of the strategies they put in place seem to have worked as Waterstone’s is today the only range bookseller left in the UK.
What he wished he was more successful at doing was to bring the people with him, in making them understand the rationale for changing. He says: “Most successful leaders, when they affect great change, create a consensus around the burning platform need for change”.
All these experiences and more, his technical ‘marketing lens’ and his personality, molded him into a leader who eventually came to South Africa to lead Clicks, which he and his team seem to have put on a much better path.
The first thing he noticed when he arrived here was that Clicks was a business that had lost confidence in itself. It had been a successful business but was taking a pounding and could not understand why. After all, they had not done anything different, which ultimately was part of the problem. In reality what had happened was that the market had moved on.
So the first thing he realized was that he had to instill a degree of confidence in the people. The second realization was that in a company with hundreds of stores across the country one could not control everything from head office but had to win hearts and minds at a distance.
From the start, probably to positively influence confidence, he emphasized that they did not have the wrong strategy but they were really just quite poor at executing it. Kneale believes success is 10% strategy and 90% delivery and if you can’t get a strategy to fit on the one side of a paper it is too complicated.
Also important to remember is that when one is in trouble one tends to look for the one big thing that will get one out of trouble, and it is never about that. Retail in particular is not about doing one big thing but about doing a lot of things well, at the same time.
Important in leadership is to get the fundamentals or basics for a solid foundation right, and then making everyone understand they have a responsibility.
The basics of retail are simple. The customer wants to buy a product and when going to buy it they expect it to be there, they buy it and if they enjoy the experience they come back. When Kneale arrived Clicks had empty spaces on their shelves. About two out of ten products that customers wanted were not in stock. They changed this.
He started a mantra that said “business is about focus, simplicity and responsibility”, because if you can get what you want people to do down to three things they will remember it. So people had to have clear targets or goals, a simple way of executing these and then leaders had to make sure they delivered. If they did not deliver there had to be clear consequences.
Finally, he also believes a very important principle as far as leadership is concerned is visibility, particularly when it comes to retail. Being out in the stores demonstrates to employees that he is not just stuck at head office having corporate lunches. It encourages other Executives to get out there on the floor and avoids a disconnect between head office and the actual operations in the field.
His message to leaders: “Keep it simple”. This is the way of getting investors to buy your shares. It is also the way to get your staff on all levels to understand their responsibility. Frankly, it is what Kneale is all about.
Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on firstname.lastname@example.org for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.