As a leadership coach and entrepreneur, I’m so inspired working with other successful business leaders and hearing their stories. What they’ve achieved, their drive, tenacity and passion for what they do. At the IoD Young Directors Conference recently, this was so apparent as the leaders candidly spoke about their journey, through the highs and lows of running a business and giving some great advice. This year’s conference entitled Achieving Competitive Edge highlighted four key reasons to attend which certainly didn’t disappoint: To learn, to network, to spark creativity and to be inspired. I’ve outlined the key lessons I took away.

Imagination and spotting an opportunity
In answer to Naomi’s question, “how do you spot an opportunity?” all of us on the panel had very different stories on the opportunities we chose. From thinking about the problem first and using our experience to solve it, seeing an idea somewhere else and adapting it for the local market to honest examples of opportunities that looked great the day the investment was made but didn’t turn out that way. Recently I heard a quote, ‘some people make things happen, others watch things happen and the rest wonder what just happened.’ As I listened to the leaders on the panel, they are definitely in the first bracket, and were always going to make things happen, constantly looking for new opportunities and ways to improve and grow their business. When coaching successful leaders, and they take the time to clear their mind and think of new opportunities, their imagination and creativity creates inspirational ideas to grow their business. As Einstein said, “logic will take you from A to B, imagination will take you everywhere.”

Tell great stories
Stanford professor Jennifer Aaeker demonstrates that “stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.” They enable you to be more persuasive, move people into action and progress yourself and your business. I don’t think anyone at the conference will forget Dr Aislinn Rice’s story, titled ‘Do you know your way to San Jose’, where the travel agent typed the wrong ticket code and she ended up in Costa Rica rather than California. When discussing the humility of Northern Ireland leaders, it was also highlighted as a potential down fall particularly when competing globally. Gavin Halpin, MD of Paper Owl gave a great example of how to stay humble and authentic yet promote yourself and your business. He said Northern Irish people are great story tellers, and should use this to their advantage, telling the story of promoting his business in LA and his opening slide outlined they were from Hollywood. Little did the customers realise it was Hollywood County Down not Hollywood USA.

Stay curious and ask why?
David Whelan, MD of Clarity Telecommunications and multiple Entrepreneur opening the first coffee shop in Belfast in 1999 Clements, gave his advice on how he spots an opportunity. Hard to imagine Belfast with no Starbucks, Café Nero or hipster coffee cart, so thank you David. When looking at a new opportunity David looks at an industry and thinks how he could do it better. He stays curious, asking lots of questions and constantly keeps asking why things are done that way. He made it sound so simple, but for me a true example of an individual who stands out, doesn’t follow the crowd and always continues to stay curious and keeps learning new ways to improve.

Continuously develop yourself
It struck me that even the most experienced and successful business leaders focused on the importance of continuously developing yourself both professionally and personally to stay ahead. Dr Aislinn Rice, CEO Analytics Engines and Colin Walsh, CEO of Crescent Capital both highlighted the impact key professional development has had on the success of their career and business growth. With the speed of industry today, achieving competitive edge in your career or business will only happen if you continuously sew the seeds of learning and development.

Clarity and Simplicity is key
It’s understandable with so much happening in the external environment, often referred to as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and an ever-increasing number of challenges to deal with that leaders don’t always have complete clarity themselves. However, this prevents effective decision making, and ultimately hinders the leader’s performance and growth potential for the organisation. Caroline Dowling, former Group President at Flex outlined it’s crucial for Leaders to cut out the noise, have total clarity on where they’re going and keep it simple to bring the team along and achieve great results.

Leadership is Lonely – No one tells you that at the interview
The IoD conference highlighted the importance of having great people around you when you’re a leader. One of the biggest challenges I experience when coaching other leaders is loneliness and this was discussed throughout the day at the conference. It’s crucial to have a good support network of strong people who can support and challenge you through the tough times, get out to key events and network with like minded people or the benefits of having a coach or mentor to help you on a one to one.

The Dream Team
Having the right people in your organisation in the right roles, at the right time was highlighted throughout all the panel discussions. Naoimh McAteer, Group Director MJM Group highlighted the importance of their staff, culture, growing their own talent and bringing in experienced hires which has been a key factor contributing to their success and growth. Caroline Dowling, former Group President at Flex, emphasised the importance of great recruitment processes, putting the effort in at the beginning and starting off on the right foot, putting the right people into the right job.

Make mistakes but learn from each one
We all know the saying if you don’t make a mistake in life you don’t make anything. Although it’s tough when things go wrong, it really is important to learn from each mistake. Making a mistake is not a problem but making it twice or not properly learning from it is. Although difficult to think back and reflect when things go wrong, it’s a crucial discipline to ensure it doesn’t happen in the organisation again.

Strengthen your self-belief & be yourself
This is one that sounds so simple but can be difficult. I’m often asked, there must be some people who breeze through life and have it so easy and never doubt themselves. My answer is, if you want to be successful you will have to continuously develop and grow, and this means being uncomfortable at times and not as confident as you would be when you’re good at something. As Oscar Wilde has said, “Be yourself as everyone else is taken.” My experience when people begin their leadership journey, they can often try to be someone else they have experienced before them. I totally agree we should all have mentors and people to look up to and learn from. But your authenticity, confidence and self-belief will come through much stronger when you just be yourself.

Cara Macklin, both a Leadership Coach and Entrepreneur combines her hands on business experience previously as Director of the awarding winning Macklin Care Home Group, Malone Lodge Hotel and NI’s first Lifestyle Care Home with her professional coach training. As founder of Cara Macklin Coach, she helps leaders and entrepreneurs go from good to great through developing themselves, their team and ultimately grow their business. To contact Cara email: