Judith Doyle knows a thing or two about leadership. As principal and CEO of Gateshead College, one of only a few in the country to be rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, she has guided the organisation through a period of great change with the aim of helping students to become the most highly prized in the jobs market.
The fact that the college is widely viewed as a top vocational training provider is proof of Judith’s strong leadership, with companies across a range of sectors now benefiting from talented students with the skills, attitude and attributes to make a positive difference to their business from day one of their employment.
Typically, however, she is quick to heap praise on her capable team of staff who share the values and ethos that she has instilled at the college since stepping into her current role in 2013.
She says: “A good leader will make his or her staff feel involved and able to play a part in shaping the organisation’s future success. At Gateshead College, our management team ensure that everyone knows what their role is and how it fits with the wider goals of the business.
“We want staff at all levels within the business to demonstrate our core values – which include excellence, positivity and respect for others – as we all work towards the goal of ensuring our students have that all-important ‘employment edge’.
“In many respects, the CEO role is quite a generic one in that you need to demonstrate the same key attributes, regardless of the sector in which you operate. It’s vitally important to carry out the job with passion and purpose, whether you’re leading a growing engineering firm or a successful Further Education (FE) college. The people who work for you want to see that enthusiasm and absorb it, but they also want to buy into a clearly-defined vision with achievable end goals.
“Several other attributes make for a good MD or CEO, including a willingness to embrace innovative ideas, empathetic listening skills and the tenacity to see a complex job through to its conclusion. A cheerful disposition and a good sense of humour are also a must.”
Judith continues: “On my office wall there’s a quote from the American writer Mark Twain. It says: ‘Humour is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all of our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.’
“I try to remember this on the most challenging days – and I’ve encountered a few of those in my current role.
“In recent times, FE providers have had to adapt to several changes in Government policy and, in some cases, take difficult decisions to protect their business. It’s not just FE that has been affected; companies in other sectors have also faced major challenges and have had to change the way they operate to become more efficient, streamlined and productive.”
One of the biggest challenges for business leaders, says Judith, is to make sure they carry staff along with them on the journey.
“Not everybody will buy into a new initiative or idea, at least not straight away, but they will be more prepared to do so if you listen to their concerns and show them that you care.”
It’s often the small things that matter most. Judith makes a point of being visible at the college and personally meets all new staff at their induction sessions – a human touch that has been well received by the employees. For the last three years, she has also given all staff extra holiday at Christmas as a reward for contributing to the college’s outstanding performance during this period.
Judith has become a high-profile figure in the business community too, by helping companies understand the implications of the new Apprenticeship Levy and sitting on boards and committees in prominent organisations such as the North East England Chamber of Commerce, North East Local Enterprise Partnership and NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI).
Her willingness to be outward-facing and engage with the local community, businesses and policymakers has helped to boost the reputation of Gateshead College and transform it into the outstanding organisation it is today.
“My parents taught me to work hard for something if it’s really worth having,” Judith says. “This attitude is prevalent in the North East, which is home to some inspirational people who are leading successful, growing businesses.
“The best companies don’t stand still or get complacent. At Gateshead College we constantly look at ways of improving so that we can deliver an even higher performance culture to benefit our students, staff and the businesses we work with.”
Judith on the art of leadership
What makes a great leader?
Someone who can motivate and inspire people. Some MDs and CEOs struggle to delegate and try to do everything themselves. This generally doesn’t work, especially in larger organisations with dozens of staff. Getting the most out of your workforce – the greatest asset of any business – is the secret to unlocking success.
What key characteristics should they display?
Passion with a purpose. People sometimes talk a good game but then don’t follow it up with actions that will make a positive difference or influence change. There’s a saying from Shakespeare’s Macbeth about sound and fury signifying nothing; in any line of business, words mean nothing unless they are converted into action.
Which leader has inspired you most?
Barack Obama. He demonstrated great leadership against the odds in what is probably the most high-profile job in the world.
Who would you like to spend an evening with over dinner?
I’ve met many inspirational people in my career so it’s difficult to pick just one. I have great admiration for anyone who has managed to turn around a company and transform its fortunes. That takes a high level of resilience and tenacity.
What things should an aspiring leader not do?
Don’t blame others when things go wrong. A good leader should always be accountable. It’s also important to demonstrate humility and humour, particularly when under pressure. Also, don’t carry on doing something if it’s not working. Be open to change.
What are the key values that should be instilled in all staff?
Integrity, professionalism, respect, humility and an insatiable desire to strive for excellence and improvement. A strong work ethic and willingness to engage with the local community is also a must.