A new report from Opus Energy shows that, despite widespread fears over how the Brexit process may affect UK businesses, sentiments among SME bosses are buoyant. According to the firm’s research:

  • 61% of SMEs expect their businesses to grow over the two-year period in which the UK will negotiate its future;
  • 29% feel more confident about their future than they did before the referendum, and
  • 59% expect to increase their workforces.

While this is all tremendous evidence of an intrinsic chutzpah thriving among UK entrepreneurs, it can’t be denied that confidence sometimes blots out uncomfortable details – and there’s every chance that the next two years could throw out one or two humbling surprises.

In the wake of Theresa May pulling the trigger on Article 50 on 29 March, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is already on the alert for potential barriers to trade, saying: “Small business exporters tell us that the EU single market is still their top market of choice, [but] One third of exporting small businesses have told us they would be genuinely deterred from trading with the EU if a tariff of 2% to 4% was imposed on trade between the UK and EU.”

There will undoubtedly be a host of moving targets for SME chiefs to keep tabs on as the negotiations proceed – so what kind of leadership qualities and approaches will help them justify their evidently high confidence?

In the view of The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper, the first step is to understand that the coming changes will not be as rapid or all-consuming as media coverage would have us believe. “John Timpson, of the Timpson services company, has made some good points on this,” she notes. “He’s said that people will still need dry cleaning, they’ll still need their shoes repaired, they’ll still need keys cut, and so on. In the US, Henry Mintzberg pointed out that, while we tend to dwell on change, lots of things don’t. Yes, technology’s changing rapidly; yes, that’s impacting some parts of our lives. But change isn’t happening to everything – and in fact whatever changes are underway are playing out among a huge number of constants.”

On the specific point of Brexit, Cooper argues, “leaders would do well to grasp that it will change some things, but won’t change everything. If you have a strong, local market, and you’re meeting the needs of that market, or if you have great relationships internationally, then those positives will be maintained. I also think that it’s important to remember what kind of values we as a business community are trading: high-quality customer service, ethical corporate citizenship – things that our SMEs routinely excel at. The more optimistic we are, the better things will be.”

Cooper adds: “Turning to the particular skills that leaders should harness at this time, I think their primary assets will be adaptability and an external focus. Don’t get too bogged down or over-involved in your own, internal processes. It’s not all about you – it’s about what’s going on outside. Yes, get the organisation running as smoothly as possible; yes, give some attention to the sorts of management-related areas that Andy Haldane at the Bank of England  flagged up very recently – but there’s no substitute for being aware of what’s happening around you, and continuing to talk or collaborate with other organisations that are similarly affected. Keep your ear to the ground!”

For further thoughts on staying collaborative in the face of large changes, check out this learning item from the Institute