Inside Business: An ACE is good for the soul

Roger Trapp reports on a group initiative to help businesses grow
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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it Chasetead looks pretty much like any other small engineering company. Although loaded up with state-of-the-art computers, robotics and other equipment designed to keep it at the leading edge of prototyping for the automotive industry, its premises are a fairly nondescript factory on a typical trading estate.

But look closely and you will see telltale signs that this is no ordinary "metal-basher". Reception has a vibrant display of lilies, while in the office a bowl of salt sits beside each computer. Like the area being set aside as a garden, these touches betray the influence of feng shui at this Hertfordshire firm.

And an interest in this increasingly popular oriental philosophy is just one thing that managing director David Smallridge claims to have picked up from membership of the Academy for Chief Executives (ACE). He has given each of his 42-strong workforce a business card, encouraged his employees to take night classes in a range of disciplines not necessarily directly connected to their work, given them up to pounds 500 each to spend on equipment of their choice and installed a computer with internet access in the canteen to encourage a greater facility with the computers gradually taking over the engineering industry.

Though he admits he is not sure if every initiative is affecting performance, all are a response to the urgings of fellow members of ACE. As he explains, making a commitment to do something one month and then being questioned on whether you actually did it at the next month's meeting puts a lot of pressure on people like him to keep trying things.

Mr Smallridge is just one of more than 100 business leaders who have signed up for the academy since it was launched in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, 18 months ago. An outgrowth of the much longer-established, and US-based TEC International, the academy is, says Sue Cheshire, its chief executive, a means for leaders to give and receive genuinely independent feedback.

Though primarily aimed at owner-managers running businesses with turnover of a few million pounds, the organisation also appeals to executives in much larger organisations with boards and other corporate support on the grounds that it is, says Ms Cheshire, "like having a non-executive board but without the baggage".

As with TEC, members pay a subscription and join a group of about 14 others from non-competing companies. Each group has a chairman who, as well as taking charge of the montly, all-day meeting, visits each member once a month.

Besides the opportunity to receive advice from people who might have been in a similar situation in the past, members are attracted by the chance of being able to balance their own skills with those of others, and of being put in a position to assess her or his organisation against others outside its sector.

Graham Thompson, who heads the UK branch of TEC International, reckons that the reason why both organisations are doing well in the current climate is that there is "a growing realisation that the people leading organisations need as much personal development as anybody else". Moreover, it is acknowledged that businesses can benefit if those heading them develop personally.

So, both organisations go in for a great deal of the sort of soul-searching - often about their personal lives as well as their businesses - that one would not expect hard-headed business leaders to favour. Indeed, it is possible - when those involved are talking about issues that have to be confronted and their commitment to change - to imagine the monthly meetings as akin to Alcoholics Anonymous sessions.

Ms Cheshire, who has previously run a business and been involved in the Government's Business Link programme, admits that "it is a difficult concept to sell to people". But she claims that for those who make "the leap of faith" it moves them from "just running a business to leading a business".

Peter Knight, managing director of Phoenix Advertising, a Surrey marketing services company, also sees the TEC meetings as "a very valuable part of the business process for me personally and the company. It's not a one-way thing. I feel that my experience is of value to others as much as their's might be to me."