Hallmarks of Leadership
12 March 2001

Sheffield, renowned for its stainless steel, has had a Master Cutler for 700 years. Richard Field, who held the office in 1997, tells about his city's fight back from recession, and the remarkable turn round in his own life.

The movie The Full Monty amusingly and poignantly showed the plight of redundant steelworkers in Sheffield who, untrained for new skills, resorted to desperate measures to earn a living and hold their families together. But Sheffield citizens were upset by the film's portrayal of their city as an industrial wasteland.

Today the numbers employed in Sheffield steel are only a fraction of those in its heyday, when the city was regarded as a steel capital of the world. But businessman Richard Field is keen to dispel any notion that Sheffield's renowned steel and cutlery industries are in terminal decline. Surprisingly the city, where stainless steel was invented, makes more steel now than it did at the height of World War II, he points out. The city produces over 100 million pieces of cutlery a year. When Corus, formerly British Steel1, announced swingeing redundancies in February 2001, its plants in Sheffield and the nearby town of Rotherham were hardly affected, and its stainless steel business was said to be making good progress. In 1999, Corus was the world's fifth largest steel producer, making 21.4 million tonnes of steel that year, though by 2000 the company was losing over £1 million a day and the cut-backs aimed to reduce output by three million tonnes.

The Master Cutler--Sheffield's leading businessman--represents the area's traditional manufacturing industries. While the city honoured its 100th mayor, Field was the 358th Master Cutler. Sheffield can claim its cutlery industry dates back 700 years to Robert the Cutler of 1297. The Company of Cutlers was formed in 1624 and today its 500 'freemen' come from businesses with a collective turnover of £18 billion--'a substantial part of the national economy', Field points out.

As Master Cutler, Field was charged with promoting Sheffield and its neighbouring towns (known collectively as Hallamshire) as an ideal place for inward investment, as well as protecting standards within the industry. His year in office was one of 'sharing experiences and selling the excellence of traditional manufacturing industries'. The way to achieve excellence, he adds, 'is through co-operation and trust'.

This seems to be the hallmark of Field's whole approach. As Chairman of J and J Dyson plc, he saw the company turned around from being a loss maker to notching up record profits. Field's strategy was to include the 'team', as he calls the workforce, by asking them what needed to be done. But hard decisions also had to be made, including halving the numbers employed to 1,000. Now the company is achieving a turnover of £50 million and has become one of the world's leading suppliers of refactories--linings for furnaces used in the manufacture of lenses and ceramics. When Field wanted to leave the company in 1990, the Chief Executive, Mike O'Brien, a blunt Yorkshireman, made no bones about his disapproval. Field merely says that 'they agreed' he should stay on to develop the company's strategy and 'leading edge' practices.

He joined the Company of Cutlers in 1987, and that year was appointed President of the Chamber of Commerce. More recently, at the age of 51, he completed his Masters in Total Quality Management and Strategic Thinking, and freely admits to it being 'the hardest thing I have ever done'. His thesis was accepted only at the fourth draft. He likes to initiate projects, he says, but finds it much harder to 'follow through and tie the ribbon at the end'.

Field was also a director in the Sheffield-based Organisation for Co-operation and Trust, founded by management consultant John Carlisle. Field describes it as 'one of the largest UK companies involved in giving training in partnership'. Clients come from a range of construction and service industries, banks and local government authorities. The partnership works with the whole workforce, including board members, and the emphasis, says Field, is on 'getting the culture right' in order to become world class. By this he means being inclusive in sharing information not only with customers and shareholders but also employees, suppliers and the wider community.

Now Field runs his own consultancy business, Field Enterprise, which works with companies 'to help them become increasingly successful by developing long-term relationships with their stakeholders', he says. 'My belief is that everyone is family. You shouldn't see the seam. We are all one. We find that by embracing relationships organizations can be much more effective. We have seen savings of over 30 per cent in some companies.'

Field insists there is nothing new in this. He likes to quote Confucius: 'A person wanting to succeed finds that in straining to help others he helps himself.' Life is about long-term relationships, Field continues. 'It has taken me a long time to realize this. But it is the only way forward for business: to work on co-operation, trust and relationships.'

Field brings to all his roles an energy that would have been unthinkable in his childhood. At the age of seven he suffered from encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. He went into a coma for a month. Doctors told his parents that he would need 10 hours of sleep for the rest of his life. The illness put him a year behind his friends at school, 'and so I gave up trying'. He felt himself to be a failure, 'and so the legend became true', he says. Nonetheless, he studied accountancy and became chief accountant at Bridon Wire, a firm of 2,000 people. 'I was leading a team of 60 people with no idea of how to do it.'

Then, aged 28, he went on an 'effective leadership' training course, run by the Industrial Society at Balliol College, Oxford. There he heard the Industrial Society's director say, 'By doing you become'. The phrase riveted Field. 'From then on I started working hard, and I became hard working. I started doing more caring things, and I became a more caring person, I believe. It changed my life. I found that self-esteem is all in the mind. Since then I have devoted much of my life to learning and sharing with others, so that they can develop themselves to their full potential.' He has also had 'a life-long desire to learn more about leadership and co-operation'.

The immediate effect was that he gained a new confidence at work, especially in being unafraid to seek help from others. Within two years he was appointed Finance Director at Bridon Wire, at the age of 30.

Now he is lucky if he gets more than seven hours sleep. He acquired self-discipline through his jujitsu master, who insisted on him being in the gym at six each morning to gain his second dan (black belt grade). He also practises T'ai Chi and says he has found 'inner peace' through early morning prayer and meditation. He reckons to read a book a week, and keeps up a prodigious correspondence, in the belief that a friendship gained is a friendship for life. And he spends every Saturday afternoon being in touch with half a dozen people to whom he acts as a 'mentor', or spiritual advisor.

This emphasis on developing others was also reflected in his chairmanship of a leadership team at a successful denim retail chain known ironically as The Bankrupt Clothing Company. Employing 200 people in 12 shops, it was in fact highly profitable. 'I did so because I was very impressed with their development of people,' says Field. Every shop devotes an hour's training to its staff each day. The average age was under 25 and 'the quality of their thinking exceptional', says Field. 'They are the best trained retail people I have ever met.'

In 1995, law student Krish Raval approached Field at a business conference in Caux, Switzerland. 'You have all these skills but why don't you pass them on to students?' he asked Field. They are, after all, the workforce, the managers, the business leaders of the future. Rising to the challenge, Field gathered together a faculty of 12 business and community leaders who devoted four consecutive Sundays to training the first group of 39 university students. Since then, the programme, called 'Students for Sheffield', has involved over 1,000 students and young people from all parts of the community. At the beginning of 2001 it was launched nationwide as Learn to Lead.

Raval, who is now Chief Executive of Learn to Lead, says that the aim is to offer 'training in basic concepts of communications and self-confidence'. The effect, he says, has been palpable: 'The 39 students were different after the four weeks, with an increased confidence and a new understanding of leadership and service. They even began to walk differently, to talk differently. Many of them began to trust businessmen for the first time.' Raval says that Field's 'vibrancy, enthusiasm and zeal makes you feel alive'.

For his part, Field says that the faculty were surprised and humbled to realize how much the students were already involved in various forms of voluntary community service. Future jobs, he adds, in a city where unemployment is over two per cent above the national average, will no longer come from large businesses but from small companies. 'Young people need to be trained in entrepreneurial skills and leadership. The opportunities are immense.'

This brings us on to the public debate about declining values in a secular and increasingly violent society. 'The way to respond is to be a role model--somebody with purpose, competence, integrity, walking the talk,' asserts Field. If he himself has fulfilled that role for many, he also says that something more is needed. 'You must also care and I would say love--and if you do so then others will want your support.'

First published in For A Change magazine, February/March 1997.

1. In October 1999, British Steel merged with Hoogovens of The Netherlands

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