When Michael Tobin was born, his father William was in prison for running an illegal enterprise – a gang that specialised in crime in a seedy part of East London. At one point, Michael’s mother moved with him to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, just to get him out of the toxic circumstances he found himself. And when Rhodesia became too hostile for foreigners, the two moved back to London, but they had lost all they had as a family.
Today, Michael is a leading entrepreneur and leader of Telecity, a cutting-edge technology company that in 2015, was valued at $3.6 billion. He also sits on the board of 14 technology companies globally. No wonder he is a staunch believer in the mantra that one must not allow one’s circumstances to determine his life.
The one question that Sir Michael — he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) five years ago for his services to the Digital Economy — often grapples with is: How do leaders deal with change? He believes that enterprises that thrive in a rapidly changing world are defined by their adaptability.
Sir Michael does not just theorise about this problem. When he was CEO of Redbus in 2003, he was instrumental in leading merger talks with Telecity, a fierce competitor in the market for data centres until the merger that led to the two former rivals sharing a board and the same work space.
After years of negotiations and just when he was about to ink the deal, he realised that his Redbus management team was fearful of the impending merger and posed a threat to its success because they feared they would lose their jobs. He devised a plan. He took them to Edinburgh, ostensibly for training. Once the training was over, he took them to the Deep Sea World.
“Listen up,” I said, “you are all going to be swimming with sharks,”” he writes in his book, Forget Strategy. Get Results. He could feel their fear as they had no protective gear. But they had no choice. In the aquarium they went in twos, counting on each other for support. By the time they emerged from the danger, they had learned to conquer their fear.
He says in this book the experience taught the team that “it is easier to confront reality than to dwell in apprehension”. This is a reality that is familiar to many entrepreneurs and their employees when they are facing uncertainty and disruption. But he has a word of advice for those who find themselves in that situation: “Good business, successful business, demands the ability to encounter and confront tough business issues and decisions”.
When Sir Michael met 70 Kenyan entrepreneurs in Nairobi last year, he told them: “We never fear the past or present. We fear the future. If you can do something to affect the future, do it; do not worry about it.” And that was his advice to entrepreneurs, business leaders and employees who fear change.
As a business leader, he said, he values an employee’s ability to evolve more than any other skills set. Such employees drive business adaptability in times of change. But he has been there and done that.
“At the age of 21 I was appointed MD of a French tech company. I didn’t speak French. But I knew I could learn it there,” he says in his book. But a true business leader, he says is one who can impart that sense of fearlessness in his colleagues and impart his vision for the business in them.
Like Ralph Nadar, the American author, he believes that “the job of a leader today is not to create followers, it is to create more leaders.”