The Worshipful Company of Launderers (WCL), supported by the Oliver Family Education Trust, hosted a leadership conference on Tuesday, 13 February at Glaziers/Launderers Hall in the City of London. According to WCL: “Motivation is what causes us to act or choose not to. What lessons did the pandemic teach us about motivating ourselves and our teams and how can we maintain our motivation to grow our industry in the face of today’s changing marketplace?” A stand-out keynote speaker at this year’s event was Dr Vikas Shah MBE DL, CEO, Swiscot Group, the textiles and commodities trading business.

Shah started his first business aged 14 and is now CEO of Swiscot Group, alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally in diverse industries including healthcare, consulting, film and TV, robotics, cyber security, and software.

According to Shah, motivation is the ‘why’ for the ‘what’ that we do.  “I don’t believe everyone is born to lead, though there are exceptions,” he said. “I think for most of us, a mixture of circumstances and opportunities coalesce in our becoming leaders and with that comes the need to find a why, for the what, the why we do what we do – what we need to do – to do the what, to lead.” Shah went on to share how in his own journey – key moments that have shaped his own leadership, and motivation journey.

He cited the effect of unintended consequences on where we end up in life such as watching planes growing up, wanting to be a pilot – that was the only option for him. Unfortunatley he couldn’t join the RAF so this was followed by doing freelance design work when he was a kid to pay for flying lessons. The ndesign business grew, and became a real business

‘By 16 I had employees in different parts of the world, and a whole new career opened up, not the one I had intended, but the one which actually made me feel deeply connected -Without a doubt it was the most exciting time of my career – but It actually took some soul searching to accept that giving up what we thought we wanted is hard, because so much of our identity is linked to it.”

Shah said that lesson is an important one. “What we think we want most deeply, is not necessarily what we want – and that’s OK – but the more we’re aligned with what we truly want and feel fulfilment from? The more we’re going to have the strength to undertake the hard endeavours of making things happen. For me, had I held on too deeply to that initial dream, I perhaps would not have found the new one.

“There was a hidden lesson with this too; that of how much identity is caught up in what we do, rather than perhaps, who we are – and as much as it can be difficult to separate the two, we must.”

Shah spoke of the importance of having a mentor, in his case Andy Blunt , who steered him through the next phase of his career at just 15 when he was summoned by XTML.. The role of a mentor as the business grew and building a management team of brilliant people, leaning on them and realising that makes you succeed more, and that, guess what? Building a business – succeeding  – really is a team sport.

Then the .com bubble crashed and being completely flummoxed he reached out to Andy, and heard he’d died, which left him bereft and ultimately  alone to make some of the hardest decisions and to take the consequences of them. “The lesson: leadership is a team sport, until it isn’t – and we have to have the resilience to deal with some of those hardest moments in leadership, which we often have to face alone,” said Shah.

It was a good lesson in perspective for the young entrepreneur. “There’s a great phrase, the worst thing that’s happened to you, is the worst thing that’s happened to you. There’s also a reason why some of the most stoic, accepting, calm and wisdom filled individuals in the world are the ones who’ve been through Hell. 
“We don’t necessarily have to be the protagonist of those stories, but we can bear witness to them and have our lives changed.”

Leave the ego at the door
“More than a decade ago, Shah was asked to join a board IDAB @ BEIS. At the first meeting there lots of massive words, massive new things and Shah kept silent.  In conversation with the Chair in the break he said: “I don’t deserve to be at the table.” To which the reply was: “You definitely do.” 

‘Lesson: my ego prevented me contributing. I know I had the experience to be there, but my ego prevented me asking questions and contributing – however motivated you are, it’s ego that sometimes gets in the way.  It also reminded me that as leaders, we owe it to others (around us) to also look out for when we might see that behaviour in them,” said Shah.