Lessons in leadership: “People who succeed don’t follow the mainstream”

·5-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Naomi Heaton didn’t set out to become a property expert: she actually started her career in advertising, joining the agency Leo Burnett as a graduate trainee straight out of Oxford University in the 1980s. It was only after putting down the deposit on her first home, in London’s Camden Town, that – in her words – she “got the property bug”. Having developed a successful sideline in buying, decorating and selling properties (“I found I could do it well not by spending more, but simply by doing it better”), she decided to quit advertising in order to focus on her own business.

Such were the origins of the London Central Portfolio (LCP), founded in 1990, which went on to become a leading property firm operating in prime central London, offering a wide range of services that include real-estate investment, acquisition, development, refurbishing and interior design. “There was a lot of innovation along the way, and that really came down to observing what was happening in a particular market and how we could serve that market better,” explains Heaton, who grew the business from a one-woman show to a team of about 30 people managing assets worth more than a billion pounds. Although the pandemic and Brexit inevitably hit LCP hard, in that both slowed the influx of overseas residents and investors into London, Heaton is confident that the model remains robust. “Prime central London is always a safe haven, because it’s a centre of culture and education, and it’s a wonderful cosmopolitan city.”

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Although Heaton remains closely involved in LCP as its chairman, she appointed the former head of Foxtons Andrew Weir to the position of CEO in 2020 in order to focus on her newest venture, The Other House, which builds on her intimate understanding of real-estate trends in the capital. Billed as a series of ‘Residents’ Clubs’, the innovative properties – the first of which has just launched in a historic building in South Kensington, with the second set to open in spring 2024 – combine the feeling of a residential home with all the benefits of staying in a hotel or visiting a private members’ club (a cocktail bar, a cafe, a spa and gym, meeting rooms and exclusive party spaces are among the facilities on offer). “The idea is that it feels like a place where you can relax and be yourself, but it’s also somewhere you can entertain and enjoy hotel-level service,” says Heaton.

With bids underway on several other properties across London, Heaton has big ambitions for the project’s growth. Here, she shares advice on how to lead large-scale projects and teams successfully…

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

The three most important qualities for a good leader are…

To listen, motivate and innovate, while showing passion, dedication and commitment.

My personal strength as a leader is…

The ability to inspire my team to believe in the vision and mission of our business, as well as in themselves and their contribution. It’s so important to make people feel that they can break any glass ceiling. My team really understand they are part of an amazing journey and that they can make a genuine difference to its success.

The biggest priority for my business right now is…

Opening The Other House and disrupting the hospitality market as we know it, creating a completely new sector that is far more relevant to the current generation of travellers. They’ve been involved at every stage, taking what was a concept on a piece of paper to an 126,000-square-foot entity that has just opened its doors in South Kensington.

I’m mitigating risk by…

Pursuing our unique business model, which I believe counteracts many of the risks other players in the hospitality sector are facing. We’ve hit a sweet spot where we’ve really been able to tune in to what people want post-pandemic, which is flexible travel. We also have tech built in to all our operations, both in terms of the way the team interacts and our offering to guests.

I keep my team motivated by…

Sharing my own passion and vision for the business, but also getting people involved and letting them take ownership of the project by contributing ideas. I also make sure to have one-to-one meetings with all of my staff so that they feel valued and can see opportunities for career progression.

The hardest decision I’ve had to make as a leader was…

When I was given the opportunity to become CEO of The Other House and launch the brand, I had to decide whether to hand over the reins of LCP or to sell the business. In the end I decided that for the love of the business, and what it delivered to my clients and my team, I couldn’t sell it – it was just too difficult to divest myself of something I’d built over so many years. That’s why I appointed a new CEO, and I look forward to seeing the company develop under new stewardship.

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as a leader was…

No single mistake stands out, but what I have learnt is that you can easily get hit by the consequences of an unexpected series of events. What you can predict you can avoid; what you can’t predict, you simply have to manage your way out of.

An effective leader will always…

Nurture success in their team and take pleasure in their achievement, while challenging them to bring better ideas to the table and suggest novel ways of developing the business. And most importantly, a good leader will always listen.

An effective leader will never…

Expect people to give more than they do themselves.

My role model for leadership is…

My former boss at Leo Burnett, who managed me when I was a graduate trainee and whom I followed to Saatchi & Saatchi. She later become chairman of the London office and CEO and chairman in New York. She inspired me through her passion, dedication, commitment and love of the business.

The one piece of advice I’d give to a new leader is…

Believe in yourself and go with what you think. People who succeed don’t follow the mainstream. You will hit many roadblocks along the way, but always search for a way around them because the solution is often better than the original direction.

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