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What makes a good leader with Priya Lakhani

Barrister and entrepreneur, Priya Lakhani, was our first speaker when NextGen launched in 2018. She was a fitting choice given her varied and successful career path that began as a barrister and has encompassed everything from a catering business, a charitable enterprise and now the company Century Tech, which she co-founded.

In every role Priya has been a disrupter who has used her platform to solve problems. This is never more evident than her current role, where she is using AI in the education sector to deliver top-class, tailored education to children around the world.

With such a wide-ranging career, good leadership has been at the core of her success. We caught up with Priya to get her thoughts on the key to good leadership.

What makes a good leader?

I think every leader is different, there isn’t one formula. Today a good leader has to really understand culture more than anything, and how to create a positive culture within a business. A strong culture should be in line with the strategy of what you are trying to achieve. This sounds easy but so many people overlook this and are more focussed on the performance of individuals, rather than giving people what they need to succeed. You need to empower your workforce.

You can get leaders who have various different skills, but a good leader would surround themselves with people with skills in the areas where they are weaker. A leader is only one person so you really need to engage others with great talent to succeed.

How did you prepare yourself to become a leader?

I’m still learning. There are too many leaders out there who think they have all the answers. But how can this be, especially in today’s environment where everything is so fast paced and technology is constantly evolving. Everyday I’m learning the most important thing to bear in mind is to be open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, and not to think your way is the only way to succeed.

Did you always know you wanted to run your own business?

I have always been very busy, ever since I was young and ran little enterprises with my brother. My family is very entrepreneurial and people who ran their own businesses surrounded me, so we started early. I loved the idea of identifying an issue and using what was around me to fix it. So from selling chocolate bars at school, to creating a platform for learning, the basis is always about solving a problem.

In what way is starting a business different now compared to five years ago?

In my field specifically, education technology, there is new technology all the time. Five years ago we were laughed at when we said we wanted to bring artificial intelligence into education, now everybody is talking about it. I think in most sectors it’s about timing. Five years is a lifetime in tech. So much goes into development and marketing that it’s sometimes too early or too late. Timing really is everything in this business.

There is always uncertainty. Ten years ago we had the recession and now we have Brexit and a global pandemic. When I spoke to people about starting a business there were always some saying it isn’t the right time; you of course need to assess the current landscape and all the different factors, but at the end of the day you have to trust your instinct and have confidence in your decisions. No time is ever perfect but if you follow these rules then it sets you on the right path.

What is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned in business?

I think that everyone is constantly making mistakes. Making a mistake is quite a lonely position to be in, but being aware that everyone is making mistakes not just you, and to learn from them and then move on. Don’t dwell on them.

How important is work-life balance to you?

Really important, if you can’t balance it in a way that makes you happy you are going to burn out pretty quickly. There are always going to be times when you think you’re spending too much time here or there; you don’t always get it right but you have to forgive yourself, and not give yourself too much of a hard time.

The biggest mistake people make is to take a decision to go back to work, or to start their own venture, or alternatively take a decision they want to be a full time parent but then they are really harsh on themselves, thinking people are judging them. The best thing is to make these decisions for you and your family and ignore what anyone else thinks because everyone is different. We spend far too much time criticising ourselves.