Recognising Potential in a Crisis – The CEO’s Moment with Steve Ashton

2020 has been a period of unprecedented change in all aspects of our lives, from how we interact with friends and family, to how we do business.

At Livingston James, we understand that great leaders must be adaptable, ready to respond positively to this period of disruption.  As such, we are launching our ‘Recognising Potential in a Crisis’ series.

In this series, we connect with the CEOs of Scottish businesses across sectors to find out how they are using this period of evolution to reimagine their own potential, and that of their organisation to have the greatest impact.

The next CEO to feature in our series is Steve Ashton, CEO of Spaceright Europe Ltd, manufacturers of education and office products, with sites in Glasgow and Lincoln.


During the pandemic, many organisations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible. What have you learnt about leadership through this crisis?

The importance of remaining calm and focussed, especially when confronted by the unimaginable. Ensure that your reactions are measured and consistent with your core principles, even if you need to make radical short-term decisions to provide the business with flexibility and options for the future. Knee jerk reactions seldom provide a strong base for recovery or resumption.

People are always at the centre of your success and must be valued highest in times of crisis, rather than commoditised, as they will be the key in your recovery and how strongly you emerge.


What beliefs or long-held assumptions have you needed to reset in your organisation to ensure your business is moving forward?

More than ever throughout the COVD crisis I have focussed on  reminding the team of their interdependency. As a manufacturing company with several brands and multiple sites, whilst it is essential and healthy to instil brand loyalty and passion, it has never been more important to remember and recognise that we are one company, with each constituent part relying on the other and collectively determining our success or failure. I am proud of the response across the whole business and we have truly witnessed the benefits of coordinated cooperation and altruistic thinking across brands and departments. In more normal times, when business is comparatively easy, this simple fact often is taken for granted.


How has your leadership style evolved over the course of the pandemic?

As a leader, I have reconnected  with my younger self, the person who knew far less, was less self-assured but who listened more. Whilst it is important to display strong leadership in a crisis, when confronted with a new crisis like COVID, it is OK not to have all the answers immediately to hand. By engaging with your team your perspective widens exponentially and you reach workable, inclusive, and fully informed decisions that are representative of and invested in by the entire management team, with the best chance of success.


What personal qualities have you found most effective when leading your senior team and wider business through such uncertainty, and why do you think those qualities have shown over others?

It is quite hard to be objective about one’s own qualities, as they are only accurate or upheld if they are shared by others of you. Throughout the recent testing times I believe that my leadership role has been made far easier for a few key basic reasons on which all good working relationships are founded. In my 10 years of leading the business, I have earned my team’s trust by consistently making good decisions that have enhanced our collective fortune. I believe that I have always shown integrity and proven reliable by doing what I have said I would do and by delivering promises. Finally, and crucially, I always try to see things from their perspective, recognise good performance and dedication and reward before I am asked. I think we have all experienced a bad leader or two in our careers, which we must all remember when it becomes our turn.


Beyond role modelling, how can CEOs encourage their senior teams and other leaders to enrich their networks and the velocity of learnings with their peers across industries, particularly when face to face interaction has been disrupted?

I feel we have a bit of an advantage here as we are a reseller-orientated business. We are fortunate to have long standing relationships with businesses in several channels and as such have insight into their businesses and regular access to and involvement with their personnel on all levels. This demonstrates to us good and bad practices and has provided us with real time points of comparison of what works and conversely what does not. At a management level we do regularly discuss these models and find them continuously valuable.

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