Becoming A Leader, Not Just A Manager

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Becoming A Leader, Not Just A Manager

James Hill, of architectural glazing firm Polar NE, worked his way up from working for the firm in the school holidays to becoming managing director – but the journey wasn’t always a smooth one.

“I didn’t have a particular dream when I left school. I wasn’t great at many subjects, barring those I was interested in, like engineering, IT, where I did well. However, I knew I didn’t want to carry on with further education, so when I had an opportunity to join Polar straight from school, my career started there.”

James’ father Ray already worked at Polar as operations director, and James would help out at weekends and in the school holidays, although he still had no clear vision of his future.

“I started off on the vans as a labourer through the holidays and essentially never left. From the vans, I moved to working as an installer, and from there, thanks to my interest in CAD, I moved into the office to be a designer.

“I spent a few years doing that while also learning to be a surveyor, taking on quite a few different positions before I worked my way up to be an install manager a few years later.”

However, James would be the first to admit he had no management experience – although he liked what he saw and the opportunities it could bring.

“I spent around five years as the install manager, but at that point, I had no education about what a manager was or what it should be. Instead, it was all about getting the jobs done and looking out for the lads as best we could.

“However, that role was the first insight into what I really enjoyed and a bit of passion came out for the first time in my career, as I could see what the possibilities were and how I could build the team up.

“I hadn’t been taught how to do it, and there was nobody to guide me, so I very much learned by my mistakes – and I made a fair few along the way.

“It’s not until you bring in a coach like Ian Kinnery that you realise all of what you don’t know, and he helps you to become more of a leader than a manager.”

The Polar leadership team had all been working with Ian since 2015, but it wasn’t until James took on the role of operations manager in late 2016 that his impact could really be felt.

“When Ian joined, we started to see more growth, which is ultimately what led to the opportunity for me to become operations director. While I relished the opportunity, it was also at around that point that I started to struggle.

“The anxiety came on like the flick of a switch. I’d taken on this bigger role, which encompassed a few managers’ roles in one, and tried to deliver it all myself. That workload very quickly became obscene, I was working 70 to 80-hour weeks for a good few years, and that’s when the anxiety kicked in.

“Talking about it with Ian really helped me get out of that mindset, by building the team up around me to share the load.”

His team are at the heart of Polar for James and his vision for the company centres around them, rather than profits and scaling – although he’s ambitious for those things too. He became managing director in November 2019 – four months before Covid took hold – and describes the first few months as a baptism of fire.

“I’d never particularly had a dream to be an MD, it was more that an opportunity presented itself and there was nobody else!

“However, it has given me the scope and ability to drive my vision, which is that everyone who works here should feel like they’re coming to work with their friends every day.

“I’m so proud that we’ve got a family-oriented culture at Polar, and I want to keep going and scale up so we can have as many people in this family as we can.”

As for working with Ian, James credits the coaching he’s received with turning him into the leader he is today – even if it hasn’t always been easy.

“Working with Ian is amazing, but it comes with its challenges as well, because he does hold you accountable for your decisions and he does push you hard.

“However, Ian has fuelled me to believe in my vision for Polar and to create the best environment for everyone – and it’s paying off.

“I became MD shortly before Covid, and I’m not sure I’d have got through it without him; but with him on board, we came up with a plan and worked our way through it sensibly. In fact, we had our best year to date through Covid, and it’s forecasted to keep growing.

“Ian also helped me see the importance of routine and building that up, not just in the company, but in my whole day, making sure I’m making time for myself, going to the gym, eating healthily, building my knowledge through reading and audiobooks, structuring my day with meetings and emails.

“Ian has helped me to step out of the day-to-day, build the right team and create a vison of the future for Polar. Our team has grown together and know that we are capable of taking on pretty much anything.”