Meet the MD: Denise Smiles of Optical Metrology Services

Meet the MD: Denise Smiles of Optical Metrology Services

As chief executive of one of the world’s leading specialist technology companies supplying pipe measurement products and services to the global oil and gas industry, no two days are the same for Denise Smiles. She tells BQ what she believes makes a great business leader...

What does your role include?

Although my official title is CEO, I regard myself more as a figurehead and a coordinator of the wider leadership team. While my key responsibility is to make the overall business decisions, I follow this up by leading the company to deliver its objectives, which pushes us further forward as a business.

I also see my role as a sounding board for anyone to talk to. From discussing new ideas, raising issues, advising improvements to processes or simply looking for advice on day-to-day tasks, I’m always there to sit down with each and every member of the team.

However, at OMS, no two days are ever the same – which is what I love. Although I start every morning with a to-do list, other things are usually squeezed in on an ad-hoc basis – from reviewing board meeting minutes, talking through strategy, planning new market exploration research, getting involved in planning training courses and even coordinating team away days.

All in all, my key ongoing task is to take a helicopter view of the strategy, while ensuring activity is running smoothly for more short-term activities. So – act now, plan way in advance!

 

What is it the company does?

Optical Metrology Services (OMS) is one of the world’s leading specialist technology companies. Based in Stansted, UK, we supply precision measurement and inspection tools and services that solve engineering problems for a wide range of different industries.

We are passionate about process improvement across industry, and precision measurement is at the heart of our solution. As well as working in the global oil and gas sector, we support a range of other industries, including nuclear, aerospace and defence, utilities, pipe mills, academic institutions, legal and pharmaceuticals.

Since 2007, we have completed more than 250 projects in more than 20 countries worldwide. Currently, we have teams working in Oman, Kazakhstan, the South Korea Sea and the USA, among others.

 

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

I started my career as a legal secretary, working in the residential and commercial property department for a city law firm. I’d always been interested in law so, to move away from administration and further my career, I decided to take a legal executives course at night school and pass my legal exams.

Several months later, my boss resigned. Being young and tenacious, I went straight to the Senior Partner and asked for a chance to join the legal team – not just as a trainee, but as a direct replacement for my boss. It was a brave move but, fortunately, he gave me a chance. The next week I started as a full-time member of the legal team and quickly cut my teeth in the industry.

It was a steep learning curve, but I loved every minute of it. I learnt a lot in a short space of time, quickly moving up the ladder. Eighteen months later, I was headhunted by Sony (one of my clients) and accepted a job with the global firm – still working in law but looking after trademarks and intellectual property, rather than property. This saw my career progress quickly, gaining significant experience in a completely new sector.

By this time, I’d demonstrated my talents as an in-house lawyer and become well-known within the industry. Not wanting to stay still, I moved to Proudfoot plc and then onto Camelot – operator of The National Lottery. At Camelot, I was involved in a number of high-profile initiatives, including its bid for its second Licence and acting as Alternate Director on the Utingo Board (the company established to launch and operate the South African lottery).

Camelot was an excellent company to work for. As well as providing opportunities to progress, the management team was committed to our personal development. Alongside my day-to-day role, I undertook a Masters degree in business management and strategy – my first move away from law and in to the wider business world.

After passing my exams, I decided that my real passion lay in a business career and the opportunities this would present. I therefore left Camelot and set up as an independent business consultant – advising on everything from corporate strategic direction and project management to general management techniques and improving teamwork. It was here that I first came across OMS, which was one of my first clients.

After undertaking a number of projects with the team, I was asked to join full-time. At this point, there were only two members of staff – one of whom was part time. Since then, hard work and a forward-thinking strategy has helped to increase our workforce considerably, growing the company turnover and expanding our capabilities accordingly.

In 2013, I was appointed as CEO and have since worked hard to further grow the company, drive corporate strategy and expand our market penetration.

 

What do you believe makes a great leader?

From my experience, there are a number of traits that make a good leader. Listening, however, is the most important. A bad manager makes decisions based on their own knowledge and understanding, while a good manager utilises the skills, expertise, experience and creativity of their team – gathering and analysing ideas before making an informed, strategic judgement.

Empowering your team in this way not only gets better results, but also motivates staff and pushes them to become more creative. If team members feel confident to put forward ideas, advice and new approaches to solve problems, their passion and loyalty strengthens accordingly. If you celebrate their ideas and proactively give credit for innovative thinking, the whole team becomes more responsive and proactive.

Alongside listening to your staff, allowing them to make mistakes and helping to fix resulting issues is also important. Celebrate their development and impart your knowledge – this will see team members grow in both confidence and experience.

 

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

With such a stressful job, finding time to wind down is essential. It not only significantly improves your performance, but also helps creative thinking and encourages new ideas.

I have to admit, taking regular breaks is a key part of my working week. Anything from sitting down to enjoy a cup of tea and chocolate bar, to getting away from the office for a walk over lunch, makes a huge difference to my performance.

Recently, however, I’ve also taken up the latest past time trend – adult colouring. It sounds silly really, but there’s nothing more relaxing than picking up some coloured pencils and doing something simple to take your mind away from the working day. There are a wide range of challenging, adult colouring books, but I prefer the children’s ones! I still manage to colour over the lines, however!

 

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. I think the aspect that really interested me was helping others and seeing people learn. I was so keen to follow this career path that I took two additional A Levels at night school (at the age of 35!) and eventually secured a place to study at Cambridge.

Although this had always been my dream, I made the decision to walk away and instead pursue a career in business – a decision that really surprised me at the time. Going with my gut is something that has always served me well and, at this crossroads, turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.

However, I think my interest in teaching has played an important role in my professional development and significantly influenced my management style. I want to teach people what I know and support their growth through my personal experiences, rather than simply delegate tasks. For this reason, I’ve never really walked away from my dream… just approached it from a different perspective.

 

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about then?

My real pet hate in the workplace is malicious gossip – everything from snide comments and unpleasant remarks to starting rumours and backstabbing. I want work to be fun, not hostile. I especially don’t want staff to feel anxious about what’s being said behind their backs or undermined by other people’s unfriendly behaviour.

Fortunately, this is something that OMS rarely experiences. We encourage staff to work together and use their collective skills to approach problems in a joined-up fashion. Unnecessary competition is therefore something the team naturally avoids, with everyone needing to work closely together to achieve the best possible results.

In previous roles, however, I haven’t been as lucky. In fact, most offices experience gossip to some extent. My approach is to tackle the issue head on – clearly raising the issue with staff and explaining that it plays no part in a high-performing workplace. Senior management plays a key role in identifying this behaviour and isolating incidences, but laying down expectations must come from the top.

 

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

Going forward, I’m committed to making the business even stronger – utilising our expertise to deliver a world-leading service and unparalleled product and service range for companies across the globe. Leading change, innovating and expanding the capabilities of our technologies will play an important role in this drive, as will diversifying our market focus.

Personally, I believe our next step will be moving into the nuclear marketplace – an innovative industry with significant development expected over the coming years. Our technologies and capabilities fit perfectly with the needs of businesses operating in the sector, making market entry both viable and straightforward.

 

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

I think my serious advice for any aspiring business leader is to be prepared for hard work, but don’t be afraid to make decisions. In business, you have to take risks, work on instinct and to go with your gut. Although this may seem daunting, you’ll reap the benefits and stay ahead of the curve.