John Leach – An interview with Carter Corson

16/03/2015

John Leach, Chief Executive, Winning Pitch, describes how it is always important for entrepreneurs to consider the emotional as well as financial costs to growth.

Click here to the article and more from Carter Corson

In your work you talk about “profitable, sustainable high growth”. What does sustainable refer to?

One of the key things around growth is that it all starts at the top. When we talk about high-growth businesses and organisations, what we’re referring to are those that can sustain 20% growth each year. This level of growth usually pivots around an individual who has a high degree of energy and wants to take the business to places where other entrepreneurs don’t want to go.

It begins with a mind-set driven by a genuine intention and ambition toward growth. There are many individuals who state that they want to grow but there’s a lack of genuine commitment. There are many people who talk about growth who are actually hallucinating rather than visioning.

Sustainable growth starts with genuine, sustainable intent that is actually followed through with strong execution. Sustainable intent translates into building the right team, working out the business model, financing it in a feasible and taking calculated risks.

There is a common misconception that entrepreneurs are nutcases who play the lottery with the family jewels. In fact, successful entrepreneurs are very much about assessing risk rather than taking risk. This gives them clarity in deciding what mitigating actions are required to avoid doing something calamitous.

When we talk about entrepreneurship, do you think that we sometimes over-focus on the individual? Can we lose sight of how while individuals may be the driving force behind a company, it takes a team to build it?

It does indeed start with the individual. The founders who grow their businesses into something quite special are the ones who have a high degree of self-awareness. However, it is important to think about the DNA of a great team, which I call the Thinkers, Doers, Sellers and Controllers. When you first set up, the founder is all of those things but they typically have a natural orientation to one or two of them. Successful entrepreneurs build a finely tuned engine that has an even mix of all four. Self-awareness is such an important part of the growth equation. You can’t do it all yourself – the minute you try to, you have a serious problem. You really need to build a team around you that is significantly better than you in lots of different areas.

Often, entrepreneurs can suffer from an imposture syndrome. They end up sitting in the board room thinking “everyone in here is smarter than me”. In reality, they have got themselves that far by being clever enough to have the right people around them. That is such an important part of the mix. .

In the UK there are 4.8 million businesses. There are only 36,000 that employ over 50 people. Why? Because it is so difficult. To grow beyond 50 you have to really be good at managing and building, which means recruiting while retaining the right talent. When they have 25 or more people, many entrepreneurs give up, sell up or they choose to downsize. Ultimately, sustaining profitable growth is a leadership challenge and this is a big problem for the UK plc. It comes back to the issue of recognising what skills needs to fit around the top table and who needs to sit in the right seat.

In a recent report, the problem of ‘leadership capability’ was cited as the second most important reason for the failure of UK businesses to scale up…

Absolutely. What you do when you start-up on your kitchen table is very different to when you are running a business of 150+ people. You have to develop and change.

I explain it as the Mind-set Staircase. Your mind has to make various transactions across the staircase where you go from being a founder, to a social worker once you have more employees. Then you assume the role of a strategic manager once you have other layers in there that are dealing with the numerous aspects of managing a business. That is one of the main reasons people don’t grow. Entrepreneurs say “the more people I employ, the harder it gets”.

Again, finding the right talent to sit in the right seat is crucial. I am a non-exec on four fast-growing businesses. In each of these, the first challenge to address is the people/talent issue. Often we find we have the wrong people, so invariably we start to look at the team. In most instances it has grown and has a product and a market, but the team running it is not fit for purchase. In many instances, we work on team dynamics – getting the right people doing the right jobs while building a culture that is conducive to innovation and success. That is one of the hardest things to do in business.

For entrepreneurs, what do you see as the emotional costs to growth?

Growth is more than just a series of spreadsheets showing financial projections. There are a lot of decisions that need to be made that impact on people around the entrepreneurial team – family, kids, wives and husbands. When making an executive decision, very often there is a difficult conversation going on back at home: “I need £200,000. I am going to re-mortgage the house.” “What does that mean for us?”

These are emotional decisions and they start to weigh heavy. There is often not only a financial cost to growth, but very often there is a medical cost. I see so many health-related complaints with ambitious people – anxiety, high blood pressure and ulcers. We never read about this but within my own networks, I see the impact that running a business actually has. It ends up running your life. This means you have to be mentally resilient, being capable of switching off and or to cope with uncertainty. Because we are British, we don’t talk about these things.

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Entrepreneurial mindset in changing environments

19/02/2015

The journey to reaching your vision will involve a number of stages or interim goals – the key milestones that will be your targets along the way, providing a route to your dream. Each stage will represent a progression either personally or professionally – or both, depending on your vision. As your goals move on, so will the circumstances you find yourself in and the challenges you’ll face. It’s likely that decisions you have to make will become more demanding and the risks more acute. To handle this changing environment, you’ll need to progress personally, shifting your mindset to a new level at each stage.

The critical steps in growing a business or embarking on a challenging new project will place pressure on the way you think – it will push you into new areas and possibly further than you have gone before. It’s likely to stretch your abilities to the limit. So it’s important to adapt your way of thinking to be able to cope with the new risks and challenges each new situation brings. Otherwise you will find yourself frozen like a rabbit in the headlights, unable to make the necessary decisions to take you forward.

Successful entrepreneurs, for example, will tell you that growing their companies tested their capabilities to the breaking point. How comfortable will you feel if you need to give a personal guarantee to secure bank funding, or learn new skills to support the growth of your business or personal project?

To prepare yourself for the climb ahead, it pays to work out the different challenges you’ll face as you move from achieving one goal to embarking onto the next, so that you can be mentally ready to deal with them. Viewing each goal as a step towards your vision will help you to define the mindset that you need to develop to negotiate each stage successfully, allowing you to move forward with focus and clarity of thought.


The importance of mindset change in personal and business growth

07/01/2015

The start of the year brings for many of us the desire to set new goals and ambitions, make resolutions and take on new challenges. Going to the gym, losing weight, less alcohol and for many a clear intention to accelerate our careers and do better. It is common for entrepreneurs to set a new vision and aim higher and achieve bigger and better things for their business.

What happens in most cases, whether it’s a personal or business goal, the fizz and excitement tends to die away and by the end of February, it’s back to business as usual – wading through the treacle of another year! Despondency sets in and many just accept their lot. Why does this happen? I believe that it’s down to the failure of hard wiring and embracing a mindset change. Change is one of the hardest things to accomplish and the reality is personal, lifestyle and business change does not happen if you can’t ‘proactively change your mental state’ period.

Change is both painful and challenging. A study in the US showed just how challenging establishing new habits can be, even in life or death situations. Here’s an extreme example – a study of patients who had undergone coronary heart surgery concluded that only one in nine on average adopted healthier day to day lifestyles following their medical treatment. The remainder saw the benefit of healthier living habits but they did not follow through to make it happen.

Change in mindset requires us to create new mental maps and clearly visualise just what a better future looks like. This clarity of expectation emerges only when obsessive focus is brought to new things we want to achieve, this concentrated thinking starts to shape reality. Change in my experience needs three things to happen – find and define the trigger – why do you need to change? Focus on the Things That Matter (TTM), then most important of all take small nudges towards your new destination. Execution is vital.

To support this process you must regularly ‘check in’ with yourself to ensure that you are awake and not dreaming. Only in a state of self-awareness can you decide whether you are moving forward or living in a daylight trance.


10 Ways to prepare your mind for high performance

18/12/2014

“So how do leaders shift from lower states of mind to higher states of mind and improve their effectiveness and performance?” This was a question posed on Harvard Business Review forum I contribute to; here were my thoughts and contributions to the debate

Its simple. It all starts with what you think about. We must listen very carefully to the internal conversations we have with ourselves. The key to moving from ‘downbeat’ to ‘upbeat’ is:

1. Be aware of the internal negative conversation – address it

2. Create space to think ‘fresh positive thoughts’

3. Speak to positive people who lift your spirits

4. Tune in to the things that lift your soul – sport, music, hobbies, personal passions

5. Write down your thoughts and combat negativity with a ‘+ve to do list’

6. Keep away from negative people at all costs

7. Connect with nature – walk the dog, go for a run

8. Remember most of the things we worry about don’t actually happen

9. Think in the present and get on with it, keep experimenting!

10. Die a happy death. Morbid thought, but a powerful motivator to take action now!

The way you think governs the way you behave and act. Beware of what you are thinking about.

The ability to master the mind is what differentiates ‘winners’ from ‘runners up’. The real entrepreneurial stars are the ones who manage to consistently switch into their higher state when needed – I would describe this state as being one were individuals view both opportunity and challenge within a positive and courageous mental framework.


Global Entrepreneurship Week – more companies of scale

21/11/2014

Its fantastic that this week see’s a whole raft of activity being rolled out to celebrate and promote starting and growing a business as a series career option. As one graduate said to me the other week –

“I couldn’t find a job so I created my own”

a fantastic mindset that hopefully will continue to build the UK as the start up capital of Europe. With record numbers of start up’s this year, we should be turning our attention to creating long term sustainable businesses which have the capability, capacity and ambition to scale. These are the job creators of tomorrow. Scaling up a company is a massive challenge for any entrepreneur – its takes business acumen, courage, and lots of emotional intelligence – not forgetting energy. Scaling up a business to employ in my experience requires:

  • A mindset that is far greater than merely self-employment. There has to be an underpinning ambition to create a business model that involves a team of people fulfilling different roles. All too often people who set up in business merely want to ‘eat what they kill’. The pain of employing others is commonplace – not everyone wants the hassle that goes with creating jobs.

  • A clear picture of what the next 3-5 years is going to look like, supported by a clear plan of what resources are going to be needed – finance, office space, people skills, IT and supporting functions.

  • Understand the available funding options and use of trusted advice which ensures both the business case and model can withstand scrutiny from a third party debt or equity funder.

  • Strong leadership and an ability of the founder to develop both his/herself as well as the team on the top table. Recruiting and retaining high calibre staff is probably one of the most frustrating challenges for any ambitious founder.

  • Strongly connected networks of trusted advisers who can help the entrepreneur make the transitions points of growth. This usually involves funders, legal, IT, recruitment, strategic and tactical finance people, marketing etc. NED’s play an important role in opening up ‘connected network’.

  • Great housekeeping comes with growth, this means strong governance, great management information, KPI’s – all coming together and reported on a regular board meetings. So many businesses fail to see the benefit of board meetings – as you grow ignore them and you are destined to lose the grip on business performance.

Setting up a business is not for everyone, those not willing to embrace a life of uncertainty should go and get a salaried job. Growing a business is equally not everyone’s cup of tea – hopefully, Global Entrepreneurship Week will get many to give it a second thought.


Hard wired ambition is the key to growth

13/11/2014

People often ask what are the essential ingredients to growing a successful business. Cliché’s such as ‘Think Big’, ‘Anything is Possible’ and ‘Dare to Dream’ often roll off the tongue of young entrepreneurs and aspiring new business start up’s. Regularly found in self-help and motivational books, these terms offer a great source of encouragement to the next generation of business men and women – they have a critical place in the growth journey. As a great believer that mindset is critical to success, what underpins real growth of both a business and individuals is deep-rooted ambition.

Successful businesses, communities and ultimately – economies are built on individuals who have this hard-wired ambition. One of my frustrations is that I visit many truly outstanding businesses with growth potential, but what’s holding them back is very often the lack of ambition. In equal amounts I hear the rhetoric of entrepreneurs who talk a good game about what they are going to achieve but consistently fail to deliver on any of the things they commit to do. They talk about what they are going to do rather than what they have done. Ambition needs an engine, it needs action, it requires mental toughness and when failure presents itself – successful ambitious individuals get back on their bike and pedal that bit harder.

When I coach entrepreneurs, I am constantly looking for ambition evidence. Have they done what they said they would do? Did they achieve that target they set themselves? Was that investment made? Did they hit the financial targets they said they would? A consistent stream of excuses of why things have not been done or failure to execute the actions agreed are tell tale signs that the ambition is not for real. What comes along with hard wired ambition is courage and an ability to extend comfort zones and manage risk.

One of the best definitions of ambition came from Elvis Presley – “ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”. Having a business dream is fantastic, however, without hard graft, long shifts and small nudges forward, the dream becomes a hallucination.


8 Essential ingredients of a high growth mindset

23/10/2014

The issue of what constitutes a high growth entrepreneurial mindset is one that has fascinated me for years. We saw in yesterday’s press that 50% of new start ups fail within five years, a recent report from leading accountants MazarsHow to be a stand out SME – showed that very few SMEs grow beyond the micro stage (10 staff). Across Europe, 92% of companies have fewer than 10 employees. Surely not all of these entrepreneurs fail to have a business model that lacks the potential to scale – there must be other issues that lead to what is almost a shopkeeper mentality. My frustration is that I see day in day out companies with massive potential, however the founders often fail to recognise that, with more motivation, much greater value could be created for themselves stakeholders and their family’s. So what holds them back? It’s their pedestrian mindset – If they only had more fire in their belly!

Whilst I would never encourage a business owner to go for growth, if they genuinely did not want it, my experience is that many do want to achieve more – I would say its more than 70% do. My conclusion is the wrong state of mind holds too many entrepreneurs back from greater thingstheir mindset is not tuned into the reality of what it takes to grow. Having a great business idea and tight control over key functions and processes is only part of the success equation. It’s also about having a high performing mental attitude. Mindset is a hugely complex area with many constituent parts. Here is my simple view on the top 8 ingredients that deliver a high growth, high performance mindset:

Desire and intention – every action flows from genuine desire and personal intention. I want to grow my business is easy to say but hard to do. Desire is observed when entrepreneurs practice the 20% thinking and 80% doing rule. Growth entrepreneurs talk about what they have done not what they are going to do. Strong personal intentions create a performance culture mindset and go the extra mile mentality.

Sell, Sell, Sell – every successful entrepreneur knows that without a sale, there is no business, period. Thomas Edison, said I don’t invent anything I can’t sell, how true. I am constantly amazed at how many businesses are started on the basis of an idea with no attention paid to customers or does anyone want to buy this? Selling is not a dirty word; great entrepreneurs are great sales people – get comfortable with it!

Mental resilience – an ability to cope with the random nature of business supported by an ability to get back up when the chips are down is one of the most defining traits of a winner’s mindset.

Self-awareness –there is no way one person can do it all, winners create an effective team and call on the support of others. The inability of a founder/entrepreneur to recognise their own failings will inevitably lead to slow growth. Better decisions are made when entrepreneurs actively encourage trusted team members to contribute and to input to debate. Accelerated growth only happens when the founder starts to let go of parts of the business.

Creativity – the invisible force that drives innovation and ultimately creates a fantastic culture – it also underpins a positive memorable customer experience. Great entrepreneurs have an ability to embrace ambiguity, they are curious, they experiment with new ideas, and they take action. New sales ultimately result.

Self- belief – If you believe you can, you can, if you believe you cant then you’re correct. A belief in ones ability is a good starting point for any growth entrepreneur. Growing a business can be very tough, along the ways critics emerge who drain enthusiasm and energy. Successful entrepreneurs have an ability to close off to negative energy. Very often in a growth business such negativity emerges from the market place and scarily from staff. BYC – Believe You Can.

Clarity – don’t be surprised if you don’t end up at your destination if you don’t know where you are going. Successful entrepreneurs have a vision of what they want to achieve in the marketplace – revenue, profit, market and customers and business model.

Higher purpose – a desire to change a market place, solve a burning issue or address an unfulfilled need is a massive motivator for many entrepreneurs. Higher purpose provides a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Without a reason, business becomes mundane, passion disappears and people disengage. Personal and business performance suffers. A clearly defined higher purpose and reason instills a desire to serve.

There are many other components but being aware of the above is a great starting point. Create foundations for growth by getting your head.