Great coaches – Business Expert or Samaritan?

15/01/2015

I am constantly being asked – what are the ingredients of a great SME coach? There are some very common characteristics that comprise of:

  • Business expertise
  • Market knowledge
  • Functional expertise – finance
  • Marketing strategy etc.

These are all very relevant but in my experience there is far more to coaching and mentoring that sits outside just business and management expertise. I have coached literally hundreds of business people over the years as well as running my own businesses – what this experience tells me is that there are human beings with emotions and fears that sit behind the business plan and very often, the façade of success.

Growing a business is a lonely place to be, in many instances the founder and the team have hidden anxieties that relate to mundane yet crucial components to an individuals overall well being. The pressures that come with, for example, personal guarantees required by the bank, small pension pot, lack of savings, big mortgage……many of these lay dormant in the business persons mind because running the business is all consuming and nothing else matters.

For many entrepreneurs achieving a sense of freedom is the very reason they set up and often this freedom ends up feeling like a prison sentence. The old cliché, working on the business rather than in the business is so true – this is what great coaches do. They help businessmen and women take a helicopter view of their organisation and look at the big picture.

Great coaches in my view are a fusion of business expert and Samaritan. They are able to address personal and emotional anxieties as well as the business ones. They have an ability to connect with these issues in a highly practical way. The starting point for any coach is to understand the individual – what makes them tick, what keeps them awake at night, intentions and aspirations. Once this is worked out then the business becomes the engine to fulfill the entrepreneur’s needs and goals. All too often the business runs the individual – best coaches turn this round, sort of a Samaritan.

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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.


We need more mid sized businesses (MSB’s) – 10 ways to build one

16/10/2014

The need to help and support medium sized businesses (MSB) is very much at the heart of economic policy making at the moment. The missing component of the great work research institutes, accountants and think tanks have come up with is, just how difficult it is to set up and build one? Having done it with Winning Pitch (and working with a handful of others to do the same) there are so many lessons I would like to share. Here are 10 platforms critical to anyone on a MSB journey:

  1. Think big – genuine ambition is vital – be clear on your higher purpose.
  2. Be clear on the business model – a detailed plan to execute and operationalize the strategy to scale is crucial.
  3. Understand the different funding routes and instruments to fuel growth.
  4. A high quality senior team is vital, combine this with a great culture and you have the magic dust – values become more important the more staff you recruit.
  5. Consider the role of NEDs – having someone who has already done it sat round the boardroom table offers many advantages.
  6. Don’t be too precious about hanging on to your equity – smart people want a share of the value they bring.
  7. Embed tight operational control and strong performance management – remember it comes down to always having enough cash.
  8. Establish a clear brand and communicate this with passion – celebrate with fervor what makes you different and why you are the “go to organisation” for what you do.
  9. Strong internal (in the office) and external (in the market place) leadership is vital.
  10. Stay one step ahead of your competitors by living in the customer’s world – deliver innovative propositions with an edge.

From a UK business base of 4.8M companies, 99% employ less than 49 staff. So the current stock of mid sized businesses is less than 50,000. We must not only look at helping existing mid sized companies we also need to address how we fill the pipeline – the next generation.

Sustaining growth beyond 50 staff is a massive task – this is why so many entrepreneurs sell out before they burn out. Beyond 50 staff, business help and guidance becomes more sophisticated – PE/VC, NEDs, headhunters, governance, IPO’s, expensive lawyers and financial engineers, corporate finance… trusted support is pivotal to sustained growth. A community of trusted help is vital to the entrepreneurs who are aiming to do something special with their business.


A mentor is vital

01/09/2014

A mentor is one of the most important tools in an entrepreneur’s kit bag. Growth companies constantly reach forks in the road – so, which way?  As your business gets bigger, then hopefully the team you have created will help you to make the decision on which road to take.  However, there are often BIG decisions that are outside the scope of the knowledge of the guys sat around the table.  Having a mentor – someone who’s experience and judgment you trust can be a serious crutch on these occasions.  Asking those very simple questions like, what would you do?  How would you approach it?  Who should I go and speak to?  Who are the best advisers? – to someone who has experienced the scars of the pain you are feeling is all too often the answer.  Every successful entrepreneur we have worked with (and that’s thousands) lean on someone they respect, all too often that advice comes over a beer or coffee.  It’s not formal, it’s not shrouded in business plans and three-year P & L calculations – its good, solid common sense.

The reality is that there are so many individuals out there who have succeeded in business, who are more than happy to provide a helping hand – the fact is they have not been asked.  The wisdom, experience and insight to help us make better decisions often comes free from willing souls, who just want to help others overcome the hurdles and challenges they face.

So the conclusion is, if you are trying to grow your business, find someone who has been down your path – invite them for a coffee and use the magic words – please can I ask your advice.  It could be the best couple of quid you have ever spent.

Most of the battles in business you have to win are in your mind first. Your mentor can help you work out your game plan and indeed make better-informed decisions.


Your business model must have an “edge”

24/01/2014

A key challenge I keep coming across at the moment is many SMEs fail to articulate or unlock their uniqueness. Many entrepreneurs find themselves bogged down by the need to keep cutting prices to remain competitive. This strategy in my view is a road to ruin. I always try to reinforce the point that – selling your product or service is far easier when you have a point of difference. Many entrepreneurs tell me that they are in commodity markets and that’s just the way it is.

I then go on to use the bizarre example of a notebook to demonstrate differentiation – after all a notebook is a commodity – a 14cm x 10cm notebook in Tesco will cost you around £1. However look at the same size Moleskine in Waterstones – it will cost you £10. If everyone bought notebooks on price they would all go to Tesco. Positioning through innovation is a key route to gaining competitive edge. When you open any Moleskine book there is a small fold away piece of paper titled “The history of a legendary notebook” – it goes on to reference famous people that have used these notebooks. There is a brilliant line that goes… “used for the past two centuries by great artists and thinkers, including Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin. The trusty, pocket sized travel companion held their sketches, notes, stories and ideas before they became famous images or beloved books”. Then go and have a look at their website www.moleskine.com – they have made the business of a notebook a art form. They use storytelling to bring the notebook alive and engage the customer in a truly unique experience.

The lesson is – we can all find a point of difference if we embraced innovation into our business model. The invisible force of creativity, however must be embedded within yours and your teams mindset.


Get stuck in

18/12/2012

The speed at which 2012 has passed is unbelievable. During the year many entrepreneurs put their foot on the brakes, carefully monitored costs and kept their head well below the parapet. However, I have been very fortunate to be around a group of business people who have just carried on pushing forward with confidence, energy and enthusiasm. They have used their resources very wisely and spent time working on:

1. How to manage their personal time wisely – focusing on the vital few priorities rather than the trivial many 

2. How to apply creativity to customer satisfaction and marketing rather than just money – innovation is key to differentiation

3. How to create “space” to think about new ideas and strategies – all breakthroughs come from taking time to think

4. Focusing on the KPI’s – the dials on the dashboard that ensure the business stays on track

5. Developing themselves – personal development is the ultimate source of competitive advantage

6. Developing their teams and ensuring effective communication  – with staff and all stakeholders 

7. More doing and less talking – working on the basis that sometimes strategy is activity and tinkering (in times of uncertainty strategy is meaningless to a small business – experimentation and discovery is vital – an attitude of think, do, review moves us on)

8. Living in the “Customer Worlds” – wearing out the shoe leather, putting themselves about and working out needs and future requirements 

The lesson for ambitious entrepreneurs going into 2013 is train with the best and learn from them, practice and condition your thinking to success, prosperity and progression. 2013 is a year to build momentum.


Growth Entrepreneur – the much referred to lonely journey

31/08/2012

Successful entrepreneurs so often talk about the feeling of isolation they experience when pursing their desired aims and objectives. The journey to a bigger job, the quest to build your own business or being at the helm of an organisation where the buck stops with you can create a sense of overwhelming burden. Such feelings can be difficult to switch on and off as they can hang over our very existence. Striving for success invariably involves expeditions into the unknown where situations, circumstances, cultures or environments can trigger immense insecurity. Making the right decisions becomes the central focus of our intention as delivering the wrong ones could effect both our own or other peoples future, they could result in financial hardship, losing face with others, humiliation and as a worst case damage your health.

The preoccupation with getting the decisions right has all the danger signs of isolating ourselves from others. We must take positive steps to ensure that we don’t withdraw into ourselves and find channels that turn the feeling of loneliness into one that ensures we have an effective support infrastructure around us –this becomes the route by which we answer the question of who motivates the motivator.

In the process of moving towards a successful and fulfilling life and career we can take some simple steps to combating loneliness:

Smile – don’t signal your loneliness to your peers and other that you are trying to influence. This could have an adverse effect on how you are perceived. Also remember life is too short to be miserable.

Friends – we all have friends outside of work make sure you talk to them. They are a great source of support and advice

Learn – new situations and environments will require new knowledge – the more you know the more confident you become, the less isolated you feel

Be friendly – be nice to everyone you meet, it makes people warm to you and you feed off their energy

Attend events – networking events where like minded people congregate provide an ideal opportunity to share experience and war stories.

Ambassadors – build relationships with people that support your points of view. Ensure that you communicate with them and keep them in the loop of what you are thinking and doing – they become your extended voice

You may feel alone and isolated but you must take comfort in the fact that at some point in their progression to success others have felt exactly the same. Remember at some point in the future you will be able to share with others how you coped and made it through those lonely days and nights