Hard wired ambition is the key to growth


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.

Interview with Avensure HR


I recently did an interview with Avensure HR for their new website HR24. I thought I would share it, so you can either follow this link or read the Q and A below: http://avensure.com/hr24/industry-news/john-leach-interview/

1. Tell us about a usual working day?

The day starts at 6am with a 3 mile walk over the Lancashire Moors with my black Labrador Buddy. This gives me time to think about the day and what I am going to do. Work is based on the ethos of 20% thinking and reviewing, 80% just doing. I am usually at my desk for 7.30am following up on emails and arranging appointments with customers, partners, associates and individuals/organisations who can add value to the WP offer. I am constantly in search of the next big idea and that involves quite a bit of experimentation. The day usually ends at around 7.00pm with a 45min walk with the dog, which gives me time to reflect and think about tomorrow. After dinner (8.30pm ish), I will then spend at least another hour or two researching and following up emails from the day. I don’t differentiate between work and play as work is my life, my hobby and I just love the buzz of moving things forward. Bed at around mid night!

2. What’s Winning Pitch’s proudest achievement?

Winning a £10M contract when we where only 2 years old as a business. A great motivator for me is when people tell me something can’t be done. I usually respond with the comment – “ I will show and prove to you that it can”

3. How many employees work for Winning Pitch?

We currently employ 120 people. I guess within the next 12 months we will be moving towards 200

4. Are the majority home or office-based?

We operate through offices in Salford Quays, Liverpool, Gateshead, Leeds, Cardiff and soon London. All staff are office based but the nature of the work means that they spend a large proportion of their time on the road.

5. How do you keep employees engaged?

This involves a mix of things ranging from monthly internal bulletins with updates on what’s going on through to staff communication days twice a year, a big Christmas Party, team leader dissemination sessions and a policy of ‘the door is open and the phone always switched on’. Staff are encouraged to live by the ethos of ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’ – this drives innovation and new thinking.

6. I think Robert Kiyosaki assessment that ‘when times are bad is when the real entrepreneurs emerge’ seems very true to what is happening here in Manchester. What are your thoughts?

Totally agree – been there myself. An ability to ride the tough times and maintain infrastructure and capability is vital. This means having something put away for a rainy day – sticking true to your purpose and vision is critical. Those entrepreneurs who come through the bad times emerge from the other end with lots of wisdom and in better shape. You learn how to run a tight ship and more importantly the lessons learnt create food for thought for the future. As Winston Churchill said “when you are going through hell, keep going”

7. In your experience, do entrepreneurs make good managers?

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes – what is vital for an entrepreneur is self awareness and knowing what you are good and bad at. What makes a great business is a good mix of “doers”, “sellers”, “thinkers” and “controllers”. I personally view myself as a thinker – I am certainly not a controller, but I know someone needs to do it.

Successful entrepreneurs in my experience are the ones who can build a multidisciplinary team. I would define that as good housekeeping without losing entrepreneurial flair.

So I guess the answer is some do and some don’t.

8. You’re an expert in helping businesses design growth solutions. How much emphasis do new companies put on HR strategies and people as key elements in their prospective growth?

Building a business is all about people. Staff first customers second. Many companies stall because the founder has failed to get the people systems and structures in place and as an organisation grows the HR strategy needs to get more and more sophisticated. Trying to build a business without the right HR foundations in place is like trying to build a tower block on sand.

9.  What are the common mistakes made by entrepreneurs?

There are so many where do you start? What is critical to success is having a clear vision, passion, innovative proposition, solid team, strong leadership, good governance, tight control on finances and cash, commitment to delivering great customer experiences backed up by a flawless reputation. The common mistakes I suppose are doing the opposite of the very things needed for success.

10. What makes you optimistic? 

Having a clear sense of purpose supported by clarity of personal and business intentions.

8 Essential ingredients of a high growth mindset


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.

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


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.

Great teams drive growth


It’s really sad to see how many businesses fail to realise their full potential. Is it down to poorly defined value propositions, bad design, poor sales and marketing or financial control…sometimes it is. My view is that a company’s growth prospects are inextricably linked to the rate at which the founder, team and leaders can develop themselves. Businesses make transitions at key points of their journey and if the management fail to personally address these changes and the extra demands placed on them, then the “growth ceiling” very quickly presents itself.

It starts with the leader’s ability to undergo personal change and continuously adapt their style and approach to overcome the challenges faced along the journey – self awarenessWP Team image is a must have for all entrepreneurs. In a high growth business the founder has to be clear on what they are good and bad at and build a team around them that compensates for their own personal shortcomings. The inability to delegate is the classic dilemma faced by so many individuals running their own business. This is the very reason why so few companies go on to employ more than 25 employees.  Organisational development is a pivotal part of achieving growth, and what do the VCs keep telling us? – it’s all about the team.

My advice to any high growth business/entrepreneur is get the right people in the right seats doing the right things. Having the wrong people doing the right job is so common, and if we are honest with ourselves virtually all of us have been there and got it wrong, big time! A company without an effective team delivers sluggish performance at best – gazelle performance? Not a chance.

Embracing a learning culture and environment where personal improvement is encouraged and supported is non negotiable, but of course this takes time. Staff and the team are the most important component of any business. When we get the right team in place almost anything is possible. Without it growth is stunted and blockages appear – these blockages manifest in long working hours, customers being let down, poorly managed contracts, finances going off the rails, quality dipping, disgruntled staff, poor communications – a feeling of rabbit in the headlights, can’t see the wood for the tress, all familiar clichés entrepreneurs have come to live with. The antidote is investing in people and staff.

Getting the organisational structure and team right is a difficult job and perfection is challenging to say the least. Your organisation is only as good as the people who are part of it, and remember the organisational and team effectiveness will dictate your rate of growth.

Freshness of thought drives great ideas


The term “thinking outside the box” is a constant irritation for me. Easy to say, hard to do – how do you do it? Get to the route cause!

Don’t fall into the trap of routine. Repetitive behaviours will deliver a mindset that lacks vision, imagination and creative spirit. When we do the same things day-in day-out we establish a routine, this state of mind both inhibits and prohibits new possibilities. We find that the same old problems surface and bizarrely we think that by doing the same thing over and over again the results will be different. We must be aware of our habits as they become hard wired into our daily schedule. The manifestation of routine is that we experience a sense of monotony, feeling of being stuck in a rut, poor self-confidence, low energy levels and loss of purpose and direction.

Everyone experiences these feelings at some point, however we can take some simple steps to rewire our thinking. Emphasis must be placed on constantly searching for stimulus – things that will disrupt habitual behaviour, strengthen our creative muscles and deliver a freshness of thought;

Alternative perspectives – constantly look at your challenges from different angles – ask yourself “how would your role model address the issue?”

Remove yourself – from the daily routine and spend one day a month do something completely different.

Connect with nature – spend time in the open air and appreciate the wonder of the countryside. Combine this with regular exercise, it provides a boost to our energy levels. It also helps us to value our existence.

Don’t Think – don’t pre judge the outcome of any situation. Just observe and detach yourself from comment. By not thinking you clear your mind.

Take a look – observe what your peers do and share experiences with them. Wherever possible engage with people from other cultures, religions and regions of the world.

Five simple practices will act the fuel for fresh thinking. Doing away with routine is a liberating experience. It energises us, and keeps us motivated to perform at high levels.

What goes on in the gym?


Over the past twelve months insights from the world of sport and how they can inform business growth seem to have increased in popularity. The world of cycling refers to the law of incremental gains, a particularly powerful framework suggesting that small improvements in performance over a period of time can deliver a world-class performance. Michael Johnson’s comment during the London Olympic resonated with me – “with athletes the race is more often than not won in the mind, way before getting on the track”. How true this is in business as well, many entrepreneurs place restrictions on their own capability by imposing self-limiting beliefs, this hinders progression, promotes a can’t do mentality, resulting in a venture which fails to gain traction. The philosophy of “if you believe you can, you can, if you believe you can’t, you are right” is one all ambitious entrepreneurs should be mindful of.

One of the most important yet highly obvious messages from the world of sport to the entrepreneur is the importance of practice, hard work and dedication. Over night millionaires in my experience are few and far between, most individuals who go on to build successful enterprises have worked their socks off and put in long shifts to perfect their product, create a market, relationships with customers, construct meaningful well thought through business cases to raise money, not forgetting time effort and energy put into developing a high performing top team. No short cuts, they have practiced, put in the hours – it takes time to build a business of value. Stories of challenge as well as success are a source of wisdom for us all.

As Malcolm Gladwell states it requires 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. All too often we don’t see what goes on in the “entrepreneurs gym” – long days and nights, getting it wrong many times before they get it right. I particularly love Muhammad Ali’s comments in a TV interview, he said “no one sees the hard work that goes on outside the ring when I fight, the 5.00am starts and intensive training regime, all they see is the bright lights and the 30 minutes it takes for me to retain my title”.

Hard work and graft is a mindset any aspiring entrepreneur must get to grips with, unfortunately TV and the media and in particular certain formats, which I can’t stand watching, do promote the get rich quick brigade. Glamourisation through TV of being your own boss has possibly helped to get the next generation to think about going it alone, I also know that it has put many off as well.

My advice is look at those amazing athletes who do great things in the training camp, work out what your gym looks like and what you need to practice on. As for TV, I wish Coronation Street would bring back Mike Baldwin.

We need more mid sized businesses (MSBs)


Most people are staggered by the fact that there are only 33,000 companies in the UK employing more than 50 people, they are commonly known as mid sized businesses (MSBs) – this is based on a total business stock of 4.8Million. MSBs produce a staggering 50% of GDP so they are extremely important to the UK economy. For many years the UK has looked to Germany for inspiration, the importance of the “Mittelstand” – highly focused export orientated innovative businesses that employ more than 50 people. They are wealth generators and underpin the economy. UK policy makers lament for more of these MSBs, yet the statistics show that 99% of UK business stock employ less than 49 people

So what is the challenge? Why don’t we have more entrepreneurs going for growth and aiming to bust the 50-employee target? My hypothesis, based solely on anecdote and experience is that starting from scratch and building a business of scale is one of the most difficult jobs on the world. It requires guts, vision, and determination, resilience coupled to a business model that makes commercial sense. As a company grows towards 50 employees, the hurdles become more complex:

  1. Maintaining sales momentum and ensuring sufficient profitable revenue keeps coming through to fuel growth is demanding
  2. Funding growth through profits becomes more challenging and often new funding lines need to be explored – PE, VC, IPO.
  3. Avoiding offers from acquisitive competitors who give founders a clear line of sight to the “beach”– freedom from the day-to-day grind of commerce becomes extremely attractive.
  4. The profile of the adviser capability changes significantly and very often a new breed of expensive professionals many of which use jargon to justify their fees turn up at the front door. Many of these I would not pay with peanuts and the majority could not run a bath never mind a business. Finding trusted advisers is a big challenge.
  5. A need to make the transition from entrepreneurial to corporate mindset is vital – the narrative around the boardroom table changes and processes and governance are vital to continued growth.
  6. The need for NEDs and wisdom from those who have been there and done it becomes a stimulant for the lonely founder.
  7. Organisational development and culture eats strategy for breakfast, period. Companies that don’t get this right invariably end up managing decline and mob mentality prevails. A unified team all pointing in the same direction is so important.

Public sector policy makers should not underestimate how difficult it is to grow a business to becoming an MSB. Mindset plays an important role as does being part of community of others who have done it; the reality is this network is very small. So what is the solution? We must observe best practice from MSB hot spots – Germany, West Coast of the US, Cambridge and other regions that have nurtured these ambitious companies. Lets hear the founders stories – who did they use for advice? How did they cope with raising finance? Who are their mentors and inspiration? How did they cope with challenges? How did they address uncertainty? Growing an MSB needs those who have done it to share their stories of how they made it. Experiential learning is how entrepreneurs learn best.

Business growth requires personal transformation


I have immense respect and admiration for the thousands of individuals who every year have a go at becoming their own boss. The sad fact is that very few are still trading after 5 years. Whether it’s poor economic conditions, shortfall in finance, recruiting and retaining the right staff, lack of market demand, the phenomenal challenges faced are (at first sight) enough to put anyone in their right mind from embarking on an entrepreneurial venture.

Whilst many management advisers correctly stress the importance of  business plans, marketing strategy’s and excel spreadsheets, is sufficient emphasis placed on embracing the right mindset? A mental state that is tough and able to cope with the inevitable roller coaster which comes with going for growth. In my opinion mental resilience is just as important as any business plan. Self-employment or growth are not the answer for everyone; in fact, for the unprepared it potentially ruin their lives as well as those of people who depend on them.

For anyone setting out in business or pursing a growth journey, ask yourself – what am I really good and bad at – self-awareness is an extremely important attribute. Also and more importantly when you recognize that you and only you are in charge of your own life and future, then amazing things can happen. The successful entrepreneurs I have had the great fortune of interviewing lead themselves before they lead others, they take control and have a razor like focus that steam rolls obstacles and challenges that accompany growth. They take total control of their action and decisions – they make things happen, they are doers not talkers. They remain true to their mission and dig deep when the odds are stacked against. They embrace failure and are life long learners.

Business growth and personal transformation go hand in hand – a business only changes when you change. Learning, self development, curiosity, thirst for new ideas, reading and networking are inextricably linked to business growth. You can’t grow to becoming a 50-person business if you don’t grow yourself and your own skills set. In my experience, entrepreneurs are so often busy fire fighting and working on the day-to-day problems that they don’t find the time or the space to make the transition from entrepreneur to professional manager and leader. Many business people fail to embrace personal change, consequently they stand still or worse, decay.

Whilst walking my dog early on Saturday morning a random discussion with a local businessman inspired this blog, he told me that he had not been on holiday for eight years. He further went on to qualify the statement with, “that’s what happens when you run your own business”. I did hold back, but my most immediate reaction was that the business was running him and he needed to change!

So the message is? Personal change and transformation are vital ingredients to growing a business, most people do it because they strive for freedom, the guy I met the other day is obviously treating his as a custodial sentence.

The extra mile – no traffic jam there


Putting in the minimum amount of effort to a task to achieve a satisfactory result is a behaviour associated with individuals who have little or no ambition. Successful entrepreneurs take nothing for granted, they realise that through hard work and loyal commitment to their personal intentions they may from time to time have to put in extra hours or do things that may feel punishing to either their mind or body – quite often both. I see lack of ambition in many businesses I meet, almost inertia. The economy needs more big/different thinkers.

My experience is that very few people are willing to push themselves physically and emotionally to over deliver- just doing enough to get by, does my head in. A clock on clock off mentality – delivers business as usual if you are lucky. A Just Do It attitude delivers a winning performance. This maybe working a weekend to complete an important project, staying late at the office to help colleagues complete a critical bid, or investing in a loss leading idea to get you noticed – winners do more.  Going the extra mile to please customers is an extremely important behaviour to exhibit, you become respected by your peer group and the opportunities for growth is enhanced because others become engaged by your level of commitment.

You will place yourself well ahead of the competition when you do more than what was expected of you. It is also extremely rewarding both professionally and personally. The mindset of going the extra mile helps when:

  • You want to make a great first impression with a customer (you only get one chance to do this)
  • You want to win an important contract
  • You have an ambition to exhibit the gazelle growth profile
  • You are operating in a crowded market place
  • You want to build value in your business not just a wage
  • You want to maintain the edge on competition

Think deeply about what you want to achieve and accept that by conditioning your mind to embrace the philosophy of doing more you will become evermore successful purely by outperforming others. This mental programming becomes an integral part of your behaviour and winning becomes a habit.

There is no traffic jam on the extra mile – a mindset more entrepreneurs needs to embrace.