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.
Business incubators have become a common feature of public sector enterprise support in recent years; many of these establishments have proved to be highly effective in nurturing early stage entrepreneurs. They don’t just provide a desk and somewhere to turn up every morning, their added value comprises: a place to network, share ideas and collaborate. The really good ones offer mentoring and coaching, this is often what makes the real difference between success and me too performance. In many UK regions, incubators have become a hot bed of exciting new businesses, the potential employers of graduate talent – Autonomy in Cambridge is a fantastic example.
This concept of incubation needs to feature prominently in the culture and mindset of winning businesses – any ambitious entrepreneurial company should have a “department” or function responsible for building a pipeline of new thinking that delivers potential new revenue streams or adds value to existing customer experiences. I don’t mean a department literally – it’s about having an organisational process that brings together thinkers, doers, sellers and controllers, one that not only develops new ideas but also implements the commercially viable nuggets that emerge from the process of discovery. The concept of incubation delivers a major thrust for gaining an edge in the market place.
It is my opinion that creative intelligence is the ultimate source of competitive advantage – high growth companies tend to be disproportionately more innovative than the rest of the SME population. They explore, embrace diversity, live in their customer’s world, experiment with new possibilities and avoid complacency by making creative thought a habit, not something they do once a fortnight on a Friday afternoon. It must form part of an organisations “soul”.
It never ceases to amaze me how passionate and animated entrepreneurs become when they talk about their business and what they do. To those listening it can come across as “in your face”, however, the reality is, most founders are just so proud of what they have achieved. Business and personal time are inextricably linked, feeding each off every minute of the day.
The successful high growth entrepreneurs I have worked with often started their business because of a “calling” – this means putting something right, fixing a problem, chasing a dream of freedom, pursue a passion, wanting to make a difference or proving to others they can achieve something quite amazing.
So many entrepreneurs often forget that their business is also an asset with value. The danger is when the founders view their company solely as an asset. This creates inward focused strategies, lack of customer focus, greed, ultimately this will lead to only one place – a disconnection with the real world and decline. My advice is when the voice of the “calling” gets overshadowed by the asset, its time for a rethink. A danger zone is just around the corner. Its about balance, of course a business must generate wealth, however it works far better and in my view becomes more profitable when its game plan is linked to a purpose.
The feeling of doing what you do because it makes a difference to others is probably one of the best you can have in your career, long may it last!
High growth companies are disproportionately innovative to those that are not, and whilst I believe creativity is the ultimate source of competitive advantage, I must caveat my views. The importance of embedding a culture to allow free thinking that stimulates new ideas is well documented. However, without control you end up with pet projects, loads of possibilities and hundreds of potential initiatives that absorb time, energy and resource. Large companies have processes to deal with their ideas pipeline, but in smaller high growth businesses the danger is that there is too much innovation and entrepreneurship and not enough control and discipline.
Commercial problems potentially loom when there is too much lateral thinking and lack of order. Jim Collins in Good to Great uses a very powerful phrase – “Disciplined Entrepreneurship”. This embraces the notion of balance – innovative thinking and behaviours being guided within a framework of performance measures and KPI’s.
Too much Discipline – then a disconnection with customers, markets and new possibilities takes place
Too much Entrepreneurial Flair – nothing gets done because everyone is bouncing off the walls with great ideas
Successful high growth companies tend to have a disciplined approach to new idea generation and implementation – a form of commercial filter. I often wonder how much smaller high growth companies can teach large corporates about innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. The reverse is also important – how can big companies help ambitious founders gain a better handle on their organisation? Feels like a powerful learning forum!
It seems very much the rage at the moment for companies to hire Non Executive Directors (NED). I am a big fan of these “outsiders looking inside“. They provide wisdom, guidance, help to raise the bar and introduce more robust systems and processes, help leaders make decisions and support change. In many instances an NED can help to open up new doors to finance and potential customers – help in the transition of growing up. If you are pursuing VC funding or PE finance then having a NED is often part of the deal.
One observation would be that many young companies appoint NEDs too early on in their cycle. They view them as the saving grace and the magic wand with all the answers. The reality is young fast growing companies should initially seek out a mentor or experienced person and trial the relationship before Companies House papers are signed. There are many individuals out there searching for NED trophies, it almost becomes their barometer for success – food for the ego!
My message to young growing companies who are seeking their new best friend, the NED, is be sure they can add value, be clear on where they can take you and most of all don’t GIVE AWAY equity, people either buy or earn a stake in your company.
A highly effective team is built when a group of individuals are all playing to their own strengths. All too often the wrong person is doing the right job. In building a team we must strive to place people in the correct position allowing them to do what they do best. When there is a mismatch in a person’s skills and role under performance should not come as any surprise. Great care must be taken to ensure we don’t shoe horn people into situations and roles that don’t align with their capability. This will invariably lead to discontent and disconnection with the teams overall purpose. We should seek alignment between a person’s passion and their ability with the aims and objectives of the group. An important task for all leaders is to keep close to both the individual and team mindset. This is done by gaining insight into an individuals:
- Personal and professional ambitions
- What do they excel at?
- What they don’t do too well?
- What motivates them?
- What turns them off?
- Training and developing needs
We must be clear on what we want members of our team to do, this needs to then be articulated with clarity.
The reality is that whilst people maybe good at specific tasks they may fall short on others. Or maybe as the ambitions and aspiration of an organisation grows, those of an individual may change or their own priorities may shift. This can often result in a person either outgrowing a position or in ambitious environments people can’t keep up – the issue to address is whether to redeploy an individual or support them in gaining new skills and competencies. Successful people remain connected to the emotional, personal and professional needs of their team. By doing this become hard wired into individual and team dynamics – it also helps you to judge and decide on what if any changes are needed. Make sure you have the right people doing the right things, this will only happen when you stay close to individuals in your team.