John Leach – An interview with Carter Corson


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.

Creating space


Not being able to see the wood for the trees is a common feature of life. People regularly talk about being busy and overworked – but just how much of this is self inflicted. All too often we engage in activity that brings no value to achieving our highest goals and ambitions. Without reflective time, our decision making becomes blurred and it is common to lose sight of what we want. The result is stale thought with patterns of behaviour that fail to deliver our deepest desires. Successful people have the fortunate ability to think clearly, this is helped by finding the time to take well earned breaks from being “busy”. This cleansing process provides the opportunity to de clutter the mind.

The practice of finding sanctuary helps to remove mental blockages and fosters a sense of balance between work and play. Without regular periods of reflection you will find yourself eventually in a rut – the place you don’t want to be!

You must think of Sanctuary on three levels of “time out”:

  1. Daily sanctuary to help us to prepare for the day ahead – time with family, exercise, meditation, prayer, reading. Starting each day with 10 minutes of deep reflection, provides a kick start to focused activity and just being aware
  2. Weekly sanctuary that helps divert our energies into non related activities like pursuing a hobby, sport or spending more time with family and relationships. These activities release you from the week that was – puts you in a good frame for the week ahead
  3. Sanctuary includes those activities that most people can only fit in two or three times a year. They would typically involve family holiday’s, short breaks or some form or retreat. This level gives you the opportunity to ask the big questions – what is my life all about? What needs to change? Should I go and do something else?

Dedication to the 3 Levels will open your mind to new possibilities and opportunities. Chasing success can be as destructive as it is constructive – practicing the art of Finding Sanctuary will build perspective into your life and help to differentiate between what is and what is not important, what brings fulfilment and what does not – embed these disciplines into your routine and you will experience a profound improvement in clarity of thought – you will see things more clearly, you will make better decisions and life will feel less hectic.

Do you have a competitive edge?


The school of thought that assumes all high growth businesses are technology based is wrong. Fast-moving companies display an edge that connects with their customer’s world, one filled with imagination, inspiration and fresh thinking. Their founders and teams have an inherent ability to spot a niche, an unfulfilled need or problem demanding a solution.

Gazelle performance can be achieved by repackaging a traditional idea. The fusion of a diverse range of business models to produce a whole new experience is a skill high growth entrepreneurs have perfected.

Focusing on activities that don’t necessarily bring in revenue can also attain the edge. However, they do position the organisation head and shoulders above the rest. In other words they produce a wow factor. Leading experts in creativity would claim that 95% of a company’s point of difference is achieved by as little as 5% of what it does.

High growth businesses excite their customers by displaying their edge with passion and clarity. Companies must avoid falling into becoming a “me too” market player – this drives down margins, the cheapest wins, a sort of spiral descent very difficult to recover from.

So how do you find the edge? It starts with the mindset of the leader – old world tells us to think outside the box. My recommendation is to get rid of the box because it does not exist – eliminate limiting beliefs, self-imposed boundaries and negative influences that restrict your ability to think. Find a coach or a mentor who will help you fill the pipeline with new possibilities. Find your 5%!

A personal vision is vital – your business vision will follow


Your vision provides the blue print for a successful future. Without a clear vision of what you want to achieve don’t be surprised if you are left with a feeling of, what is my life all about? This applies to relationships, career or business. Distilling what you want helps to focus your energies and actions in the right direction, it’s the starting point of a journey towards personal and professional fulfilment – knowing your destination is half the journey. In creating a vision it is vital that you are precise about what success looks and feels like at some given point in the future. A clear vision can take time to crystallise, it involves allowing time for self exploration and discovery, consider:

  • What things are important to me?
  • Why are they important?
  • How will I feel if I don’t achieve my vision?

The reality is that many people spend their life discontent with their achievements and accomplishments, some talk about wanting more – but what does more mean? The feeling of having no direction is a common dilemma we experience in our careers and life. Not allowing time to answer deep searching questions around what is important will result in the sensations of lethargy, anxiety and inertia, a sense of wandering in the wilderness is a common feeling. As popular scripture states – “Where the is no vision the people perish”

Once we become spiritually connected to our vision and we commit to achieving what we consider important, life has an amazing way of giving you what you want. A vision can also be viewed as a strategic personal intention – everything you want to achieve flows from this intention. When we embed this intention into our subconscious mind synchronicity kicks in – circumstances, situations and events magically appear out of nowhere to assist in moving us closer to what we set out to achieve.

Your vision will become a source of inspiration, another way of looking at it is that it is your personal intention, and as with most things everything flows for this. Your vision also:

  • Creates a sense of direction and meaning
  • Helps you understand with clarity the relationships important for success
  • Provides momentum for change when we feel we deserve more
  • Creates a sense of what is important to your life
  • Provides a foundation for focused activity

The visioning process will help you start with the end game – what does success look like in 3 years time – a new job, new career or a growing business. Developing a clear vision requires clarity of thought – in developing your future aspirations you must be free from the fog that diverts our mind from seeing clearly what we truly desire – so take time out to think it through. When you have clarity of the outcome, reflect on where you are now – the way forward should become clearer!

A yo-yo mindset – critical for high growth


As I mentioned in my last blog, high growth equates to hard work and high risk. This is why I feel the yo-yo mindset of the entrepreneur is vital. When things are moving fast it is so easy to lose sight of the critical matters. Vital things get blurred almost to a point where key ingredients for success get missed or just overlooked. Getting absorbed in the excitement of growth can be dangerous if we don’t take time out to:

Rise above and take the helicopter view: where are we going? How can we add value? How do we differentiate? Shall we tackle new markets and customers? Is the finance in place for further growth? Have I got the right team? What is the company blind spot?

Really get immersed in the detail: How much cash is in the bank? Have we chased all the invoices? Who owes us money? Why have those invoices not been settled? Have we paid all our bills? Has that mailshot gone out? Has the PI been renewed? Have the staff appraisals gone into the diary? Where are the management accounts? WIP? Pipeline?

The ability to rise above (and reflect) then get stuck in to the nitty gritty is what I call the yo-yo mindset, moving from one state to the other is vital. In the early days it’s often down to you to do it but as the company grows the team approach helps to support this yo-yo activity.  Whatever the case it still has to happen, probably with greater frequency as the business grows. Its back to leadership vs management… need both in equal measures. Pointless hovering above the business all the time because nothing will get done. Equally being immersed in the detail means you become disconnected from the marketplace, not a good place to be.

Who was managing the day to day?


The banking crisis that contributed to one of worst recessions in recent times has led me to think – who was looking at the day-to-day issues? All those massive brains, MBA’s, accountancy and banking degrees, looking at strategy and policy, but we still ended up in a big mess. Not judging, just intrigued at why someone did not just say – that’s enough. Maybe too many leaders and not enough managers?

In an odd way I can see why it happened. It’s a bit like a small business growing, a sort of momentum builds and you can end up losing sight of the detail – the big picture is far more exciting. Before you know it you have run out of cash or dropped the ball with a big customer. As a good friend of mine told me recently as your company gets bigger the controls need to get tighter and the attention to detail is vital. I suppose you can spend too much time looking at the big picture and lose sight of the boring mundane stuff.

Leadership in a business is vital but management of the detail is paramount. An important lesson for all of us running a company. We need more leaders but good managers are worth their weight in gold.

High Growth Businesses – The Three Pillars


The last six years has been such an enlightening learning experience – its great to have worked with some 3,000 ambitious entrepreneurs many of which would be classified as high growth. My definition of high growth is – start-up businesses that reach £1M in three years or those with a minimum turnover of £0.5M but who can sustain 20% year on year growth over 3 years. Having researched them, worked with them and been one myself – there  are some common traits that make them what they are. Here are three inter related strands of their operation that are often so visible:

Leadership, strategy and processes (LSP) – clarity and focus are very important building blocks in determining a successful future. The ability to clearly define the end game then implement a plan to move swiftly towards the destination is fundamental. Strategies are driven with passion and determination and leadership ensures that people are up for the task, things get done! The primary processes of sales, customer service, order fulfilment, finance, people development, quality are measured – the dials on the performance dashboard make for a more efficient running of the business. The company rulebook is in place and there is no misunderstanding around what needs to be achieved. A culture of innovation breeds conditions for growth

Customers, markets and propositions  (CMP) – the customer’s world lies at the heart of the high growth businesses mindset. Creating and delivering propositions that captures the voice of the customer is a primary characteristic of a high performing company. They have a distinct ability to identify market blind spots and deliver propositions that often the customer did not realise they needed. This market immersion mentality and approach ensures that the high growth company is looking over the horizon of how to deliver differentiated products and services which bring massive value. High growth businesses more often than not create new customer experiences that are memorable, inspirational, imaginative and innovation. The resultant effect is delight and the creation of an extended sales force led by the customers themselves. Satisfied customers become ambassadors and provide evidence and act as testament to others seeking your products or services – word of mouth and referrals kick in. This really weird thing happens and customers seek out high performance companies because they are great to do deal with  – their brand becomes a magnet within the marketplace.

Sales team effectiveness (STE) – sales individuals and teams can only deliver a truly outstanding performance when the above two pillars are in place – it certainly helps anyway. The selling job is far easier when businesses have truly differentiated propositions with a sound enterprise strategy in place. High growth companies ensure sales individuals and teams are highly tuned, tooled up for the job, are great problems solvers, know their products and services intimately and execute the sales process with absolute precision. I refer to this as Customer Connectivity – this effectively defines the sales activity as find, reach, win and keep. So often I am asked to deliver sales training to businesses where they feel that underperformance is down to individuals not doing it right. The reality is poor sales growth can often be the result of more fundamental issues – lack of differentiation or poor back office can be the real cause, the resulting symptoms are that frontline sales staff just fail to secure the orders. Sales training is merely a sticking plaster.

For me high performance sales strategies come from having the above three pillars in place, another way of looking at it is

High Growth = LSP x CMP x STE

Being out of sync in anyone area can result in failure to achieve full growth potential.

The power of vision


The term vision has featured so prominently in the research into what makes successful leaders and businesses.  Read the biography of any famous or accomplished individual and they will refer to the power of their vision and how it motivated them to go on and do great things.

In the SME world and for any leader of an entrepreneurial business, selling the vision to staff, suppliers and customers can be a challenging task – getting everyone on board can be equally draining both emotionally and spiritually. Quite often the founder or leader of a business can see the vision so clearly – what success looks like, the business in three years time, the new product being launched or new markets being served – but getting someone to see what you can is hard. Here we can draw the comparison with madness – lunatics can see what others can’t – so not surprising many entrepreneurs can be viewed as a little strange at times.  Well I am a great believer that your expectations shape reality and all ambitious entrepreneurs should have clarity of what they want to achieve down to the finest detail – otherwise what are you aiming for?

But how do you sell it to others? To achieve your vision in business, more often than not you will have to get others on side, this includes – staff,  partners and other stakeholders. It is unlikely you will achieve what you want on your own. This means you have to create followers and to be a great leader you have to follow as well – this means listening to others, taking on board thoughts and views and respecting opinions.

As with any other selling job, get others bought into the vision means – you personally must be respected, have knowledge, explain the reasons as to why the vision is important, keep things simple and most of all talk about the things you have achieved as well as the things you want to achieve. Define very clearly the journey you are going on and the steps, communicate clearly along the way the landmarks and celebrate key milestones, over time results start to emerge. Beware of the people who steal your energy because in challenging times you will start to doubt yourself. Have self belief and  practice (BYC) – believe you can mentality.

There are many blurred lines between the terms vision, goals, passion and purpose. Many people claim to have a vision or goal, the reality is they don’t – it’s an halucination. You know when you have a vision because it burns deep within often to a point of obsession.

In business  define your goals and visions then find your ambassadors and  disciples and together you can make it happen!

High Growth Businesses – How to…….


I have spent the last four weeks reading strategy documents about the new system for supporting enterprise and innovation – to be honest the whole experience has left me feeling somewhat punch drunk. I certainly hope that in the next few months we start to see support at the coal face that delivers what high growth entrepreneurs and businesses really need. The issue is this – growth businesses are set up and nurtured by human beings with courage and a determination to succeed, they also have a viable commercial idea (although not always 100% brilliant). However, why are there so few truly high growth companies ? Most I have met have a thirst for practical advice from others who:

  1. Have been in their position
  2. Have experienced similar challenges and got some answers
  3. Can signpost to trusted advisers and networks (suppliers and customers)
  4. Can open doors to new opportunities
  5. Can help set out a business game plan and make it happen

Myself and the network of other business people I know just want answers on, How to……

  • Get more focus into their business
  • Create a plan that delivers the results
  • Get all directors and stakeholders wanting the same thing
  • Build a high performing team (thinkers, doers, controllers and sellers)
  • Select, recruit and retain effective people
  • Incentivise high performance
  • Find more customers and sustainable revenue streams
  • Find effective routes to market
  • Get better financial controls into the business
  • Run more efficiently
  • Overcome the rollercoaster emotional feelings that go with running a business
  • Stand out from the crowd

It goes on, I have a list of over 300 how to’s catalogued over the past 5 years. I find it amazing that so many policies and strategies for SMEs are divorced from the day-to-day of how to.

Only 6% of our nations SMEs are truly high growth – they create some 50% of new jobs. The reason why these organisations are scarce is two fold – firstly, its hard work with few willing to take on board the emotional and financial stress of it all and secondly, assistance so often needed is not easy to come by – it must be specific (often granular), tailored and delivered by individuals with the licence to do so! Its more than going to web site!

Get the right people doing the right things


A highly effective team is built when a group of individuals are all playing to their own strengths. All to 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 dome 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.