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.


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.


Get the right people sat in the right seat

19/02/2014

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.


8 out of 10 individuals have no faith in their leaders

20/06/2011

This was an interesting piece of research I picked up today. Not sure of the source but I have heard it quoted before – an amazing 8 out of 10 people have little faith in their leaders. My view is that a leaders life can be a very, very lonely one, an existence often plagued by uncertainty and challenge, particularly in difficult economic times. Those individuals that have the courage to go out and start their own business regularly find themselves with a whole raft of unfamiliar issues to sort out. Ones that no course or workshop could ever train them to deal with.

This gives rise to the whole issue of followership. My recommendation to those who constantly judge their leaders is, give them a bit of space and look at things from their point of view. Many of the successful entrepreneurs I have worked with have benefitted from a close network of colleagues who follow, help and contribute to problem solving they act as a crutch in time of need. The last thing they would ever do is back bite and constantly judged what and how their leader goes about their business, they add value and support forward thinking strategies.

Maybe the 8 out of 10 should try it for themselves and see how it feels? Growth can be a lonely ride.


A Strategy Day with a Difference

10/06/2010

I believe it’s so important that management teams take regular time out to think about where they are going. Sometimes we can be so absorbed by the to the day-to-day grind we forget about the long term – slowing down to speed up is vital. When you stand back often the landscape becomes much clearer. We had our own planning day a couple of months ago. As a team we started to think about the next three to five years – what did success look like? What difference do we want to make? How do we want to be viewed? The aim was to answer the big questions about our vision and mission.

We decided to do things differently – usually we would go to a hotel in town and hire a meeting room (all very business like and me too). Instead of conforming to the norm we thought this time round we would do something different and hold our strategy session in a place that was conducive to reflection, creativity, quite, calm and tranquillity – far away from the norm. We decided to go on a strategy retreat – this took us to Worth Abbey, a Benedictine location near Gatwick Airport – www.worthabbey.net (this was the setting for two BBC programmes where busy people took time out to reflect and think about their life and where they are going). The resident Abbot there Christopher Jamison is a media friendly man of the cloth and one of life’s truly inspirational characters. He has written two best selling books – Finding Sanctuary and Finding Happiness.

It was a truly productive two days for us – the Abbot himself joined us on day 2, sharing with us his view on leadership (Harvard University use the Rule of St Benedict as a case study of great leadership) and the need to build a business on sound moral foundations and within the framework of rules and acceptable values and behaviours.

For us as a management team it helped us get away from busyness of life, think about the big picture and focus. Inputs from this parallel universe helped to stimulate the creative spirit and apply to some new principles to our Company. My message is – stand back, reflect and get out of the usual environment – we must do this a few times a year. You come back with clarity and a raft of new ideas.

More to follow on this theme.