Planning a successful exit

Our Cog:ent event held on the 22nd of January covered the theme “Planning a successful exit”. It was a fitting topic for the concluding workshop of the current series looking at building and developing sustainable and successful businesses.

Participants got some valuable insights from our guest who “had been there and done it” (the founder of a successful sports management company who sold his business to a large player in the sector) and from experts in the legal, banking and accounting fields.

The workshop highlighted the following key questions:

  • Have you prepared your business in the best possible way?
  • Have you prepared yourself for that important transition?
  • Are people around you ready for it?

This blog captures the learning from the workshop and details what each question entails.

Preparing your business

  • Start preparing your exit well in advance. It pays off to plan a long time ahead.
  • Pay experts to conduct a thorough due diligence on your business to identify weaknesses, potential points of contention and inconsistencies. Fix them. A buyer’s advisers will turn your business upside down and ask many probing questions. You may as well be ready for them.
  • Build in good time a strong exit team, with an experienced Finance Director, an accountant, a lawyer and a consultant. The team must work well with you and have developed a high level of trust and understanding of your business. Bringing them in at the last minute or when negotiations have started is a bad idea.
  • Future-proof the business as much as possible: secure longer-term contracts with key clients and suppliers.Tidy your leases. If you are in the professional services sector, and are using associates as part of your business model, have strong contracts in place and key clauses such as “Change of Control”.
  • Develop assets on the balance sheet to make it easy to value the business.
  • Demonstrate growth over a period of time and be clever about it. Show the buyer there is potential for future growth. Be aware of the economic cycle and sell on the up, not at the top.
  • Be open-minded : buyers may come from locations or sectors you had not anticipated. Foreign firms may want to enter your local/national market. “Old-fashioned” companies may want to acquire modern technology.
  • Do not underestimate the level of time and effort required to pursue an exit and how distracting it can be in the daily running of the business. Stay focused on the present while preparing the future.

Preparing yourself emotionally

  • Think carefully about your motivation for exiting. What is the key driver? Is it a desire to be in control of your time and to re-balance life in favour of family, leisure and a more enjoyable lifestyle?  Is it money? Is it to use the proceeds of the sale as capital for future bigger ventures? Is it having the time and means for charitable or social activities?
  • Do not underestimate the “soft” side. Beyond the transactional aspect of the exit deal lies a strong emotional transition. You are often at the heart of your business and that business may often be your raison d’être. Employees, customers and suppliers may have strong connections with you. Untangling yourself from these relationships and the business may be difficult and painful.
  • Enjoy the ride. It could be a stressful experience but it could also be really fun and bring a lot of learning.  It will most likely be life-changing and therefore must be anticipated as such.
  • Pick your moment. It is best to do a deal when there is no pressure to do one. You will get a much better outcome if you can be relaxed about it and leave “pennies” on the table.

Preparing yourself practically

  • What will you do the day after the deal, when emails will stop, the phone won’t ring and your diary will be empty? Don’t think that, post exit, your diary will fill up automatically with meaningful and fulfilling activities. It will not, unless you have planned for it accordingly.
  • Know your next move, professionally and personally. Prepare your next business venture or second career, start new hobbies, decide to have a period of reflection to think in a proactive and purposeful manner about your next challenge. Don’t get caught in a purgatorial zone of regrets and hesitations.
  • Can you afford to exit? Do the math on the level of monthly “pay” you can expect once you have exited. You may no longer have a monthly salary and regular dividends so how you will support your lifestyle without burning your deal money too quickly? However large that amount was, you will need to make it last and invest it wisely.
  • Optimise the tax situation for yourself and people in the business. Again, start that work early enough to reap the most benefits.

Preparing other

  • Take your management team with you. Consider stock options to retain your key staff.
  • Communicate with them and make sure they understand what they will get from the exit and how it will affect them. Get them focused on growing the business. When the time is appropriate, communicate with the rest of the company and highlight what the future holds for them.
  • If the business was started with one or several partners, it is essential to be clear from the beginning on the way forward and preferred exit path. Legal documents underpinning the original agreement must have sufficient flexibility to allow several options or scenarios. It is worth having the tough conversations at the beginning rather than when being approached by a potential buyer.
  • Talk to your family about what the future could be like and what changes may occur. Do not think that they will automatically get it and make a smooth transition.

Exiting your business is kind of easy. Exiting your business in a successful way, on your terms and with the best possible outcome, is not. It is clearly a complex task and it will require a significant amount of physical and emotional energy to reach that objective successfully. Be prepared and have the right people around you to support you in that challenging endeavour.

Should you wish to find out more about what we discussed on the day, the slides of the day are available here (150113 Cogent – planning a successful exit slides only).

If you would like to explore the relevance of this theme to your ambition and your business, then please contact, dhenwood@cvdfk, or

We are currently planning the next series of Cog:ent events, so watch this space for more information.

Financing Growth – the easy way

Two years ago, when we came up with the title “Financing Growth – the easy way” for our 7th Cog:ent Group meeting, we didn’t really know what we meant by the term easy way. At Telos, we had just run a meeting to explore the same topic (click here) which highlighted some important questions:

  • To what extent does your ambition for the business require finance?
  • What amount and source of finance best meets your growth aspirations?
  • How do you make your business attractive for potential funders?
  • And, once the funding is in place how do you capitalise on the ‘personality’ that comes attached?

We decided that the easy way meant creating a simple and practical process that allowed businesses to answer these questions for themselves. So, the Cog:ent meeting on 9 October 2014, brought together 17 ambitious business owners, an entrepreneur turned funder, a panel of experts and 5 different sources of finance to do exactly this and, in the process, build better connections between businesses and funding.

This blog summarises the discussion, observations and learning from the event. The key slides for the event can be found by clicking on this link 141009 Financing Growth Slides.

Financing landscape

As with each of the themes, we do a lot of background research into the topic. As well as confirming well established facts, such as different stages of growth require different sources of finance, it also provided some interesting insights. In particular:

  • Attending a conference at Middlesex University, Financing Growth in SMEs meeting the challenges after the global financial crisis, appeared to highlight that the supply of finance is no longer a key issue and that it is more the demand for finance and the availability of “investible businesses” that needs addressing;
  • The funding landscape remains a highly confusing maze for time-starved ambitious business owners to successfully navigate;
  • The rise in a range of alternatives has got people’s attention, yet banks are still viewed as the primary source of, and route to, finance for most ambitious business owners;
  • The “financial maturity” of the business and the willingness of owner-manager to let go, or accept restrictive covenants or personal guarantees, is a key enabling (or limiting) factor.

With this information in mind, we set about designing an event that started to address some of these factors for attending businesses.

Drawing upon experience

We interviewed a panel of experts consisting of Rob Keown-Boyd, Debbie Clarke and Andrew Peddie and Josh White. The discussion brought out the following observations:

  • “If you tell the right story, in the right way, to the right people you WILL get finance”;
  • It takes practice, effort, courage, a lot of shoe leather and continual learning to get it right – it is very much an iterative process;
  • It’s important not to forget about financial benefits that come from “better management of the business” – better relationships and/or arrangements with customers or suppliers can often negate the need for finance in the first place;
  • It is important to clarify “why we need finance” by challenging your own assumptions, as it allows for more informed, solution-focussed conversation with funders;
  • “You don’t know what you don’t know”, so it is important to consider all options and get advice.

Building connections

Given that half the problem is finding the time to find and meet with the right finance, we created a structured “trade fair” that allowed participants to meet with a range of sources of finance, that included:

The conversations, led by the business owners as opposed to the funders, drew out the following observations and actions:

  • Every situation is unique and there is no “one size fits all” solution;
  • Personal and business aspirations on future, growth and exit all need to be considered;
  • Work needs to be done to create a story and plan to help funders understand the ambition;
  • It’s important to understand/compare the mechanics/cost of the various sources of finance;
  • Working with an experienced specialist advisor can help save a lot of time.

Each business owner enjoyed the practical way of exploring the theme, leaving with a renewed sense of hope about the future and more informed about the varied sources of finance available to them.

If you are interested in exploring the outcomes of this topic and how they apply to your business, the Cog:ent Partners can help you in the following ways:

  • Telos Partners– create a robust strategic plan that develops strength within your team and presents a compelling investment.
  • Chantrey Vellacott – assist you in preparing financial forecasts to support your business plan and understand your financing requirements.
  • Pitmans Solicitors – provide legal advice from a full service firm tailored to your needs and utilising our lawyers from across 20 sector specialisms.
  • HSBC – give you an honest feedback on the current feasibility of your finance considerations.

For those of you who enjoy reading more on the topic, we found the following The British Business Bank – the business finance guide a particularly useful source of reference.

The next Cog:ent meeting is on 22 January 2015 and explores the theme “Planning for a successful exit”. If you are interested in receiving an invitation, please contact

Building an agile and resilient business

In a world of ever increasing pace of change and complexity it is impossible to predict what will happen in the future. Even those whose full-time job it is to predict the future fail to do so with any degree of accuracy or consistency. And, if highly experienced and knowledgable business executives can fail to adapt to the ever evolving world and lead their organisations into crisis, how can those of us running our own, smaller but still ambitious businesses fare any better?

  • How can we grow a business on a rising and falling tide?
  • How can we survive heavy blows and come back fighting stronger?
  • How can we build an agile and resilient business?

These questions were the topic of exploration for our Cog:ent meeting on 10 July 2014. What follows are the key topics and themes that were discussed during the day.

If you are interested in discussing the theme further, or, if you are interested in diagnosing how agile and resilient your business is, please contact

What do we mean by agile and resilient?

Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. Resilience is the capacity to recover from difficulty. An agile and resilient business is able to respond quickly to the first signs of crisis, spot new opportunities and come out of the situation stronger and better. As such, an agile and resilient business is very different to a bloody-minded, stubborn and persistent one.

Agility and resilience are essential attitudes, skills and strengths to enable people to cope, bounce back from and potentially thrive, in times of adversity or pressure. Their relevance is as important to individuals as it is to teams and organisations. And of course, there is both an internal and external context to be considered.

As skills, they can be learnt. Indeed, each and every business challenge is an opportunity to develop greater agility and resilience. Each time, you face up to, reach out and overcome a crisis your “plastic shield” and social network become stronger allowing you to face and conquer ever increasing challenges.

To what extent do you have it already?

According to Diane Coutu (2002), there are three essential ingredients to resilience: the ability to face down and confront the reality and brutal facts; a deeper search for meaning and understanding of how this builds a bridge to the future; and, the ability to adapt and improvise.

So perhaps we should ask:

  • what is really happening for you, your business and the business environment?
  • how is this relevant and meaningful for the purpose of your business?
  • how can you adapt and create opportunities in a new world?

And what of this “plastic shield”? Consider it like a firewall or a flame retardant paint. It won’t stop the crisis but it will buy you time. From a business perspective this includes (amongst other things):

  • a strong brand and value proposition that provides a strong competitive advantage
  • deep and close customer relationships
  • a positive culture where people step up and take responsibility
  • a relevant position in the value chain
  • diverse sources of income
  • a flexible cost base
  • enough cash in the bank to survive a downturn in business

How can you develop your agility and resilience further?

Airline pilots train themselves to deal with the unexpected. Successful sports teams practice a wide range of game scenarios. And, they do this to increase the likelihood of being able to successfully respond to challenging and difficult circumstances.

In the world of ambitious owner-managed business, it is rare for us to find a management team doing something similar. That is why we often find ourselves in coaching, team development or strategic planning processes using scenario planning to help develop this capability.

So here we ask:

  • How are you developing agility and resilience in yourself, your team and your organisation?
  • And, are you developing your social support network in the process?

And, so what?

After participating in the day, what were some of the actions that our ambitious business owners took away?

  • “revisit my strategic plan; marry my personal objectives with my business ones”
  • “build stronger relationships with my clients; staff and building growth”
  • “align company aims throughout the business”
  • “understand resilience in different parts of the business”
  • “be more creative; allow my staff to take more responsibility”
  • “better understand staff weaknesses and see how to support them”

You can view the slides used on the day here. For those of you who are interested in reading more on the topic, a reading list is included below. The next Cog:ent meeting “Financing the growth of your business – the easy way” takes place on 9 October 2014.

Background and further reading

  • How Resilience Works, Diane L. Coutu, HBR May 2002
  • The Quest for Resilience, Gary Hamel and Liisa Välikangas, HBR Sept 2003
  • Two Routes to Resilience: rebuild your core while you reinvent your business model, Clark Gilbert, Matthew Eyring, and Richard N. Foster, HBR Dec 2002
  • Adapting in tough times: The growing resilience of UK SMEs, written by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of Zurich, Nov 2012,
  • Organisational resilience: development of a conceptual framework for organisational responses, Burnard and Bhamra, International Journal of Production Research, Sept 2011
  • Engendering resilience in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): a case study of Demmer Corporation, Demmera, Vickeryb* and Calantoneb, International Journal of Production Research, Sept 2011

How do you stand out in your market place and grow your business?

Our Cog:ent meeting on 10 April 2014, explored this topic. The themes discussed are captured below.

High growth businesses focus on their customers and have brands with a reputation of consistently delivering better value than their competitors. Facts that are proven time and again by the clever minds of academics everywhere. The case for investing in your brand is a strong one, but brand is more than just a logo or a new lick of paint. Brand is everything you stand for and say. It is everything that you do and are as a business. It is your customer’s experience of your culture.

How do you create a great brand?

Well according to Steve Edge, our special guest for the day, it’s about balls! That is, finding the one ball that makes you really stand out and then building upon it to the nth degree. Call it purpose, call it value proposition, call it whatever you want, but this is about the special relationships that exist between the real passion of the business, the gap in the marketplace and the emotional needs and wants of the customer.

What is your one ball?

  • For Lidl it is about giving people the simple pleasure of finding a bargain
  • For Apple it is about bringing consumers beautiful products that are a delight to use
  • For Cog:ent it is about simple business truths, borne of real world experiences, delivering long-term benefits

However, answering the question is harder than you might think. It requires the right blend of pull (listening to what customers, staff, suppliers, competitors say about you) and push (clearly, concisely and consistently communicating your core brand message). It is very much a dance. For most, the scariest part of this is the fear that what customers might say and is very different you might hope! But isn’t that the point of branding? What hope do you have of doing this if you are too afraid to ask? In exploring this point further, we all concluded that we are not as customer focused as we might like to think!

So, once you’ve discovered your one ball, what do you do next?

Well, you do everything you can to keep that ball in the air. By constantly assessing and monitoring how well you are doing in the eyes of the customer across all aspects of your business. Simple!

Well, perhaps not!

Because like most things in your business, your brand is delivered by your people, who live and breathe in the culture of your business. When you are an ambitious business owner focused on growing your business it is hard to pay attention to the people and cultural aspects of your business. Yet the high growth ones make that time and continually demonstrate that if you can align your culture and brand, your competitors will find it hard to match you in the long-run!

So how are you, through your people, going to create the brand that you want?

We suggest that you start by:

Our next Cog:ent meeting themed ‘building an agile and resilient business’ and takes place on 10 July 2014. If you are interested in finding out more about the theme, Cog:ent or how Telos Partners can help you to grow your business, please email

Telos Partners, has teamed together with Chantrey Vellacott DFK, Pitmans Solicitors and HSBC Bank to develop and run a series of practical, thought leadership workshops on how ambitious business owners build a successful and sustainable business against the background of a difficult economic climate.


How to transition your role as business founder …

… and build a business that is less reliant on you was the focus of our discussions at the Business Improvement and Growth (BIG) Network session on 7 March 2014. (click here for a link to the BIG website)

Few business owners have spent much time thinking about how they want to exit their business. And if you’ve not thought about how you want to exit, you’ll be unclear as to the leadership transitions you will need to make in your current role in order to achieve, in time, a successful exit. But what does a successful exit really look and feel like for you? How do you successfully transition in your role to ensure the business continues to create value beyond you? These were questions we began to ask ourselves as we explored this topic.

We continue to be told that the number of businesses that survive beyond their original founder is relatively small, but there are many who have achieved this feat. For instance, there’s the Weir Group Plc founded 1871 by George & James Weir, IMI Plc founded in 1862 by George Kynoch, Microsoft founded in 1975 by Bill Gates & Paul Allen, and Tesco founded in 1919 by Jack Cohen etc. These examples highlight that many businesses can successfully transition through period of wars and crisis, so a transition in leadership is possible, but needs to be thought about and managed.

As we began to explore the academic research on leadership transitions it became evident how little there was on the subject, especially in small firms. Despite its importance, few have studied this area. The research we found tended to bias a financial management perspective (i.e. the passing down of assets), or a family firm perspective (i.e. the father and son analogy). Whilst these findings highlight the particularly challenging nature of the leadership transition process in owner-managed firms, with ownership responsibilities becoming intertwined with management and family responsibilities, it raised some key questions for us:

  •          what does a successful leadership/role transition look and feel like?
  •          what are the transitions that founders/leaders make? And need to make?
  •          how would you like to exit the business, and what actions would you need to take to make this a reality?

So, as part of the BIG Network session on 7 March, we set off to explore these questions, and this is what we uncovered

1. Start with the exit in mind

Have you thought about how and when you would like to exit your business? If you haven’t, some would say you’re already behind the curve. In his seminal book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Steven R. Covey identifies a need to “Begin with the end in mind” as the second habit of highly effective people. And in order to create the exit you want you’ll need to work out what’s really important to you in your various roles and relationships, you’ll need to visualise what they look like in the future, and consider the actions you will need to take along the way to realise them. A simple activity that we suggest would be to write yourself a “Postcard from the Future”, 12 months after you’ve exited the businesswhere are you? what is it like? what are you doing? who are you with? what are they doing? what have you done along the way?

2. Be prepared to navigate the ‘exit obstacle course’

It was Shakespeare who said that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players”. Behaviour is often determined less by characteristics of the person and more by the part one is assigned to play. We all play a multitude of roles in life, whether these are roles in our personal lives or in our business lives. What we might overlook however is the way in which these roles are wrapped up a range of other issues. You’ve put your stamp on the organisation culturally, the way it is structured, to the systems you have implemented and the strategy you have created. Extracting yourself from this complex web creates an ‘exit obstacle course’ to be navigated, one that will ultimately define the organisation you will leave, and everyone working within it.

3. There’s many ways to pass a baton and we can all learn from sport!

The transition from one role to another has been likened to the passing a baton in a relay race (Dyke et al., 2002). As such it requires a clear process to get the baton from one person to another whilst allowing the efficient functioning of the whole team. According to the Dyke et al. model doing so requires: a considered ‘Sequence’, the right ‘Timing’, a good ‘Technique’ and appropriate ‘Communication’. As we explored this model with our cohort of business owners the following issues emerged as challenges to be embraced and managed

4. What does the business really need?

It is the business context and needs that determine the style of leadership that is required for the next stage of business development and growth. To take up this challenge of leadership the business owner has to find a way to delegate more of their functional roles, the day-to-day activity; but what do they let go of? What you hand over is entirely up to you, but it must be deliberate, well considered and clear. Letting go of stuff you simply don’t enjoy or understand is the equivalent of throwing the baton from 20m, hoping someone will catch it before it hits the floor!

  • Timing is everything, and it will take longer than you think!

Recognising when it is the right time to transition, within or out of the business, means accepting your limits of competence, and your own frailties. It is hard to accept and hard to do, but ensuring the timing is right is essential. Waiting until the year before you wish to hand over the leadership reins and/or retire is potentially a recipe for disaster. And, trying to do it with a failing business brings its own unique challenges. It’s also a process that takes time. A typical succession process for a founder-led business can take up to 3 years – a year to find someone, a year to see if they are any good and a year to really let go! The businesses owners we speak to say that if they had their time again they would have started conversations earlier. By starting conversations early on you can build a picture together with those around you of what the future looks like and you can align you expectations with others. Ask yourself: when do I intend on exiting the business? how will I know when I have transitioned successfully?

  • Mind the gap!

Who is best placed to run the next leg in the development and growth of your business? The business owners we work with often admit that they would have brought in the right skills earlier. But what are the right skills? You do a role that no one else does, and you probably don’t know it. It’s also not just about skills and capabilities, but also behaviourHow do you transfer your passion, commitment and ownership to someone else? These are all important questions to address to ensure continuity in leadership, and that the baton is not dropped into a leadership void. Ask yourself: what skills does the organisation require from its next leader? what are the selection process and criteria? And, what will the organisation miss when I’m not performing that particular role anymore?

  • Beware of ‘false starts’

Don’t make assumptions that the role or process for transition is understood by the other person. The context also changes and people’s priorities shift in time, what was important a year ago to someone, might not be the same now. If there is a gap in skills, or a lack of clarity around the process for transition, you might find you hand the baton over only to pick it back up again. Ask yourself: what am I doing to build trust with my successor? How am I encouraging communication on this matter?

4. Guidance is helpful

Finally, unlike a relay race, you will not have endless opportunities to practice a transition. So drawing on the experience of others to help increase your chances of a successful outcome will be important. Talk the challenges through with your peers or your business coach, clarify the wants and needs of those involved and create a roadmap for achieving the transitions that support the development and growth of your business.

Having read this blog we challenge you to

draw a picture to represent the change you will have experienced in 3 years’ time:

  •          where are you? what is it like?
  •          what are you doing? what is your role?
  •          who else is with you, what are they doing and how do they relate to you?
  •          where is organisation in its stage of development?

Using the learning you have developed from this blog, explore the transitions taking place over the next 3 years and record any actions that you will need to take to achieve a successful transition in your role.

Get in touch and share them with us and the other ambitious business owners on the programme; we’d love to hear about them.

Further reading for those keen ones amongst us!

Bolden, R. (2001) Leadership Development in Small to Medium-Sized Enterprises, Centre for Leadership Studies.

Cadieux, L. (2007) Succession in Small and Medium-Sized Family Businesses: Toward a Typology of Predecessor Roles During and After Instatement of the Successor, Family Business Review, 2.

Cope, J., Kempster, S. and Parry, K. (2011) Exploring Distributed leadership in the Small Business Context, International Journal of Small Business Reviews, 13: 270-285.

Dyck, B., Mauws, M., Starke, F.A. and Mischkea, G.A. (2002) Passing the baton: The importance of sequence, timing, technique and communication in executive succession, Journal of Business Venturing, 17: 143162.

Handler, W.C. (1990) Succession in Family Firms: A Mutual Role Adjustment between Entrepreneur and Next-generation Family Members, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, Fall.

Handler, W.C. (1994) Succession in Family Business: A Review of the Research, Family Business Review, 7: 133.

Hannonen, T. (2013) Management Succession in Family-Owned SMEs: Learning from Failure, Master Thesis, Aalto University School of Business.

Ip, B. and Jacobs, G. (2006) Business Succession Planning: A Review of the Literature, Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, 13(3): 326-350.

Kempster, S. and Cope, J. (2010) Learning to Lead in the Entrepreneurial Context, International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour and Research, 16 (1): 5-34.

Martin, C., Martin, L. and Mabbett, A. (2002) SME Ownership Succession Business Support and Policy Implications, Knowledge Management Centre, Business School, University of Central England

Motwani, J., Levenburg, N.M., Schwarz, T. and Blankson, C. (2006) Succession Planning in SMEs: An Empirical Analysis,International Small Business Journal24(5): 471-495.

Sonnenfeld, J.A. and Spence, P.L (1989) The Parting Patriarch of a Family Firm, Family Business Review, 2(4): 355375.

Venter, E., Boshoff C. and Maas, G. (2005) The Influence of Successor-Related Factors on the Succession Process in Small and Medium-Sized Family Business, Family Business Review, 18: 283.

Wang, Y., Watkins, D., Harris, N. and Spicer, K. (2004) The relationship between succession issues and business performance: Evidence from UK family SMEs, International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour & Research, 10(1/2): 59-84.


Delivering Business Growth Through Strategic Alliances

The theme of our fourth Cog:ent Group meeting, held at HSBC Green Park, Reading was “Delivering Growth Through Strategic Alliances”. If you want to get a sense of the overall discussion, you can view the summary slides here.

This blog highlights the key themes that arise when you bring together the experiences of 15 ambitious business owners, combine it with the experience and knowledge of consultants, accountants, solicitors and academia and then discuss the theme in depth.

So what is in a theme?

Seeing relationships through a strategic lens

The activity of drawing your business relationship system throws up some interesting shifts in thinking. A significant number of participants commented on how they had started to see an existing relationship in a different way. For one participant, this new perspective opened up potential routes to two overseas markets. We suggest that you try this for yourself.

What’s behind that handshake?

It seemed that we could have spent the entire day debating how much needs to be written down. Is a handshake just enough? How detailed does the alliance plan need to be? To what extent is the plan the contract?

However, there was a common view that it’s essential at the outset of any strategic alliance to have a clear and common view of its purpose, the objectives and the commitment required from all parties to make it successful. You need agreement on these things. Writing this down helps to clarify understanding and share that understanding with other people. It’s amazing how disagreement can fall around the smallest misinterpretation or a missing word, so make sure your assumptions have been well and truly checked.

That said, given the changing nature and complexity of the world, there is a need to balance formality with opportunity.

As a slight aside, for those of us who believe in the power of a handshake, it’s interesting to discover that scientific evidence supports what we intuitively feel – the handshake touches neural circuits inside the brain that predispose a person toward positive feelings of competence, trustworthiness, and it opens a relationship of positive cooperation while suppressing negative feelings and avoidance behaviour. But, for those of us who believe in the power of planning, it is interesting to note that  a psych professor at Dominican University of California found that people who wrote down their goals, shared them with others, and maintained accountability for their goals were 33% more likely to achieve them, versus those who just formulated goals.

Optimising risk

As with most things in life and business, strategic alliances are all about optimising risk and sharing the reward. So understanding what the risks are, how to protect yourself against them, what’s required to deliver the reward and how the reward will be distributed is critical. The form and business model of the alliance needs to help those involved to balance these things.

If you’re inexperienced at undertaking strategic alliances, the risk increases. So, where might you seek guidance and support?

The power of the network

Finally, it’s interesting to note that two of the Cog:ent participants have entered into a strategic alliance that has already delivered in excess of £100k of turnover at a good margin. And, a further two started to explore mutual benefits then and there in the meeting!

So, some key questions to answer are:

  • How might your existing relationships help you to achieve your strategic goals?
  • To what extent do you have agreement in your strategic alliances?
  • How does the form of the alliance help you to fairly share risk and reward?
  • What needs to be written down to confirm your agreement?

The Cog:ent Group meetings are a result of a collaboration between HSBC, Chantrey Vellacott accountants, Pitmans Solicitors and Telos Partners. To discover more about these meetings please click here.

If you would like to explore how strategic alliances might help your business and how Telos can help to support you in the process, please contact

Unlocking the performance of your team

There is overwhelming evidence to suggest and promote the benefit and commercial value of team work, yet many ambitious business owners struggle to find the time to work on this important aspect of their business.

  • Why is this the case?
  • How have others unlocked the code?
  • What steps could you take to start getting world class performance from your team?
  • These were just some of the questions we were looking to answer at our Thames Valley Cog:ent Group meeting on 10 October 2013. If you missed out on the event, you can read the slides from the event by clicking here. If you would like to explore your own leadership and team dynamic, please email your details to

    So, why is it, seemingly, so hard for ambitious business owners to build and develop world class teams?

    Well, the answers appear to lie in the evolutionary and organic process that creates and grows ambitious, owner managed businesses:

  • a focus on survival, making do with we have got and dealing with the day-to-day aspects is a stark reality for many ambitious business owners;
  • a reality which, coupled with a lack of budget and capacity/capability to spend the time on the team often means that the development of individuals and the team takes a lesser priority than many other activities in the business;
  • something which is frequently exacerbated by the (understandable, but inhibiting) characteristic of many business owners to control and direct rather than empower and lead;
  • the result is, all too frequently, a team that is unable (or fearful) of taking responsibility and a business owner who is frustrated with their own ability to unlock the potential of the team.
  • What can we learn from business owners who have tackled this challenge? What does it take to break out of this dynamic? How have we helped and seen others succeed in this task? What does all of this mean for you?

    Recognise your own strengths, then build a team to complement
    Your team is what it is because of you, and will become what it can become because of you. Look to your own strengths and weaknesses and build a team for the business, around you.

    Understand, articulate and model your values
    Experience shows that it is not just capability that you need in your team but a common and shared set of purpose, values and beliefs. It is not good enough just to write them down, you need to model them, test for them at interview stage and renew them on an ongoing basis.

    Vive la difference
    Contrary to the popular belief of many business owners, you do not have all the answers, have a monopoly on good ideas, or even know how it should be done. Of equal importance is diversity in approach, skills, personality and thinking. Constructive difference can and will deliver better results in the long-term.

    Trust the one you love and love the one you trust
    At the heart of a successful team is trust. Something that develops and builds over time. The more trust that you have in others, the more they have in you. If you can trust yourself to delegate and manage people, you will learn to trust that they can deliver for you. If that trust is missing in the first place, you might have some tough questions to ask yourself.

    Take time to develop the team
    What might you discover, if for a moment, you pause the task and review what is going on for individuals and for the team? What questions might you ask? How might your understanding of the task be improved by really hearing the answers? The dynamic and complex nature of relationships, means that developing performance within a team takes time. Expect to go through different stages of development. Periodically, take steps back to review what is going well and what can be improved, so that you can move from one stage to the next.

    Recognise your role in developing the team
    It is easy to point the finger of blame at others, and you can be guaranteed that most people blame the leader! Recognising what the team needs from you, and being able to provide it, is critically important.

    If you want trust, become comfortable with being vulnerable. If you want mastery, be prepared to encourage conflict. If you want commitment, don’t be afraid ask the group close down options. If you want accountability, get ready to tackle some difficult issues. And above all, keep the team focused on outcomes and results.

    Tough love
    Finally, don’t believe the myth that high performing teams are soft, fluffy places where everyone loves each other. The best teams can be tough and challenging as well as fun and supportive.

    Based upon our explorations of this theme, these are some of the questions that we would ask of you:

  • What is it that you do best?
  • What is it that only you can do?
  • What else does the business need for it to be successful and sustainable?
  • What needs to happen to build trust within, and amongst, the team?
  • To what extent do you have common agreement on your purpose, values, vision and short-term objectives?
  • What does the team need to deliver better results?
  • What change do you need to make in your own approach?
  • If you are interested in discovering more about how we can help you to unlock the performance of your team, please contact

    You might also wish to read the theme, from Entrepreneur as Leader

    Participants also had the opportunity to find out more about an HSBC initiative for which, like Cogent, the real value is in taking part. For more information, please read below.

    Global Connections

    At HSBC we believe some of the world’s most ambitious, dynamic and forward-thinking companies are right here in the UK.

    Over the last three years, we have run the Business Thinking and Global Connections competitions to recognise and reward those businesses, giving entrants access to a total of over £3bn of lending to support their ambitions for growth.

    In September we have lauched our fourth national business competition, providing entrants with a unique opportunity to meet and network with like-minded business leaders.

    Our 45 regional finalists will also be able to gain invaluable insights on visits to some of the world’s fastest-growing markets as part of our International Exchanges.

    This year’s Global Connections competition has launched on 16th September, again giving entrants the prospect of accessing up to £6m in lending.*

    The competition is open to all UK businesses that have been trading for a minimum of two years with aturnover between £2m and £100m.

    Visit to take advantage of this unique opportunity and begin your application.

    Relationships make the world go round …

    … and are the source of Business Improvement and Growth

    Can you think of a business that could exist or sustain growth without a set of successful relationships?

    No? Nor could we.

    Yet often, in our work, we come across business owners who appear at the mercy of the relationships that they have with customers, with suppliers, with staff or with finaniciers. You’ll find them battling hard to make things work, scurrying around chasing their tails, desperately looking to please anyone and everyone, almost accepting that this is the life of the business owner.

    Occasionally, we come across someone for whom this is not the case. They are seemingly more in control of themselves, clearer on what they are looking for, better able to establish, build and nurture a diverse range of relationships, and are open and trusting in their approach. As a result, they appear to obtain greater value from these relationships socially, intellectually and financially.

    We were left wondering:

    • What are the secrets of a successful business relationship?
    • Can ambitious business owners benefit from being more strategic in their relationships?
    • How might you change the dynamic within the set of relationships that you have?

    So, as part of our partnership with Kent Business School, at the Business Improvement and Growth Network session on 4 October 2013, we set about beginning to discover the answers to these questions. We trawled the hallowed archives of academia, took on board the findings of our own research, considered the challenges that our client base is facing, reflected upon our own experiences and brought together 9 ambitious business owners with a former head of R&D for a FTSE 100 corporation and our own team. What follows is a snippet of the things that we uncovered …

    The value of analysis

    Amidst the daily stresses and strains of the business roller-coaster, it is a real challenge to take a step back and analyse where things are working, and where they might need some attention. But, if the experience of our group of ambitious business owners is anything to go by, simply reflecting on one relationship that works and one that doesn’t throws up some interesting insights.

    Not only that, but taking a step back and analysing all of your business relationships seems like a worthwhile activity too.

    So, before reading the rest of this article, read the slides, the comments from participants, and review the relationship recipe and diagnostic. Then grab yourself a cup of tea, take a seat and have a go at reflecting on your own set of relationships.

    131003 BIG Network_creating value through relationships – slides

    Please feel free to share with us any insights that you have.

    The danger of assumptions

    When asked why business relationships fail, for the participants of the meeting at least, it would appear that the phrase ‘assumptions are the mother of all *#*# ups’ holds true. Whether it is: differing expectations; undelivered promises; communication let downs; leaving it too late to have the conversation that is really needed; or, only focusing on building one key relationship, the heart of relationship failure appeared to comedown to a poor and growing set of unchecked assumptions. Reversing this may be the secret of success.

    Take a human approach

    How many times has your view of a person changed when they’ve told you what they do?

    • “I work for a charity”
    • “I’m cabin crew for a major airline”
    • “I’m a stay at home dad”
    • “I’m the trade union representative”
    • “I’m a potential customer with a budget of £250k that I might spend with your business”

    It is funny how we our reaction and behaviour are coloured by this type of information. But, how would you treat each of these people if you didn’t know this information? As a human being, we hope!

    Everyone you deal with in business is a human being, no surprise there! They have the same set of delights and challenges. They all have dreams, fears, personalities, good days, bad days and lives outside of work. They are all the same, and are all different. They will value someone who they get along with and who helps them on their path in life. So take an authentic, human approach, by taking a moment to put yourself in their shoes.

    Just don’t assume that they will want to be sociable and friendly! Not everyone is that way inclined.

    Establish mutual value

    “Win-win” is one of those godawful phrases that makes you cringe. Yet, in our exploration of this theme, it’s underpinning merits shone through brightly. Relationships only seem to sustain themselves, even bad ones, if they somehow provide some source of mutual value.

    Whether it is simply making their lives easier, or providing a ground breaking service that radically improves their business, if you want a business relationship to survive and thrive it makes sense that you will need to create value for the other party. But, what about you? Have you stopped to consider what you really want from the relationship? To what extent have you made this clear to the other party? Have you let the assumptions build up, again?

    Develop trust step by step

    Trust is fundamental to any successful relationship, so how do trusting relationships develop? A step-by-step process of delivering on promises, matching expectations and ensuring there are no surprises.

    From the way you get in through the door (a recommendation or referral builds the most trust at this stage); through doing what you said you would do, at and after the first meeting; by communicating and sharing good and bad news; on to delivering and reviewing the work; each step or action taken is an opportunity to develop and build trust. The more trusting the relationship the more chances it has of being successful in the long-term.

    At multiple levels

    In our exploration of the theme, participants discussed many examples of successful business relationships that disappeared when a key contact moved jobs. To mitigate this risk, but also to enhance the chances of success, it is critical to broaden the set of relationships that you have, at all levels of the business. Whilst one person may have the responsibility, it is rare that they are the only person involved in the making of a decision or the fulfillment of a project or service. Building trusting relationships with all of these key people is a fundamental and challenging part of the task.

    It’s alright to be appropriately commercial

    A familiar path of many personal relationships sees one party taking a higher role, for example you take the partner of your dreams on a first date; confidently take the bill, paying it before their eyes set firm on the extortionate amount; then court them with impromptu gifts; you marry and honeymoon in dreamlike location; have kids; and privately worry about paying the mortgage, stress about the money and become resentful about feeling like a ‘walking wallet’ … an extreme example we know, and we are am sure you are all more balanced than this. What would have happened if at the start of the relationship they had split they bill? We’ll never really know, but there is a point … honestly!

    Many business owners will shroud a commercial conversation in a veil of mystery and intrigue, discounting the price, or hiding away their profit, before even having the conversation to deal with their feelings of guilt. But, it turns out that the opposite should be true for a successful business relationship. You’ll be surprised to learn that it is in the interests of your customer, supplier or member of staff to know that you are also making enough (but not too much) money.

    Nirvana is indeed a transparent commercial conversation. In fact, successful business relationships have a commercial imperative. If only corporate procurement processes and tenders could indeed deliver this!

    Sometimes it‘s right to be transactional

    Finally, it’s worth acknowledging the often misrepresented ‘dark side of business relationships’. Not every relationship needs to be deep and strategic, your portfolio of business relationships will and should have a mix of strategic and transactional to serve and meet a variety of needs.

    It is alright for people to just want: baked beans on toast; to avoid the chit-chat with the cashier at the supermarket check-out by using self-service; to get the lowest price; to transact online. For them it represents a win, and if you can find a way for it to win with you too, you might be on to something good!

    Concluding remarks

    So having explored the theme in more depth, we are looking forward to establishing the impact of the actions that our 9 intrepid business owners set for themselves. Until then, here are some of the questions would we suggest that you begin to answer for yourself:

    • Who are/should you be building relationships with now, and in the future
    • How would you assess the current nature of these relationships?
    • To what extent have you checked your assumptions?
    • What is a successful outcome, for all parties?
    • What action needs to be taken to achieve these outcomes?
    • How will the first action that you take help to build trust?
    • What systems do you have in place to manage these relationships effectively on an ongoing basis?

    If any of the above has sparked your interest, please get in touch with

    For more information about the Business Improvement and Growth Journey, please visit click here.

    Holding yourself to account

    All of the themes we explore have one thing in common – they seek to understand what drives success for the ambitious business owner, in the long-term.

    We first wrote up this theme three years ago, to this exact date. We explored it again, in more depth, at one of our Compass Meetings, 18 months ago. And, last week, it was the topic of conversation during the BIG Network that we run in collaboration with Kent Business School. A pattern seems to be emerging, but what is the learning?

    The first point of learning, is that whether informally or formally, successful ambitious business owners seem to find ways to hold themselves to account. But for what and to who?

    • ultimately to themselves and for the purpose, values and vision of the business – but also to their customers, staff, suppliers, etc.
    • in pursuit of this, having a plan with some longer term goals is a critical part of being held to account – it must be reviewed and updated regularly.
    • and, of course, being the best CEO/MD/business owner that they can be, playing to their strengths and adding value to the business now and in the future.

    Perhaps the most interesting and surprising learning is how hard this can be for people with an entrepreneurial character. So whether it be a coach, a mentor, a board / non-exec director, a growth club, a business planning and review cycle or their mates down the pub, it appears that they often seek and require some outside help:

    • “left to your own devices you will repeat patterns and get stuck”
    • “constructive challenge from an outside, objective view can enhance your clarity of vision, strategic direction and ability to lead
    • “coaching can really help you reflect on what is happening and what you want to happen – mentoring can help you access knowledge and experience on how to make it happen”
    • “it might seem counter-intuitive for a business owners drive for independence but used well it will actually promote this independence”

    But the use of external support comes with some warning,

    • “if you have a board you must invest time into the relationships – personality clashes can distract and detract – the relationship between Chair and CEO is a critical one” (click here for more information)
    • “finding the right people is hard and potentially harmful – take your time picking the right one – be clear about what you are looking for”
    • “you get out what you put in”

    Whatever the method it must continually encourage progress – to challenge and to promote learning:

    • “recognise and change behavioural patterns that inhibit progress, sometimes all it takes is a dumb question to stop you in your tracks”
    • “to avoid complacency, we need fresh perspectives as business grows – we must refresh the process of accountability”
    • “regularly review, adapt and agree the terms of reference for the relationship”
    • “recognise the informal processes that you all ready have – find ways to use them better”
    • “must do it but have a choice of methods – choose one and make it work for you”

    In exploring this theme further, the following questions appear important to ask:

    1. To what extent do people in your business have a clear and common understanding of your purpose, values and vision?
    2. How often to you review and adapt your plan for growth?
    3. How do you set goals and appraise performance for your own role?
    4. To what extent do you model the behaviours you wish to see within your own business?
    5. How will you independently challenge and verify the above?

    The characteristics of sustainable success

    At our Cog:ent Group meeting on 18 April 2013, run in partnership with HSBC and Chantrey Vellacott , we will be exploring the key characteristics of sustainable success for ambitious business owners.

    These characteristics are drawn from practitioner observations and academic research with over 1000 business. The work has resulted in a range of complementary and overlapping themes:

    These themes will be explored further at the meeting. For some more background information, please click on each of the links above.