Successful strategies for growth

In our conversations with ambitious business owners, we often hear two schools of thought – those who support the development of a strategic plan for their business and those who don’t. When you look beyond the subjective argument of these two camps, which is often based upon a clear personal bias, there is strong evidence for the benefit of longer-term strategic thinking in business. Despite this overwhelming fact, many ambitious business owners struggle to realise the ambitions for their own business. We find them asking:

  • what is it about strategic planning that works?
  • what strategic options do I face?
  • which strategic choices carry with them greater chances of success?

It was these questions that formed the basis of our Cog:ent workshop entitled “Successful strategies for growth” on 14 April 2016. As ever, the events provide a safe space for business owners to receive, share and apply relevant learning to the growth of their business.

This blog captures the discussion and learning that took place on the day. You can view the materials used by clicking on this link (160413 Successful strategies for growth – slides v5)

A light bulb moment that became an overnight success after 25 years

We were privileged to hear, first-hand from co-founder Richard Gyselynck, on the story of Acorne PLC. The business started life as a private pilot training school and now runs Virgin Experience Days.

For us, the story brought to life some elements of a good strategic approach:

  • The importance of gaining insight about the real value you bring to your real customer – it was the time that Richard spent trying to understand the customer (what drives and motivates them to buy?) that ultimately provided the stimulus for a different approach to the business. In understanding this, Richard began to realise that what they were doing was not providing flight training but giving ‘the man or woman in the street’ the opportunity to participate in a high value experience at an affordable price.
  • Understanding value and purpose drives strategy – this shift in purpose began a more deliberate and strategic pursuit. The new perspective freed up new ways of thinking and subsequent experimentation honed and fine-tuned a range of ideas linked to a rejuvenated purpose for the business.
  • The importance of using an external perspective to strengthen internal thinking – early on, realising that marketing was now a core capability that the business required, Richard brought in some external support to develop a deeper understanding of what drove success in their new business model. What dawned was the realisation that, as now a marketing business, it was distribution of the vouchers that was key to a successful strategy for growth.
  • The slow and steady march to add things to the core – with the niche essentially defined by a revolutionary shift in perspective, and over a period of years not weeks and months, the offer was then refined and extended (evolutionary growth). In the beginning, growth was fuelled by airfield-related activities, added to this were adrenalin based experiences, but in the last 12 – 24 months it is the rise of ‘afternoon tea’ that has stimulated further growth. The disciplined growth of, and addition to, the core has created a very different business to the original one but the core purpose remains.
  • The role leadership plays in guiding management – crucial to all of this appears to have been Richard’s ability to bring capability into the business to complement his own. Whilst arguing that delegation simply demonstrates his aspirations of laziness, recognising what capability is required to successful implement the strategy (as well as finding and motivating that resource) appears to be a key aspect to Acorne’s success – that and the usual dose of good luck and timing. By freeing themselves from the shackles of running the day-to-day, Richard and his business partner have been able to become non-executives in their own business. They now spend the majority of their time on creating the future and nurturing the identity of the business.

If you want to buy someone special that special gift, or find out more about the Acorne story, please visit click here.

Lessons learned in a joint exploration of strategic success

Participants were then given the opportunity to reflect on Richard story, and our own learning, by applying the thinking to their own business context. The following additional themes of discussion confirmed and strengthened the view of what drives a successful strategy:

  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast (and for lunch and dinner too!) – people and relationships are the key to any strategy. So whilst “hard” factors and objective thinking are important to getting the right strategy, it is the “soft” elements of people, relationships, engagement, motivation and alignment that are crucial to getting strategy right.
  • Good strategy adapts and evolves with the changing tide – with the rapid pace of change, and the increasing need to be responsive and agile, the five year strategic plan is all but dead and buried. However, taking a long-term perspective and updating the strategic approach on an annual basis appears to be an option that is viewed as sensible by all.
  • A shift in strategy often requires a shift in approach and people – this came to life in the exploration of a strategic shift from product selling to solution selling. What seems a simple change on paper is more fundamental in reality. In the first instance, it requires you to make sure you are selling nurofen (solving a real problem) not vitamins (a nicety). And more importantly, your sales team need to be equipped to resource the adapted approach – ninja, warrior, farmer or hunter where words that came to mind – and sometimes this requires bringing in new capability to the business. Linked to this, being pro-active in creating the shift for yourself seems a better choice than waiting for the shift to be created for you.

So with all this learning, what simple messages do we need to take away? The following high level questions, are aimed to help you to consider what is required to create and deliver a successful strategy?

  • Managing the present – What can you learn from what you are doing now? What is the real value that you provide for your real customers? And how might you improve how you deliver it?
  • Nurturing your identity – How is your purpose relevant today and tomorrow? What values and principles are guiding your long-term decision making?
  • Creating the future – How is the external perspective changing? What is your renewed ambition in this changing new context? How might you win?
  • Leading the system – How do you need to change to deliver a balanced result? Who do you need to engage with in order to answer your key strategic questions? How does your strategy fit together as one coherent whole?

If you would like to discuss any of the themes arising in this blog, attend our next Cog:ent meeting or explore how we can support the growth of your own business, please contact

Making innovation part of your organisational DNA

Here is the executive summary for our article on innovation, we quite like the response it has had from people. If you’re interested in hearing and/or reading more contact

For organisations to create sustainable success, in an ever changing and dynamic world, they constantly need to find new ways to adapt, improve and reinvent what they do and how they do it.

This opportunity for innovation lies not just in new products and services but also in structures, processes and behaviours. To truly master this challenge requires the whole organisation to excel across the innovation process, from inception, through development and into action.

“Whole system innovation goes beyond the isolated creation of new concepts and ideas, it covers all parts of the innovation process and pervades all aspect of the organisation – products, services, processes and behaviours. It is the need to adapt to an ever changing world by generating insights and ideas that can be translated into practical, sustained business improvements and commercial benefits – it is an essential component of sustainable success.”

It is using this broader definition of a whole system view of innovation, going beyond the isolated creation of new concepts and new ideas, that we see innovation as a key component of sustainable success. While innovation remains a ‘subjet du jour’ for academics and consultants, our experience is that many organisations still struggle to make the necessary changes. In short, they appear to be asking ‘how do we innovate innovation?’

Our exploration of this challenge has drawn us to three areas that appear key to embedding innovation within the organisation’s DNA:

  1. Defining a broad innovation agenda supported by a disciplined process.

To move innovation beyond the preserve of the R&D department or product marketing team, requires a broader definition of the types of innovation that an organisation can benefit from. To capitalise on these opportunities further requires a more disciplined approach to the innovation process.

  1. Creating a fertile environment

Everyone has the capacity and ability to play a role in delivering the innovation agenda, but to enable this requires people to:  Recognise where and how they can play a role (mind-set). Be empowered to ‘step up’ and ‘speak out’ (behaviour)  Work collaboratively beyond their existing remit (relationship) To deliver whole system innovation requires challenging and changing existing paradigms and ways for working.

  1. Providing adaptive leadership

For innovation to pervade, adaptive leadership is required across the business, in a manner where leaders:

  • Communicate the challenge to staff and show how innovation fits with purpose, values and vision, i.e. a core initiative Identify and own the systems challenges that require major changes in mindset, behaviour and action, i.e. the real game changers
  • Model and encourage the shift in behaviour they seek, while overseeing the innovation process, i.e. encouraging creativity, protecting promising ideas and culling those that have run their course.

In short, creating an environment where innovation is seen as a fundamental part of the day job for everyone is one of the major challenges facing organisations today. In a world that is moving so fast, the price of standing still is great. When organisations are able to embed innovation within their DNA they not only create a major competitive advantage but also unlock the door to long-term sustainable success.

Winning the war for talent

Winning the war for Talent

“Our people strategy was our business strategy” stated Victoria Mellor during a fireside chat at our most recent Cog:ent meeting. She has successfully exited her business Melcrum after 19 years.

During the last 16 years of working with our clients, and through the stories we have explored with over 600 ambitious business owners, we have unearthed one element of learning that stands head and shoulders above the rest – the need to bring in to your business, and unlock the talent and potential of, people who are better than you.

It was this theme that formed the basis of exploration for our workshop on 21 January 2015 – this blog summarises some of the discussion and learning from the event.

A deliberate shift in mindset

“We had a five year strategy to change the business radically and facilitate our exit from the business. We decided what our business needed to look like in 5 years’ time and worked backwards from there. Finding good people became an absolute imperative.”

It would appear that this change in mindset, often borne through crisis, is an essential component in winning the war for talent. The desire to exit your business (or at least create a range of options) appears a helpful stimulus in this shift. It is perhaps the recognition and visualisation of a business that is not centred on you, the business owner, which begins to unlock the new behaviours.

An attractive business personality

“I used to tell people that they had the opportunity to be part of a growing, ambitious and entrepreneurial business with a real variety of work.”

Job descriptions and salary bands are all a bit boring really, aren’t they? What everyone finds more attractive and compelling is a story. The ability to describe the personality of the business (purpose, values and culture) along with the future story (ambition, opportunity and vision) appears to be a real attractive force for talent. It might seem that corporates can provide more money, more benefits and more career advancement but when people are attracted and inspired by more than just these rational factors (see Simon Sinek) it is easy to see how smaller businesses can develop a competitive edge for talent.

Drawing people in to business discussions

“We faced a real business challenge of how to exit ourselves from our publishing business. We didn’t have the answer, so we opened the challenge to people in the business. We posed the question and got them to present their thinking to the board. It really got people engaged.”

Once in a business, people generally want to feel that their contributions are being valued. Leaders who recognise that they don’t hold a monopoly on all good business ideas, reach out to the people in their business for help in solving real business problems. This process of involvement and participation appears to provide a real motivating and binding force – even when only a handful of ideas move forward and become reality. Anything that helps people feel a stronger sense of purpose, develop mastery in their role along with an appropriate degree of autonomy has been shown to have real benefit (see Dan Pink). 

Build your network

“A lot of our recruits came from our clients, when I met great people I’d say that they’d come and work for us one day. They always seemed to come back at a later date for a conversation.”

In the stories that were shared on the day, the need to develop the strength of your network is crucial. The number of great hires that were already known to the business or a direct referral continually astounds us. So, whether it is with clients, suppliers, competitors or even at the gym continue to build your network and don’t be afraid to share your story.

Modelling and leading your employee experience

“Once I got these great people on board, I had to manage how they gelled together as a team and get them to realise that it was now their job to attract and retain great people. Managing the experience and motivation of my senior team and reminding them about our strategy and values occupied the majority of my time”

What is absolutely clear is the need to deliberately model and lead your employee experience. To do this, and where we have been helping clients, requires you to:

  1. Develop a clear philosophy
  2. Adopt a people-centred talent push
  3. Create the right environment
  4. Observe real behaviour
  5. Provide everyone with a toolkit
  6. Raise self-awareness and confidence
  7. Promote your employee experience externally
  8. Celebrate successes and learning from failure quickly

That’s a lot of shared learning extracted from a 3-hour workshop and summarised in an 800-word blog! You can read the workshop booklet that we used by clicking on this link (151126 Winning the war for talent – booklet) and more on the 8 steps below.

If you would like to discuss any of this learning further and explore how this might be appropriate and relevant for your business, please contact

Eight steps to developing a strategy for talent:

  1. Develop a clear philosophy that sits comfortably with, and reinforces, your purpose and values – create your talent story. In essence, this is about your entire business, rather than just talent. There are plenty of great examples out there, but we’ve always been rather impressed by Ed Perry, founder and CEO of Cook. For inspiration, you can read more about their story and their values here.
  2. Adopt a people-centred talent push (from the individual, bottom up) rather than talent pull (top down) approach. To unlock what is inside the hearts and minds of your people, seek first to understand and then be understood. This is a case of starting with what you have got, rather than what you haven’t got. Spend time with people, explore their ambitions and how they feel they can contribute.
  3. Create the right environment by being clear on expectations (desired outcomes and business objectives) and put people in control – build projects around motivated people and give them the trust and support they need to be successful. Research shows that 71% of employees think it’s their company’s responsibility to manage their career. At the same time, 85% of managers think it’s down to the employees. Take away this ambiguity and start to put people in control.
  4. Observe real behaviour in career moments and be curious about understanding them further – Why is that person not performing? Why have you seen a sudden increase in energy from another? Why did that person really leave? Observe people in the work place and understand the emotion flows at certain ‘career moments’. We worked with a sales team in the early years of their career, where 50% of people would leave with less than one years service. By mapping their motivation levels and understanding the emotional journey, something could be done to improve the situation.
  5. Provide everyone with a toolkit that supports and embeds your desired philosophy – create the space for them to think about their career, how it relates to your business and how they might take ownership of their actions to deliver both. When learning and adopting new methods of doing things, people need guidance and prompts. We developed the Me+ toolkit, working with a large IT client who recruit and train large numbers of graduates each year. It is now used by 1000s of graduates and enables them to take control of their careers and align the objectives to the organisation that they are working for. Discover more about ME+ at
  6. Raise self-awareness and confidence (through praise, quality feedback and recognition) and resilience (by encouraging a sharing, supportive, peer to peer learning environment). Any openness to and an ability to reflect on high quality feedback accelerates learning and builds will power.
  7. Promote your employee experience externally in a manner that helps and encourages self-selection – value attitude and cultural fit over and above technical know-how. Done well, new employees will know if it’s an experience that will match their values and strengths, allowing more self-selection and reducing waste. Netflix do this particularly well (read more here).
  8. Celebrate successes and learning from failure quickly – review the employee experience regularly and be open to feedback and change. Develop a growth mindset. Individuals and companies that have a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to continually learn and grow. They enquire more deeply into the causes of failure (and success) and accelerate their learning accordingly.

If you are interested in trailing the ME+ career app and toolkit? Or just want to discuss your talent successes or challenges with us?  Send us your thoughts through the ‘Sign Up’ page at . We look forward to helping you bring the best people together to discover success.


Leading a growing business

The next stage of growth for your business is likely to result from you doing something differently as leader. So, what do you want from your business? And what does your business need from you?

This was the theme we explored in our first workshop in the second series of Cog:ent – quarterly thought leadership workshops for ambitious business owners in the Thames Valley. The theme was brought to life by interviewing the founder of a specialist contractor, whose business has grown from £5m to £10 over the last two years. This blog summarises the learning from those who participated in the workshop.

Over the years, alongside our work with large multinational organisations, we have been lucky enough to experience, observe and explore the journeys of over 600 ambitious business owners. Across those journeys there seem to be some common and interesting themes that differentiate those who lead successful, thriving businesses from those who struggle.

Developing the right mind-set

Somewhere on the journey, and before each and every stage of a business’s development, the leader’s narrative seems to shift. Frequently, before growth people say things like “I struggle to find the right people; my team is loyal but lacks the drive I now need”. After growth has occurred, and as a result of lessons they have learned, we hear people saying “I would have employed better people earlier on and let them get on with it”.

Consequently, we are intrigued by what creates this difference in thinking. It is often traced to a strong need to move away from something (“I’ve had enough of this”) combined with a desire to move towards something (“I want a more profitable business”) and a clear first course of action to enable the shift (“I need to get in an FD”).

What does success look and feel like for you? And, what is the mind-set you need to adopt, in order to lead your business towards this?

Doing the right things

We also see these leaders doing things a little differently. They move away from “I’m spending 60-70 hours a week working, it’s relentless” towards realising that “Some of the most valuable time I spend in the business is staring at a blank wall”. Successful leaders spend time outside their business with customers and the industry opening up connections, creating direction with a clear vision of success, nurturing and inspiring a culture with competitive advantage and building a team around them to manage and run the business and the people. They see this as their valuable contribution to the business and recognise that they need to spread their attention and energy across the right things.

Where are you placing your energy and attention? How is it influencing the success of your business?

Evolving and maturing the business

As the business grows, successful leaders enable the business to mature around them – grow up, rather than just grow. This typically requires a move away from everyone doing everything (the one man band) to increasing areas of specialisation and professionalism (creating an orchestra). Each move lessens the reliance upon the founder. Each transition is managed deliberately and effectively.

What is the context in which your business is operating? What is the shift required for your business to survive and thrive?

Learn to let go and evolve your role

Each stage in the development of a business requires the founder to adopt a different role, appropriate to the stage of growth. Activities need to be delegated and freeing up time in this way means that the founder can take on new roles. Successful leaders understand how their role needs to shift and adapt and are clear on where they can and want to add value.

Where are you in your leadership journey? What do you need to let go of? Where can you add most value next?

Build a team for tomorrow, not just today

Once you have established where you can add real value and what role you need to play, consider who you need in your team. This is perhaps the most crucial element of leading your business. Successful leaders recognise the importance of ensuring the right people are on the bus, and this often requires the need to confront the ‘wrong’ people. That does not mean they are bad people who perform badly, more that the business needs skills and capabilities in the future that it currently does not possess. That’s why, in successful journeys, we observe leaders recruiting people who are more experienced and more capable than themselves.

If you were already successful, what would your team look like? To achieve your ambition, who do you need in your team?

New ways need new behaviours

It is often said that a leopard cannot change its spots. But we have observed many successful ambitious business owners change their behaviours (not their values) in a way that is more conducive for the next stage of growth. Sure, old habits pop up time and again, but an approach that moves away from ‘driving the business and leading by example’ often evolves into ‘a more enabling and empowering approach that recognises the value of coaching and supporting people’ in the business. In short, they recognise that they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and decisions.

How are your current leadership behaviours influencing the success of the business? What needs to change to unlock the next stage of growth?

Easy to say, but difficult to do

The need to align your business goals with your personal goals is an ongoing, dynamic challenge. The various roles that you play in life do not always interact neatly with each other. Frequently, they are a tangled mess! Successful leaders seem to have a canny knack of aligning these interests more effectively so that they work with, rather than against each other.

How are your various roles influencing your business transition? How could your business transition fit more with your personal goals?

Having explored these various themes in depth, what observations were made, what learning was experienced, what actions were provoked? Here is the essence of what we heard being discussed:

“It’s nice to realise you are not alone, the themes really hit home and feel real. Sharing and discussing how to address them with others is really cathartic.”

“Leading is more about people than it is about the task. How to enable performance and not tolerating poor performance is essential.”

“All of this starts with a clearer, more defined view of my role. I need to work out the value I can bring to the business.”

“I need to establish how to shift my mind-set and behaviour to strike the right balance of task, people, present and future.”

“I’m going to bring others into the decision-making process more, establish management meetings and share the responsibility more.”

“I need to observe my own behaviour more and understand the impact it is having on our people and our performance.”

“I’m better suited to doing the external stuff that the business needs, I need someone to help lead the internal stuff.”

“I think I really need a mentor, coach or board to help me shift and evolve the way I lead the business.”

“I recognise I can’t just delegate stuff and let go of it, I need to coach and support people more to be successful in their roles.”

So, how do these themes apply to you and your business? What shift do you need to make to unlock the future success of your business?

We encourage you to click here to read the notes from the meeting and to start reflecting. If you need help in thinking this through or support in making the transition to transform your business, please contact Adam Campbell on to see how we can help.

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.

The launch of the Tomorrow’s Business Owners Report

Today, with Tomorrow’s Company, the IoD and Lord Young we launched the Tomorrow’s Business Owners report. Below is my speech introducing the report. Thank you to those who came.

“Thank you to Simon, to Lord Young and to Mark. It is a real privilege to be here to mark the end of the writing of this report and to begin the next path on the journey.

I used to think of myself as fast, entrepreneurial and decisive but in reflecting on what to say tonight I have realised that this report has been 18 years in the making, a year in the writing and 2 years in the launching. So, perhaps I should start to think of myself as determined and thorough! My wife would definitely say slow!

Tomorrow marks the 18th anniversary of when I met my first business partner, a journey which saw the creation of 2 businesses, over 80 jobs, rapid growth, the promise of riches and numerous disappointments. In our time together, we put over 400 candidates through NVQ qualifications, opened 8 health clubs, turned down an approach of £12m and 2 years later put the business in to administration.

After a year in, what I like to call “rehab” on an MBA at the Cranfield School of Management, the journey shifted. I joined Telos, a business committed to helping its clients create sustainable success, and one that had formed after the original Tomorrow’s Company enquiry by the RSA.

This not only provided me the opportunity to work with a rich variety of international global corporations, but it has also provided me the opportunity to work with over 500 ambitious business owners on growth programmes, helping them in the process but learning huge amounts along the way.

In 2010, as part of the celebration of the Telos’ 10th anniversary, we decided to capture the learning of our first 10 years.

Whilst other colleagues did this for our global clients, I chose to do this from the perspective of our work with ambitious business owners and in the process, we reconnected with Tomorrow’s Company.

When we set out on the journey to write the report, we were keen to understand and highlight what distinguished those who did from those that did not.

We interviewed people and ran numerous workshops. What began to emerge was a journey from inception to exit. These themes were developed and further evolved in more workshops and what seemed like an endless editorial process, thank you Pat and Jaishree for your help and patience.

The end result is a report that summarises the stories of hundreds of business owners and the essence of what it takes to create, establish and grow a successful business. It looks to describe the differentiators at each step along the way. It offers no answers but instead looks to challenge people to think longer-term and ask some important questions.

It is certainly very appropriate that the writing of this report symbolises the very essence of running, establishing and growing a business – it was a real rollercoaster, there were no short-cuts and it all took a lot longer than we thought!

So what of the journey?

The journey seems to pass along and through 7 key steps, so let me talk briefly about each of those.

Starting the journey
They say curiosity killed the cat but it seems that it makes the entrepreneur.

Of all the success stories that we have seen over the years there is one thing that connects the founding moment – it was born from a question rather than a dream.

Perhaps my most favourite story to illustrate this comes from a friend Eyal, who, on standing in a queue, papers in hand, applying for his visa to the UK, realised that his CV was the only thing that was never truly verified. It sparked a question, was it possible to verify the facts on a CV and provide a stamp of authority?

Ten years on, Verifile is now one of the most well-renowned employment background checking services within the UK.

Making it happen
A business doesn’t start the way it ends. The original idea always evolves. The vision at that start is often hazy. It is more of a direction or an energy than a clear picture of the end result.

In talking with Tristram Mayhew of Go-Ape, I have always been struck by the story he tells of going to the Forestry Commission, with this mad idea to get people to live more adventurously and swing through the trees! He was asking permission to run the first Go-Ape site in one of their forests and if it was successful, he wanted an exclusive deal on the next 5.

Their response? If you can make one successful, we want you to do it across all our forests. Out of the conversation popped a vision to have 40 sites across the UK!

It would appear that an open exploration of the question with others builds the energy and momentum required to help an idea take flight. Success appears to be borne from a process of solving small problems before taking on the bigger ones.

Maintaining a driving ambition
It is ambition, a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the current state combined with a belief that it can and must be better, that drives a business forward.

The process of running a business wears you down, your attitude to risk changes over the years, there comes a point when you have more to lose than win. We have met many businesses owners who have built successful businesses, only to stagnate because of these facts.

Those who master this task and push on seem to use life’s milestones to drive them on to the next level. In doing so, they find a way to maintain a youthful driving energy and combine it successfully with the wisdom of experience.

Take John Maxted’s example, who founded and grew Digby Morgan an HR recruitment consultancy which he sold to Vedior in 2008. He describes his business in two distinct phases, the hedonistic phase and the heritage phase. It was his 40th birthday that shifted his approach. Subsequently, it was his 50th birthday that marked the start of his exit process.

Each milestone fuelled his ambition further, he drew upon the experience gained and brought younger energy into the business to provide the drive that was required.

Building resilience to crises
Crises are inevitable in business, they also stimulate growth.

Creating personal and business resilience to these crises and learning to sail on the changing tide is critical to the achievement of continued growth.

Every successful business has stared disaster in the face. Early warning systems, the ability to confront brutal facts, and the courage to adapt are common to all the success stories that we have observed and seen.

Perhaps, none more so than Vivian Woodell of The Phone Co-op. Telecoms is a tough industry to start a business in, particularly if you are trying to do it through a different business model to the norm and starting from your own bedroom.

The fast changing environment and saturated industry has required the business to be innovative and adapt to the new challenges it faces. In recent years, it has continued to grow its phone and broadband business successfully, but has also begun the move into other utility growth products, for example solar panels and renewable energy.

In doing so, it has predicted future challenges before they have arisen, maintained a clear sense of purpose and values and continued to be entrepreneurial in its approach.

Learning to lead
Many business owners change the title on their business card as the business grows but very few manage to adopt the behaviours required for their new role.

Learning to act and behave as the MD, CEO or Chair of your own business is the most fundamental and challenging aspect of achieving success. It is like weaning yourself off the drugs of your previous role.

Perhaps our most prevalent successful example of this, is Sir Richard Branson. Love him or hate him, he has managed to extract himself from the business whilst maintaining a strong influence on the purpose, values and vision.

Very few can claim to have done the same to such effect.

Holding yourself to account
Owning, leading and governing your own business comes with a great responsibility. Behaving as a good steward is critical. The act of creating formal and informal ways to build accountability for thought, action and result is an absolute necessity.

Over the last 3 years, we have partnered with Kent Business School to provide intensive support to local businesses. Getting them to think longer-term, to write down their plans, to communicate and involve their staff, and to revisit and report on their actions.

Whilst, relatively early on it is journey, over the last year this approach has not only generated an average increase of 19% turnover and 13% employment, but it has also significantly increased people’s ambition and enhanced their leadership capabilities.

An added benefit has been to provide a stronger link with the university allowing the businesses to access the rich resources that sit within. Something I am sure Lord Young will be pleased to hear.

Much of these benefits have come from the simple process of having an outside sounding board that supports and challenges the thinking of the business owner.

So, on to our final theme.

Creating a successful exit
Of the business owners that we have met who have successfully sold their businesses, many are rich and unfulfilled. In their stories you sense an element regret and remorse.

For those who you don’t, it appears that they recognised it was the right time to go, they knew what they would do next and the transition was deliberately managed.

In a conversation with Richard Salvage, who sold his business Shield Medicare in 2006. He told me the story of turning down the original offer because he realised that he wasn’t ready to sell.

He spent the next few years, putting in place the team to run the business, incentivised them to work beyond the finish line of the exit and worked out what it was that he wanted to do next.

When he was ready, the offer on the table had significantly increased!

Perhaps exit should not be viewed as selling the business – perhaps it should be about creating options for the business to live out the founding principles and finding the right leadership and ownership for the next stage of growth.

The focus can then be on building a strong business, whilst exploring how and when the transition will take place.

For me, the essence of these seven steps highlights three key messages: the importance of purpose and the absolute clarity on why; the constant need to pass on the baton relinquishing control and empowering ownership within others; and, the ongoing requirement to answer the question what next?

It has been a rich and challenging journey to get here. We are forever grateful to all those business owners, who lent us their stories for the report and helped to create the toolkit.

Exploring the question has grown a stream of work for the SME practice of Telos Partners, one which is growing, currently supporting the growth of over 50 ambitious business owners, partnering with academic institutions, banks, accountants and solicitors to better support local businesses.

And we are taking on people ourselves, so the journey continues and is now focused on delivering and understanding impact.

Thank you for taking the time to come along today to find out more about the report. Thank you to all those at Telos and Tomorrow’s Company who helped. And thank you to the IoD and Lord Young for your support tonight.

Now, I’d like to hand you back to Simon.”


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