Would you work for you?

When we were researched and wrote up our own learning, and the learning of others,  for what drives long-term success for ambitious business owners there was one theme that dominated the answers to the question – if you had your time again, what would you do differently?

I wish that I had taken on people more talented than me much earlier on

These comments are reflected in an earlier theme entrepreneur as leader and they beg a further question – how does an ambitious and growing SME attract and retain talent?

In our observation, the businesses who struggle say things like:

  • who would want to come and work for a small business in a rural town like Boringville
  • we can’t offer the same attractive salaries or career progression of a large corporate
  • we have to make do with what we have got

In comparison, the businesses who seem to make more progress say things like:

  • people join us because of our culture
  • it is a real challenge focusing the energy and ideas that come with ambitious people – but what a challenge to have
  • I’ve had to find and adapt to a new role, at the same time establishing where I can really add value

We are sure that this is much to do with great leadership AND great management – something that many business owners struggle to achieve balance with. But what does seem clear is the need for a compelling story that engages potential and current employees in the purpose and values of the business; informs them about what they need to focus on to be successful; and inspires them with what might be achieved together.

But these are our thoughts and our experience with our clients … in your opinion what helps ambitious business owners to attract and retain talent? What works? What doesn’t?

The topic will be explored in further depth at our next compass meeting.

Growing your business with other people involved

Through our Compass Meeting on 14 June 2012, (Agenda for Compass Meeting #7) and various online discussions, we’ve spent the last two weeks exploring and developing the theme “Two from the top please Carol”. It has been an enlightening and interesting exploration of essentially what is required at the top of a growing SME to make it successful in the long-term.  What seems to have emerged from the discussion are two choices and some tricky middle ground:

  • The original theme highlights one of these – partnership and the ever evolving fusion of two distinctly different but connected parts.
  • The debate put forward the second choice – strong leadership backed up by an employed but committed and empowered management team.
  • And, the conversations unearthed the middle ground – a strong individual trapped between a desire to delegate and a fear to let go.

Partnership in its truest sense

By partnership, we essentially mean two (maybe three) people who provide the ying and yang described in “two from the top please Carol”. Amongst this population we hear some common phrases:

  • “we are not the most natural fit with each other – on paper it shouldn’t work”
  • “I wasn’t sure if I could trust him to begin with but I began to realise that he delivered on what he said he would do and the trust built from there”
  • “sometimes it feels like the staff treat us a bit like mum and dad – going from one to the other until they get what they want – but we’ve learnt to adopt a united front in public and ensure  our strongest debates happen in private”
  • “we are really clear on the goals and the direction – the constructive debate comes in how we get there”
  • “it really is a partnership of equals in every sense – when he says something I know there must be something in it, even if I can’t see it straightaway”
  • “we are very lucky to have found each other”

For this approach: perhaps the greatest strength is someone who is there to bounce ideas off, share the burden and reap the rewards together? And the greatest weakness is the lack of ease with which you can bring others into this dynamic duo environment?

Reflecting on the feel of the partnership, it seems to have an informal and organic nature – a relationship that has developed over time with firm roots that allows it to sway in the breeze.

Strong leadership supported by strong management team

In this scenario the same ying and yang is achieved through different means. There is a clear and strong leader and a loyal serving management team. The leader owns the direction and the vision, management the implementation and resource. The collective of the management team challenges the leader on the direction and vision, whilst the leader holds the management team to account.

Whilst we did not explore this in depth during the conversation, we have previously heard comments like:

  • “it is my business and whilst I am willing to share in the success I am clear that is my business”
  • “we are really clear about roles – the management team know what decisions they are empowered to make and when they need to involve me”
  • “we spend two weeks of the year out of the business developing, agreeing and monitoring our plans to achieve the vision”

For this approach, perhaps the strength is a sense of security and knowing where you stand? And, the weakness that you never fully empower people to take the lead?

Reflecting on the feel of the relationship, there seems to be a stronger sense of formality – structured planning processes, a clear delineation of role descriptions and a team process that works.

Consistent in both worlds

In reality, these two worlds have a subtle difference and essentially achieve the same result. The success of each appears dependent upon some common elements:

  1. Sounding board for leadership – inside or outside the business
  2. Absolute clarity on the future direction and needs of the business
  3. Self-awareness in leadership’s strengths or weaknesses
  4. Willingness to work with people who are better than you
  5. Time to explore and have the debate
  6. Evolving a sense of trust – delivery on promises
  7. Two-way street – the interdependent ability to unlock and work with diverse points of view

Avoiding the trap

During the rewriting of this theme, we were reminded of Katzenbach and Smith’s work on the Wisdom of Teams and their exploration of working group or team.

Perhaps the dangerous middle ground is reflected by an ambitious business owner struggling with the transition of holding individuals accountable for their roles and wanting the team to work together?

As ever with these themes, we often seem to rediscover learning through the ages and apply it to a specific context – after all, two heads are better than one and too many cooks spoil the broth! And, elements of this certainly appear to be reinforced by others.

So, if you are an ambitious business owner looking to grow your business and achieve enduring success, some important questions worth asking are:

  • To what extent do you have ying and yang represented in your business?
  • What are you doing to contribute to (or hinder) a sense of partnership or team?
  • How will you create a strong sense of common purpose, values and vision with the people that are critical to the long-term success of your business?
  • How can you make more of the difference that resides within your partnership or team?
  • Who is your unbiased sounding board?

If this theme, or others have interested you and you would value exploring it further, please do not hesitate to contact us adamcampbell@telospartners.com. For more information, click here.

Two from the top please Carol

The writing of this theme started when we came across a blog of someone who we have worked alongside for the last 8 years . It sparked a thought that we have held for a number of years:

  • Bill Gates and Paul Allen
  • Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard
  • Richard Branson and Will Whitehorn

It seems that success is quite often a factor of two. So, is it the case that behind every great ambitious business owner is a great number two?

Perhaps, the term number two is less than useful. Perhaps, we are talking about a partnership that essentially is equal, certainly in terms of reciprocal value. Perhaps, it is a partnership with important distinct roles and offerings, yet also a partnership that becomes a powerful whole. Perhaps, it is as much about Ying and Yang; Pilot and Navigator; Morecambe and Wise!

In those businesses that we have observed to go on to great things, these types of partnerships seem to be an important characteristic. Within the partnership there is a level of trust and a clear understanding of confidentiality, which allows the unspeakable to be spoken, pressures to be genuinely shared and offloaded. Importantly, along with support, there is the opportunity to challenge and disagree with mutual respect, attention and a valuing of different perspectives.

In our minds, we often see one as up in the crow’s nest, off visiting foreign lands, experimenting and visioning, whilst the other  is “holding the ground”, covering the bases, running the show.  Perhaps the roles are important, who has which and with what blend less so. If we return to the idea of the Ying and Yang however, we might remind ourselves that at the centre of one shade or texture we find the other. There are distinctions and similarities, overlaps and the ability to operate in both roles and of course, if needs be, take the helm alone.

So, if you are an ambitious business owner and if this type of partnership is fundamental:

  • What does this tell you about your quest for enduring success?
  • If you already have this partnership, what do you need to do to capitalise further on it?
  • To what extent do you both share the same sense of ambition, purpose, values and vision?
  • If you don’t have it, how might you find it?

Perhaps, one final thing to say is that this is not about succession planning – a great number two does not necessarily make a great successor.