Without doubt one of the best bits about running a business is the people. It is also one of the most challenging; good people are hard to find and great people are even harder to find. Getting great people to commit themselves to you is the hardest thing of all.
Companies and leaders need to find a way to cultivate a culture of empowerment, engagement and freedom with substantial rewards for those that do - but first a brief divertissement.
Recently I was out for dinner a few nights ago with a few of the alumni from Conchango, the company I founded with Richard Thwaite and sold to EMC in 2008. Perhaps I am getting sentimental in my old age but I love the fact that the alumni network is so strong and that there is so much support for each other within it.
When I look around at that group that used to work with me I am struck by how many of them are running successful businesses of their own now, and that is something that I am immensely proud of. I am not trying to take the plaudits for this. I am quite sure that they would all have been successful, whether or not they worked for us, however what I am sure of is that our business was as successful as it was because they did.
The benefit to me personally in taking the time to find and hire great people also goes far beyond the success of Conchango. Right now Conchango alumni run 10 businesses employing over 500 people. Companies like Red Badger who have gone from three men with a passion for building amazing tech to one of the most innovative and successful businesses of its kind in London working with some of our biggest retail brands. Then there is Fluxx who blazed a trail in the area of rapid innovation and are helping organisations of all shapes and sizes to transform themselves digitally. Station10 were one of the first to deliver multi-channel customer insights and can count some of the UK's biggest retail brands along their customers. Amido grow out of an office every year delivering identity and cloud services solutions and they show no sign of slowing down. Then there is Enjin, Ripple Rock, Freaky Rivet...
I could go on and on listing the businesses that have been started by or benefitted from the skills of Conchango alumni. And it isn't just the start-ups where they are making a difference, it is also within big brands like ASOS and the Financial Times where they are leading the charge around innovation.
Working with, advising and supporting these businesses now makes up over 50% of what I do on a day-to-day basis. My network and the value that I can bring to the people within it is all the better for hiring choices that were made a long time ago. The decision that we made as a company to invest in and support great people is still having a significant impact on my life today even though the company was sold over ten years ago.
The reason I wanted to highlight this was partly because it is something that makes me so proud but mainly because I feel that businesses still don't place enough importance on finding the right people AND, perhaps most importantly, giving them the space, resources and support that they need to achieve their potential. In the work that I do with young businesses I really emphasise the need for a culture of empowerment to be established as early as possible. Culture is everything, and has to be sincere. Building culture is a constant process, you have to be relentless about it because although the people are the culture the cultural framework is set by the executive team and its their personality that is reflected throughout the business.
All too often I see companies unable to scale or get beyond a certain size because the leaders or leadership is unable to delegate effectively, because of the fear of giving up control. Often there is an illusion of empowerment - responsibility but with no authority, worse than no delegation at all in my book. To manage growth the culture of trust and empowerment has to be established early and maintained.
This is an issue that doesn't does just effect individual businesses it also happens within departments inside a business. Good leadership has all too often been aligned with control and direction and that tends to create environments that stifle the talented. One of the big issues for large companies now, at a time when talent in the IT sector in particular is hard to come by, is that they are losing their best people. It is rarely an issue of money. If it was it would be easier to solve - the bigger the business the deeper the pockets usually. That is not to say that good people don't want to be rewarded but a pay cheque would have to be pretty fat for a smart and ambitious person to be able to operate happily without autonomy, responsibility and freedom.
For many senior leaders, whether they are running their own business or part of someone else's, letting go of the reins is difficult. We all fear a loss of control and the implications that it could have things go wrong. We are concerned that by giving people freedom and responsibility we are increasing risk. We are good at fencing people in whether it is by restricting budgets, putting in controls about how and when people work or fixating on a particular way of doing things. For a lot of us letting go is not in our nature. If however you can do it the rewards are substantial. Not just for you and your business but for life and business in general.