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Dealing with growth – Why success sometimes means letting staff go

Learning from his previous business when he was averse to letting staff go, Martin Campbell explains why those tough decision are often the right ones.
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Finding the right people to join your business is one of the hardest challenges for any business leader. Sure, you’ve got the most compelling vision, the most disruptive idea and the most innovative product, but how can you find people as fabulous as you are?

Even if you can pick out top quality candidates from the flood of CVs an agency will send you, how do you know who will really be able to take your company to the next level and beyond?

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Right from the start, recruiting and structuring your team has to be a top priority. When I founded my current business, I set down some pretty strict standards. One was that team members had to come to us with a real world of understanding of what it means to work in a small company. That was the only way I could be sure that they would understand what we are trying to do for our customers.

But it worked. Back in 2014, I hired a group of co-founders who took our company on an incredible journey from absolutely nothing to accolades like being chosen to be a “Tech Ambassador” for UKTI at the world-famous SXSW event and acknowledged as a Guardian Small Business of the Year. We also secured major new partners like RBS and Deutsche Bank.

But that was then. This is now. The business is heading into a new phase. Some of the things that we were doing aren’t so important now, and instead we need to do new things. Some of the ways we were doing things have got to change too. And some of the people that were right for the team over the last couple of years aren’t the right people to take us to the next level.

Making the tough decision and letting staff go

When I was growing my first company, I convinced myself that we needed to retain our current team members, even if the business was changing in a way that meant they weren’t so effective. I wanted to protect my loyal team members, many of them friends, and it seemed to make sense. It’s a very persuasive argument because it’s always easier in the short term to stick with an existing individual who knows the business than to make a disruptive and risky change and find the right person for the future.

What I found was that there were some team members who were flexible enough to grow, meet a challenge and take that next step forward, but there were some that weren’t. In my previous business, this meant that I ended up with the wrong people in senior posts which held up the development of other team members, ultimately holding up the whole business through lack of letting staff go.

This time around, I am making those decisions much earlier. Working with my leadership team, we have worked hard to map out where the company needs to go, and what that means for everyone’s roles. For some, this has been taken up as a welcome challenge and a chance to grow and develop. For others, the direction hasn’t been one that fits with them, and so we’ve parted company.

That makes it sound very easy and straightforward, which of course it isn’t. This isn’t the kind of conversation any manager wants to have, and it’s a lot less fun to be on the receiving end. I can, however, vouch for it being the right thing to do. As a business leader, your role is to support the team as a whole, even – especially when that means making difficult decisions. You also have a duty to your team members who ultimately don’t want to or aren’t able to contribute to your company’s future to help them find a new role in good time and leave gracefully for a position where their skills can shine, and they’ll be happy.

Getting ready for the next phase

When I planned this stage of growth with my leadership team, it felt like a very drastic course of action. In the last six months, we’ve changed four team members in our team of 12. But as those new team members settle in, and our business continues to accelerate, I’m convinced that letting staff go was the right thing to do, both for our business and for my former colleagues.

For me, this is a big lesson learned. I certainly should have acted earlier in my previous companies to ensure that I had the very best team to take the business forward.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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About Author

Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell is MD of Ormsby Street, the fast-growing financial technology firm behind CreditHQ, a digital tool that helps small businesses improve cash flow and get paid on time. He is a veteran of several successful digital companies which were founded, lead, and sold – although not necessarily in that order. The entrepreneur now mentors aspiring business leaders and shares his stories from behind the scenes.

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