You are busy building your business. The only thing is, the bigger it gets, the greater the demands that seem to fall on your shoulders. Why can’t people just make decisions without you getting involved? How can you let go without it all falling apart? Sound familiar? Whilst individual behaviour patterns differ, the symptoms are generally the same. Recently I worked closely with two entrepreneurs who had built a pretty unique tech business with an incredible blue chip client base. They both want to retire soon but the business is way too dependent on them, so whilst an exit is possible, it’s challenging to get the optimum value. I saw another example only last week when I stayed at a boutique hotel in California, where the moment the owner was off the premises, the service deteriorated to Fawlty Towers standards. This wasn’t because the staff were trying to deliver poor service, but because the perfectionism and “control freak” characteristics of the owner terrified them so much that they were too scared to use their own initiative. These are growing pains that pretty well every business faces at some point. The question is what to do to get over them. Businesses typically go through stages like humans: birth, toddlers, adolescence, adulthood and old age. However the big difference is that regardless of the age of the business it can get stuck in one phase, as well as having the opportunity to regenerate and renew, even in old age. During my career so far I’ve been fortunate to both experience and lead rapid growth on a number of occasions in different sectors and business types. An early experience of leadership and “letting go” was at Access 24, which I established as a start up corporate venture and grew to become the UK’s first and leading 24×7 medical communications centre servicing the pharmaceutical, retail pharmacy and insurance sector. We started with a handful of medical professionals in a call centre environment and grew it over three years to over a hundred professionals. The biggest impact of growth as we won new business was unfortunately very high staff turnover which we had to address very swiftly. It taught me that scaleability requires strong foundations. Everybody needs to share the clear sense of direction, values must genuinely encompass teamwork and integrity and everybody can make a difference. Repeatable, scaleable processes are crucial including the encouragement of people to use their initiative. There are times when as a business leader your managers tell you what they think you want to hear so keeping close to the front line to get their perspective is crucial. Asking them if they “were the boss for the day and could only make one change, what would it be?” is always illuminating. Finally, we spend so much time at work, let’s make it fun. These were some of the things which both addressed our staff turnover and also helped us build a great business. At IRIS, I went in to lead a business with 100 people and grew it to 1,200 people over a ten year period with phenomenal growth in revenue, profit and ultimate value. Whilst the experience was very different, many of the lessons learned at Access 24 were highly relevant. The “letting go” was even more crucial to achieve scale as was the predictable business model. I recognised the need to redesign my job as CEO typically every six months to stop doing the the things that I could delegate to others and give me capacity to focus on our growth strategy (with three year rolling planning cycles) and concentrate on the few big things that have the greatest impact. Early on some poor hires accentuated the need for ensuring I had a superb team and the importance of the role of CEO as both recruiter and coach to get the “right people on the bus and swiftly remove the wrong ones.” Letting go isn’t easy but is a crucial distinction between leadership and management. I love Guillaume Apollinaire’s famous quote which really says it all: “Come to the edge. And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew”.
Martin Leuw is a serial entrepreneur and former CEO of IRIS, the UK’s largest private software house.
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