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How Not to Run a Business - 10 Years of Mistakes

07 Jan 2015 by Sarah Leembruggen.

We took ownership of an eight-year-old business 10 years ago in February. It makes you look back and think: Are we where we want to be? What's gone well? What's not gone well?

Well, I could hold forth for hours on what has not gone well so I thought why not share some of our lightbulb moments. There are some classics. I say 'our' mistakes because The Works is very much a collaboration between my business partner, Lynne, and myself, and we take joint responsibility for our mistakes – well, most of them anyway!

So here goes – 6 of our finest faux pas.

1. Newbies?  No worries!  They’ll pick it up as they go along!

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Just because you are good at your job and it comes naturally to you, do not assume that the same rule applies to those you take under your wing.  Some will take to their roles like a duck to water, but more often than not, they won’t.  They’ll need time, so be prepared to invest your time and energy to nurture them and develop clear induction processes – all written down – for them to follow.  Devise a proper plan of action that can be tailored to the needs of each individual. The alternative? Repeating yourself hundreds of times (and that is no exaggeration!) My advice is write it down, teach it and repeat slightly less!  Actually, I take that back.  Keep repeating it until they get it. Good habits take a while to become second nature.

2. Having a flat company structure is a great idea!

Sure, that’s cool to start with but it wears thin when it comes to heading up an ambitious team, managing salary expectations and trying to put teams in place. We tried it, it was stressful and it just didn't work. We now have a clear career path outlining each role with targets, responsibilities, competencies and salaries. By checking off capabilities at each level, we can make sure that each team member is ready to take the next step. Consequently the team knows where they are in their career progression and can take responsibility for their own development. Admittedly, there were a few groans when we first implemented this system, but now there is a lot of respect for the career path. Being clear on expectations is more comfortable for your team and attractive to future hires.

3. Everyone has their own style of working

No two members of a team are going to operate in the exact same way and having a broad cross section of personalities and skill sets at your disposal is critical, but there has to be a mutual understanding of protocol. I could not understand why certain things were being neglected, why favourite clients were being over-serviced and why the team was not performing brilliantly every time. Over time, I learned to identify what great looks like, share that with my team and establish ‘house standards’ that are written down and understood by all. Mistake corrected! 

4. I don't need training as I am the boss!  

Wrong again. To keep up and indeed ahead of the game, over the last few years I have thrown myself at as much coaching as possible. Lynne and I go to monthly workshops with inspiring speakers, I also have a training group I report to weekly and a network of business coaches, skills trainers and life coaches, all of whom are at my and the team’s disposal. When you're leading the way, you need to be the best you can be and get as much help and ideas as possible. There are always things to learn.  You can always be that little bit better.

5. If you hit upon a rough patch, reduce the size of the team and batten down the hatches

Don’t go there. It's a dull place to find yourself in, I can tell you. If you shrink your team to the point of being too small to make a profit and all you focus on is survival and breaking even, you lose sight of doing great business. Your thoughts turn to where the next invoice is coming from.  Don't get so small that it hurts. Replace staff and do it fast. Train if you can't find the skills in the market. It will take you three months for someone to start contributing when you train them and six months to find the 'perfect person' to hire.

6. I know what a great candidate looks like, so hiring for my own team will be a breeze!

Not quite.  Defining what makes a great hire at The Works took us a bit longer to master and we made some great hires and some not so great ones along the way.  Eventually the penny dropped and we learned that pinning down the attitudes and behaviours that drive success in our business, such as how people who go over and above, is much more important to us than skills and experience or liking someone.  Now our recruitment process is written down, and every question is well thought through before we meet anyone. There are three stages and two sets of psychometric profiling tests - we leave nothing to chance now!     

I could go on! 10 years of owning a business has given me a few grey hairs and one too many sleepless nights but it has been a lot of fun and given me the gift of learning that failure offers. Luckily, I also like to fix things and I have a business partner who keeps me sane and loves a process. Thanks, Lynne! Here's to another 10 years (of mistakes!)

The Works Search and Selection specialise in placing mid - senior level roles in PR and corporate communications with some of the most exciting companies in London.  Do get in touch if you think you're a highflyer looking for a step up or indeed if you need support with finding a hidden gem for your team.

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