I was taught professional leadership skills from an early age. I left school at 16 and joined the military for four years, during which time I had extensive training in leadership and delegation. Later, I joined the fire service and became an officer, and the disciplined structure that I learnt is something that I’ve been able to take with me into the business.
The ‘command and control’ approach meant taking command of a given situation so you can steer it correctly. In business, it means that the head of an organisation doesn’t get too involved in the day-to-day tasks, which can happen all too often, especially in growing businesses in which people are reluctant to delegate control.
Hiring people you can trust to look after the administrative parts of the business is the only way that allows you stand back and take a strategic view. That means taking on people who have better skills than you in their part of the business. There’s a lot written about ‘empowering’ individuals these days, but really that’s a buzzword for letting them to do their jobs.
Don’t name and shame
If you’re going to pass on control, you have to give people a chance to make and learn from mistakes, so be sure that you don’t create a blame culture. When things go wrong, you need to find out why so it doesn’t happen again, rather than focus on whose fault it is.
Having said that, there’s a limit. If you have someone who’s constantly making mistakes, you may have the wrong person on board and you may need to let them go.
You can find in larger companies that there’s more scope for staff to sit back and not make difficult decisions because their career path is plotted a lot more rigidly, allowing them to hide in the background. Staff can be less driven and less entrepreneurial, which can be detrimental.
The big oversell
I had another business in the early 90s, a building company, that didn’t do too well. But one lesson that I had to learn the hard way was that bad cash flow management can really drag you down. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get the sales in; it was more a case of not being experienced enough to manage the company. We were knocking out deals all over the place and I thought that as long as we were getting new contracts we would be fine. The reality is that you need to have a much more controlled approach to growth, otherwise demand will overstretch your capacity.
A three-pronged approach
You can separate your business into three parts – the forward-facing element that deals with demand, then the administration and your supply base.
Companies often kill themselves with the day-to-day admin tasks and end up not managing cash as they should and not selling to their full potential. They lose sight of the important aspects of the business.
Obviously, you need to keep capital expenditure down during the early years, but when eventually you can begin to outsource some of the admin, it allows you to take control of the supply and demand side, and to manage cash flow more effectively.
It comes back to ‘command and control’ – like fighting a fire, there will be certain explosive elements to any situation that may be beyond your control, but if you have an overall command of what’s going on, delegate efficiently and don’t get tied up with the smaller issues yourself, you’re much more likely to come out on top.