I enjoyed a great catch-up with the Managing Director (MD) of a (target) company of mine today. This family owned business is a leading advanced engineering company in the North West and the MD’s insights into business and the way things are changing is always sharp and insightful.
We discussed the economic challenges of the past 12 months and, given the long life-cycle of procuring and then manufacturing their products he saw the next 6-12 months as a period of “consolidation”. Many of their competitors had already been squeezed out, although he suspected there would be more to come – especially as businesses who survive then suffer from over-trading as the market (hopefully) returns “in around 2012” – the mantra Cash is King will remain as crucial as ever.
What was most interesting was the sense of cohesiveness mixed with a strong focus and direction that he was building within the organisation. The tough times over the past 12-18 months have clearly made them much more focused on their core strengths and therefore more inclined to sub-contract the work that they do not believe they can do as well – this is brave but strategically right for the longer term. Likewise they are actively seeking opportunities to assist other engineering firms with their expertise and resource to help meet demands or short term resource needs. A flexible approach that the MD could see being a key growth area in the business.
They have also continued along a path of identifying and nurturing new and emerging engineering talent within the North West – an area which is of strategic importance for them over the longer term but which is clearly already bringing success. This commitment to supporting early stage engineering ideas and businesses is crucial to the future of the North West economy and is refreshing to see within a long established family company.
Picking up on the team cohesiveness, the MD explained how his choice of location for their new offices was largely dictated by where his team live (“we really wanted to keep them”) and how he would like to increase the commitment of the business to social responsibility by allowing staff to complete 4 week sabbaticals on hands-on roles such as building orphanages in Africa in the not too distant future – all on full-pay. Notwithstanding such lofty goals, the MD was both surprised and warmed by the team’s response to his impromptu decision to give all staff an extra 2 days holiday over Christmas this year – “I’ve handed out pretty decent bonuses in the past and have been greeted with a “thanks (but I’ve earned it)” kind of response but was stunned by the response to this gesture!”
A great business with a great leader. We need more like it.
Riffing off Seth Godin (and his collaborators’) contributions to the fantastic and recently published What Matters Now ebook, I thought I would add my one-pager (should Seth have asked me to contribute – maybe next time huh?)
What Matters Now?
Making meaning through business. Solving global problems. Engaging people in work that fulfills them. Making cool stuff. Existing for more than making a profit. Businesses that make meaning. Business can have soul.
Big business (used) to make the rules. They made stuff that generates the biggest profits. Enroll staff to work and make the stuff. Pump millions of £s into advertising to make people want to buy the stuff that the big companies are making. It has no enduring meaning. Everyone knew it, there just wasn’t the ready means to challenge or change it (you needed money, and lots of it). Business lost soul.
The internet has changed everything. It allows mom and pop businesses to flourish from the kitchen table. It allows people who might otherwise never meet to collaborate to make cool stuff. To put passion into business. To build businesses that make a difference to society. To the world. To challenge (slow, lumbering) big businesses through the delivery of new services or products, unparalled customer service and an overarching authenticity and meaning that resonates with customers. Business can use soul for competitive advantage.
The internet has also added one other killer advantage for small business: low cost. There is now nothing stopping small ‘kitchen table’ businesses from competing side by side with major established big businesses. Cool stuff can be made and then marketed online before being shipped to a global customer base whilst consulting services can be delivered globally via the cloud. The costs and overheads of establishing and running small businesses today are low (and are getting lower). Meanwhile big businesses have large, costly, unwieldly infrastructures built over many years to meet the demands of the old 20th century economy. Business soul is indiscriminate – it favours business of all shapes and sizes.
We are standing at the threshold of a huge opportunity. We can now focus on building and supporting throngs of small businesses that matter. Businesses that solve global problems and needs. Businesses that can stay small because being big is no longer a necessary constituent of being globally successful. Businesses that engage and enthuse their people. Businesses that make meaning ahead of profit. In a nutshell, business with soul.
You often hear successful CEOs say: “I couldn’t have done it without my team” or “We’re a People Business and our people are our greatest asset”. These hugely successful businesses all appear to have great people.
But is it the luck or skill of the CEO in finding these “great people” or is it that great businesses draw out the great in people?
I believe it is the latter – let me explain:
A great business has a clear and compelling vision. It has a mission. A mantra. A reason for existing. It is (or aims to be) the best in the world at whatever it does. It makes a difference. A contribution to society. The World.
A great business infuses a passion in those that work for it. They can clearly see the vision in front of them. They want to see the vision fulfilled. To see the difference being made or the problem solved. This is not ‘work’ in the ‘clock-in, clock-out sense’, this feels more like a ‘calling’. Going to work brings a sense of fulfilment. A strong team dynamic is established as people work together in line with the shared vision.
A great business draws out the great qualities of the people that work there. People feel great. People become great. In turn, businesses become great.
So are you a “people business” and if so, what are you doing to build a great business that allows your great people to flourish?