Founding a successful company is one thing, but do you have the skills to be a leader for decades?
The path of entrepreneurship can be a lonely one, but leadership experts reflect that often, it’s the experienced chief executives that can struggle the most to see their failings and affect change.
Director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth at the University of South Australia, Dr Jana Matthews, tells SmartCompany she has sat down with countless business leaders over the years and has seen that seasoned professionals find it very tough to make big decisions.
“The whole issue of delegation is really a problem, because they think it’s either one of zero; yes or no. They think, ‘I can’t delegate, people can’t do as well as I can’, so they don’t do it at all,” she says.
The tendency for experienced chief executives to still want control over all elements of their business can take its toll, though, with many business leaders still worried about being “found out” as impostors decades after starting their businesses.
“They’re afraid deep down of making the wrong decision, and they feel “maybe the problem is me” [instead of business conditions]. Many have talked to me about impostor syndrome,” Matthews says.
Matthews and the University of South Australia have been working with ANZ on the issue of business leadership, running a “Business Growth” program for the bank’s customers to let founders to reevaluate the challenges their companies face.
At a panel event in Melbourne last Friday to mark the launch of some of the Business Growth Program’s tools being made available online, four former program participants told an audience of entrepreneurs that they still face tough decisions years after starting their enterprises.
Here are three lessons from their experiences.
Know your values and keep the passion
Long-term success can come down to understanding what drives you and what your company’s values are in the first place.
For chief executive of Smarter Bathrooms and Kitchens, Andrew Cranshaw, entering the ANZ growth program revealed his company still had more work to do in nailing down its values and approach to customers after starting in 2002.
“I think one of the major things we realised was that we hadn’t taken the company with us,” he says.
“We sat down as a team and had to clearly articulate that to ourselves.”
Then it was a matter of working out how customers were responding to the company.
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“The other thing we did is we reinvigorated the net promoter score among our customers. The first time we did it, we got a net promoter score of -4, and we realised we were actively pissing off customers,” he explained.
The business is now all united in a goal to reach a customer satisfaction score of more than 80%.
Understanding your values is also important for sustaining passion in your business, particularly if you’ve started it from scratch.
Chief executive of Canterbury Sink and Tap, Nicolas Hermence, told the crowd he started his business after buying just one sink and tap set from overseas, having tried to purchase kitchen supplies for himself in Australia but being unable to find the types he wanted locally.
What followed were years of passion for kitchenware, with Hermence reflecting he has been able to set a strong trajectory for himself by injecting enthusiasm into everything part of his company’s growth.
“I look at a tap and I love it,” he says.
What began as a quest to find a tap that suited his own home has become a quest to inform others about new options and products, with Hermence reflecting that his passion in showrooms and with customers has seen him grow no matter what stage of the business he is at.
“They call me the thesaurus of taps – if someone says, ‘can you tell me what this tap is’ – I’ll tell you.”
Delegation and planning
Leaders of successful businesses can struggle under the weight of making every single decision, says founder of technology reseller Blonde Robot, Chris Horsley Wyatt.
When he came to the business growth program, he and his co founders had already seen considerable success within the business – but didn’t realise they could have been empowering staff more.
“We decided as we were growing that we wanted to be involved in every single conversation,” he explains.
The team identified that part of the reason for this reluctance to delegate was that they had yet to sit down “and work out what our company plan was”.
Once the team had reviewed this, the founders were more confident to make tough decisions about the business, but also delegate more freely.
The result was “giving people confidence to to their own work”, which has been liberating for the business, he said.
You have to be ready to see the challenge
Chief executive of Moira Mac’s Poultry and Fine Foods, Dean Russell, started the growth program after decades at the helm of his business.
He might have been a seasoned company founder at the time, but told the crowd that he reached a point where he was ready to re-evaluate things, after a period of “turbulence” for his business.
“The number one thing was that I was ready [to look at new growth plans],” he says.
Having gone through a period where a business deal had seen the company end up in a dispute with another party only to emerge “a bit battered and bruised”, Russell says he was forced to think about his own leadership and new growth plans.
Reflecting on the course and what he learned from it, he says leaders have to consistently work to be genuine, and change won’t work if staff “can’t warm themselves under your solar system”.
“If you’re not going to be a genuine leader, don’t even bother – they’ll find you out,” he says.
Having founded Moira Mac’s in 1983 with his wife, Russell says he’s still considering how new trends in the food space can influence his business, including the rise of veganism and vegetarianism.
After more than three decades in business, he says leadership is still something to be constantly worked on.
“You’ve got to show the team, you’ve got to do the hard yards,” he says.