A growing sense of ambition

Having the right talent set and skills is vitally important to scaleup businesses as they look to fulfil their ambitions for growth. With Boost, the county’s growth hub, we gathered an expert panel at Bespoke Digital Agency’s South Rings Business Park office to discuss their recruitment and retention challenges.

What do we mean by ‘scaleup’ businesses? And how do they get the right talent in place to fulfil their ambitions?

AV: These are usually companies that have gone through the first phase of growth and sustained. They are ready for the next phase of growth which is to scale and at a stage where the cost base is generally stable and key infrastructure in place. They have people, premises and and it’s at this stage where they ultimately decide, ‘Do I want to grow again or not?’ and that can be a dilemma.

Scaleup companies are pivotal to the economy. Currently there are 36,500 visible Scaleup companies make up 0.6 per cent of the UK’s 5.7m SMEs but turnover of £1.3 trillion each year, which is nearly 70% of the total UK SME turnover of £1.9 trillion.


  • Richard Slater, Chair – Lancashire Business View
  • Simon BoltonEdge Hill University
  • Steve Brennan Bespoke Digital
  • Priscilla CoatesMagma Digital
  • Lucy Few – Sales Geek
  • Laura HartleyLaura Hartley Recruitment and Hartley's People Retention
  • Amin Kamaluddin Select Medical
  • Michele Lawty-JonesLancashire Skills Hub
  • Andrew LeemingLancashire County Council
  • Amin Vepari Lancashire County Council

If you are going to grow you need people and more than 70 per cent of those 36,500 Scaleup companies feel that access to skills and talent along with succession planning are critical components to them scaling.

SBo: Our data shows companies that are growing between 20 and 40 per cent in real terms are on average 15 years old. They’ve gone through the high growth that is normally nought to five years. They’ve stabilised. They’ve gone into the marketplace and they grow. It’s that transition from inbound to outbound mentality. Most businesses are inbound. They deal with business that comes to them. The scaleups are the ones who have got clarity of their offer. They can then transcend that into their organisational structure and grow.

I’m saying to a lot of the organisations I’m working with, ‘You have to be really clear about what your business is about’. You can then ask, What activities do we deliver and what are the skill sets we need to do that? Knowledge tends to be in your key people.

It is understanding where you are in that growth journey. The business has to have true clarity. If it hasn’t, focus on that, and then once you have got clarity, evaluate, ‘do we have the skill sets in the business to drive that and do staff understand their roles within that process?’

ML: There is a lot of support out there for Lancashire businesses to step back and think about things like, ‘What is the purpose? What are our plans? What are our growth aspirations and what skills do we need to enable us to achieve that?

There are particular issues in scaling and growing businesses, key areas such as leadership and management. An aspect of that is employee engagement. As you grow, it’s how you keep your people with you, keep them focused on the purpose and keep them engaged in terms of contributing to how the business is shaped and how it grows. It’s quite easy to lose that.

LF: We have grown very quickly, especially in the last year. We’ve gone from three business owners to a team of nine. We’ve always hired very much in terms of our business values. We’ve found the right person and thought about how we could then fit them into our business.

Now we are at the stage where we need more structure. It is about incorporating our goals and objectives and then looking at the skillsets we have in the business. Trying to form that structure has probably been the most difficult thing for us. It’s really focusing on the actual things we want to achieve.

It is understanding where you are in that growth journey. The business has to have true clarity.

AK: Select Medical has been in existence for about ten years. In terms of growth, staff has increased by around 30 per cent and revenue by about 25 per cent in the last 12 months. We are looking to kick on next year.

It was an owner-led managed business; there is a director in place now as well. The key thing has been putting in place the infrastructure and having relevant skills within the organisation.

You can hire people, but there is a very distinguishing difference between people, personalities and skills. All these things have to come together. You can have people with the skills, the education, the degrees, but if you don’t have that personality, that emotional intelligence, then you’re asking for trouble.

PC: We are a 20-year-old business and we are going through a process of diversification and consolidation.

The software development side of the business is doing very well but it doesn’t utilise all the skills of our leadership team, namely me. So we have focused on growth through diversification. We have now set up a consultancy focusing mostly on people and change, which is my skills background.

SBr: We’ve been in scaleup phase for six or seven years now and we hope to exit that phase in the next year or two and settle. Most of our customers are also in the scaleup phase, they come to us because they want to grow. Normally the first set of decisions they take in scaleup turn out to be the wrong ones.

They have decided on a certain structure, how they are going to build the company and the team and certain products and they will reboot two or three times. There is no rulebook.

LF: We are very focused on our employees and wellbeing but we feel there is a lack of support when you are in a leadership role, especially when it is new to you. You go in with a vision, that’s what we did. We’d never run a business before. You have a particular product and service and you are growing a team very quickly.

SBr: The business is like a teenager. As soon as it gets to 12/13/14 people, it ceases to become that personal journey. So support is needed.

SBo: Scaleup is not a singular activity. You have different phases. We need to talk about establishing a growth journey model so you can understand where you are. Fundamentally, businesses don’t ask the right questions.

You can teach skills but you can’t always teach culture

Most businesses don’t know what they do. They find it difficult to explain to people in five minutes, We do this’. They spend a lot of time telling clients, ‘We are quality, we are process, process, process, process, process’. Clients want to know how you can help their challenges.

LH: I’ve been in the recruitment industry for 20 years. Sometimes what people need isn’t what they want. So we have difficult conversations and ask questions around, ‘What’s the purpose of the role? What are they looking to keep? Is the job going to be the same job in two years’ time? especially when it’s a senior role. Quite often that role will evolve, especially if there is growth and the skills set might need to be higher in the future.

I have a secondary business created out of frustration that companies were not on-boarding their employees. I do more coaching in that role, looking at how companies recruit and retain their staff. The key thing for growing businesses is having a people strategy, succession planning and exit strategies.

AL: We use words that don’t engage businesses like ‘scaleup’ so we need to come back and start using real language with businesses. That’s what we are trying to do with Growth Hub. It’s all about, ‘What are your frustrations and what are you doing as a business to challenge those frustrations?’ It’s about what’s working and what’s not working.

Part of the Growth Hub is about trying to celebrate what great looks like and what good practice looks like.

One of the things we need to do is engage in conversation with businesses about how we inspire joy in our staff. If we get them involved and engaged in our day-to-day conversations, frustrations and challenges and allow them to come in and have input into the business and how it’s growing and evolving. Everybody wins.

AK: We have the business strategy; the way we can get buy in from staff is by having similar business strategies and personal development plans that tag into the business plan.

It’s about how that person is going to grow. If you can have those honest conversations about personal ambitions you can often spot talent within the organisation.

SBr: A leadership with the right culture and mindset will develop the skills of 10, 15 or 20 people, simply by putting them in that environment where they can switch roles and their strengths can be identified. They will have the hunger to grow. If that alignment and culture is there, skills will grow. You can teach skills but you can’t always teach culture.

A lot of business owners don’t recognise that they have switched phase and are still in an entrepreneurial phase and mindset but actually they are running a scaleup business and it’s about two or three years before they realise.

SBo: It is about effective leaders. We’re not just interested in growth; we need to make sure we talk about profitable growth. We’re too generic often when it comes to leadership. Truly great leaders take people with them because the message about where they are going to go is clear.

LH: There is a difference between leadership and entrepreneurship, and we are missing a trick with our generation Zs’. They are financially focused, entrepreneurial and tech-savvy, and they are competitive. We are missing explaining to entrepreneurs that come through that they don’t have to be brilliant at every part of leadership.

What recruitment and retention strategies have been shown to work in a scaleup environment?

ML: Growing your own talent is absolutely essential. In that way you create the mindset and you install your values. That young person will grow with you and make a significant contribution to the business. You can build your own talent base but it does take investment from the business. They may move on at a later date but we accept that.

Create an environment of collaboration, learn from your peers, focus on learning and quality. It’s not about micromanaging or giving free rein with no controls, it’s a balance of the two.

SBo: It’s about leadership creating ownership in businesses. Businesses that grow establish commitment and ownership at all levels and to have that you need to have clarity and vision of where the business is going. You then know who to recruit because you understand what skills you need.

LF: We really promote who we are as an organisation and what we want to achieve, and we put our values out there to hopefully attract the right people. Then it is about utilising their skill sets and their personal growth.

AK: What businesses need to understand, regardless of where they are on their journey, is where they are in their market space and what position they are going to take and defend. Then it is about clarity.

We shouldn’t be afraid of accepting we are in different times and the rules of the game aren’t what they were 20 or 30 years ago. People are taking jobs with a completely different set of personal and professional aspirations. You need talent management strategies.

SBr: There is a natural tension within a scaleup business. It is growing and evolving so has short-term need for skills. One of the lessons is not to give into the short-term. It’s tempting to hire in the functional skill very quickly to solve the need you have. The people we work with have learned to be really disciplined and hire on alignment and values and attitude instead and that’s the long-term win.

AV: Lateral thinking, objectively analysing and making decisions - how many leaders, and business owners actually do that themselves?

And often one of the bravest decisions that founders make is to appoint a managing director to run the company, because they appreciate it's not where their value and skill set lies. They are passionate about their product, about their ideas and vision, but there’s someone out there that’s better positioned to manage the company.

We recruit to attitude because we can teach knowledge and skills and grow our own

PC: Business owners and a stable leadership team need to have that clarity and stick with it and be prepared to recruit what they need rather than what’s available. It is knowledge, skills and attitude. We recruit to attitude because we can teach knowledge and skills and grow our own. The exception is if there is a very specific skill gap and we would recruit specifically for that. It tends to be higher up the chain.

AL: No-one can scale their business on their own and you need to look at how you find the right support to help you fulfil your ambitions. You should absolutely ask for help, find help. You’ve got to be proactive.

People need to own their mistakes. If you’re looking to scale a business you’ve got to be 100 per cent honest about what those challenges are, what you’ve done in the past, what’s not worked and you’ve got to be prepared to go back and learn from that.

If you are constantly just pushing forward, not listening, not learning, not looking back to see what’s working, what’s not working, then you are not going to scale your business as you want it to.

AV: There is a lot of support out there and there are a number of different services that you can explore. But as a company you have got to identify what you really need, rather than want, and this will unearth the most relevant solutions in terms of what you can tap into as a growing and scaling company and where you will get the greatest value to create the maximum impact.

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