No substitute for experience
We brought an expert panel together with Boost, Lancashire’s Business Growth Hub to look at how outside expertise can be a vital source of support and open up opportunities.
How difficult is it for business leaders to recognise that outside experience and expertise can be of use to them?
JD: There are two camps. There are those that have listened to peers, family, friends and business colleagues who have received support and are positive about it. Then there are those who are sceptical either because they are not always sure how to start seeking it or they are so busy with their own role. They may feel as a business owner they should know everything and they can be embarrassed by that.
- Richard Slater, Lancashire Business View (chair)
- Susanna Cassey, Azets
- Jaydee Davis, Boost
- Ram Gupta, Nybble
- Louise Owen, Boost
- Pritam Pal, Lancashire County Council
- Karen Tems, The Business Network
- Andrew Turner, Langtec
There are a lot of people who might not seek a formal programme, but family members could be mentoring them or they may have colleagues mentoring them indirectly.
SC: Different people react differently to support. There is perhaps a feeling of pride that they have built the business up and the thought that they may need some help when they get to a certain stage can feel to them like they’ve failed.
The support when you get business leaders together can be really powerful, but again there may be reluctance, because people feel like they are putting their dirty washing on the table and don’t recognise the benefit they can get from the experience and journeys of others.
RG: When you’re a business owner, you’re stuck inside your business, you don’t look outside. So, the common excuse for not looking for support is, ‘I’m too busy, I’m 100 miles an hour, it’s not the right time for me’. But there’s never going to be a right time.
When you’re a business owner, you just know what you know and what you don’t know, you don’t know.
By tapping into external support, you can open your mind and your business into new areas you’ve never even considered.
There’s no embarrassment in that. You get that view of how your business could perform better and how you could be a better person within your business. We’ve taken support and it was absolutely invaluable.
AT: Ever since we were kids we’ve asked for advice and gone to more experienced people, whether that’s an older brother, a sister or your parents. Right through your teenage years you ask your parents, because they are more experienced than you.
When you get into business sometimes you think, ‘How can anybody tell me anything about my business? I know it better than anybody. I know our industry better than an outsider coming in.’ But that’s not the point.
How many times do we go to meetings at the chamber of commerce or a trade association? Most of the time you are just listening, because you’re picking up on other people’s experiences, you absorb them.
Experiences are great. You don’t have to get them all yourself, learn from somebody else’s experience. Don’t reinvent the wheel, there’s no point. If anybody says they know everything, they’re either deluded or they’re liars. We don’t. We’re learning every single day.
PP: The business support landscape is very complex, and with coronavirus and the EU exit, those complexities have increased. So, when we have conversations with businesses the aim is to find out their needs as opposed to their wants.
Businesses that come to us have questions and doubts. As the relationship starts growing we are able to move obstacles from their path and help them achieve their goals, one step at a time.
It’s not a magic wand, it’s taking small steps to help the business achieve its targets. That is when there is a transformation in attitude and thinking and the whole experience is different.
KT: I’ve always been a fan of external support, because the business I had before was in training and development, so that’s at my core. So, it is very easy for me to recognise that external help is key to your growth.
However, there can be a degree of cynicism. It’s not about a resistance to learn or having somebody poke their head into your business, it’s about, ‘Do they really know their onions?’
What makes external advice so valuable for a business?
AT: We bought the business 20 years ago, a management buyout. At the time we were clueless about what that entailed. We invited someone to advise us, somebody who had worked with the business before, and the advice he gave was invaluable. He’d been through this several times and he guided us through the process, ‘Be careful of this. Make sure you do that’. It was invaluable. We’ve used a few people over the years because of that.
LO: The people that I’ve been mentoring recently are hugely positive about their businesses but quite often they haven’t got a focus or a direction. They’re at a crossroads, not knowing which way to turn.
Our early conversations are about really getting under the skin of the business to understand it. Following that I say to business owners, ‘What do you want?’ and then, ‘Let’s see how the business can deliver that.’ It is all about what they want personally.
By tapping into external support, you can actually open your mind and your business into new areas you’ve never even considered. There’s no embarrassment in that
Some might want to work four days a week and have Fridays off, others may want to turn over £2m by next year. That’s fine, it is important that those goals are specific to that business.
As part of the mentoring, you help the business create a handful of objectives to work towards, and monitor progress along the way.
When you’re mentoring somebody for 12 hours over a period of time, you really get to know them as a person and often find you’re helping them on a personal level, with issues they have with confidence. Quite often they’re not able to talk to their employees and they don’t want to bring the issues home.
RG: When you’re of the mindset that you want to give something without any return for yourself, that’s probably the most effective means and mode of advice. That external influence that people can offer as consultants really adds value to your business, your proposition and your growth plans.
KT: Our members share their expertise in the form of a learning seminar and that has continued through lockdown. People come to the group and put themselves up to share their expertise, knowing there’s no financial gain, knowing that they’re not going to get a queue of clients as a result of it, but actually they have bared their soul, if you like, to the group and it makes it much easier for them to establish great business relationships. It is a fantastic win for the rest of our members.
Can you share an example that shows the value of this outside experience?
JD: We have a client that is an exhibition company working at a global level. When Covid hit it had £1m in its order book which evaporated overnight.
We were working with them at the time on a point-of-sales project as they were looking to get into the retail market. They realised they needed to diversify very quickly, needed a new product and market it very quickly in a very competitive industry to win new business.
We moved quickly to bring in a mentor with complementary experience. The business is now delivering Perspex screens and the transformation is unbelievable.
PP: What comes with experience is a gut feeling about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.
Working with a construction company, the recruitment of civil engineers with the right specialist skills was one of its main issues.
I asked why they weren’t recruiting them from the local university and the reply was the course being offered did not teach the use of a particular software system. We contacted the university and kept at them to ensure the curriculum they offered was changed and to get a formal agreement between them and the company over recruitment. Six months later that had happened.
That’s where experience comes in. Sometimes if you know what needs doing and if you just have to make it work, and you’re prepared to take some risks as well, you can make it work.
If anybody says they know everything, they’re either deluded or they’re liars. We don’t. We’re learning every single day.
RG: External help is not just about mentors. Your suppliers, customers, staff, anybody who touches your business is providing help and a support mechanism.
We filled our order book in January for the entire year. Then Covid hit. So, what do you do? Do you keep your commercial hat on and think we’ve still got those orders? Or do you look it from someone else’s point of view?
To do it the first way is short term, to do it the other way is long term, and it shows the true value of what you can offer. So, we threw the order book out of the window. We said, ‘You need what you need. We’ll provide those services to you free of charge. We won’t sell you things; we’ll lend them to you. If you need something developing, we’ll develop it for you. If you need some support, we’re here for you.’
We did it without any prospect of a return but the return’s coming back ten times to us.
AT: We’re learning every day and we’re constantly part of a network. During the past six months I’ve spoken to our accountant and often he would tell me he’s not qualified to give an answer, but it was an ear, somebody to bounce ideas off and he is a sensible person.
People sometimes ask me, ‘Will you mentor? Will you do advice?’ No, I’m not qualified to do that. All I can do is tell you experiences as I’ve experienced them. Now, if you pick up something from that, great. If you can apply that to your business or your life, I’m more than happy. I expect nothing in return.
LO: A client owns a care home specialising in helping people with severe mental health and complex behavioural problems. They’ve 12 staff and during lockdown they were at breaking point.
The owner wanted someone to speak to because she wanted to help her team but not get emotionally involved but she didn’t know how to do it.
After listening to her story, I was able to send her a lot of resources for mental health support, not only general support in Lancashire, but also specific support for care workers and the psychological effects of what they were going though.
She put that on the noticeboard and found a lot of people were starting to look at it and it made a huge amount of difference. It doesn't seem a big thing, but it took stress away from her, helped her staff and ultimately helped the people they were caring for because the staff were in a better place.
KT: People come to the Business Network because they think they’re going to get new business. But they soon find out the more important reason is the quality introductions they’ve made. We’ve seen people come together and collaborate to go after national business and that is fantastic. They’ve sought each other’s’ experience and put it together in a really powerful package.
SC: We have a client who was looking to sell their business when we went into lockdown. It posed so many different questions for them in terms of the impact and implications.
There were lots of individuals they could have conversations with about all the various aspects. They needed linking, a road map looking at the things they needed to think about if they reached a certain point.
They were asking questions they never thought they were going to have to ask and getting real comfort from knowing they were talking to someone doing this particular thing day in, day out, and was there to hold their hand.
AT: We talked about experience, how wonderful it is and there's no substitute for it. But sometimes you hit a problem at work and you’ve had all your experienced people look at it and then someone looks at it with a fresh pair of eyes and finds something you would never have seen.
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