With contributions from polar explorer Ben Saunders, Alexander Mann Solutions CEO Rosaleen Blair CBE and entrepreneur Jamie Waller – this year’s Ambition Nation Summit proved as enlightening and surprising as the last. Here’s a round-up of what we learned…
Held in the sumptuous ballroom of Claridge’s, our third Ambition Nation Summit proved thought-provoking and fascinating. Co-founder of StartUp Britain, Oli Barrett MBE, hosted the event and did a fantastic job of delving into the experience of our guest speakers and unearthing a wealth of fresh (and often surprising) insight.
This year’s theme was ‘Decisions, Decisions’; a direct response to the political turmoil facing British businesses today. With so much uncertainty around, should business leaders be making critical decisions at all? Or should strategic decision-making wait until after we leave the European Union? Perhaps we’re better off basing our judgments on personal experience rather than data? And what role should our gut play when making major business decisions? These were just some of the questions Oli put to our panel of business experts Rosaleen Blair CBE of Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS), Simon Rogerson of Octopus Group and Matthew Stallabrass of Crowe U.K.
Building the right culture
Despite the news that Britain is on track to avoid a recession, economic forecasts remain low and the vast majority of UK businesses are reporting weak growth. For these business leaders, focussing on company culture may seem a low priority, but this is a mistake – as Simon Rogerson explained: “For most businesses, you’ll talk about outsmarting, outpricing, out-manoeuvring someone else. But really the ultimate competitive advantage comes down to out-behaving, and behaviour comes from culture and values. So now when I think about hiring people I put more emphasis on cultural fit than I do functional ability. You can train functional ability, you can’t train cultural fit.”
Matthew Stallabrass, head of listed businesses at Crowe U.K, one of Ambition Nation’s key sponsors, agreed. “Our business also revolves around people,” said Matthew. “The best decision I’ve made in the business is where we’ve chosen to invest in quality people who have gone on to make a difference for our business and clients. The worst decision is when, for what seemed like very good short-term reasons, we didn’t make that investment in our people.”
Matthew went on to explain how this investment could involve hiring or training, but that often, the best decision is not to hire, but to invest in the people you already have. “The best thing you can do is grow the people in your business.”
Both Simon and Rosaleen admitted to espionage-style tactics when it came to working out whether potential recruits or partners were the right fit. The entrepreneurs explained how they would often work from the company reception, in order to chat causally with candidates pre-interview, or quiz reception staff on what how that person acted while they waited. “You always learn so much, and that would often feed the gut,” said Rosaleen.
Trust your gut
Instinct emerged as a pivotal theme across the morning’s discussions. Listening to your gut instinct – which should be informed by your own business experiences – was a key point that point Simon and Rosaleen raised time and again. Interestingly, both entrepreneurs implied that instinct shouldn’t play second fiddle to information and data.
“We have over 100 business analysts and you look at the analysis, you get the right information, but fundamentally you follow your gut. You make that decision, that’s absolutely critical,” said Rosaleen.
What’s more, businesses should still be making key decisions despite the political climate. Asked whether he’d put off any decision-making in light of the Brexit negotiations, Simon was unequivocal: “For us it’s been full steam ahead. I’m not someone who finds it difficult to make a decision. So at Octopus we may be wrong, but we’re definitely not confused! So You choose what direction you want to go in, and then you go after it really quickly.”
Making these firm decisions involves taking risks – something that none of our speakers said they shied away from. Building a culture that not only embraces risk, but makes it okay to make mistakes, is essential for fast-growing businesses. “You need to create a culture where it’s okay to get things wrong and to pick yourself up. If you have people who think it’s embarrassing to take risks, you need to knock that out of them pretty quickly,” added Simon.
Rosaleen echoed these sentiments. “Something we’re seeing in our client base is total schizophrenia. One minute they’re going in one direction and the next minute they’re changing their mind because of new news – and that’s incredibly damaging for businesses. It doesn’t matter whether you may get it wrong; the most important thing for your people is giving clear direction, being decisive, and if you make a mistake, recognising it and then pivoting, but making a decision is key.”
Don’t always go for the ‘best deal’
With four private equity deals under her belt, Rosaleen Blair has sold her recruitment empire three times – each time fuelling the next stage of business growth. Her secret? Don’t go with the highest bidder. “It’s not about the best offer you get. In every situation, we have not gone with the best offer,” said the entrepreneur. Referring to the “2012 deal”, Rosaleen explained how the sale to New Mountain Capital enabled the business to capture the US market. “I was looking for someone who was a partner who would share our ambition and sign off on that ambition very early on, and that’s exactly what’s happened, which has led us on to where we are today.”
When asked how accountancy firms like Crowe UK can support businesses in making these critical decisions, Matthew talked about perspectives, risks and experience. “A lot of clients come to you when they’ve already made the decision, it’s their business and they know what they think is right for it. So actually your job is to talk them through that decision, to make sure they’ve really thought about all the different angles, and all the different risks attached to it – and bring the insight you have from dealing with other clients about some areas they haven’t necessarily thought of.”
5 POINTERS FOR MAKING DECISIONS
- “Keep key decision-making teams small, around four people,” Simon
- “Go with a brilliant person and an average idea, rather than a brilliant idea and an average person,” Rosaleen
- “Listen to your gut feeling and then look at the data and back it up with evidence,” Matthew
- “Never invest in anything you don’t understand,” Simon
- “When you make a decision that’s not right, be very quick at putting your hand up and saying I got it wrong, and here’s why…” Rosaleen