28 February 2011

I have just returned from a week in Castell Cidwm, our Training Centre and second home in the Snowdonia National Park.

No email, no internet, power cuts, sideways rain and no mobile phone access.

Brilliant!

Castell Cidwm is an inspiring place, a real hive of activity. This week we had various groups there doing different activities. A few of the directors were giving the UKFast Management Training Program a final polish whilst I had the arduous task of taking a team of apprehensive colleagues through the hills above Beddgelert. I don’t need much of an excuse to get my walking boots on. I get a great deal more done in the peace and quiet of the mountains than back in the office.

I have learnt that walking is a great place to discuss plans and get to know people. People seem less guarded and less preoccupied with portraying themselves in a polished way in the countryside. By mixing fresh air and an increased heart rate, it also makes work more enjoyable.

Over the past 12 months, I have been considering how to best manage UKFast as it continues to grow at a rapid pace. I have no formal business training apart from what I pick up from those around me and from the mistakes we make. With 125 staff and contracts of £14.5m already this year, it is a very different business than the one we started in 1999 in a tiny 2 man office on Fountain Street. But as it grows, do we have to run it differently?

This is a question I have been pondering over for some time. I think there is a way we can maintain that small business feel.

UKFast covers a wide array of clients, SMB / SME and Enterprise and Government organisations. All these organisations require very different levels of care in managing their solutions and after significant analysis, 2 very distinct groups emerged.

I remember reading Losing My Virginity and being intrigued over why a businessman would chop his record company businesses in half when they reached 100 staff. It seemed alien to me at the time as there were only 16 of us in UKFast when I read it. It was not something I gave too much thought to.

And so, after much deliberation and analysis, we made the decision to split the team into 2 new distinct groups with defined responsibilities. It was this new team that I invited down to Wales to walk with me whilst we discussed our futures. Being away from work gave the new team time to bond and digest the proposal and concentrate their energy on this new task in hand. I can confidently say I could not achieve the same result in an office environment. Even though our office is a great environment, sometimes you just have to swap the walls for heather.

The team left Castell Cidwm enthused and empowered with an exciting journey ahead.

The result is that now everyone benefits, both clients and the team alike.

Over our 11 years in business, we have managed to win some amazing brands and, like our other clients, we look after them and we support them through their growth.

It will come as no surprise that our bigger clients require more attention. They tend to have significantly more complex hosting requirements and, as a result, they need extra help.

It is impossible to provide one member of staff for all of our thousands of clients across the whole UKFast client base yet at the top level we have clients now who get exactly that.

When I first heard the idea, I assumed that the main benefit is that by keeping the businesses small it maintains or increases the energy in both parts.

Now, this is true but I underestimated some of the other benefits of the change too.

The main benefit is that instead of losing great people along the way, when top level jobs and management positions are already filled, it creates the perfect progression from Team leader to Manager, Manager to Director, from Director to Director of a new division.

Each time someone is promoted, you create a gap to fill with enthusiastic team members.

And when you are considering bringing in new talent, ask yourself if you have considered the ones under your nose?

A friend of mine told me: “Promote people to a level above the one they’d ordinarily expect. They will thank you for it and work significantly harder.” He gave me a couple of examples and mentioned a cleaner in one of his businesses who went on to be the manager of the entire division.

It reminded me of some questions I was asked recently. One of them was, “What did you learn from your first job?”

I said, “The person brushing the floor might be the one with the biggest drive and most potential.”

In short, I have learnt never to underestimate anyone as I was the person holding the brush once.

It’s very easy to underestimate people. I know I have personally done it numerous times. It can be a scary prospect, entrusting a position of responsibility to someone. It’s always a gamble. Yet, it’s a bigger gamble when you bring someone else in.

Recently, Sale Sharks lost their Commercial Director Nathan Bombrys. It’s common knowledge so I am not talking out of turn, it’s merely a good example. He’d been with the club a decade. He’d arrived at around the same time we got involved, shortly after the game turned professional.

He understood the club and the sponsors inside out. He was extraordinarily passionate about both the club and the owner. After about 3 or 4 changes to the CEO role, Nathan realised that the opening would never have his name on it. Consequently, he decided to move on and was instantly snapped up by Scottish Rugby.

Over the last 10 years, there is no supplier closer to Sale Sharks than UKFast. I worked alongside Nathan and helped him to fill the stadium on numerous occasions. I knew that Nathan was undoubtedly the man for the job. I had first hand experience of this man’s talent. He was the right person back when they gave the role to Niels de Vos and although I think Niels is a smashing guy, Nathan was the one pulling the strings. Not many people know that but it is a fact.

A very clever Stamford professor, Jim Collins, wrote that in almost every case of the businesses who achieve greatness for a sustained period of 15 years or more, the leaders were grown from within.

Yet it is hard to trust in talent you might already have. There is no right or wrong answer. There is just opinion and conjecture. Either way, whatever you do in business, it’s a gamble.

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