24 June 2012

Three months ago, I took the decision to step back from the operational role of UKFast, handing over the responsibilities to JB (Jonathan Bowers). JB is an experienced director and understands the UKFast culture, and in true Jim Collins style, I handed over the reigns to someone from within as opposed to getting in a big hitter from the outside. It’s always tempting when you read peoples’ long list of accreditations and marvel at their perfectly sculptured achievements on their CV, but nothing beats someone who already embodies an organisation’s core values. There is no conflict or compromise; it is an easier fit. It was never going to be easy for Jonathan taking over. It’s a big ask and an even bigger responsibility. With 4000 clients and 160 staff, it’s more than a full time vocation, so it makes perfect sense to split the responsibilities and share out some of the challenges that a growing organisation like UKFast faces.

These days, I am concentrating on expanding the business, focussing on R&D, energy and momentum, whilst JB deals with keeping the cogs moving together. We are very lucky to have an excellent management team to support us, and although none of us are the finished article, we have a passionate bunch of professional, dynamic individuals, who all want to make a difference.

I have learned from stepping back that I can’t grow a business to its full potential if too many people rely on me. I often ask friends who run very successful businesses, all turning over considerably more than UKFast, “what is your secret ingredient?” The answer is almost always the same: “I surround myself with a great team.” The business owners who put themselves at the top of the “what’s great about your company” list and assume they are the reason, are delusional. We can all run businesses that do well, the real challenge is how you sustain growth year on year, decade after decade, guaranteeing security for your team and developing at the same time. The business graveyard is littered with big hitters who took their eye off the ball.

If the trick to longevity is finding and investing in great people, what constitutes a great person and where are they hiding?

It’s a good thing to create a blue print or clear picture of what you are looking for, so that your team can continue the recruitment process, spotting all the things in others that you valued in them. So, often a candidate looks great on paper, and they tell you everything you want to hear, but are you asking the right questions?

There’s nothing complicated or overtly sophisticated about the UKFast blue print, we just attract people who are fun, passionate and supportive. When you have these ingredients, it is worth treating them as a long term investment. It’s funny that on a balance sheet, we list all the depreciating equipment, assets and cash, but we don’t make much of the people. As it’s the people that make the difference in a business, it’s the wrong way around in my opinion.

Once you have amazing individuals, it’s worth working hard to keep them. They are hard enough to find and even harder to replace as experience counts, so never underestimate the value of not having to train and recruit replacements.

When new recruits start and they see team mates who have been with the company 10 years, who are engaged and passionate about every part of their role. This is incredibly motivating.

Motivating people is my favourite pastime. You can have the greatest people in the world but if you don’t inspire them or create an inspirational environment, people wither.

In a well run business, people should be coming through the ranks too. Spotting potential in team members is the ultimate but most rewarding challenge. So often they are right under our noses and the best ones never want to shout out about themselves.

I remember taking 8 kids straight from school on a government scheme. I remember the lady handing them over. “I am eternally grateful” she said with a worried look on her face, “but do you know what you are doing?” It was 13 years ago, when we sold mobile phones, and if I am honest, I had no idea! Their job was going to be connecting phones to the Orange network. They were scruffy and hunched in hoodies when they first arrived, and hated everyone in a suit. Over the months that followed, we got to know each other, both in and outside work, playing 5 aside and working with the wider team, and we began to notice potential.

One day, I sent a message to 2 of them to meet me at the front door. They arrived thinking that they were in trouble. “Come on chaps, this is a day that you and I are going to remember for a long time.”

I walked them to Slaters Menswear, had them measured for suits, and whilst the suits were being altered I took them to an old friend Nicky who cut my hair when I first arrived in Manchester, for a quick short, back and sides. Everyone was getting excited; the hairdresser, Alfie the tailer, the boys.

They walked back carrying their old clothes in their bags, along with spare shirts and ties, whilst I coached them on how to handle the pressure of their new roles. They walked into the building and the receptionist did a triple take.

I remember pausing before opening the door to a then embryonic UKFast, gripping their arms. “Shoulders back, stand tall, deep breath, you look amazing, you are the future, now go and make a difference.”

They walked into a room of momenarily stunned people before everyone started to stand up, applauding.

To this day, I employ at least 10 of the 20 or so people in that office that day.  Sadly, Barry and Joe aren’t amongst their names, but we all remember them and we will never forget that day. And whilst you could argue that the few hundred pounds and the time we took doing that was wasted, we inadvertently touched a group of people who decide to stay with UKFast because we are people who invest in others.

It’s also a great reminder for me that life is about levels, and wherever you are, whatever the level, there is another one above us that we need to strive for.

It’s lovely being back involved and thank you to everyone who emailed or elbowed me (or both) for temporarily stopping my blog. I am continuing because you inspired me.

Thank you.






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