28 October 2018
Having recently done podcasts with a few sporting legends, I have noticed a trend. They all know when it is time to move on. Manchester United legend Gary Neville knew his time on the pitch had come to an end and sat privately contemplating the prospect during half-time in his last match. England, Lions and Premiership rugby star Mark Cueto knew it was time to hang up his rugby boots when he realised he was struggling to repair quickly enough after games.
In sport, the physical aspects of your responsibilities send you some pretty clear signs.
This week I had friend and squash champion Laura Massaro over. I have worked with Laura a number of years, helping coach her mentally. Since working together Laura has reached both Number 1 in the world and become World Champion amongst a huge list of other accolades.
Speaking with Laura she made it clear she was definitely not ready to put her racket away. While many people ask her the question because of her age, she knows there is plenty more in the tank and she still has work to do.
In the business world though, it’s a little different. There aren’t the obvious physical aches and pains sending you clear message. So, how do you spot the signals that you’re ready for a change? Perhaps that’s why it took me a little longer to recognise the signs.
There’s definitely been a shift though. When I moved from the Managing Director role to the CEO, my day-to-day job completely changed. I was able to stand a little further back and take more of a strategic role, overseeing the teams rather than centring on one area.
Up until recently I had thought that it was a gradual shift but perhaps that wasn’t the case. It happened almost by accident.
Some time ago I took a year out. I moved to the Swiss Alps and left UKFast in the capable hands of our leadership team. Seeing how incredibly well they did without me, gave me enormous confidence and when I returned to the business, I did so in an entirely different capacity. It wasn’t obvious at first, but anyone who knows me from both eras will see a clear shift in my role. I don’t think I realised it at the time. I don’t think I was as conscious of it as Mark and Gary were. Interestingly whilst I was away, the business grew faster in that year than it has in any other. What does that tell you; I often joke that perhaps I should go away more often!
I am reading a book at the moment, called The Alchemists, which is about a very successful entrepreneur called Jim Ratcliffe. He uses the term ‘federated management’ to describe how he empowers the management team of each business. His role is to step back, devolving responsibility to the leadership team rather than holding on to it. That’s something I would have struggled with a few years ago, in the days when UKFast was based in Manchester’s City Tower. I was very much an operator and proud of it.
The only problem with that, is as the business grew, the number of plates I had to spin also grew. As UKFast accelerated and the number of team mates and departments rapidly expanded, the role of operator became almost impossible for me to manage. I wasn’t able to give everyone the same care and attention I used to be able to.
The problem with this is that whilst my heart was in the right place, I was spread too thinly.
If you are not creating the opportunities for people to grow into, you will lose them. This definitely happened on a few occasions back then, enough to eventually notice a pattern and I realised I need to learn some new skills, sharpish.
People who left during that era may have rightly been frustrated with me at times, but I listened to everyone’s feedback and went back to the drawing board,
I set about looking to grow and develop some new talent to replace me and meanwhile grow some new skills of my own.
Nowadays I have a number of great leaders, and two specific ones covering the main area I previously managed: sales and marketing. They are solely dedicated to the role and lead the areas that were traditionally ‘mine’.
It happened in stages though, with Jonathan becoming MD after some quality advice from veteran entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. He could obviously sense the pain I was going through or at least anticipate it as we started to grow.
Jonathan’s appointment freed up my time for the day-to-day running of the business, but it was not nearly enough. It wasn’t long before the business did exactly the same to Jonathan!
So, earlier this year, we went on the hunt for a new MD so we were able to split Jonathan’s role in half and lighten his load.
When it dawned on me, Gail was perfect for the role. 10 years younger than me, she was hugely excited at the prospect and the injection of energy she brings fills everyone with confidence. With Gail and Jonathan at the helm of both UKFast and UKFast Enterprise, it allows me to continue to develop my skills.
My focus now is on growing the management team. When we take on a new person for, or promote someone to a leadership role, my focus is on mentoring them. Spending time helping someone to grow and develop while they become embedded in the business is the single most rewarding thing you can do as a business leader.
As a parent I see similarities in the enjoyment I get from watching my kids develop, learning new things, just like I do with my managers and teammates.
There is simply nothing that brings more satisfaction to a business owner than helping develop the people within the business. You might think, from the outside looking in, that we are focussed on the bottom line, on making a profit. Whilst that’s nice to have, the priority In UKFast is to ensure the entire team feels like they are developing.
If you have a leadership team that is stagnant, it’s safe to say they will hardly inspire the troops.
On the other hand, if you invest your time and energy into your top leaders, they pass on their positive experiences to their managers who, in turn, do the same with their teammates.
It sounds so easy but it only takes a few disenfranchised managers or directors for the whole thing to fall apart.
Once you have got this working properly, the profit of the business will take care of itself as everyone in the business is making great decisions about the customers and their fellow workmates.
Since leaving their sports, both Mark Cueto and Gary Neville have taken their naturally high goal orientation and drive, and transferred that into the business arena. It’s so clear that there are huge commonalities between the disciplines of being successful in sport and being successful in business. Just look how many ex-sports stars are now thriving, Neville and the Class of 92 are prime examples and their first venture Hotel Football is a colossal success story. As is Dame Kelly Holmes who focusses her time on philanthropy now, and Rebecca Adlington who launched the Swimstars initiative. It’s fascinating to see just how transferrable the attitude needed for success in both areas is.
People’s success is usually in direct proportion to their passion. I believe that any of the people I am referring to could have gone into any industry and made it a success. Their attitude plays a big part.
Whilst I am certainly no Olympic athlete or Premier League footballer, I believe I could have played either cricket or rugby as a career option and I firmly believe that my time, particularly on the rugby pitch, equipped me with the right attitude to succeed in whatever I turned my attention to.
So what’s next? We never really know what the future holds for us but it is very important to listen to the signs.
It’s too easy to overwork or try to take on too much. The art of delegating is not something that comes naturally to most people, and it needs constant developing.
I think team work is the answer though. You can’t do everything yourself and if you try, you become the limiting factor of your own organisation. There is always talent right in front of your nose in every business. Your job is just to spot then superstars and make sure you dedicate quality time to helping your teammates grow.
It builds tremendous loyalty, it is great fun and frees up your time to look for more plates to spin!