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Small business leadership: From exasperation to doubling revenue

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The UK Futures Programme is a series of productivity challenges that target specific workforce development problems. The challenges trial innovative ideas with industry to test what works in addressing current or anticipated workforce development problems identified by UKCES research. The programme takes a learning approach and shares learning from all projects with industry and business.

 The fifth productivity challenge looks at leadership and entrepreneurship skills in small businesses, working with “anchor institutions” with a strong presence in their local community. One of these is the Leadership Forge project, led by Teeside University. This project will develop skills in small businesses by creating a community of experiential and shared learning via workshops, coaching, site visits to large employers and peer learning sessions.

 This series of posts features the reflections of small business owners who have been involved in the Leadership Forge, and presents their thoughts on how their experience has helped their business.

I loved the cut and thrust of starting my business but after that initial period of energy, growth and excitement, my business plateaued. I got frustrated with profits ebbing and flowing and spending all my time chasing the money. My skills just weren’t suited to that second stage of building an enterprise. The limitations to my business were me. I needed to grow as a leader and a business owner to take my business to the next level.

I had seen a lot of courses offered to small business owners in the North East. But they weren’t offering me anything new. I decided to take a chance with the Leading Growth programme run by Teesside University though purely because of its association with a University.  I’d got my degree from there, but to be honest I was still sceptical. I couldn’t imagine what impact it could actually have on me and my business.

It turns out the impact was substantial. At a basic, yet crucial level, the course changed my communication skills completely - mainly through improving my understanding of myself and other people. I realised what my style of communication was (and that I even had a ‘style’!) and I thought more carefully about how different people responded to that.

You tend to be single-minded as a business leader, but this training helped me take into account the views of others. Now I understand the perspectives of my employees and clients better and let them shape the way I communicate with them. For example, while we had had staff ‘roundtables’ before the training where staff could raise issues and share ideas, they were always arranged and led by me. Now, my staff drive these sessions, there’s a lot more buy-in, and the feedback from the roundtables is better as a result.

The one-to-one coaching was also hugely significant. It was my coach who prompted me to reconsider something I had previously rejected: setting up a new business which was focused on another part of the recruitment market. My coach challenged me to re-examine the problems I would face in doing that and I have taken that challenge on. I’ve since set up a new business - Populus Facilities Management - which has doubled our revenue. That’s all down to have having my eyes opened to the possibility by my coach.

The other elements of the training were useful too. The masterclasses weren’t just about being preached at but more about provoking discussion amongst us as a group.  We didn’t agree with every speaker but each one added something, provoking us to discuss things as a group, which helped build trust.

We all managed different businesses in different sectors but through peer to peer discussion sessions we realised we were all encountering similar issues. Having that sort of trust was amazing. As a small business owner you are used to people looking up to you for support, so you don’t want to discuss your doubts or where you are struggling – you don’t want to appear weak. Having a group of people in the same position and willing to discuss things you can’t day to day gives you such a sense of relief.

The site visits to larger companies were also very good.  Seeing large companies who had exactly the same challenges and really being able to pick their brains showed they weren’t as different as you thought. That gave you hope, hope that someday you could be someone like that.

My work life balance has changed too.

My wife used to say “you started your own business because you used to work for an idiot, but now you work for a lunatic!”.  Now I’ve got a four year strategy to allow the business to function without me. The impetus behind that and how to go about doing it really came from the course.

So I went from exasperation with my business’s growth, to doubling our revenue.  And from working like a lunatic to moving to a point where my business can run by itself. All of that was unlocked by addressing my own limitations and embracing my role as a leader. In short, doing leadership training is critical for any SME owner frustrated with any aspect of the business. It will really open your eyes and help you to make the right decisions to grow your business.

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