By Gerard Burke, founder and MD, Your Business Your Future

I’ve recently been intrigued by reading extracts from the autobiography of England’s 2003 rugby World Cup winning hero, Jonny Wilkinson. He’s long been famous for his insatiable appetite for practice. What comes through in his autobiography, is how incredibly driven he is by the need for constant improvement. Even when he was already the best in the world at what he did, he still felt there was room for him to be better.

I wonder if someone once told the young Jonny, as an inspirational teacher once told me, “Do your best - and make your best better.” It’s certainly stuck with me ever since! Perhaps that’s why I’m never satisfied and I’m always looking to improve everything I and my business does — even when some of the things we do are already exceptionally great!

This constant striving to make things even better is shared by many of the ambitious owner managers with whom we work — certainly the successful ones. Paul Tomlinson, founder and MD of Mirus IT, is an example of such a remarkable owner manager.

Paul left school at 16 and set up his first business when he was 18 years old. Now 34, Mirus is Paul’s second business and employs 65 people. Turnover grew 40% last year and he’s expecting it to reach £6.7 million by the end of the year. In October, Paul picked up Entrepreneur of the Year in the Milton Keynes and North Bucks Business Excellence Awards.

Clearly, Paul is a successful owner manager and runs a very successful business already. And, yet he still wanted to be even better.

Up to now, Paul has achieved his success through huge energy, gritty determination and sheer hard work. “We were successful at winning clients and retaining them,” he explains, “and the business just grew by itself.”

“At the same time, we kept on making what I saw as silly mistakes that had massive expensive impacts later on — because we simply didn’t think ahead. For example, we re-signed a lease for a premises that we quickly outgrew, and we were stuck with it. If we’d looked ahead and thought about the increase in our workforce, we would never have signed the lease.”

“The business has been growing well, with lots of positive energy, but no clear sense of direction. I was conscious that I needed to control the growth and put some structure in place. I felt that it was time we had a plan!”

Paul’s constant striving to do his best and to make his best even better also meant that he was working incredibly long hours — 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Inevitably, working this amount of time was having an effect on Paul’s personal life and Paul himself was becoming a barrier to further growth of the business. He explains: “My time was mainly taken up on day-to-day tasks. I’d do any job in the business to make sure that everything was done to the best possible standard — and then make it even better! I was probably the most expensive cleaner in the world!”

Earlier this year, Paul committed himself to participate in the Better Business Programme — I guess the name appealed to him! — as a way of improving the business still further, developing a plan and helping him to manage his workload better.

“Participating in the Better Business Programme was the best business decision I’ve made in nine years,” says Paul. Within six weeks of the first sessions, Paul had made significant improvements to his already successful business and his whole attitude to work has been transformed.

“The programme has given me a sense of direction for the business and for myself, and that’s led to increased confidence in my own abilities,” reports Paul. “Overall, I'm feeling positive, confident and relaxed.”

Very quickly, Paul was able to start implementing tips on planning. “That was something I could improve straightaway. The programme team helped me to take stock of where we are now, where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. They helped to me to look at these questions in terms of markets, financial measures, management and people, and, most importantly, myself.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, through the programme, Paul has developed a plan to achieve a turnover of £15 million in three years’ time! “The management team has never had anything to work towards before. It’s a refreshing change for us all. Now we have clear visions and goals, and understand what to expect from the business. We won’t be making any more knee-jerk decisions.”

Paul has also taken a hard, honest look at himself. Most owner-managers will change as their business moves from start-up to established company. Many end up in the role of meddler, failing to delegate routine management tasks and interfering with their team’s work. Paul has recognised that this is exactly what he’s been doing under the guise of his constant striving to make everything in the business even better.

One of the Better Business Programme’s key messages is that, if the business is to achieve its full potential, then the owner manager needs to find some time to fulfil the strategist role. “The programme helped me realise that I need to find time to work on the business, rather than in it, looking outwards and forwards. I need to spend less time meddling and more time on strategy.”

Becoming a strategist means letting go and many owner managers find this very difficult. “Even knowing that I’m a meddler, I still find it very difficult to stop - but I’m trying! Participating in the programme has helped enormously”, Paul reports. “I had to sit down and think about strategy and the future. And the business still kept going!”

Although he is still very involved in the running of the business, Paul already has plans to change his input. “Recently, I appointed an operations manager. I’m hoping to be able to let him crack on with things and free up even more time for me to continue to think strategically once I’ve completed the programme. And I’m cutting down the amount of time I spend meddling in mundane tasks — and my wife if delighted about that! You could say the Better Business Programme has saved my marriage!”

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