By Robert Craven
The role of CEO or MD of a growing business is an adrenaline-fuelled journey. Making the right decisions matter, whether it be about a new strategy, product, recruit or campaign. There is always a little anxiety. The decisions get bigger, or rather the consequences get bigger. What if... your competitor got serious about buying you...? What if... you could gain access to an additional £500k of funding? What if... your big customer chose to turn off your service?
When things are working your way, life is pretty good. The toast always seems to land butter-side up. Whatever the decision, you are excited about what you might win, terrified about what you might lose; you play the role of the organised - in control - business director and key decision-maker. Inside your brain a little voice keeps beavering away, questioning what you do and why you do it. “Are you sure? Are you right? Will you get away with it again?”
In a fit of pique you block out the voice, make the tough decisions and pray that all your assumptions and beliefs are right. A bit like mad young motorcyclists, many die along the way and the lucky ones seem to survive. The upside is awesome; the downside is unthinkable. Normally the magic works. This is your success genie at work.
Well, that is how it should be and sometimes it is. Other times things are not so great... There are the black moments when things just do not seem to come together. The toast lands butter-side down one time too often. Your every action starts being fuelled by fear, a fear that preoccupies your every waking hour. Things aren’t quite so good as you attempt to jolly everyone along and secretly start to worry that they will see that you really are clutching at straws. Your failure genie is at work.
There’s also another place we can end up. Partly as a result of the stress and partly as a result of a lack of clarity. Put simply, it is losing your mojo. Everything goes flat. From the outside, you appear to have everything and yet you know there is something missing. Many of us have been there. And I am afraid the results can be catastrophic. It is just that we tend not to talk about these things as they don’t happen to people like us. But they do. Enough doom and gloom!
The way we run our businesses doesn’t seem to be very healthy. Part of the problem is that the common metrics of success are those that fit neatly on an excel spreadsheet. Part of the problem is that we have created an army of accountants, bankers, consultants and all manner of advisers who seek to “add value” to our business through the sophisticated use of their magic powers: save tax, access loans, increase sales and so forth. We employ them and they try to deliver a handsome ROI for their fee.
It seems that we have all fallen into a trap that we have set ourselves. Within the business we often forget our “why?” - our purpose. What it is we are really trying to achieve rather than just making loads of money. And this trickles into every aspect of our lives.
It is not just hippy nonsense. There is a growing trend to see our businesses as more than just money machines. Advisers that think they are simply helping us to run better money machines are in for a shock.
Once one reaches a certain level of wealth, then the extra money is often less important. After all, one can only sleep in one bed at a time or drive one car at a time. Given a choice between earning an extra £30,000 a year or having Fridays off, I see more and more MDs and CEOs opting for the time off (if they only knew what they would do with the free time!).
What I am seeing is more and more MDs and CEOs who feel they earn more than enough. Yet they are somehow dissatisfied. They still want to work but now they want to create something of value (in whatever terms); they want to create a legacy. More importantly, this breed of MD and CEO want to create their own version of success. And this may not simply be about maximising EBITDA at the price of exploiting whatever needs to be squeezed dry.
What they are after, and I believe it is possible, is a balanced but highly successful model where all parts are working really well, where they and the component parts of their business are flourishing. A workplace where all the pieces of the jigsaw work together seamlessly and in harmony. Squeezing the last piece of profitability out of every business function creates the tension that causes the anxiety discussed earlier. Seeking to create a rather more harmonious whole is quite a different game.
I am simply reporting what I am seeing and giving my spin. The back to basics approach goes back to asking the MD/CEO: What lifestyle do you want? What income does the business need to give you? What does a ‘successful’ business look like to you? How could you go about creating a sustainable and flourishing business? And what would you do if you ran one?