By John Rosling: CEO Shirlaws Business Coaching UK

Don’t call yourself Managing Director. If you want to grow your business and have it working for you and not the other way round your role should evolve so that you are not “managing” the business at all. In other words you live as much as possible in “why” and less in “what”; more in belief and less plan; in context not content.

That’s why I use the term Chief Executive or CEO. That’s because I believe it is your role is to be the Chief — to Lead and not to Manage.

“While Management is operationally focused, setting priorities, allocating resources, and directing the execution,Leadership is more forward thinking, more about enabling the organization, empowering individuals, developing the right people, thinking strategically about opportunities, and driving alignment.” Randy Komisar

So what is that role? At Shirlaws we believe that the role of the CEO of any business — including SMEs — can be described in three simple concepts:

• Set the context
• Manage the energy
• Coach don’t play

Set the context means it is your job to understand the “why” and know where you are going. You create the dream. It means you are “above” and often 6-12 months “ahead” of the business, allowing your team to run the today. It also means you hold the context so that every decision in the business is simple to make in a contextual not content- driven space. It means you understand where you are in your Life Cycle, understand and hold the business to the contextual choices you have made in terms of Risk, Market Position, Product etc. All these we have covered in previous Articles.

Manage the energy means it is your job to create the belief in your why and create a compelling vision for your team. You sit above the business and your job is “feel” your business like an organism and know when things are not right. It is to support the energy and enthusiasm of the team and the key relationships you have outside the business. I think about it like this. All employees in the business possess a certain amount of energy that can be devoted to progressing the business. If this energy is aligned and “flows” easily through the business there is a greater chance of success. Alternatively if the energy gets dissipated, for example in managing processes that are not working or where departmental heads have different contexts and hence work against each other, energy gets expended inside the business and is not channeled into activities that will result in the growth and success of the business.

Coach don’t play means you’re not on the field any more. Your job is to build the confidence and skills of your team (over time) so that they have the ability, belief and are given the responsibility to play the game — you create the big picture and then support, observe, and encourage. You coach. That way your team runs the operations of the business and you get to grow the value and scale of the business.

You’ll notice that none of these says “run the business” or “deliver the bottom line”. That’s because to have your business work for you, you will need, in time, your senior team to do these management tasks for you. In fact my whole theme so far (managing in context, setting the why) has been about getting your business into the position where it is bigger than you and is not dependent on you. That means your role changes to the fascinating and stimulating role of entrepreneur - and not manager.

For many SME owners that may not seem possible right now but if you follow the ideas set out in this book I believe it will become possible. At any event you will have the choice of how much day to day management you want.


YRM (www.yrm.co.uk) is an architectural company with offices in London, Vienna and Bucharest. Established in 1944 YRM has completed over 800 design projects in 37 countries. YRM is renowned for high quality functional and durable design delivered to agreed budgets and timescales. John Clemow joined YRM in 1978 and leads the fourth generation of YRM’s leadership.

“In mid 2007 as the economic storm was looming, I heard Peter Harford of Shirlaws speak at a seminar about sluggish leaderships, succession fall out, and underperforming businesses. It felt like I was the only person in the room, with a laser dot on my forehead. Our top table was an operationally circular partnership model and, as Managing Director, my role was mainly cleaning up the mess left behind by the owner-managers enjoying their own games. I recognized I was in the classic Managing Director position of being well and truly stuck in the content and I brought Peter in initially to coach the Board. We realized we needed to operate as a proper company Board, with a CEO supported by a business structure with defined functions, lines of communication and delegated decision making. I realized I needed to act differently if I was to be a genuine CEO, to take more of a leadership role; to be “in the context” as Peter would say!

Peter helped me understand, implement and ultimately enjoy my CEO role. To get the leaders focused and on track, we needed to develop and crystallize our vision and strategy which was both motivating and enjoyable. This gave me a positive framework for dealing with some difficult problems to reverse our trajectory. I selected emerging leaders to prepare strategies for some priority areas of the business. I saw my primary role in energizing and supporting these rising stars. Great work was done which continues on the next set of issues to tackle. Our conversations are mainly on how these strategies tie in to our vision and overarching strategy.

It took two years of hard work to embed the changes in thinking, action and attitude. There is inevitably some occasional backsliding which means I have taken my eye off the ball. The panic and frustration that I and my colleagues felt has been replaced by calm determination and a clear sense of purpose. I wake up in the morning knowing what I need to do today and looking forward to the steps needed ahead. We have weathered the storm so far, and I only occasionally need to do a bit of light cleaning”.

Set the context; manage the energy; coach don’t play

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