February 2014

Repeating Entrepreneurial Success

By Stephen James

ind-con-stephen-jamesAppreciative Inquiry is an approach to work that says organizations will tend to change in the direction on which they focus their analysis. So an organization which analyzes its problems will continue to find problems. An organization that does its best to understand what it does well will build on successes.

Many entrepreneurs will relate to a situation where they have experienced success in their business. For the entrepreneur, success is usually attained through something for which they are personally responsible, whether it’s a product or service. Entrepreneurs, at first, will recognize success based on their own particular skill set, experience and work ethic. This can apply to the one person startup company, or the person working on a project or business unit in a large company. What should the entrepreneur then do when additional opportunities present themselves that push the company or individual to stretch beyond current capacity?

Simply put, this requires growth and the next successes may have to be achieved with the support of other members of the business team. Some of the things required to get to this goal are counter intuitive and involve the entrepreneur taking time away from the actual delivery of business to support the rest of the team. In fact, if done well, this work can result in the entrepreneur being called “management,” ironically an anathema to many entrepreneurs!

This article will discuss, at a high level, my experiences in achieving this, with more detailed discussions to come on each topic in future articles.

Add bodies

As an entrepreneur, I know that the saying “if you want something done, do it yourself” is a truism. The entrepreneur wants to be involved at each step and wants to provide the critical talent input. Even so, if the business is to grow, then clearly they have to step back and “let go.” The work needs to be parceled and handed to people the entrepreneur can trust. As the team grows and specializes, the people added will inevitably bring skills, experience and talent that the team did not possess, making the team better and stronger.

Finding good people can happen in many ways. The traditional approach through recruitment, interviews, head hunting, etc., has brought good people to our company. But some of our best hires come through much different avenues:

  • Intern or co-op student programs offer both the employer and employee the opportunity to test drive the work relationship.
  • Word of mouth. If a valued co-worker, business contact or friend is willing to recommend and say good things about someone, that’s a good sign they are worth your time.
  • Dumb luck. You can meet people in unexpected places. One of my favorite hires was of a person who I met while she was serving my table at a restaurant. That day, I had no idea she had a master’s degree and was one of the smartest, hard-working people I would meet. She overheard me talking about the business with my lunch companion, took a chance and passed me her CV. Fortunately for both parties that was a day I remembered my own advice to expect the unexpected.

Do not be afraid to challenge new hires. When challenging team members, an expression I frequently use is “here’s your leash, don’t hang yourself.” We haven't always been successful with this approach, but the successes far outweigh the times we have regretted it. People will be hired for a particular role. Most people will do fine at a “job.” But, when presented with a possibility for personal growth, many will take the work and find an “opportunity.”

Write it down

If you have found good people, they want to work and succeed. One of the most valuable tools we have provided members of our extended team is documentation of how we do our work. In my experience, this is among the hardest things for an entrepreneur to do. It is often counter intuitive to take time away from delivering to customers to write down how it is done. For the good people you’ve found to understand their business and initial roles, they cannot simply rely on verbal guidance or, worse, floundering on their own. Documenting how the work is done is a critical first step in providing support to both new and long-term members of the team.

In a small team, documentation might be a list of contacts, or a step-by-step list on how to provide certain services. As the team grows, documentation could include empty templates for certain work, for example, documents, spreadsheets and databases. At a certain level of team maturity, the documentation becomes more rigorous and provides technical guidance in specific areas, such as project management or quality assurance. This guidance will eventually evolve into a robust set of standards and practices for the business that can be used and developed for years by team members completely removed from the original team.

In conclusion, entrepreneurs can continue to grow their business by recognizing the need to add good team members. Team members should be empowered to use their own skills and knowledge. They will grow the business when the knowledge that generated success in the first place is formally passed to them.

Stephen James, FSA, FCIA, is the president of JEA Pension System Solutions. He can be contacted at www.jea.ca.