Rebecca Oatley founded her UK communications agency Cherish PR two decades ago. She believes that while entrepreneurs may be innovative, passionate, creative and goal-driven by nature, leadership is a harder skill to develop.
If you hadn’t noticed, there’s been a bit of a talent squeeze in the global labour markets. In the UK alone, Office for National Statistics figures reveal that the UK is experiencing its tightest labour market since records began in 1971, with just 1.1 unemployed person for each job opening. It’s tough to find and keep great teams. Add the fact that we’re entering more uncertain economic conditions and tackling rising costs, and the road ahead looks bumpy for early-stage companies. Today’s entrepreneurs are having to work harder than ever before to keep the ship steady and staff motivated.
Looking back over two decades of running a small business, I have leaned on five leadership skills time and time again. They have become the cornerstone of growing from a £5,000 savings pot to building a £2.5 million company.
- Refining and sharing your vision
Twenty years ago, I started my business out of necessity. I had a young child, a new home and I needed to create a business that paid the mortgage, but gave me time with my new baby. Many new companies start like this; with a personal milestone, pain point or a gap in the market that presents an opportunity. When most entrepreneurs start a business, they don’t see it in 10 years’ time, they’re making the change for now.
However, it’s important to start thinking about your vision early on. Identifying the reason for others to believe in your business is vital for its long-term health. I realised early on that it was the communications advice that I gave to founders and entrepreneurs that set Cherish PR apart, and the reason why my clients stayed and grew their relationship with the agency, hence the name! More than that, fundamentally we were championing change. We believed that change was good, and we knew that we could make change happen by promoting it with strategic comms at the heart of the organisation. Our vision has stood the test of time and has been integral in everything from hiring to marketing and defining the customers who were going to move us closer to our vision.
It is so important for leaders to define a clear vision. After all, you need a destination to lead others to join you on the journey.
- Plans are great but be open and adaptable
It may seem counter-intuitive, but according to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, more than two-thirds of companies with under 250 employees don’t have a complete business plan. Despite understanding the importance of forecasting, many don’t prioritise it, preferring instead to “focus on the day job”. But how can you lead a business to tomorrow or next month or year if you’re only focusing on today?
There’s a myth that business plans need to be a biblical tome with everything plotted in minutiae; small business doesn’t run that way. SMEs are nimble, able to pivot for an opportunity or adapt to unforeseen change. However, being able to decide whether to pivot or what opportunities to seize, or to leave, relies on the business plan. It gives any leader the direction of travel.
Once you have a plan you’re happy with, go back and review it frequently. It enables you to track your progress and also direct and lead your team to deliver on the projects you have proposed. A good plan is essential to good leadership.
- Have the confidence to be transparent
At Cherish, we’re currently going through BCorp certification and one of the requirements is staff transparency. As a leader, being confident enough to share the position of the business against its vision and business plan is not only being a transparent leader, it’s being a responsible one. As a leader, you have a responsibility to those on your payroll, and the partners whom you have contracts with. These stakeholders need to understand how your business is performing and where it needs to be better. In today’s world, having the confidence to share the reality with those whom you are leading is a real skill.
- Stop, listen and understand
As your business grows, you quickly reach a stage where you need to put a management team in place. Perhaps beginning with one role but ultimately building leads for key areas of the business. We now have a Group MD and Business Unit Heads in place who take on the responsibility of running the day-to-day. Putting in place a strong management team requires a clear set of roles and responsibilities, more often than not to give the Founder peace of mind and to stop him/her from meddling. We use the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Informed, Consulted) template. It’s important to open communication channels and encourage feedback, making every individual feel more involved.
But with open channels of communication comes the skill of listening, understanding that they may be closer to the business and more informed than you. Consider their insights and recommendations carefully. Empathy is an important trait for a good leader and a skill which takes time to develop.
If you’re an entrepreneur, chances are that you started your business on the back of a skill or trade. It’s easy to hold onto the thought that business success is dependent upon the work being done as you would do it. How often have you said, “It’s just easier, better, quicker if I do it”? That’s just not true. You may know more about your business than others, but they will never learn and be able to support you fully until you delegate.
The feeling of frustration because work is not being done to the standard you expect is not an excuse to do the work yourself, but a moment to mentor, train and explain. Understand that the business cannot grow with you alone. Don’t be the bottleneck to growth.
It’s easy to write these skills down, but always harder to implement them. Nobody trains you to be a leader until you have to be one, but hold on to your intuition, because fundamentally leadership is about direction and communication. Hold onto this and you’ll be in great shape to take your business into the future.