As a CEO, I often wonder what I am supposed to be doing. I have been very successful at hiring people better than me in almost every facet of the business. Even the people under them are better than me at whatever it was I did when starting up. This isn’t false modesty, it’s true. Of course, they were not better than me when I first hired them but they had the potential to be better and above all the right attitude, in that they wanted to be the best they could.
‘Hire for attitude, train for skill.’ is an expression that I hear banded around blandly among some large companies. What is ‘the right attitude’ and how do you identify it? Personally, I still review virtually every CV that comes into the company and I see it as my role to draw up a shortlist for Managers to select from. This is not just because I have the time and they do not, but also because hiring the right people is absolutely key to success. So what do I look for?
As a small or medium sized company in a not very glamorous area of business, we could not attract the very best graduates from the top schools, even if we wanted to. Instead, I look for aspiration, evidence of hard work, an interest in learning, flexibility and common sense. I would rather take someone who grew-up in a tough neighbourhood but made it to a second-tier college than someone who is a product of a middle-class production line education, unless I can see other evidence of some real ‘oomph’ on their CV. Educated people, who have got-off their butts to find a better life in a new country and who are working at jobs way below their skill levels also tick a lot of boxes for me. These are the kind of evidence of attitude that flag a CV to me as having potential They are often the type of CV that a large company’s HR department or recruitment agency would overlook in their search for the ideal vanilla candidate. I rarely do vanilla. Trust me, I have chosen Tutti Frutti on many occasions!
One reads a lot of start-up literature and interviews and they almost all talk a lot about ‘passion’ and ‘vision’. I am not sure either is very useful, unless you are one of that 10% who genuinely has an idea that will change the world. Most of us start businesses because we are not very good at taking orders and we also think we see an opportunity to do something a little better than the competition. There are very few truly original ideas and business success is generally about doing things just a little better than the others.
I think enthusiasm is a better word for what motivates us and what can be contagious for our teams. Enthusiasm is infectious but unlike passion or vision, it does not carry the risk of blindness to the market or to new ideas.
When it comes to growing and managing a business, being dispassionate is one of the most important traits a CEO can have. I spent 10 years in the stockbroking business, and one of our mantras was not to fall in love with yesterday’s decision. It was the fastest way to lose a shed load more money. In business, one needs to regularly ask oneself afresh, ‘Based upon what I know now, would I still make the same decision today that I made in the past?’
Being open to revising your view of the world based on new information, financial data or market feedback is an essential part of a CEO’s toolkit, which is ignored at your peril. Too much vision or passion and you quickly ignore feedback and just shape it into justification of your present strategy. By being slightly distanced from the day to day frontline, you should be open to seeing how these little variations from expectations maybe creating an alternative picture of reality to that of your current strategy, something a line manager can easily miss.
Do not start a business under the illusion that you are making a ‘lifestyle’ choice, unless your desired lifestyle involves working longer hours and having more stress than you ever thought possible whilst in your old job.
The only way you can then work less and have more time for your family and interests, is if you are independently wealthy and you just want something to occupy you whilst the kids are at school. Before starting a business, make sure your gay partner/wife/significant other/dog and cat and above all yourself understand this.
You will not see more of them. Your body might but I promise you your brain won’t, so make sure that you have it in writing with signature and paw print that they consent to this madness. I started my own business 10 minutes from home after spending years doing a 1 hour commute into the City where I worked long hours. I thought Great, I will have loads more time to spend with the kids.’ Wrong! Those 2 hours a day saved became three hours extra working. It was only after about 6 years that I had a good enough management infrastructure in place to start to leave regulalrly at a normal time.