In business – as in life – we rely on the value of hindsight to inform many future decisions for our jobs, companies and careers. We look back in order to move forward; we’re constantly learning from past mistakes and successes in order to grow our careers.
We wanted to hear what other CEOs, founders, directors and entrepreneurs thought about this topic of hindsight and how their experience could help someone just dipping their toes in the corporate waters. So we asked them: ‘What is one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out in business?’
The one thing I wish I would have known when starting out is that it’s much more fun starting a business with someone else. I was self-employed for 7 years before I met Ian, my co-founder, and collaborated on Fluency – our digital skills startup getting young people into jobs. Running a business alone is tough – there’s no one to bounce ideas off or tell you when you are going the wrong direction. And yes, it can get a bit lonely too. Having a business partner means sharing the responsibility of making the company work – sharing both the daily ups and the downs of trying to make a business work. Constant communication, especially when he works remotely, is the key to making it all work. And team lunches now and again!
One thing I wish I’d known? Probably that being nice to people gets you really far. I was always told that being nice gets you nowhere, and you need to be tough, cut-throat and mean in business. However, I haven’t found that to be true at all. Obviously I am focused, but being nice to people only makes you more memorable and people want to work with you again.
It’s an interesting question since part of what has made us a better, stronger company is learning from our mistakes and learning as we went along. We’ve taken some knocks and I’m not sure if we had been ‘forewarned’ it would have made that much of a difference. If I try to narrow it down to one thing that might have helped us earlier on, then it would be succession planning. Now that may seem an odd thing to say for a business just starting out – new businesses are so focused on the day to day, they don’t usually think about succession planning. They don’t know if they’re going to make it to the next month, let alone 10 years down the line. If we had included succession planning as we were growing, we most certainly would have made different, more productive choices. A crisis was the catalyst that got us planning and putting into place a more solid foundation for the future.
What is the one thing I wish I had known when I was first starting out in business? I wish had understood that you don¹t always have to say yes. Sometimes things are simply not a fit or the timing isn’t right. I would much prefer to say no than to overextend myself and end up upsetting someone and damaging my brand. Take your time and make sure that you have the bandwidth, the resources or the knowledge to complete a job that makes you proud and the client happy.
In regards to my work as both a motivational speaker and presentation skills coach I wish I had known how much I had yet to learn. I thought because I had decided to speak for a living that work would come to me. How wrong I was. It took me a couple of years of not getting anywhere to understand that relationships were vital. Marketing can help but a lot more of my work has come from building and maintaining relationships. I also wish I knew how important it was to look the part and I don’t just mean on stage. My website used to be all about me and who I was. I now know that it’s about the client or customer and what I can do for them. I also wish that I knew that it was OK to be me rather than trying to be someone else. I thought I had to be a polished speaker. I’m not polished. I’m a rough on the edges and that’s OK both as a motivational speaker and a presentation skills coach. One of the things I teach on my speaker boot camps is to be authentic. That’s what people want from just about anyone in the 21st century. People don’t just buy from people. They buy from real people.
When I first started out in business, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a leader. I thought leadership was essentially about having all the answers and the power to tell people what to do. What I’ve learned is that leadership is really much more about bringing people together around a shared set of values, enlisting them in a shared purpose, and helping them communicate, collaborate, and learn. That’s what it takes to create a team where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – and that is truly the only way a relatively small group of people can achieve big goals. An added bonus: I found trying to have all the answers utterly exhausting. As it turns out, leading by empowering others is way more energizing, satisfying, rewarding and fun, for me and for my team.
Having been in executive positions working for huge brands for most of my career, I had the support of just about every expert I could possibly need to be effective in my role: IT, finance, marketing, etc. You name it and it was just a phone call away. Starting my own business was a really scary prospect, knowing that I wouldn’t immediately be surrounded by all of the experts I needed.
The one thing I wish I’d known is that when you make important decisions driven by fear, it’s painful. To achieve the expertise I thought I needed, I rushed into partnerships which weren’t right for me and it took me two years to realise I had made a big mistake before I had the courage to start again on my own. With that new-found knowledge and confidence, I achieved more in the first 6 months on my own than in the whole of the two previous years with a team of three.