Lessons in Entrepreneurial Leadership

Last night was spent up in Bristol University‘s Chemistry lecture room courtesy of Bristol Enterprise Network (this evening chaired by Prof Stephen Hagan, Director of the University of the West of England‘s Research, Business and Innovation group). The delegate list was rather larger than the turn out, but there were still plenty of entrepreneurs and business leaders to mingle and discuss leadership and business developments before and after (a very polite University porter had to throw us out, the networking was going so well).

First up was John Kirwan (Partner, Strategic Planning Solutions). A very good lead with solid theoretical grasp on leadership, psychology, and the practicalities of moving a group of people from a current reality to some future vision. This basic concept of leadership was backed up with quite a few concepts, quotes (from Mintzberg & Goethe to Paxman), stories and good humour. In the Q&A John even got into locus of control.

Possibly his best quote was:
If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse. However, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” Goethe

John ended with a description / definition of Living Leadership – The cornerstone of inspiring leadership is efficacy:
the capacity to make things happen that you consider important, starting with being and acting as the kind of person you want to be in your life.

Next was Chris Farmer, Founder & Leader, Corporate Coach Group. Chris had thoughtfully provided us with an advertising brochure, after-dinner speaker flyer, a diagram of his key message and 6 self-administered assessment questions on the leader-managers within our own organisations. Unfortunately it was more fun watching Chris, who I suspect is actually a very nervous speaker but managed very well, than listening to Chris. He had an interesting take on the basic foundations that John had talked to, his approach is probably as good as most, but there didn’t seem quite as much substance.

A slight change of pace introduced Melissa Henry (Marketing Director, Sustrans), talking about leadership and entrepreneurialism in the not-for-profit sector. Melissa began by asking “Why are charities founded?” and it turns out it’s often for the same reasons (in many ways) as any other start-up. To make a difference, do things better, fill a gap in the market/social need. Another point was that no one works for a charity / start-up for the money – it’s taking a stake in something bigger (social or commercial). An interesting element that Melissa touched on was the need for clear succession planning as an element of leadership (the idea that the charity has to be bigger than the leader). She also made the point that monitoring and evaluating outcomes were critical to ensure vision is relevant rather than idealistic. Too many charities (and start ups) spin themselves into a froth without checking their customer base for feedback on outcomes.

Melissa also talked about back casting (as a planning tool; start with a ‘known’ future and then work out how to get there; rather than a fly fishing technique). Charities use back casting because they have a clear vision of the future and need to plan a route to get there (and explain that route to funders). Start-ups do the same when they predict a future (100m users in 3 years) and then try to figure out the how. This became most obvious in the Q&A when someone asked about planning horizons and leadership. The 3 for-profits confirmed that most of their planning went out to around 6 months, with broader visions/goals out to around 2-3 years. As an in-the-thick-of-it entrepreneur Paul admitted to occasionally working to a 1 week horizon when critical issues hit, but that he always made a point to regroup post-crisis to learn from it and re-plan the following 6 months in the light of what he’d learnt. Melissa started with a 15-20 year vision then then worked back to the current projects.

One issue that Melissa did share, and that is probably quite common in the third sector, is the double edged sword that the open sharing knowledge to achieve vision brings. If you ‘give’ everything away and work to bring about social change, the important message is sustainable transport options, rather than Sustrans itself. Ultimately they don’t really mind who builds more cycle paths, green-ways, etc, but if no one know that Sustrans was behind it then grants and donations dry up. I’m pretty sure there’s something to learn from Hugh Macleod’s global microbrands, Jeremiah Owyang, JD Lasica, Chris Brogan to name a few (leaving aside the significant pack of marketeers on Twitter)!

Anyone out there have experience of working with non-profits and these open communications challenges?

Paul Tinkler, (Managing Director, Mirifice Ltd) rounded out the group with no theory (though a lot of thought) and lots of personal experience. When are you successful – never as an entrepreneur, there’s always the next goal, target, business, market, etc to conquer.

The 6 traits of an entrepreneur;

  1. unswerving self belief in success, complete unwillingness to look facts in the fact that don’t support vision (not inflexibility
  2. being a risk seeker, that is where fortunes are made (not reckless, know the risks)
  3. durability, mental toughness
  4. disregard for rules, at least the ones that don’t apply to ‘me’
  5. know when to step down/ aside (though this one has to be tested at Paul is still in the thick of it)
  6. communications are critical – be excellent – constantly learning / getting better, fear of not being the best (rather than of failure)

All in a really good evening.