Are We Ambitious Enough?

I was at the Lunar Society’s Boulton and Watt Lecture this week, an interesting exploration of financial regulation (yes, really it was) by Prof George Feiger, the Dean of Aston Business School. One remark that he made during the Q&A struck me. Asked if London was sucking funding away from Midlands firms, he acknowledged that funding was an issue, but thought the bigger problem was a lack of ambition among small businesses. This was not how to build the next Google.

I do not think that he was singling out Birmingham within the UK, rather he was comparing where he is now, to where he has come here from, namely California. His thought was however interesting enough to discuss it with two speakers at another event, both of whom help new technology businesses succeed.

The view was that the Professor was, as a generalisation, right, and that indeed this is not Midlands specific. (I have for instance heard similar comments about businesses in Wales). However, funding is very much easier to obtain in the USA (particularly California), and the tax regime can mean that the proceeds of sale of a business can be reinvested in another business before attracting a tax charge.

So what are we talking about? The cup cake shop may bring joy to the neighbourhood, and provide a living, but is limited. It will not suddenly turn into a chain of shops – that would require a great deal of planning and effort, if it could be done at all. Similarly it is possible to envision a nationwide chain of law practices, but that is unlikely to grow from the newly formed 2 partner firm.

This does need a word of caution. Size is not necessarily the right criterion, nor is profit. Germany is successful in part because so many companies in the Mittelstand (larger SMEs) are world class, and work hard to stay that way. This is often in conjunction with their local university. Equally, a social enterprise or co-operative can be ambitious. After all, John Lewis is doing fairly well!

If a business owner is happy with a cup cake shop, and can make it successful, that is their choice. Indeed, that owner is probably not the right person to look to build something much bigger. However, if we want a successful economy, we also need the ambitious people who will build long standing and successful businesses which employ people.

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Mental Toughness – So What?

Many of the examples of mental toughness are connected with sport, indeed a Google Alert on the topic produces a large number of sports stories. Sport is of course interesting in itself to many people, and results become apparent quickly.

How does it translate to real life? Research shows that

  • There is clear evidence that mentally tough individuals are more focused on objective reality as exemplified by their preference for problem focused strategies as opposed to emotion centred coping.
  • Mentally tough individuals may also maintain their connection with reality as they have been found to be less likely to use avoidance strategies when dealing with stressful situations.

This does illustrate that business leaders benefit from mental toughness, and indeed 25% of variation in individual performance can be attributed to this factor.

As always, though, this does not negate the necessity of doing the right thing.

You Can Have Too Much Talent in Your Team

A report on the effect of talent in sport, from Scientific American here. Any sports fan disappointed by a team of galacticos will not be surprised to learn that a sprinkling of top talent improves results, but a team of top talent does worse.

The word “team” is an important one here – the effect was found in soccer and basketball, but not in baseball. So if what you do requires teamwork, you need some non-stars to help your stars shine.

Hard Earned Lessons in Starting a New Job

Over my working life I have changed jobs (and indeed career) several times. Almost all the changes involved moving firms as well. In each case it was sink or swim, so here are some lessons I learned along the way about laying a good foundation.

1. Take time to settle in. This comes naturally to me, but it is best to know who is who, and how a new firm works before starting to take major action to change anything. That can avoid major problems, but does presuppose that there is no crisis that you need to attend to immediately.

During this time you need to understand the new job, and the culture and politics of the firm. I have even been quickly convinced that the firm was not for me in the long term, which was interesting.

2. Get to know all the staff, not just those at the top. Of course that involves face to face meetings, but on one occasion I emailed everyone asking for an interesting fact about themselves. I have over the years worked with someone who bred and showed Boxer dogs, a local councillor, a Norwegian speaker, an Arnhem paratrooper and someone whose injury caused a major change in the rules of Rugby.

3. Especially moving from a major commercial firm to a smaller firm, I learned not to say “at XYZ we used to….”. Firstly it makes the new firm defensive (suggesting they do not know what they are doing), so that any initiatives are less likely to succeed. Secondly there is no guarantee that system that works in a large firm is appropriate to a smaller firm. Thirdly the new firm may have come up with an innovative system which ought to be copied by other firms.

4. Make sure you receive a proper induction. That includes not only where the coffee and loos are, nor even how the IT systems work. It should also include the “people” support systems.

As with many people, I came up with some kind of system for making a success of a new job. However, it was only when I started to study the field that I realised how piecemeal this was, and how many gaps there were in the system.

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