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Feeling a million dollars

28 Nov 2011 Voices

John Tate built a million-dollar team, and shares the successes and mistakes he made along the way.

John Tate

John Tate built a million-dollar team, and shares the successes and mistakes he made along the way.

Writing last month’s column was somewhat nerve-racking as, in parallel with putting the article together, I was also finalising the sale of the company I was running at the time – ChangeBASE Ltd. We were acquired by a large US IT vendor and got a decent deal for the shareholders and staff.

I joined ChangeBASE as a startup in 2007 when it just had a couple of paid staff, and I led the team that grew it to a multi-million-pound turnover global business.

I have been involved with a good number of start-ups and have been on the board of quite a few charities. Over the coming months I will share some of the lessons I have learned of running a business and dealing with the IT sector – good and bad.

Lessons

So to kick things off I’ll pose this question: what makes a million-dollar team? Whether the team is running a commercial business, a charity or an IT department most of the characteristics are the same.

I’ll put at the top of the list clarity of vision. It is critical to ensure the whole team know exactly what it is the organisation is trying to achieve and their role in helping make this happen. Some might regard this as a statement of the blindingly obvious but, believe me, this is extremely hard to achieve. Pretty much every business I have run has failed to really get this clarity or focus in place.

Senior managers, directors, trustees, and shareholders all have different interests and motivations for being involved in an organisation. To get real consensus and clarity requires everyone to put aside some of their personal goals and ‘sacrifice’ themselves to the cause. This needs to be kept up day-after-day, week-after-week, and month-after- month. It is incredibly difficult to motivate and manage people to keep this going.

Next on the list is communication. You must make sure people know what is going on and share relevant information with their colleagues. Again, it sounds obvious, but it is so crucial for ensuring different teams work well together and that the needs of customers or beneficiaries are fully met. Email has gone from being our best friend to our worst enemy in supporting this. It is too easy to copy people in to communications and, as a result, staff get overwhelmed with information.

So key performance indicators need to be agreed that senior staff really buy in to. Processes need to be set up, and rigorously followed, to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

The third priority is a cultural issue – deciding how open and transparent you will be with your workforce and external stakeholders about what is going on in your organisation.

I have aspired to develop a culture of openness, integrity and honesty in my business ventures and have found, in almost every case where I have succeeded in doing this, that we have gained massive benefits. You have to celebrate successes, of course, and do this more often than reviewing shortcomings in your organisation. But honesty with your colleagues about your own, and the organisation’s, failures does create a culture of trust. It also encourages people to take risks and learn themselves from mistakes.

Honesty

However, risk needs to be managed and if you are out of your depth as a boss you will not find this an easy ride. Sharing with customers and external stakeholders what is really going on will hopefully achieve the same result. Admitting, for example, that you got something wrong is not typical of how suppliers deal with customers. However, I have found that if you communicate honestly about the situation, and tell the customer what you are going to do to address the issue, a ‘refreshing approach’ works wonders.

You may be surprised that I have found this a painful column to write. As I have pondered on the topic, I have unfortunately been drawn into thinking about the countless mistakes I have made, and situations where I have failed to practice what I preach.

Being a really effective manager requires a level of dedication and passion few of us can maintain. However, even partial success can deliver impressive results and it is hugely rewarding to see people and teams develop as a result.

John Tate is a business consultant, IT adviser to CFDG and a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School

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