Stuck on a plateau and looking for renewed growth?

After three years on a growth plateau, Neil O’Connor, MD of Activity IM, was asking himself whether he’s capable of growing a business much beyond its £1m turnover. He turned to the Better Business Programme, run in partnership with Cass Business School, in a bid to find out and to break through that ceiling.

He has also kindly agreed to blog about his programme experience and you can read the first two installments below.

 

LOOKING FOR GROWTH

Having grown my business Activity, an information security risk and compliance specialist, to just over a £1m turnover in our first three years, we have not grown far beyond that in the following three years. So, together with one of my other directors, we decided to embark on the Better Business Programme run by Your Business Your Future in partnership with Cass Business School.

“Is it me?”

During those three years of static growth, we’ve managed significant challenges, such as losing key staff to competitors and a reduction in spend in both the public sector and the wider economy. While acknowledging that times are hard, we believe that there are significant opportunities for growth in our business – data losses and cyber attacks are now regular news items in the media.

As with any business, there are a number of challenges to address to achieve that growth. For us, there is a need for us to develop both sales and technical consulting teams while maintaining profitability and making sure that there is enough cash in the bank – a common enough set of problems for any growing business.

I’ve previously grown another consultancy business to £1m turnover and then sold it. So after three years of limited growth at the £1m level, it was not unnatural to consider whether a £1m turnover company is the limit of my talents – perhaps I needed to improve my performance to enable the company to grow further. Hence, I started looking around at courses and other programmes that could help me.

The Better Business Programme

The concept of the Better Business Programme intrigued me because it is entirely focussed on owner-managed businesses. The fundamental message of the programme is that owner-managers have a profound influence on the business – in effect that the business reflects the behaviours and attitudes of the owner manager. As well as looking at how to improve the business, it also considers how to improve yourself both in terms of your own motivation, drive and energy, and your management of your people and your business.

Logistically, the programme consists of four two-day residential sessions (on a Friday and a Saturday), followed by two further days to present the strategy and plan developed during the programme and to review progress in six months’ time. The Friday and Saturday format means that you’re only out of the business one day every two weeks – which works well for us.  In addition, there’s a significant amount of work to do in the business between the residential sessions in developing the strategy and plan and implementing immediate improvements.  All of this is real work that I knew I should have been doing anyway!

What was I hoping for?

At the start of the programme, my objective was to get a clear focus for myself and a strategy and plan for growth for the business that we will go on to implement successfully, and ultimately lead to increased profits.  Simple really!

What’s it been like so far?

As I write this second installment, in early December 2011, we’ve worked through the four two-day modules and had a number of 1-1 coaching sessions to help develop our strategy and business plan for growth. We’re just about to present our plan to a panel of experienced business growth coaches and successful owner managers.  Then, in June 2012, we’ll all get together for a review session to review progress with the implementation of our strategy – and to find out how all our fellow participants have got on!

So what have I got out of the programme so far?

The four Ms – Markets, Money, Management and Me

The programme considers your business and strategy using the “four Ms”: Money, Markets, Management and Me.  The “Me” theme is particularly emphasised as an aspect of the underlying philosophy for the programme is that owner-managers have a profound influence on their business – not just in terms of setting direction, also in their behaviour and the way in which it impacts on the day-to-day running of the business.

The programme has certainly helped me realise that how my team perceive me makes a difference – I’ve heard members of staff saying “What sort of mood is he in today?”! More importantly, having a clear view of what the owners want from the business and aligning the company strategy with that is hugely motivating.  Like many owner managers, I suspect, I’ve been guilty in the past of being more concerned about growing the business than actually focussing on getting the business to deliver what I and the other owners want out of it.

The owners of the business now have a clear agreement as to what they want to get out of the business, in terms of their roles in the business, salaries and dividends, amount of time spent working etc. To deliver this we have a clear strategy, based on an analysis of our markets, customers and competition, and a five year plan to deliver against that strategy. This plan covers all of the “four Ms” and encompasses significant changes to our marketing and the roles that different members of the team fulfil within the company as well as improved sales, delivery and people management based on what we’ve done during the programme.

It’s happening to the whole business

One of the great aspects of the programme is that it is structured so that you take ideas back to your business and work on them with your team. This is something that we have taken to heart, having workshops and discussions back at the office so that the whole company has been involved in developing our strategy and business plan.

So, the programme is happening to the whole business, not just to Dave and I who are going along to the modules.

No silver bullets

The programme is focused far more on doing than on knowing.   So, unsurprisingly, you may well have already heard about most of what is covered on the programme.

Importantly, the programme gives you the time and space to consider what you will do to improve your business with plenty of expertise and experience on hand to discuss how to actually do it.

Some elements of the programme have been more useful to us than others.  And that’s the same for most of the participants – except that the parts that we each find most useful are different!  Even when an idea or a step in the process hasn’t seemed hugely relevant to our situation,  the programme delivery team are so experienced and skilled that they make it interesting and entertaining!

Working with kindred spirits

One of the most valuable parts of the programme for me has been the opportunity to work with other owner managers.  Remarkably, while our businesses and our ambitions are different, the challenges we face are remarkably similar!  Sharing and discussing our thoughts and plans with the other participants, and having them challenge and critique based on their own experience,  has been hugely valuable.  Equally, it’s remarkable how useful it is to listen to other owner managers stories and to offer our help to them.

What’s next?

As I write, we’re just a few days away from Presentation Day when we present our stratgegy and plans to a panel made up of our coach from the programme plus several other people coming to it afresh – a bit like Dragons’ Den but much more supportive and without the prospect of any investment!   In my next blog, I’ll let you know how that goes – wish me luck!

 

Neil O’Connor is MD of Activity, which provides information security consultancy advice to mid-sized businesses, global enterprises, and the public sector, including the Ministry of Defence and the NHS. http://www.activityim.co.uk.  Neil’s blogs were originally published on the Growing Business website.

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