Monthly Archives: December 2011

You’d be surprised at how many of the people running early-stage businesses have no idea why they are doing it.  No, really. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe they had one of those sly after-hours drinks with a fair-sized client and picked up the vibe that they might support a breakaway from the big-ass agency that’s currently rinsing them out of a gazillion Euros a month. Or a couple of you had an epiphany in Le Pain Quotidien, sitting with all the other wannabe entrepreneurs in the back corner where the free Wi-Fi is strong and there are wall sockets within reach.

When you’re trying to dig a promising small business out of a hole, or steering another through a problematic growth-spurt, the first question to ask – always, without exception – is: why are you doing this? What is your personal motivation? You can have as many grand business visions and BHAGs as you like, but if they’re not aligned with what you want and where you want to get to in your life…then it’s unlikely to end well.

And of course, in so many entrepreneurial businesses, that ‘you’ is plural. At the heart of the enterprise sits that most unnatural phenomenon: Partners.

Which is where it really gets interesting; because now you’re dealing with two or more people who may well not know why, fundamentally, they’re in this business. Or one person who does and one or more others who don’t. The mentoring task – whether you are a CEO, non-exec or external advisor – is then twofold; first you need to get each owner to produce a statement of their personal goals, what they want from running and, in particular growing, the business. Secondly, you need to engineer and facilitate a ‘truth session’ where everyone puts their cards on the table. Again, you’d be surprised at how many sets of founders have never done this. Perhaps there’s a fear – sometimes justified – that what gets revealed might be explosive.

Two examples from the past twelve months; two small successful niche agencies, two founders apiece. Each had one partner with a family, committed to staying in the city where the business was based; each had another who wanted to make a major geographical move in the next couple of years and radically shift the way they worked. One was based in a regional British city; the other in a European capital; geography offers nowhere to hide from life-stage dilemmas.

In one the agendas were out in the open; in the other they simmered. One set of founders had a grown-up dialogue about their divergent life-plans, the others niggled and nagged at each other without quite knowing why. The Brits transferred responsibilities ahead of the shift and effected a managed transition; their European counterparts split fractiously and, in the process, shattered the business.

The learning is; it’s hard to say what you want from growing your business if you don’t know what you want from your life. And if there are more than one of ‘you’, you need to start sharing those highly personal agendas  – now.


All three of you thought it would be a terrific idea to start your own studio, or agency or analytics firm or app builder or…whatever. So you just did it, jacking in the jobs, each of you wrangling enough work out of a couple of clients to pay your way for a few months, knocking up a couple of IKEA trestle tables in a spare bedroom and, boom, here you are with this thing, this business, for goodness sake, with employees and offices and business rates and management accounts and insurances and so much stuff that is nothing to do with the thing it is you do, that you sell to clients and from which you make your living.

And somewhere along the way someone became responsible for all that stuff. That’d be you.

I’m not the first to recognise this syndrome. I’ve heard it referred to as the Accidental Leader. I call it The Reluctant MD. This is the person that failed to take a metaphorical step backwards in that board meeting in the brewpub way back when your little enterprise was clearly getting a little ahead of itself and the question got asked; ‘who’s the best person to lead this business, now that it clearly needs a leader?’.

It made sense, back then. You were the best organised, the most numerate, of the founders. You could make some sense of a spreadsheet, when the others just glazed over or developed a deep interest in their cup of cold coffee. At least you tentatively queried the constant demands for another five creatives or half-dozen developers, just because ‘everyone is really busy’. And, no, I don’t think we can justify the investment in a high-end Italian-made espresso machine in the kitchen, however much is contributes to employee (read: director) satisfaction.

And now? The job is about as appetising as that cold latte. The hypothetical seductions of leadership have resolved themselves into the petty daily realities of reviewing staff utilisation reports and renegotiating bank loans. Which was getting to be a grind, even before the current massive market opportunity/management crisis/client resignation/untrammelled growth spurt. The one that’s pushed you over the edge, close to actual doctor’s-certificate level exhaustion, stress-induced anxiety and emotional meltdown. You’ve run out of road.

It happens. Most Reluctant MDs remain just that. In practice, their running out of road, out of management bandwidth, coincides with a burning desire to get back to the thing they started out doing, the craft or professional practice that got them into this business in the first place. It would be a mistake to see this as simple escapism, just a desperate desire to smash the manacles of management.

It’s a clear sign that the next stage of the business is imminent. The Reluctant MD, bless ’em, is just not the one to take it there.