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It’s that time again, after an incredible season of guests and their stories, we’re rounding off Season 2 with a very special episode, featuring not only Sophie Cornish, chairman of Busby & Fox, but our very own CEO, Steve Hare.
After all her success at Not On The High Street, Sophie is taking her expertise back to the world of retail and is also working as an adviser to help other business owners thrive.
With their combined experience, Sophie and Steve give their top tips on how to build an effective plan to achieve your desired life, but also how to adapt if that plan doesn’t go down the path you intended.
This episode is jam-packed with advice on how to be a successful CEO as an introvert, how to figure out your skills and learning to become resilient to outside pressures.
Don’t worry, we’ll be back for Season 3, but until then we hope you enjoy this finale episode.
Here’s what we cover below:
- Working out what you want from your life plan
- Your life plan might not always lead you down the path you expect
- Creating a life and career of autonomy
- You will have to make hard decisions to achieve a better work-life balance
- Achieving high performance in anything will require hard work and sacrifices
- Figure out the skills you’re really good at and use that to build your career
- How to be a successful CEO when you’re an introvert at heart
- The temptations of going back into retail
- Become resilient to the outside pressures of being an overachiever
- Adapting to personal and professional life after suffering a stroke
- Sometimes it can feel like an uphill battle, but keep going and push yourself outside your comfort zone
- A bullish nature will help entrepreneurs and their businesses to survive
- Make time and find budget for technology
- What are the biggest challenges businesses are facing today?
Working out what you want from your life plan
Sophie, you’re really passionate about one of today’s themes.
We talked about how hustle culture has sort of taken over, but actually you can design a business that fits in with your life plan.
Tell me how do we work out how we want from life and then design a business around that?
Wow. Well, that is the biggest question, Bex. I don’t know if I’ve got the immediate answer to that.
But yes, I can absolutely say I do just love a plan. I think I wrote my life plan when I was about eight, and now that I’m 58 I can honestly say, it didn’t change very much over the years.
I guess by having a life plan, I simply mean to say that it’s hard enough to land a great job or start a business, but then all too easy to then find that’s then set you on a life path that is actually not what you want.
So as much as you write a business plan, I just strongly believe you need to think about what you really want for yourself and, very importantly, when.
Are you going to want a career break? What’s your response to stress? Where do you want to live? How important is the sport or hobby that keeps you sane? What does business success look like for you in that case?
Are you driven to play a significant role in something that feels big and high profile, or do you just simply want to share a talent that brings people joy or do you want to do something that feels worthwhile, that the planet needs what you have to bring?
It’s very difficult to figure this all out from day one and nobody walks into their A-levels kind of able to be clear about that.
But the one thing I will be honest about is that as in life as in business, the freedom to execute on your plan pretty quickly comes down to money.
And as a woman perhaps even more so because the evidence still shows that it’s still women who are the most affected by bumps in the road like cost of childcare and career breaks.
So yeah, I do really believe in a plan.
Your life plan might not always lead you down the path you expect
Did you have a plan, Steve?
Did you kind of think what you wanted out of life or did you get swept along because you’ve had a lot of big high profile jobs?
Was that always in your plan?
I think I had a broad plan, and funnily enough, as I’ve accumulated more experience and I’ve learned more along the way, I think I’ve created a better plan, if that makes sense.
I think when I was younger, I probably did get quite swept away. I had a plan that I wanted to be successful in business. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do that, but I did want to be successful.
And the more I got into it, I suppose the more driven I became because I decided, “Actually, I quite like this. I’m quite good at this.”
But it absolutely didn’t take the path that I intended, really.
I think as I’ve got older, I’ve got much better at reflecting on my learnings and therefore achieving a better balance, if you like.
I’ve always been very committed. I’ve been quoted in the past. I always say, “If you want to do something, you’ve got to be all in.”
But that means you’ve got to be all in when you are doing that thing.
I think what you get better at, certainly what I’ve got better at over time, is exactly to Sophie’s point, you actually start to realise, “Well, yes this is important, being successful in my business career is important, but my family’s important, my well-being’s important, so I must do that exercise, I must do that sport.”
And actually when you’re doing those things, be present in what you are doing at the time.
When I was young, I was terrible at that. Terrible.
I would go and do something, but I was still thinking about work, and so I’d be thinking about three things at once, and really never fully focusing on any of them.
I think when you talk to high-performing people, whether sports people, businesspeople or whatever, I think they’re very good at whatever they’re doing at the time, whatever they’re committing to, they do it, and they achieve extraordinary outcomes, but it is not their whole life.
I think when you talk to people who say that the only thing, they do is their work and their career, and they work seven days a week, and they work hundreds of hours a week, I don’t subscribe to that.
I don’t think that’s sustainable.
I think you have to look after yourself and you have to engage and invest in people around you, whether that be in business or personal.
Creating a life and career of autonomy
I like that idea of a plan because it’s almost a kind of visualisation, isn’t it? When you write something down, when you think about it and make a concrete path that you can follow, you’re more likely to sort of make it happen.
What was on your life plan when you were eight? Do you mind sharing that with us?
Well, do you know what? My father read it out at our wedding. I wasn’t given much choice about that. He found it. He found a piece of paper and read it out at our wedding.
There was something about when I was eight years old, that I knew I needed autonomy. I knew if I was going to get what I wanted out of life and what made me happy, and honestly, I knew I wanted a family when I was eight years old, that I was going to have to create that autonomy.
That was about, for instance, I don’t know, having a career where I could be the one to decide when and where I work, for instance. It was those kinds of things. It was very much about autonomy, and it was about money. I don’t know why.
My parents were kind of entrepreneurial, so I was always overhearing conversations about money and conscious of how that drove so many of your decisions.
I think it was quite conceptual. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that makes sense.
Did that lead, do you think, to Not On The High Street because you suddenly saw a way to have that freedom, that autonomy, but also kind of build a business that would bring financial security but was also quite fun because the business itself was just a joy, wasn’t it, to build with all those makers?
I cannot tell you, Bex. It was absolutely wonderful. It was both kind of wonderful and horrendous, to Steve’s point.
I worked so hard. I just literally, I don’t know how I survived, but also, I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It was joyful. It was wonderful. It was just one of the most wonderful things about my life.
And yes, that was one of the things that I couldn’t have imagined doing something for money that wasn’t also something that really drove me.
My mum was a best-selling novelist, and she always used to say that if you find the thing you love and that you’re good at, work is riding downhill on a bicycle.
I guess kind of that was my plan, as much as anything, because that’s what I kind of always heard.
You will have to make hard decisions to achieve a better work-life balance
You worked super-duper hard at the beginning, and then did it ease off a little bit just in time for your life plan stuff to kick in? How did you make sure that things happened at the right time?
Because you kind of need your business to be at exactly the right stage if you want to take some time out of it, for example.
How do you make the dates line up in your mind and in reality?
Well, you don’t. I mean, you don’t, but you kind of keep your North. I had my North Star.
So if things were veering off in a different direction I kind of had to check myself and say, “The temptation to do this for 25 years instead of 15 is there.”
I suppose a small example is, I missed a few years of my children’s childhoods and that was tough, but my daughter’s hilarious and mocks me mercilessly for the parents’ evening that I didn’t turn up at. I think we’re kind of all good with that.
But kind of there was a point, for instance, where I just knew they were older, I needed to be there. Teenagers don’t fit into your kind of “I’ve got an hour” school of parenting, like a toddler does.
There was definitely a time where I thought, if I’m going to be here for these particular years, I need to make some pretty difficult calls.
Achieving high performance in anything will require hard work and sacrifices
Steve, you mentioned earlier how you do have to be super driven and work really long hours if you want to be successful, and I’ve heard you say that before and Sophie’s just echoed that, that even if your life plan is to spend some time with your kids and have a family life, there will be a stretch where you have to give it your all.
Do you think entrepreneurs, business owners need to prepare for that, that if you want to be successful there will always be a point where you have to give more than perhaps is healthy, or you have to give up that work-life balance?
I think achieving things, achieving high performance, again whether it be business, sport, it doesn’t really matter, it requires a lot of effort.
I mean, I like Sophie’s description, that if it’s something you enjoy then it’s obviously so much better because you want to do it.
But you have to put in the effort, you have to put in the hard work because things don’t happen by themselves, and things don’t go to plan either.
You need to be very resilient, and you need to be very determined to work through things that haven’t worked out as you expected.
If you’re someone who doesn’t want to do that and doesn’t want to put that level of effort in, it’s quite likely that someone else will. Whether you’re in a small business or a big business, you’re competing against other people.
In the same way that if you turned up to a big sports match, and you hadn’t done your training, you would probably run out of fitness in the last 10 minutes, but the people you’re playing against, they did their work, and so they’re going to come out better.
I always say to young people, particularly when I’m asked, that look, I do think it’s important to make choices. You can’t have everything all at the same time. I mean, Sophie just summed it up.
At any point in time in your life, you are making a choice because you are making some sacrifices, you can’t do everything to the same degree all of the time.
I think you go in phases, therefore, that at this point in time I’m doing this, at this point in time I’m doing that, but it is really hard to do something half-heartedly.
I hate doing things half-heartedly, so in many ways I’d rather not do it. If I can’t do it and I can’t put effort into it and get it right, it frustrates me.
I’ll give you an example.
I’m trying to learn to speak Portuguese. I’m terrible at languages. I’m trying to learn to speak Portuguese, and I’m determined, but the problem is I don’t have time.
My tutor has said to me, “Steve, you have to study this language for six, seven, eight hundred hours. You’ve done like 30 hours, and you’re getting frustrated.
“It’s like, well, you can’t magically learn something that requires 600 hours of study. It’s proven that’s how long it takes, so make 600 hours available, and we’ll make you fluent.”
Why Portuguese? What’s the mission behind it? We have to know.
Well, I spend a lot of time there, and so I go on holiday and stuff there. It’s a country that’s close to my heart, and it’s much more than learning a language. I like multicultural, I love lots of different cultures.
It’s one of the reasons I work in a global business. I love the interaction with lots of different people. I think it’s much harder to get close to a culture and close to people if you’re talking to them in a second language, and particularly where I go in Portugal is rural so although there is some English spoken, it’s nowhere near fluent.
Also at my age because getting on now, I was told there are two things that stimulate your brain when you’re getting older, learning a language, and learning a musical instrument.
Not business related but definitely sound advice.
Figure out the skills you’re really good at and use that to build your career
But actually that point about skills does lead into my next question, which is, it sounds like if you find a business, a job that really suits your natural skills and talents, that point that Sophie made, that idea of going downhill on a bicycle, just feeling smoother and easier, having those skills that are matched by the job that you do and the role that you play would kind of make that happen.
Have you done that in your businesses, Sophie?
How did you figure out what you were really good at in the first place?
I’ve done very different things in my career. I worked on women’s magazines. Well, I say I was absolutely disastrous at school. The one thing I was good at was English and History, which is really kind of a version of English in your average secondary school.
So I didn’t have a formal education, no qualifications, didn’t go to university. I really was like, “I don’t know what I’m good at.”
But when I started working on women’s magazines, the writing just came supernaturally to me, which was just a lovely experience, really. Then once I sort of made that shift and realised that I needed to move into business and that took time.
But yes, started Not On The High Street and found I guess that it was kind of my personal traits that enabled me to do business-y things.
For instance, I’m naturally very much a systemiser, so building operations and planning technology in a way that we could kind of scale and grow felt very natural to me. It was definitely thanks to our after founding tech director, Joe Sims, who taught me loads.
Obviously, I do not claim to be a tech person. I’m imaginative, I can kind of churn out ideas and solutions, and we certainly needed a lot of those, I’m a perfectionist. People slate perfectionism like they slate workaholism, but it makes you very driven.
When you’re motivated to get things exactly right, working all night just kind of makes sense. It keeps you going, and I don’t mind that. I think that one of the reasons why I found that I have enormous kind of professional stamina or working stamina is because of that.
Actually, I love managing people and I could never understand why people would say that they find that hard. I think it’s the best thing of all, identifying great people, helping them develop, making things happen.
I’m a mother hen and the older I get, the more I’m fulfilled by that.
So yeah, I think it’s about finding what in your soul drives your professional attitudes and behaviours.
How to be a successful CEO when you’re an introvert at heart
I love that idea.
Did you find that, Steve? Because I read recently that you class yourself as an introvert, but then you’re in a really public-facing role, you’re forced into quite, for an introvert, I imagine that’d be quite stressful situations.
You’re speaking on this podcast now. Tell me about your experience.
Yeah, I think I am an introvert, and I think it took me a while to actually realise that despite being introverted, I’m also a people person. I just find large numbers of people all at once quite difficult, and I still do to be honest.
It’s taken me quite a long time to kind of get comfortable with how I can make that a strength and make that be me and me be authentic, but just be a bit more not even outgoing, it’s just more engaging.
The slight downside of being an introvert is you are quite happy to spend time by yourself and particularly when you come under pressure.
My natural tendency when I come under pressure is to spend time by myself trying to figure out the answer, or I might confide in one person.
But I’m not very good at sort of going on a wider engagement, if you like, and being open about the fact that we need to resolve something because I’m a problem solver by nature.
Actually, early in my career that’s what made me successful. I was the guy who got stuff done. I’ve learned to get better over time doing it with more people, but I’m a team person. Deep down, I’m a team person, but I was terrified.
I told a story recently to some young early careers people who had come into the office, and one young girl said to me, “What advice do you have for someone who lacks confidence and is very nervous about being in a public environment?”
I said, “You look at me as CEO and you see someone that you think is amazingly confident. I can tell you when I was your age, I avoided anything remotely close to speaking in public because I was terrified by it.”
I was terrified by it throughout my twenties, and it was only when a mentor of mine basically took me to one side and said, “You have all these great ambitions. You’re not going to reach them unless you learn to be uncomfortable.”
It was one of the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is to stop trying to be comfortable. You can’t be a high performer if you want to be comfortable. It’s about being uncomfortable, and so you have to be prepared to try these things which inside is tearing you up.
I mean, it’s like sometimes you hear actors saying that they hate going on stage, or they’re nervous wrecks before they go in front of the camera. You just have to be prepared to face up to it.
I think early on when I realised that, “Oh, I thought this was holding me back,” there was a part of me that wanted to be an extrovert. You know, the usual thing, you’re sat around the dinner table and people start telling jokes.
It’s my worst nightmare because I can’t tell funny stories. I’m not funny.
You just made us laugh.
Yes, but I do it now because I just do it by being me as opposed to trying to tell some flamboyant story that I can’t tell. I think when you’re young, you probably struggle to be comfortable with that because you think you need to be something else.
So I always say to people, “Look, it’s a well-worn phrase, but it’s true. Just try and be the best version of you and also play to your strengths. Yes, we all need to understand what we’re less good at, but understand your strengths and really play to them.”
A big advantage I have now is obviously I make sure that the team around me are also complementary to my strengths and weaknesses, so back to exactly what Sophie said.
I’m not a technologist, so I can’t write software code, but I run a software business, so I need to understand it and I need people around me who really, really understand it, but I understand it enough, and I understand how we use it.
You’ve got to be brave in terms of having people around you who are amazing. People say a lot, don’t they, “Hire people who you think are a lot better than you or bring something really amazing so that when you’re having these conversations with them, you’re thinking, ‘Yes’.”
You’re learning something all the time and then it kind of works.
I just really relate to everything you’re saying, Steve. I had my kind of professional personality profile a couple of times, and I’m a kind of cuspy introvert-extrovert, and everything you’re saying is kind of demonstrating that the point about introverts is that we can empathise with other introverts.
Too much of business is jazz hands and big talk and “look at me”, and I just don’t know if that is very helpful quite a lot of the time.
Also yeah, being able to bring people on and understand how different people function is so important. I mean you obviously are very, very good at it.
Yeah. I think as well, what you learn over time, and you create this in small business all the time because you need to create reasons for people to engage and stay.
I think when I was training sort of back in the ’80s and ’90s, big companies were much more transactional. It was kind of, “Look, I pay you to do this. Work hard, and if you don’t want to work hard we’ll get the next person who does.”
There was no kind of real trying to create an emotional connection and win people’s hearts. I’ve always been a person because I’ve played team sports and I really believe in creating this kind of emotional connection to a bigger cause because then you get extraordinary outcomes.
If you get teams of people who really buy into something, and they really want it to happen, and they really go for it, and you’ve really got their hearts and minds, you get amazing outcomes because people don’t think it’s hard work. They think it’s amazing.
The temptations of going back into retail
Sophie, you’ve said how much you love managing teams, and you were nodding along about how great it is to get people to work together and collaborate and be unified by a mission.
When you left Not On The High Street, is that what got you kind of back into business again, that you wanted to be involved with a team?
Was that the thing that kind of tempted you back into retail?
I couldn’t imagine sort of being some sort of solo operation or certainly not all the time. I thrive off kind of the sense of community and I love office life.
When people say, “Oh, I’d hate to work in an office.” I think, “What do you mean you’d hate to work in an office. It’s glorious.”
But I know what they mean, they’re talking about an aspect of it. I do understand that.
So yes, I think that kind of sense of team of being around people, but my position is slightly different now. None of us are, are we? We’re all hybrid working, but I’m not in the office all the time, but certainly feeling very, very inspired by people, yes is the answer to your question.
I loved working with Emma Vowles, the founder, who’s a great friend, and we just get on fantastically well. We’re kind of a sort of leadership team of four, but each brings their own piece.
I also brought along one of my favourite colleagues kind of ever which is from the early days of Not On The High Street called Kate Lynas, who came down to Devon kind of to join the team. There was the element recreation, but there were lots of other reasons why I joined Busby & Fox when I did.
I was in my 50s, conscious that the market has tended to neglect women like me, and it was the perfect opportunity to do something about it because that’s exactly what we do.
I mean, obviously we’re a womenswear brand that is fantastic for all women, but we do tend to kind of create something that particularly works for maybe slightly older women.
It’s just so clever and beautiful that it’s impossible not to create for yourself a great look whatever your age and shape and style, which I think is actually more important and not recognised by so many brands.
I have the privilege of seeing a lot of joy on our customers’ faces. Being small is really nice.
Become resilient to the outside pressures of being an overachiever
Because isn’t there a lot of pressure? Maybe I’m imagining this, but once you’ve had a super successful business, are people just constantly kind of, “Oh, what’s next? It’s going to be massive, it’s going to be global.”
How do you deal with it if that’s really not in your life plan?
There’s lots of kinds of layers to that.
I think I definitely felt pressure after we finished, after I kind of exited, like when we sold, when I fully exited a couple of years ago. And definitely felt the pressure to keep busy, to do something else, to sort of have a different calling card, as it were.
But I came back to what is in my life plan, which is I really do love work. I know that whatever happens, I do want to work. It’s what kind of puts me right when things are good or not so good. That’s what sets me right, that is my North Star.
I kind of just, like all founders probably, was just ready, to some extent, for what came next rather than feeling “I’ve got to do something even bigger” or “I’ve got to do it all again” or that kind of thing.
I think you learn to just be a bit more resilient to outside pressure. I try to, anyway. I like to think that’s one of the benefits of getting older.
Having a bit more perspective.
And Steve, do you feel like you can you get addicted to being an overachiever?
I think what you have to have all the time is your purpose, what is it you’re doing. I can’t imagine sort of retiring as such because I will always want to do something, and that doing something can’t be playing golf or playing tennis or lying on a sun lounger.
I mean, I like doing all of those things, but that’s my way of relaxing, and I will always need to be doing something which is producing outcomes.
Now for me today, that’s running a public company, that’s work and everything that goes with it. I think I’ll always want to do something of that nature where I can see the outcome.
I’m a very outcome-driven person, so if I get involved with something I want to know it’s making a difference, I want to know that something’s happening as a result of it. I just can’t imagine living without that.
I think what I’ve learned over time as I’ve got older is I used to create a lot of pressure on myself, so I think I’ve got better at handling external pressure, and I think I’ve got better at not quite creating as much tension.
You need a bit of tension to make you achieve, but if you overdo it, you can create your own anxiety, which is not helpful. There’s a place in that scale where you get high performance.
I think probably when I was a bit younger, I kept going too far beyond and getting the law of diminishing returns.
But yeah, I think if you’re a driven person, and you’re excited and motivated by doing things, you’re probably always going to want to do that, right?
Adapting to personal and professional life after suffering a stroke
We’ve talked a bit about adaptation, so whether it’s adapting your strengths or adapting to the world around you or curveballs that life throws you.
You had a curveball, didn’t you, Sophie, during the pandemic because you suffered a stroke.
What I’d love to know is what happened in the aftermath? Did that cause you to change course or alter your perspective again? What impact has that had on your priorities?
Yes, I did, beginning of the pandemic just out of the blue. I had no idea that I had a kind of pretty serious heart condition.
I was oblivious to all of this, no idea, just had a stroke and went into Charing Cross Hospital in the depths of lockdown and all the weirdness that was, and it was pretty grim and pretty shocking.
And yes, it did definitely cause some rethinking, some of the obvious stuff like wanting everybody to realise that they might have a stroke, and they need to be quick, and that could save your life. But yes, definite rethinking and definite impact.
I guess yes, all the philosophical stuff, and I’m well aware I’m not alone in this, that incredible gratitude that I’m here, that my body works as well as it does, that my drugs do work.
And there’s a whole enormous machinery around us ready for when we need it, whether it’s the medical system or whatever else it is, the financial system, whatever it is, there’s this kind of universe around us that’s there to catch us.
Then of course, like everybody else, wanting to use my time well personally and professionally. I think the professional thing is, I have reflected a lot on this, and I guess the answer changes from time to time.
But the main thing is that in a really, really good way, it made me realise that I am just at a different stage of my life from the vast majority of the sort of noisy entrepreneurial community, for want of a better word and that’s great. They’re noisy in a good way. That’s great.
So while now I think about what I want to do and what kind of work is the work that feels like riding downhill on a bicycle is that I could have continued to try to contribute, to be honest probably less effectively now, with practical things like marketing or, as Steve said, technology.
Even though I worked in technology, I’m not a great technologist. I kind of know it. And that I just realised I can be far, far more useful in this kind of reflective, I mean, I’m not going so far as to say a sort of wise old owl.
But certainly helping people to figure out the big implications of their businesses and their career and, yes, how it affects the overall picture of how your life could play out and, yes, like I said, that we all need a plan.
The other thing is I did take the plunge and come off all social media. I kind of figure if I really need to know about something, it will find me.
I think it’s amazing, I think it’s wonderful, but I just realised it’s not for me. I’m good just hearing about things old school. Reading a newspaper. Love it.
Sometimes it can feel like an uphill battle, but keep going and push yourself outside your comfort zone
A lot of people are doing that. I think that you’re kind of one of the pioneers in a wave of just individuals just leaving that whole world behind.
Steve, have you ever had a wake-up moment like that? Has there been a point in your life, it could be like what to do with your family or health, but something that makes you reevaluate everything in an instant?
Yeah, I think there were a couple of times.
I mean, I think after I sort of went through the whole Marconi restructuring and ended up losing my job as CFO of Marconi, I went through a period where I ran my own consulting business for a couple of years. It was a big blow.
I sort of achieved my lifetime dream in my late thirties of becoming a public company CFO and GEC-Marconi was a very, very big company, and then I ended up sort of out on my backside, so to speak.
It took me a while to figure out did I want to have another go at that, so back to this resilience. I was quoted recently, somebody said to me, “You’ll never work again in London because you’ve burnt your bridges, you’ve burnt all your relationships.”
And it took me a little while to kind of evaluate that and think, “Well, no, I’m not done. I’m 40 years old. This is what I want to do, so I’m going to do it.” Maybe a bit of stubbornness there.
But then there was also, look, at the same time, my first marriage broke up, and I went through a divorce as well.
So I went through a bit of a period where I was really challenging myself as to whether my decision-making was great? Because I didn’t seem to be able to bring the different aspects of my life together in a successful way.
As I said earlier, there’s always tensions, there’s always choices you have to make, but I think you do go through periods sometimes where you really challenge yourself as to whether you are making the right choices, and it doesn’t always feel like the bicycle’s going downhill.
Sometimes it feels like it’s going up an extremely steep hill, and you start thinking to yourself, “Well, how did I get here? This wasn’t quite what I intended.”
Actually, another one I’ve quoted a few times is when I first became CEO of Sage because it wasn’t part of the life plan to become CEO of Sage. I was the CFO, and it just happened that I ended up as CEO.
And when I first became CEO, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision because I didn’t enjoy it very much because initially, I thought it was really hard.
And I hadn’t anticipated being the CEO of a public company how many stakeholders and how many people would be taking an interest in what I was doing. It sort of slightly took me by surprise, and so I found it quite hard to manage my time.
I mean, I’ve been CEO four-and-a-half years now, so I’m now much better. Again, somebody gave me a piece of advice, “Do what only you can do, Steve.” And that’s not always the bit that is the bit you want to do the most, if that makes sense.
Initially I’m very good with internal, I love spending time with colleagues, with all our internal people, I love travelling around the offices. I didn’t relish the external part of being a public company CEO.
So for the first year or so I kind of avoided that. I always remember Amy Lawson, my head of comms, coming to me and saying, “We want you to go on Sky TV with Ian King.”
I was like, “No, no, no, no. No, I can’t fit that in.”
She was like, “No, you can because it’s on the day of results.”
I was like, “But I don’t do TV.” She goes, “Well, you need to.”
TV is terrifying. I mean, that’s a whole other level.
Live TV. Exactly.
It’s like, “Oh my goodness.”
At least because of Covid, actually it’s become much more common now that you don’t go into the studio, and you sort of do it remotely.
You sort of have to in your brain convince yourself it’s a Teams call. It’s not really live TV, you’re just having a Teams call.
The other one is big presentations. I mean, I’d presented to 50 people, 60 people, 70 people, but I did my first big conference where I was the keynote speaker to about 5,000 people.
And that was mind-blowingly nerve-racking, and actually when I did it, I took my wife with me.
She stood on the stage before everyone came in, we both stood on the stage, and she was like, “You are actually going to speak to all these people.” I was like, “Yeah.”
Again, I think just to add to that, lots of people will say, “Oh, I’m really afraid of public speaking.”
But there’s definitely a bit of a divide. There are the cans and the cannots, and I find it really, really hard, Steve, and I have worked so hard through my career to get comfortable with it. And, yes, do the things that feel uncomfortable so that you can try and get a bit better at it.
But more of us need to come out and say how hard we find it and how we’ve got past that. Do you agree?
Yeah, I do. I do. I think, again, often when I’m talking to people on early career development courses, I do try and come back to these examples of you may look at me now or look at any leader and sort of think, “Well, that’s what Steve’s like.”
But Steve’s 62, right? Steve when he was 25 was pretty useless, to be honest. Apart from, I just had an ability to get stuff done.
I have got that Yorkshire sort of stubbornness, grit type thing, I’m quite thick-skinned, I don’t take no for an answer, so if I want something to happen, I work very, very hard to get it to happen.
I think when I was young, the way I did it was incredibly unsophisticated. Fortunately, I have a great a desire to learn, so I do take feedback, I solicit feedback, I ask people all the time.
So what that’s done is that’s helped me to become self-aware because I had no idea the impact I was having on other people when I was getting stuff done because I was a bulldozer.
Back in the ’90s, to be honest if you wanted to be successful, most people were bulldozers. But actually, it’s not naturally me.
Culturally, I don’t want to have a negative impact on other people at all. I mean, it’s important to me as part of the culture that we have at Sage that there’s a team ethos and that you are leaning in to help your teammates, not trying to kind of shove them out the way or make yourself better than them.
I measure everything based on team outcomes, but I often recognise that behaviour because I look and see a younger version of myself.
A bullish nature will help entrepreneurs and their businesses to survive
To your point, Soph, I get what you mean because it’s dangerous to label yourself and put yourself in a box with the “I can’t” like, “I am an introvert, or I am on the spectrum here and that means I won’t even try because this is just who I am and there’s no way I can change or improve.”
But I think that’s the part of the entrepreneur, the great leader, that they will sort of challenge themselves, and they will always try and grow and try and find a way through.
I know that Sage shared some of their research with me the other day, Steve, and it was all about how confident entrepreneurs are about the future.
I read these stats, and we’re in a cost of living crisis at the moment, like inflation, interest rates, everything is just in flux and crazy, and yet they were saying 71% are confident about their business now and 84% expected to be confident next year.
I was like, “I just love these people.”
Is that just the mindset of the great leaders, the great business owners, that they are just willing to just give it a shot, and they are positive about the future?
Yeah. I think Covid actually was a very big test for many, well, not just small businesses, big businesses as well. But for many small, medium-sized business owners, Covid was a huge test.
Obviously, there were some businesses that didn’t make it through that, but I think that pretty much all the business owners I speak to, they talk about what they learned during that period, and I think they surprise themselves often with the agility with which they responded to that situation.
Whether it be restaurants who started home delivery or people who suddenly realised, “Well, actually I now need an online app. I need people to come and be able to interact with me digitally because they’re not coming into my shop, or they’re not coming into my restaurant, and I don’t want someone on the end of a phone because I can’t cope with it.”
Suddenly all these people started investing in making things happen in a different way.
Don’t get me wrong, when you talk to business owners they tell you about headwinds, but they almost have this kind of inbuilt kind of assumption now that, “Yes, there are headwinds, but I’m going to get through them, and therefore I am optimistic about my business and how I’m going to get my business to develop.”
I think you’d be amazed how many small businesses I speak to who talk about how they are determined not just to survive but to grow their business.
It is a bit of a disconnect with the wider macro commentary about GDP decline or very slow GDP growth. I very rarely speak to a small business owner who isn’t focused on finding ways to grow their business.
They’re not people who just kind of sit there accepting the status quo.
They’re like Sophie, they’re innovative, they’re looking for ideas. “Okay, if I can’t make money that way, how can I make it?”
I was talking to a farmer, a friend of mine, who’s got quite a lot of wind power and solar power on his land now.
He said to me, “I’m still a farmer, Steve. I just farm power, I farm solar. But at the end of the day, my business case is what is the return from my land?
“If I can’t do that by growing crops, or I can’t do that by having livestock, I’ll do it some other way, but my business model is I make money from my land and I will continue to do that till the day I die.”
That’s the sort of attitude.
It’s, “I don’t care what’s happening, I’m not going to be beaten. I’m going to find a way through this.”
I think the flip side is what you’ve got to help small businesses with is for them to invest in the technology that will enable them to be successful in the future because the most precious thing, and I’m sure Sophie will agree here, is the most precious thing that small, medium business owners have is time.
It can often be difficult, even if it’s really compelling, to get a business owner to spend time to think about, “How am I going to digitise my processes, digitise my customer journey?”
Because it requires effort to do that even though it produces a very compelling outcome.
Would you agree with that, Sophie? Do you think entrepreneurs, especially British entrepreneurs, are a real bullish lot?
Yeah. I think whether we’re acting from confidence and hope and ambition or downright terror, I think one way or the other there’s no question, there’s no thought that you will take some kind of passive route through this. You just don’t.
People always ask you, “What’s the most important thing about being an entrepreneur?”
Definitely one of them is kind of like, “How much pain can you take? How do you handle the terror?”
It’s really, really true. Something always drives us. We don’t think in any other terms. You wouldn’t. It’s your baby. You’re not going to give up on it. You’re just not.
Somebody else might force you to, but you’re not going to be the one to choose that path.
Make time and find budget for technology
In this report, Sophie, this small business report, we saw that the business owners who invested in tech saw an 84% uplift in productivity.
You said you’re not a technologist, but you embraced it, you learned what systems were out there, you were very on it. How did you make time?
Because as Steve said, time is the most precious commodity for an entrepreneur.
How did you make time to get under the hood of the tech, understand what was out there, review all the features? I mean, how do you convince a business owner who’s so busy to make time for the tech and make budget for the tech? How do you do that?
We just had to. I did work with, and this was at Not On The High Street. I was very lucky that I worked with such lovely kind of giving people in tech.
Operations and systems just came very naturally to me. If, for instance, I don’t know, we built an order management system and I don’t know why, I just knew what to do. I just knew what it needed to be. I’d had enough of the pain and the things going wrong.
But certainly from our tech guys I learned a few things like, well, one, they can be really grumpy. That helps.
You don’t want to go to them with a stupid ill-thought-through thought or request or problem. You have to kind of think it through and think what the clear brief is.
But also I just learned to think, “If this is what we need to provide or solve, we need to do it in a strategic way. If this has happened once, it’s going to happen a hundred, a thousand times, and we can’t deal with it through a hack or something manual.”
I guess I really learned that discipline. I think once you’ve learned that discipline, the rest sort of follows. As I say, I try not actually to get involved with tech because even if I’ve learned a lot, there’s so many people who are better at it than me and so many people who are younger.
And there’s so many widgets and plugins, and you name it that I don’t want to pretend to be able to come up with a particular one that’s going to work.
But what I do know is that if you kind of think strategically and conceptually about what you need to do, what you need to solve, that does drive the right kind of understanding and adoption of technologies and so on. That was kind of my way.
What are the biggest challenges businesses are facing today?
You’re an adviser now, so you help a lot of businesses at different stages, so I’m curious maybe tech aside, what are people coming to you with?
Is it the same old problems today as they always have been, cash, people, or are the problems changing? What are you seeing out there?
I think very consistently is the sort of, like as you say, the cost of business crisis. When things are costing so much more than they once did and it’s so much harder to take your piece of the revenue, as it were, that’s definitely a struggle.
I do tend to be a bit kind of high level about that, and I just think a happy customer is always, always the best strategy, even if you do have to get a bit manual about it and intervene.
People come to me and ask a lot about investors and especially equity. That’s a big one, “How important is it to hold onto your equity? Is it okay to let some go or more go than maybe you intended?”
I tend to feel if you can get a good investor then they’re more than worth it, and you don’t even always get to choose. Business is expensive and very, very difficult to build, so sometimes it’s you just don’t have a lot of choice.
Sometimes it’s about making the only decision available to you. I tend to kind of favour that.
Then I do get asked a lot about hiring people. A lot of people I think have been burned by taking on partners or even employees, especially at a sort of early stage, but I just think it’s like any relationship.
You’ve got to be willing to keep trying, and your team and your people are the absolute lifeblood of your business and that’s a lovely thing. That’s a really great thing.
As Steve said, that’s what he loves to do is actually the internal stuff, so work with that, enjoy it.
Steve, just finally over to you, obviously Sage has all these business owners on its system, so you see kind of what they’re going through, what their challenges are, what their needs are.
What are you hearing and are the challenges any different now than they were 10 years ago, five years ago?
I think there are a lot of similarities, but I think people always do come back to hiring.
I think it is harder to hire. And I think, going back to that purpose, I think if you want to bring people in, and you want them to stay, they need to buy into the purpose, they need to buy into what you’re doing.
I think if you have transactional relationships where you’re just paying someone to do a job, I think particularly in a small business, it’s true in a big business, but particularly in a small business that doesn’t really work.
Sophie used the word relationship. I think these are the people that you’re going to spend time with. These are people you need to trust. These are people that you’re going to hang out with, and so I think finding the right people to create the right environment in your business is incredibly important.
Unfortunately, I often say to people, “If you want that to work, you have to spend a lot of time on it. If you’re hiring, unfortunately it’s time-consuming because you won’t hire the first person.”
I mean, we have incredibly sophisticated hiring processes and assessment and so on. I always prefer developing people internally.
I mean, I don’t know whether I’m a terrible interviewer or what, but it’s hit-and-miss, right? You don’t know people till you spend a lot of time with them and see what happens, particularly when they’re under pressure.
Then I think digital. Digital’s huge.
I think that’s the thing that’s really changing. People talk about the fourth industrial revolution, the way that workflows and the way that things will be able to be automated, and so elevating the work of humans, so that a lot of this repetitive transactional activity is done by machines.
But also with generative AI, you have so much more knowledge at your fingertips. What previously took days, weeks, months to research can be pulled together incredibly quickly, but it does put a premium on then how you interpret that, what do you do with it, how do you differentiate yourself.
I’ve said a couple of times to customers, and I’ve said it publicly as well, if you’re not in a digital economy, you won’t be in the economy, so don’t resist it.
Embrace it and figure out what it does for you and your business because if you don’t, someone else will.
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