My favourite subject at school was history, with a guy called Mr Poxon.  He told me I wouldn’t get an “A” in the subject.  That was red rag to a bull; and he knew that.  I did get the “A” and years later he told me that he’d said that just to ensure I did!  He knew me well!

Mr Poxon, Graham, we called him Graham when we went down the pub with him and a bundle of other teachers (you couldn’t do that these days!) once asked us what we wanted to do when we grew up.   I said I wanted to be running a big business.  He sighed, talked about the “cut throat” nature of business basically saying that in order to get a head in business you needed to be determined and ruthless and asked if that was what I really wanted.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr Poxon was great, a great bloke and a great teacher; but I do think his view underscores a common misconception of business.

I started life in a corporate and I’m very glad I got out quickly.   So, for the last 30 years I have found dealing with owner managers in a vast range of different businesses, a brilliant way to spend my working life.   I certainly don’t think you need to be ruthless.  I also don’t think many owner managers are; they might want to prove something to themselves, or others.  Quite the contrary, I think the best organisations (large and small) are collaborative in nature; the people in them work together to achieve an aim, a purpose or a vision.

I love business because you can see the results of the decisions you make and the actions you take.  It’s very practical.  It offers the opportunity of limitless adventure.  You are testing yourself against yourself, the market and the competition… There are infinite options, none of which are “right” or “wrong”.  They are usually some varying shade of grey. The pros and cons to each have to be weighed and decisions have to be taken and actions executed.  It’s thrilling coming across a new idea, a new commercial opportunity and a company that’s doing really well exploiting, or even creating, gaps in the market that others haven’t seen, or someone simply doing something just that bit better than everyone else.

I love the fact that even though organisations compete against one another, that competition actually drives the whole sector forward and sooner or later society usually benefits with better products and services… as well as a higher tax take. 

We might not like taxes, but we do need them.  Without taxes paid by companies and their staff the public sector wouldn’t exist.  Welfare, education, healthcare, the police and justice systems could not exist without the tax that is raised through the private sector and business.  Business significantly benefits society.

Business is complex. It’s about setting direction, marshalling resources, organising those resources to deliver on objectives, monitoring how well you’re doing, recruiting, training, launching new products.  It’s not about one thing, it’s about a myriad of things with a myriad of different outcomes.

Luke Johnson, in one of his Sunday Times articles a few years back, also noted that another advantage of business is that unlike some professions it’s pretty classless.  In fact, some of the most successful business owners I’ve met (and indeed some of my favourite people) are people that often struggled in school but have gone on to create fantastic businesses creating employment and wealth for themselves and others in the process.  I’d even argue that holding academic qualifications often holds people back – you get safe into a job and the risk in making the leap from employee to employer becomes so great it doesn’t get taken.

Developing a business is an eminently creative process and for the owner manager and their staff often offers a lifetime of learning and creativity.  Over time customers and their requirements will shift.  The strategy employed to grow and develop the company will shift.  The staff to take the business forward will change and shift (hopefully not too much).  The way in which technology is mobilised to meet the requirements of the customers will shift.  All of which require regular recalibration of products and processes. All of which require growing people within your company, which is arguably the number one task of any leader. 

Lifelong learning is now a commercial imperative rather than a “nice to have”.  In the time of our grandparents the rate of change in knowledge shifted little from generation to generation.  Now the speed of change is phenomenal and what’s worse (if worse is the right word) is that this is the slowest it’s going to be for some time!

Ultimately, the greatest achievement for an owner manager is to grow their firm and create jobs.  Only this week I spoke to a lady, the founder of a company with 18 staff.  She was staggered to learn that if she employed just two more people, she would be in the top 4% of the largest companies in the UK!  96% of the UK’s companies employ less than 20 people. 

Conclusion

I think Mr Poxon was wrong.  You certainly need to be determined, there will inevitably be set-backs but you don’t need to be ruthless.

In 30 years of working with a variety of businesses I think the best businesses are those that take risks and a long-term view.  They treat their staff well.  They treat their customers well.  They treat their suppliers well.  And collaborate together for the benefit of everyone inside and outside the company. 

The above being a view endorsed and promoted by the Good Business Charter, so perhaps it’s the other way around!  The Good Business Charter has been championed by Julian Richer of Richer Sounds fame, to recognise and encourage responsible business practices. We’ve just joined, and we would encourage anybody who shares our views to do the same.

Clearly business is not for the faint hearted nor is it a risk-free endeavour.  There are numerous events that are outside the entrepreneur’s control and responding to them and overcoming them is actually part of the attraction. 

As our illustrious Mr Branson has said:

  • “Every risk is worth taking as long as it’s for a good cause and contributes to a good life.”

Going a bit further back in time and borrowing from Luke Johnson again, he noted that Walter Bagehot, a British journalist and businessman, who waxed lyrical about government and economics in the 1800’s said:

  • “Business is really more agreeable than pleasure; it interests the whole mind, the aggregate nature of man more continuously and more deeply”

But going back even further (I was surprised to learn that) it was Confucius that first said:

  • “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”

Business is a pleasure and a creative one at that.  What better way is there of doing things that allow individuals to reach their potential whilst at the same time drive a higher standard of living for all.

The owner manager and small business owner ought more often to pat themselves on the back.  I’ll certainly raise a glass to you all.


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