23rd June 2016

Doing People and Thinking People

I find I am, by the nature of my mission, constantly thinking about how businesses and business leaders grow from start up to scale up. I think about what holds them back and what propels them forward; about what smooths the way and what gets in the way.

Recently I was pondering the journey many entrepreneurs take from starting the business on their own. At that start point they are the business, they are the product. The business is the founder and the founder is the business. The business is very much about what the founder does. This is the starting point and inevitably there comes a point when the founder realises that she cannot make or do everything herself.

The journey is punctuated by a big decision. Is our founder going to ‘stick’ where they are or ‘twist’ and actually employ someone. I don’t need to go into an analysis of the risk that comes with employing someone, or perhaps more realistically the perceived risk, suffice it to say that it is often enough to stop the journey for some going any further.

Those that do take the next step and employ usually end up employing someone to work alongside them; to do what the founder does or do some of the lower level stuff that the founder doesn’t want to do. For all sorts of reasons they will employ someone who is known to them, their sister’s babysitter’s partner for example. Not because he or she is the best person for the job, but because it seems like a marginally safer bet than a complete outsider and, after all, what our founder wants is simply someone to do what the founder can no longer do. The choice doesn’t seem to be critical, as long as they are vaguely capable, or as one business owner put it recently ‘as long as they are not totally gormless’.

As the business continues to grow and employ more and more people in this fashion the owner begins to feel trapped; to feel imprisoned by the business. Understandably so. The founder has designed and built his own prison. She is compelled to make each and every decision both major and minor. Why? Well because she has created a world where she does the thinking and everyone else helps with the doing.

There comes a point, and this often happens by accident, where one of the employees performs better than the others and there is a realisation that ‘if I had more people like Doris my life and my business would be better’. Doris is a cut above the rest because she understands what the business is about. She not only does but she thinks and she has the initiative to take action based upon her thoughts and her enthusiasm for the business. And so the hunt is on to find more people like Doris.

For many business owners and founders this fundamental shift happens by accident and quite unconsciously but recently I met a very successful business owner who described one major step in the evolution of her business as when she started to employ thinking people rather than doing people. Whether that was something she was conscious of at the time or only in retrospect I don’t know but it was a watershed moment in the evolution of that business. I believe that it is in many businesses.

The fact is that every one of our team members can be thinking people – if we allow them to be.

There is a saying that ‘with every pair of hands comes a free brain’. How well do we leverage the brains that we get free with every job offer we make I wonder? Do we employ doing people when we can be employing thinking people?