Leading a fast-growth business

Leading a fast-growth business is uncannily like mountaineering. Don’t look down or you’ll get dizzy with your success and how far you’ve got. Then you’ll fall off. Just look up and keep going until you get to the top, says Chris Ingram.

And momentum management can take you to the summit. In my column last month, I talked about its importance – and why every fast-growing business needs to follow it. Let’s take another point crucial to momentum management – keeping your options open.

Changing direction

Most successful entrepreneurs are highly resourceful and can turn on a sixpence, but I mean something more than that. However much you may want something and are determined to achieve it (and that attitude is essential), there are times when you should have an alternative route up your sleeve.

You must not mention this to your team though, otherwise it will serve as a distraction and send the message that you are not really committed and they will start to relax their efforts.

But right at the back of your mind (and only at the back of your mind), as the boss, you must think the unthinkable – what if we fail?

In momentum management it’s crucial to have the ability to change direction at lightning speed, ideally without anyone predicting it and still continue at 100mph, but in a totally different direction.

It’s even better if you are just as enthusiastic about the new route as the old one, because you can then sell it just as convincingly.

And selling, persuading, convincing and cajoling are essential parts of momentum management.

Opportunistic, strategic or both?

There is a contradiction that most people wrestle with in business – can you be both opportunistic and strategic?

Yes, you can and don’t let anyone dissuade you!

It’s an awesome combination; a double whammy. The trick is to be opportunistic within your strategy. This is when you can make huge strides and leapfrog your competitors.

It’s amazing how many people don’t get this. It’s as if you mustn’t mix them. I have often found fellow executives looking at me with a look that seems to say, “But you are threatening the sanctity of our carefully thought-through strategy!” It’s as if strategy is for the MBAs and opportunism is for the cowboys. Rubbish!

Owning up

What happens if you make a mistake? I’ve found that if you are open and honest about your mistakes, the rest of the company tends to mirror that behaviour. When you realise this is not such a terrible admission, others will support you with the problem (sorry, I know we should call it a ‘challenge’!).

But the most immediate benefit is that no-one feels the need to shift the blame onto someone else – which is not only unpleasant, but also hugely divisive. There is no time for politics in momentum management. Then you can get on with sorting the issue out before it gets really dangerous.

So what do you think?

People are amazed when a senior person admits they don’t know something. It is very disarming and all it requires is a bit of basic honesty (and, of course, a lot of inner self-confidence).

Even better, if you say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” it has an extraordinary effect. And since you can’t know everything, what is the harm in admitting it? And you should do this at all levels in the company.

Admitting to a lack of knowledge is not a clever technique, it’s just being natural. I find you have a good chance of learning something as a result and those people who you have shared this with feel more valued.

No-one is the perfect leader

If you are highly competitive (and I haven’t met a successful entrepreneur who isn’t), then you will work as hard as you can on your weaknesses. But that isn’t always going to work – few of us are complete all-rounders. Having been honest with others and yourself, you need to build a team of complementary skills around you as soon as possible – and these hirings or promotions need to be at least as good as you are.

It is astonishing how many entrepreneurs cannot come to terms with this – they won’t make it to the big time.

A big scary vision

To me, much more important than any of the other aspects of management style is vision. The only way I know how to build a big, big business – and quickly – is to have a vision of where you are heading. It has to be an exciting journey that others want to take. Obviously, it has to be based on a special insight into your market and be deliverable – I’m not talking about vacuous mission statements here.

Anyone can attract staff by paying them huge amounts, but that doesn’t buy their motivation.

And if you want to build something really exceptional you need to hire – and to continually promote – very smart, quick, self-motivated people, inspiring them with a vision and empowering them.

Apart from a very few people in corporate HQ and the finance department, no-one jumps out of bed in the morning, going into work thinking, ‘Yippee! Today I can increase shareholder value.’ You have to do much better than that.

If you can give people a big vision; probably a scarily ambitious one, and ensure that as many as possible are helping to shape it, in however small a way, then you can achieve great things. There is a desperate shortage of leaders who really believe, who have a massive enthusiasm for what they do. With a vision and empowerment you will be the Pied Piper in your market, attracting wonderful talent.

I’m certainly not forgetting the importance of delivering the vision but, crucial as it is, that will have to wait for another day.

Chris Ingram has considerable experience of building and managing rapid-growth companies and is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern media agency. He started CIA in 1976 with 3 people and £10,000. It grew into Tempus Group and was sold to WPP for over £430 million in 2001. In 2002 he launched Genesis Investments, a private equity business, and in July 2003 he launched The Ingram Partnership, a strategic brand building and communications consultancy.

See also: Qualities of great leaders

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

Related Topics