I learnt early on that doing what was right was not always best. I was made redundant in the 80s and decided to start my own business, but my first attempt failed. I had good people advising me — so many Business Link-type ventures giving me advice that I had it coming out of my ears! But none of it worked.
So when I started Ambition 24 I made a decision to never be beholden to a bank or a business adviser – also my credit scoring was not looking so good!
As a leader you have to take the plunge – even though what you are doing may seem ludicrous. To make the best decisions, you have to recognise opportunities and plan for the long-term. The way we operate as a recruitment company is very bizarre. We split our booking and registration process, with the registrations on the ground floor and the bookings on the top floor, as I feel these two areas need to be separated.
It wasn’t the right decision to make when we started as it was not a good use of resources, and stretched us, but I felt that it was important to not have the same person interviewing and then placing you as you can form very personal views. It meant that we were recognised very early on for quality service.
Follow your vision
I also learnt that if you have a vision in your mind, it’s critical to build to it, however ludicrous it may seem from the start, and in spite of what people who know better might tell you.
We moved into our current building when there were five of us and occupied 5,000 square feet. The agent kept saying it wasn’t suitable or cost-effective but I had the vision of our growth so I took the decision to ignore the advice. I had that space filled within the year. Now we are approaching 190 employees and have taken over the whole building.
But what I’ve thought was best hasn’t always been right. I took on my first two members of staff in 1997 and they are still with me today – but at one point they were the only two out of 80 who stayed. When it came to training staff, my tack used to be: watch and if you can’t do it after seeing it done, then you can’t do it. But sometimes you can’t lead by example or by a set way of doing things – you have to take a risk.
You can find people’s skills
I’ve learnt that I won’t get the best out of my staff or retain them that way. I now believe you can never invest too much in training your staff and in constantly revalidating this. You can instil a vision in the company but it gets diluted if you have no contact with your employees. Sometimes you have to take a risk and draw down people’s skills.
I realised I could get people in who didn’t have the skills but who could in the long-term add a great deal to the company. Some of our employees have gone on to train as carers and nurses.
But you have to know which opportunities are going to pay off in the long-term and have conviction in them to see them through. It’s about balancing risk and reward. Three years ago we were recognised as the fastest growing private company in the UK, and this was when we only had five branches. This begs the question – why not expand, but we wanted to make sure the company had stability. We have recently opened our nineteenth branch.
And at the end of the day, it’s not about how many mistakes you make, but how quickly you react to them.’