Business Secrets Part 2: What Goliath can learn from David

In this second instalment of Grey Lemon’s Business Secrets series, we asked some of the construction and property industry’s most entrepreneurial minds what made them take the leap from being senior employees in large organisations to establishing their own start-ups.

Their responses stand as a cautionary tale to big business; it’s time to listen to the people you have lost or risk more employees becoming your fiercest competition.

Let me do my job!

The business leaders we asked spoke of feeling stifled and suffocated in the large organisations they were part of.

Out-dated hierarchies, silos, box-ticking, and decision by committee soon bred frustrations. What’s more, the inevitable progression into leadership roles resulted in talented individuals moving further from the job they were originally hired to do and were passionate about (the Peter Principle – look it up!).

Add micromanagement to the mix and you have the perfect storm for some really frustrated people. Steve Jobs was right, ‘it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do’.

“I found myself frustrated with red tape and politics, I couldn’t hire people without going through multiple layers for sign off - I didn’t have the autonomy to do the right thing for the business… I was hitting brick walls.”

Listen to what people want

“The culture and environment was so bad it almost forced us to leave. If we had been at a place that we had loved and the culture was great, I would have just stayed being an employee.”

Losing senior people is an expensive game – it can cost up to double the salary of the person leaving, depending on their level of seniority. And that’s before you factor in the risk of your clients leaving with them and the damage to your culture.

Attraction and retention is no longer about corner offices, big salaries, and lofty job titles. Instead, people want to work for organisations they are proud to be associated with, that are adaptable, future-focused and open to new ways of doing things.

The participants in our research felt their former employers often paid lip-service to the ideas of work/life balance, flexibility and professional development, without having any intention of delivering on it.

There was an overwhelming sense that individuals didn’t matter and that everyone was replaceable.

Without feeling valued many reached a point where they could no longer align their professional or personal values to those of the company. They not only felt they deserved better but believed they could do better. So, they did!  

"I was just a very small pawn to them. I was leading £80 million worth of fit out. And there was no appreciation of it.”

Do one thing well

For the business owners we spoke to, the pressure to up-sell, cross-sell, and diversify, led many to feel like Jacks of all trades and masters of none.

The constant expectation to expand the client scope ultimately undermined the value of the core service. And, what’s worse, as the client-facing contact it was their personal integrity that was being damaged when the business couldn’t deliver.

Author Jim Collins identified the organisations that picked one big thing and did it well as the most likely to move from ‘good’ to ‘great’ (see the Hedgehog and the Fox). A concept that many of our study participants have firmly embraced.

“We want to offer a very high-end niche service, but to a very small group of clientele who become lifetime clients”

They have learned from the mistakes of their former employers and taken the time to get very specific about what they do and how they do it. Their speed of growth, happy clients, engaged teams and robust pipelines speak for themselves.

“I firmly believe that with a smaller company we can offer better service to our clients against the large corporates because they are chasing turnover.”

It’s time to change

If the pandemic taught us anything it’s that organisations, regardless of their shape and size, can adapt rapidly when they are forced to.

It’s time to stop making excuses and get real. If you are bleeding staff, losing work to smaller, more agile organisations or running at a loss, the tried and tested ways are failing.

It’s time to welcome a fresh perspective. We look forward to receiving your call.

You know your business.

We help you see it through fresh eyes.


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