Successful leaders evolve their leadership style as their business demands change, says Jo Macsween, group chair at Vistage and former MD of Macsween Haggis.
I remember the first day I realised that I no longer knew the personal interests of all the members of staff working at Macsween. That might sound like a trivial point but being able to have that level of intimacy with everyone I worked with had always been a personal source of pride and something I felt embodied the ethos of a small family-run business.
The thing was, we weren’t so small any more, at least not in the “gather everyone together in a huddle” way that had been the case since my grandfather started the business in 1953.
When my brother and I joined the family firm in the early 90s, Macsween had around 25 employees and a turnover of just under £1 million. By the time I left the company in 2016, that same business employed around 70 members of staff, depending on the time of year, and turned over close to £7m. Sustained and rapid growth had taken us out of the realms of “steady as she goes” small business, and into a very different category of scale-up businesses.
When it comes to defining what we mean by the term “scale-up”, it’s easy to become fixated on the metric of turnover. In my own experience, however, it is the number of people that your company employs, rather than the amount of money that you are bringing in, which tends to have the most profound impact on the way you need to approach the running of a business.
The relationship small business owners have with their business and the people they employ tends to be deeply personal. Many will have started their business from scratch with perhaps a handful of people, who function almost like a family. When a business starts to scale, you can’t put your arms around the team in quite the same way.
The way you communicate with a team of five is very different to the way you communicate with a team of 50 or 250 people. You can’t just sit everyone down around the proverbial “kitchen table” and convey your vision over a sandwich. It’s easy for business leaders to forget this and make assumptions that everyone is aligned with a strategy that sits mainly inside their own heads.
Successful scale-ups rely on formalised structures so that everyone knows what they are doing and what is expected from them. Getting to that point requires a fundamental shift in approach from the leader.
As a start-up or small business owner you are often cast in the role of “chief of everything officer”. Everyone reports to you, everything lands on your desk, and you have a hand in almost every decision. As the business scales, you have to learn to step back let go and become more of a storyteller. That means helping other people understand where they fit into a clear, overarching strategy and what they need to do in order play their part.
Not everyone can make that transition, and very few can do it alone. I’ve seen many a business owner come apart at the seams when they become overwhelmed by the task ahead of them and revert to the all-action approach that served them well when the business was in its infancy.
One of the best things I did during my time at Macsween was to join Vistage, an executive peer-group mentoring organisation with branches across Scotland. Joining Vistage gave me access to a ready-made network of other business leaders who were going through the same challenges as me.
Being part of the group helped me make better decisions, and perhaps most importantly, it ensured that I felt accountable for making good on anything we’d agreed to during one of our monthly meetings. That level of scrutiny kept me on track even when I had to take some tough choices.
I got so much out of the experience that when I left Macsween I went back to Vistage as chair of my own group across Central and South West Scotland.
According to a report by the Scaleup Institute, six in ten scale-up leaders place peer networks as the most important guidance to their future growth. There are more than 2,400 scale-up businesses across Scotland with a collective annual turnover over £29.5 billion. These businesses are the engine-room for Scotland’s future growth.
We owe it to them to invest in structures that enable them to come together, share ideas and learn from one another. It’s an old cliché that it’s lonely at the top. My own experience is that this need not be the case.