Teamworking

Changing careers might not be as hard as you think

These days it’s more usual than it used to be to meet people who are onto their third or fourth career.  I can think of quite a few examples amongst my own group of friends and associates.  On Friday at the London IIBN conference I met Niall Quinn & then heard him talk about his own transition from footballer (Arsenal, Manchester City, Sunderland and of course the Republic of Ireland) to Sky Sports commentator to entrepreneur/businessman (when he led the buyout of Sunderland AFC by the Drumville consortium) and now executive Chairman of newco Q Sat, a rural broadband provider.

Any of you who know me will not be surprised to see there’s a photo involved – many thanks to Sinead Crowley of IIBN for snapping that one below!

Mary McKenna with Niall Quinn at the IIBN conference in London on 9 Nov 2012

Niall shared his brutally honest insights with us in his talk & I thought I would in turn share some of them with you.  He talked first about how he now views his former life as a footballer as quite a false existence.  He used to go training in the mornings & then come home & lie on the sofa.  His wife would bring him his meals & make sure the children left him alone.  When his first career came to an end he was quite depressed about it & drifted into a job at Sky Sports which although it paid the bills, didn’t really put fire in his belly.

Then he saw his old club Sunderland AFC in trouble, met with his former chairman & after talking to a few of his Irish contacts decided to lead the buyout & after a short (unsuccessful) spell as manager Niall moved into the Chairman’s seat.  Along the way he had to stop being a footballer and learn to be a business person.

He found he enjoyed the change and the new challenges and he began to take an interest in new technology.  This interest has culminated in Niall moving into a start up business as their executive Chairman.  He commented what a big difference it is between selling footballers for £50m & persuading someone to pay you £35 per month for broadband.  Q Sat has grown from 22 to 50 employees in the time he’s been there and they now have 11,000 customers (6,000 of those in rural Ireland) and are about to open an office in Nairobi.  It’s clear to see that Niall enjoys building relationships with partners and putting something back as well as building a successful and profitable business.  He talked a lot about the mentors he has learned from (in football and in business) and the way his company is seeking to build on the work that other Irish people have done before, especially in Africa.  One of the pieces of advice he offered to us was in business to keep some space aside to meet people, have conversations and network.  I’m a great believer in this approach too.

One of the funny stories he told us was about one of his friends Patrick M’Boma, a Cameroon striker and former teammate at Sunderland.  The two guys had clashed heads & both gone down.  Niall claims he knew his time playing at Sunderland was over when the physio ran onto the pitch & ran straight past him & over to Patrick.  For me thinking about this since, it seems that the life of a footballer is indeed different – as you’re either on the way up or you’re on the way down – the time at the top seems fleeting & hard to define.  Hopefully Niall doesn’t miss that aspect of his first career although I’m guessing the same boy has hung onto his competitive streak which will do him no harm.  I’m also guessing he’s enjoying being part of a team again as that team spirit is one of the most fun things about being in a small, growing company.  He said that one of the odd things about being a footballer is that although you play in a team, you still hope you are the best in the team – something that doesn’t really come up in a business because everyone has their own defined role to play as part of the overall team success.

He finished by saying that looking back he wonders now how much further ahead he would be in business if he’d quit football 10 years earlier.  We have a rule Niall – no regrets.  It’s the experiences you have along the way that makes you the person you are – and if you meddle with the order then who knows where we’d all end up.  Good luck with career number 4.

So – some people change career because they have to & some because they want to.  Whatever your reason get on, grasp the nettle and don’t be afraid to ask your network for help and advice.  Great speaker, great conference and thank you to all at IIBN for making it a lot easier for the Irish diaspora to do business outside of Ireland.  Please share your career change stories in the comments below – you know I love to read them.

 

5 top tips to keep that small company culture as your startup grows?

Not so long ago Learning Pool was 4 people congregating around Paul’s kitchen table in Donegal.  6 years later we employ 50 people, support over 700,000 learners & 350 public sector organisations & Deloitte’s have deemed us to be the 26th fastest growing technology business in the UK over the past 5 years (6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland) with 1100% growth in our revenues in that period.  At the same time, our customers tell us that our business feels more like a family to them than a company.  This week’s blog is about how I think we’ve managed to combine aggressive growth with retention of the desirable qualities of a small business and keeping hold of our personal values along the way.  I appreciate this is a topic that many of you will know far more about than me so I’m looking forward to reading & answering your comments and questions.

Learning Pool team having cake – which happens pretty much weekly

Before I start I should say that one of the greatest pleasures of owning your own business is having the opportunity to shape the culture of your organisation because we all know too well what bad company culture looks and feels like.

These are my top tips:

Aine and Emma – two of our original Learning Pool team members snapped last week at LP Learning Live South

  1. Invest in your own people and help them grow with the business.  Today our team extends to more than 50 people, but 15 of those 50 have been with Learning Pool more than or very close to 5 of our 6 years and not one of them is in the job they started at – they’ve all moved up or sideways and up.  Many of our team did not have years of experience when they joined Learning Pool, but what they lacked in experience they made up for with great personalities, enthusiasm and energy, a hunger to learn and desire for success.  Our original company culture is carried in each of their hearts and delivered via their daily actions.
  2. Linked to point 1 above is take care with your recruitment.  Recruitment is the most important job of a fast growing company’s founders so make proper time for it & don’t delegate it to someone else.  The worst mistakes we’ve made in our 6 years so far have all been linked to poor recruitment decisions.  You know what they say – better a hole than an asshole – and it’s true.  Avoid prima donnas and mavericks, whatever they seem to bring – they just aren’t worth it.  Recruit for potential and personality and work hard to develop your talent.  When you make a recruitment mistake, reverse the person out as quickly & as painlessly as you can for their own sake and for everyone else’s.

    At the end of last week’s LP Learning Live South

  3. It’s easy to be customer focused when you’re small.  As a startup you have to over deliver anyway and when you’re starting out you don’t have many customers and you’re eagerly learning from them.  As you grow, you have to find a way of continuing to deliver that level of excellent customer service.  We’ve done this by constantly automating as much as we can as we’ve grown so that our customer facing people get to spend as much of their working week as they can interacting with customers – as that’s where the value add lies for our customers and for us.  We’re about to go through another (painful) round of this between now & Christmas but we recognise it’s worth it.
  4. Encourage everyone to have their say.  We’ve tried hard to do this at Learning Pool from the very start.  We have a culture where everyone’s ideas are heard and debated (even Tony’s) and everyone is expected to innovate.  We’ve used Yammer for years to facilitate ad hoc brainstorming across our dispersed team and it’s also used for extensive banter and leg pulling.  I used to worry about this but it’s only made me nearly faint once & that was when a local authority HR director asked me if they could see Yammer working in situ.

    Night out in Dublin 2011

  5. As founders and senior managers you have to love your team and all of you have to love your customers and enjoy interacting with them.  None of that can be faked.  It has to be real.  What do I mean by love your team?  You have to care about them in & out of work and sometimes even take care of them, you have to appreciate the contribution they make and reward them as best you can – financially and in other ways, you have to trust them and give them space to develop and progress.  You have to make time to have some fun together as that’s important too.  The Learning Pool team works hard but we play hard too and we find time to do some voluntary & pro bono work together when we can.

Team in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Day

That’s my thoughts.  Look forward to reading yours.

What makes a great virtual team member?…time to practice what I preach

Paul_in_stansted_lounge

Today’s my last day in Northern Ireland for 6 months.  For the past 5 years I’ve managed a highly motivated part of the Learning Pool team who are absent from our Derry mothership & who work from home in England and Scotland.  Tomorrow I become one of them.  This past couple of weeks I’ve been really mulling this over & wondering what it will mean for me.  I’m also slightly worried that I may not be the exemplary virtual team member that I imagine I will, a carbon copy of the perfect remote worker in the image I have in my mind’s eye.

In my view, these are the qualities & behaviours of a great virtual team member:

·         superb communicator – in both directions – giving & receiving information; this applies equally to customers & colleagues

·         highly organised in terms of managing appointments, follow ups, phone calls, CRM updates, keeping your online calendar bang up to date

·         ability to work efficiently on the hoof (on trains, in cafes, at airports, in the car)

·         knack to really bond with people you don’t see face to face much – other virtual colleagues but also the people in the powerhouse or mothership – the people you need to actually do things for you that you can’t do yourself

·         planning your schedule to get the most out of each day by combining appointments & using common sense

·         gift for really knowing what’s going on beneath the surface at HQ, think that comes about by really listening to what your colleagues say

·         makes the best use of the available technology & doesn’t get bogged down in constant technofail

·         books travel well in advance to get the best prices

·         effective collector & disseminator of customer information back to the mothership team

·         self starter with a lot of drive

·         ability to complete & finish things (this one is tricky for me) in a fast paced & constantly moving environment.

From time to time I’ve been critical of how other people do some or all of the above.  I guess I’ll know by this time next week how I’m doing myself.  Any hints and tips from you, my dear readers, will be most welcome as always.

So what am I going to miss most over the next 6 months when I’m London based.  Folks – there’s no competition on that score.  The photo of Paul was snapped yesterday at Stansted airport.  He’d just finished a conference call with our tech team & is posting something up on Twitter.  As usual, we had a few right old laughs yesterday – despite both of us having a 3.30am start, a tricky meeting at the Cabinet Office and the usual mixed bag of rushing around London for meetings, juggling stuff as we go.  Along the way, and starting at 5.30am, we also discussed everything that both of us are working on, we did some long term strategic planning, we both chatted to a number of colleagues, customers and partners, sketched out a couple of new products or markets for existing parts of the Learning Pool portfolio, swapped the usual load of gossip (mainly about other entrepreneurs or businesses), exchanged views on the content of business books we are both reading (cuts down on individual reading time if your business partner reads it & gives you a précis of course), managed to have both breakfast & lunch in the most random of places, went through some sort of time/space portal at Stansted airport, took two plane journeys & two long drives each, but were emailing again when we got to our respective homes last night.  The relationship anyone has (should have) with their business partner is pretty intense and full on.  I’ll refer you to a previous blog of mine if you’re interested in reading more about this – it’s here https://kickingassets.co.uk/two-heads-are-better-than-one-10-pros-of-havi

We’ve been working together like this for 8 years, we rarely disagree and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper in between us.  I guess that’s what I’m going to miss most.