Posts Tagged ‘failure’

Damon Oldcorn berates the entrenched ageism of the IT industry.
empowerment

The word ’empower’ is used a lot these days to describe a company’s ability to meet change by giving authority to the people at the sharp end. Words like this always seem to be touted around by public relations people, nothing too detailed of course, just some well concocted statements to mark some occasion or other. So the poor workers on the shop floor (as it used to be known) are going to be empowered. I do hope someone has told them about this new era of decision-making and accountability.

As you know, global organisations and our own high technology firms have thinned down their company structures, partly because of economic pressures, partly with the introduction of newer technology. Companies emerge with a streamlined look, not much middle, a flat top and a flat bottom. The idea behind the structure is that the strategic decisions made at the flat top can be whizzed to the troops at the flat bottom for them to implement tactically, making ever more accountable decisions as they go. Great in theory, but not so great in practice if you’re the 45-year-old who had to be removed to make way for this new wave.

Most of the companies I come into contact with, many in the computer and communications industry, have not trained the executives at the flat top in the new-age skills needed to compensate for this rapid change in business strategy. So as you can imagine it is extremely unlikely that they have got round to the training needs of the flat bottom to help them adapt to the new demands of this empowerment process. The question is, can the executives at the flat top grasp the new-age skills for this tremendously taxing change? I mean this change is major league, so not to be treated lightly.

sensitivityTo achieve corporate excellence today, the executive will have to have many facets in their management kit-bag: creative insight, sensitivity, vision, versatility, focus and patience (to mention just a few). Let’s focus on sensitivity for a moment ( a word not often heard in this rough, tough, high technology market). If, in the final analysis, people are an organisation’s greatest asset, then the new type manager must understand how to bind them together in a culture, wherein they feel truly motivated in the pursuit of higher goals. Face to face communication, ongoing training and development, creative incentive programmes and job security all display the sort of sensitivity that nurtures strong cultures.

Every strong culture and in this case the empowered culture derives from management sensitivity. Without it employees feel unmotivated, under-utilised,even exploited. It only takes a flick through the online job bulletin boards to see how we treat our employees. The turnover of staff, both junior and senior, is as fast and furious as ever, and there is a common pattern to people moving on. A majority when asked why they changed companies, would reply that they were not managed or spoken to in a professional manner. What a waste of time and money for all concerned. Let’s see some action to design companies so that empowerment is a balanced reality between decision-making, accountability, training and management support.

jin-tt-vs-nospringchicken-flatTo return to a point I touched on earlier, ageism, there seems to be an unwritten law in this industry that says because we keep inventing shiny, new products and services, that we must always have shiny, new younger staff as well. The number of over-45s who seem to get sidelined is amazing. What happens? Is it self-perpetuating because we have younger senior executives or younger recruitment staff? Are they unsure of their industry skills or even political ground to keep on older and more experienced staff than themselves. The older executive does not lose his or her ability to make decisions, to contribute creatively and energetically. Let’s not keep falling into the trap of discarding experience, if the industry is to mature it needs that stability.

The number of young executives I see looking for answers to basic business questions (on any online industry forum) that got answered  a long time ago concerns me. It’s not their fault, who have they got to learn from if the older mentor figures keep disappearing? There has to be a process of regeneration, a cycle where experienced professionals, grounded in business skills, impart their knowledge to the next set of executives. Who else will do it? The major company training schools seem to have diminished, or if not, focus too often on technology orientated product courses. You can only learn so much from self-help business books or company sponsored MBA courses.

Day to-day business sense has to be learned on the job, from people you respect and want to emulate. You can’t just hand out senior management positions to young executives before they are able to cope with the pressures that surround these demanding roles. So let’s match the investment that is made in the technology with investment in the long-term skills and care of our people at what ever stage of their careers, young or older.

IMG_20140130_141634

So many articles in the broadsheets about people leaving London and their reasons why, some real and some spoofed for comic effect. It stirs up many emotions in people, given the pressures of modern life and the increasing ratcheting up of costs of sustaining a family and a young business in London. I moved here in 1976 from NI and lived first in Guildford a commuter town in Surrey, then Belsize Park in North London, mixed with time in Silicon Valley off and on since 1987. Now I am back in the countryside of Wiltshire, I have built start-ups in both London, Silicon Valley and in the rural areas of the UK, so I think have an interesting perspective.

So let’s get real the better opportunities for creating a team, cutting deals and getting funded are in London, simply by the volume of people, networks and funds to plug into. In my last start-up we were based in Clerkenwell and by that stage of my start-up experience knew how to slipstream all the players that created opportunities to make a name for yourself. But of course if you are less experienced and maybe never going to be the number one or two in your global market space, it can be the opposite, a more daunting, alienating place where you feel you are not at the party.

There is definitely an inner game feel to London and some just do not ever get the invites to the inner sanctum of top-level VC funding and all those cool Pitching events at Downing Street and the Palace. That, if it is happening to you, even though it is all around you in London can make you feel like a failure. Very few actually make it as a tech start-up in London, although from all the column inches, blogs and networking events devoted to the space it is difficult to see through that veneer. My calculated guess is that 98% never get funded beyond family and friend’s rounds, of which only 30% of the 2% that do will survive and maybe you will remember 3 brand names that did win in 10 years time.

It’s a tough game and takes real stamina, resilience and experience around you to make it, and that is without taking into account the negative macro events that can wipe you out like Lehmans and the periodic UK/Global market crashes every 5/7 years. But of course if you were looking at the start-up world in a logical and reasoned basis you probably are not suited to the crazy world that we entrepreneurs inhabit. Yes you must really believe as a founder beyond all the negative pushbacks that you are right about your product/service and must keep the idealist attitude alive.

So you can fail in London too, and it is why most British start-ups fail in Silicon Valley as well because the competition there is even more fierce and the money game even more aggressive than in the UK and most are not tough or experienced enough to compete on equal terms. But you are in Cardiff, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin, what chance do you stand cut off from Boris’s gleaming Tech City? Well it depends a lot on what level you are playing at, what your goals are and how you set about creating your own networks.

There are great start-ups out across the UK and Ireland, bright people with bright ideas, but the thing that defines a winning company is the drive to reach the goals that are set day one in the business plan. If you are out to build a global company at some point you are going to have to go where the big deals are being done, be it London, New York, Frankfurt and San Francisco. This does not mean that you have to move the whole company from the low-cost base you might have established but it does mean a lot of travel and nights away connecting to the networks that open the door to enterprise clients and the funding that follows those early big name wins.

It requires a concerted effort as well not just dipping in and out every 90 days as I see so many companies doing, the people in the big city networks won’t take time with you and create that continuity of connection if they do not sense your committment to the cause. There is no easy or quick way of doing this, the hours day and night have to be put into this programme. If you are lucky you may find key experienced champions in those networks that like you and your company and will get alongside in accelerating your access and growth. It is certainly a lonely thing to do on your own and it never does any harm to have someone watching your back on the circuit when travelling and running hard.