May 31, 2015

People who matter in a dream team

What defines a management “dream team”?

A charismatic leader, a sales whizz, a finance expert, a tech guru and a master at production? Perhaps. But beyond the executive line-up, any entrepreneur needs another, private dream team — possibly even more important to long-term success than the first.

The personal dream team is the one supporting the founder of any start-up in endless crucial ways that are much less visible to the outside world. First and foremost is the entrepreneur’s spouse. Without a solid romantic relationship to provide emotional and practical backing, self-employment can be desolate. Most entrepreneurs are obsessives, and often selfish in pursuit of their ambitions. They require a tolerant spouse to provide relief from the stress of work — someone willing to allow business goals to dominate domestic life occasionally.

Of course, no one chooses a husband or wife based solely on such considerations, but really driven entrepreneurs do need someone who understands and loves them despite — or ideally because of — their yearning to build a business empire.

Business partners are not just members of a management team. They are the ones with whom you share equity, risks, rewards, power, responsibilities and decisions. You rise or fall together, co-dependent until the end. Your partnership will quite possibly make or break the business.

In every enterprise in which I’ve been involved, I’ve had one or more partners. Without their efforts, there would have been no company.

Many high-achieving entrepreneurs have had the help of an obliging banker — especially in the early days of their career. Bankers almost invariably receive a poor press these days, but I shall be forever grateful for characters such as Mr Mara, now long retired from Barclays, who took a bit of a punt on me by extending generous credit terms to a young man in his twenties with no assets. I like to think he took a view on my prospects and trustworthiness; today I suspect the spreadsheet jockeys would say no to such a facility.

All great bosses I’ve met have an excellent assistant. “Super-PAs” tend to be incredibly loyal, sympathetic, organised, industrious and resourceful. They know which calls matter, and which don’t. They fix multitudes of problems, and make the life of their employer run smoothly. They can tell their boss if he or she is being unreasonable, and they have a sixth sense about time wasters and rogues. The lives of hard-charging chief executives can spiral out of control if their PA resigns. I’ve had three outstanding assistants in succession over the past 20 years, and think I’ve been very fortunate. Without them, I suspect the journey would have been much harder.

Lawyers are an essential component of any commercial undertaking. The best do not simply draft contracts, they act as consiglieres, cautioning and coaxing entrepreneurs and guiding them through the many legal pitfalls. The partner at Berwin Leighton who counselled us at companies such as Pizza Express in the 1990s sadly died far too young. And I used an outstanding property lawyer for more than 20 years until he retired.

A sound angel investor, meanwhile, is an invaluable ally for any early-stage business. The best backers bring not just money but contacts, experience and encouragement.

Institutional venture capitalists are not quite the same: for them, any transaction is more structured, less flexible, and likely to be a purely financial undertaking. By contrast, angels can be passionate champions for the companies and entrepreneurs they back.

I invest privately in various companies, and look for opportunities where I can be proud of an association, rather than just the monetary aspects of my involvement.

Mentors are increasingly seen as an important resource for founders. They act as sounding boards and offer trusted feedback on the challenges facing any business owner — very much on a one-to-one basis. Ideally they should be a sophisticated, unbiased confidant, able to devote time to listening and thinking about the difficulties their protégé faces.

Most are paid, but some expend their effort for free because they believe in helping aspiring entrepreneurs. I’m not very clear about the difference between mentoring and coaching, but I can see that having an expert available for consultation could contribute to someone’s career and personal development.

Unfortunately I don’t have the time (or possibly the temperament) to mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs individually, but I do deliver perhaps 40 speeches a year to such groups to boost their morale and spread the gospel.

Behind the scenes, most high-achieving founders will have many or all of the above team members. They are further proof that no business accomplishment is the product of one man or woman’s endeavours — but is a collective creation.

Enterprise is the ultimate collaborative art.