Business Irish

Friday 23 March 2018

Ever wonder why some companies make it and others don't?

Paul O'Kelly, former Offaly football manager, is a management specialist who has made a name for himself transforming companies and helping them realise their full potential

PAUL O'KELLY: Don't confuse strategic thinking with strategic planning. Photo: Gerry Mooney
PAUL O'KELLY: Don't confuse strategic thinking with strategic planning. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Paul O'Kelly

Niamh Bushnell, the newly appointed commissioner for start-ups in Dublin, spoke at the IIBN's Global Conference Opportunity in New York last week. I was impressed with her passion, focus and call to action.

Bushnell's job is to make sure Dublin is as good a place as any in the world to start a business. Start-ups are important for Ireland. They are one of the seeds of long-term growth. Her work, combined with laser-like focus of Local Enterprise Offices around the country, can make a difference.

Cathal Gaffney, CEO of Brown Bag Films, also spoke at the event. His business started in 1994. He shared his story with the confident humility one often finds in leaders of companies that have been on the road for 10 years or more. He is still a pioneer, highly creative, passionate about his work, deeply committed and a seasoned business leader.

Gaffney spoke openly about how much he and his team has learned, how the business has evolved and changed, even pivoted.

He spoke about how he has moved from doing the work to developing his team, building on their strengths, developing the culture, taking more and more time to look into the future, building strategic relationships. Brown Bag Films employs 150 people.

It is a 'scaling-up' company, well established with the potential to grow at more than 20pc per annum. 20pc per annum on 150 people is a lot of start-ups.

Also at the event was one of my clients Ray Downes, an Irishman, CEO of KEMP Technologies. KEMP's HQ is on Fifth Avenue, across the road from SAK's. Four years ago, Ray invited me to work with the company. At the time he led KEMP's EMEA office of five people in Limerick. The company was based on Long Island, was still founder-led, 15 years in business and had a total of 35 employees.

Our first piece of work was an EMEA strategic thinking workshop in Limerick. The participants were an eclectic mix of people including partners from EMEA, the founder, potential investors and the Limerick team.

Three months later Downes had become the CEO, working closely with one of the founding shareholders, leading the 35-person company out of Long Island. He immediately set about systematically scaling up KEMP. Four years later KEMP has over 170 employees, with offices in Germany, Singapore and most recently California. This year the KEMP EMEA dealer conference brought 70 people to Dublin. That is scaling up in action.

There are hundreds of companies in Ireland that are ready to scale up like KEMP or continue like Brown Bag Films. There are many doing it already, including clients like Crest Solutions and Biotector in Cork; Height for Hire who have operations in Ireland, the UK and beyond; and Fexco's DCC who are continuing to grow at rates of 20pc per annum.

In Belgium, one of our clients, PSE Façade a 100-year-old company, now led by Michael Fenlon formerly of Tegral, is growing at 20pc plus by focusing on global expansion. In Dubai and Africa, Maneesh Garg leads Nagode, a 20-year-old $150m company that continues to grow, creating start-ups and a spin off.

How do these scaling-up companies sustain their growth? It starts with that dynamic axis between leadership, strategic thinking and a relentless focus on the number one priority. Leaders of these companies are constantly learning, they and their entire organisation learn faster than the competition. They seek the most direct honest feedback on their own performance and are deeply committed to positive change.

They identify their strengths as individuals and work in a focused way to build these strengths to their full potential. They also identify their most limiting bad habits. Marshall Goldsmith's stakeholder-centred coaching methodology identifies these bad habits and rigorous accountability in eliminating them and is the most effective way we have found to change these behaviours in teams and individuals.

Sustained growth is only possible when employees, customers and shareholders are happy and engaged in the business. Employees are the most important. The key question is "would you enthusiastically 'rehire' all of them?"

The best companies are crystal clear who their A-performers are and have a continuous focus on developing more A-performers. They constantly keep the values and culture alive. They invest more in training, they focus on coaching rather than management, they set clear expectations. People are recognised, appreciated and success is celebrated.

Version 1, the Dublin IT services company, is one of the fastest growing companies in Europe. It is a great example of a successfully scaling company. It maintains high growth and profitability, has world-class employee engagement and measurable highest levels of customer satisfaction. These are all intentional elements of the company strategy.

One of the most common, and basic, mistakes companies make is confusing strategic thinking with strategic planning.

Strategic thinking must precede strategic planning. The consistently highest performing companies dedicate more time more often to strategic thinking. The more brain power, experience, attitudes, contrary views, innocence one can engage in the strategic-thinking process the better.

The strategic decisions are of course made by the leadership. To create a transforming growth strategy for Bord na Mona we designed a process that engaged 120 leaders directly and more than 500 people through the leaders. With Guidion, an Amsterdam-based services company with over 300 employees, workshops with all the staff and contractors fed into the leadership's strategic thinking and later planning processes.

True scaling up firms generate more profits and have stronger cash flows than their competitors. Their business runs without drama, the leaders create time to think, the companies have exceptionally high standards of execution and innovation is in their DNA.

  • Paul O'Kelly, who is working with scaling-up companies in 10 countries, is sharing his experience in a one-day workshop in Croke Park on November 27.

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