At the end of 2015, I exited my first business, Kea Consultants, after six rewarding years. As I reflect across that period, there are three key business lessons that I will take with me wherever I go and that I thought would be helpful to share:
1. Partnerships are like marriages
This is no joke. There are a scary number of similarities. Just like the best marriages the best partnerships are equal in every sense. You split the equity, the responsibility, the profits, the losses, the highs, the lows and everything in between. There is also a strong chance, it was certainly the case at Kea for a few years, that you will see your business partner more than your personal partner and as a result know as much (if not more) about their lives as you do about your partner’s. In fact, there were several occassions when my husband would call Caroline for advice on what to buy me for Christmas or a birthday and it was typically those suggested gifts that ended up being my favourite pieces. We got to know each other so well that at business lunches one of us could order for both whilst the other continued the conversation and ensured we maximised time with clients.
The other pertinent similarity is trust. No relationship can flourish without it. It was absolutely essential to our success that we trusted each other. We didn’t always agree, we didn’t always get on, but we always trusted that the other person was pulling their weight and being honest at all times. Even whilst on our respective maternity leaves, a time when one of you is very much out of the loop for several weeks, we trusted that the other was making the decisions we would make and made it seamless to pick things up where we left off.
2. Hire for potential – it pays dividends
After the partnership, the Kea team is what I will look back on most fondly. The fact that we built the business up from two partners sitting in a second bedroom in Battersea in the midst of the recession, to become a thriving, humming, all-singing, all-dancing financial recruitment team in High Holborn is a great achievement. It only happened because some of the key “potential” hires that we made in the early days dashed up the ranks at an impressive speed, allowed us to quickly hire beneath them and increased our capacity without breaking the bank. These talented, and fairly young individuals, had three key attributes, they were smart, flexible and hungry to learn. I think if you have these components in a person and the job doesn’t require a skill set that you need immediately to fulfil the job, then I would always suggest hiring for potential and training on the job.
One of my favourite ways of ascertaining someone’s learning potential was to ask them what they wish they’d read sooner and why; this would not only highlight personal literary taste, but also the application of information to life. When once I was presented with the answer Fifty Shades of Grey, I was reluctant to ask about translations into their own life, but could hardly bring myself to stop them when they began telling me how it had taught them to get what they wanted and be more confident. Needless to say, they were not a Kea hire.
3. Develop “business friendships”
This is a lesson we had to learn very quickly when it was the two of us starting out. Of course the recruitment industry made this principle a pressing business need, as we were meeting candidates and clients all day every day; but the best meetings were the ones that developed on a positive emotional level, as well as the rational. There was a connection and a shared understanding. This primarily comes from meeting people in person, making the most of that first encounter (i.e. demonstrating how you can meet a particular need, although you need to find out what their needs are first) and nurturing it from then on. In many ways it’s similar to a friendship. But critically it’s a “business” friendship and it therefore has a different set of boundaries dictating it. I remember becoming aware of these unspoken boundaries when one of the earliest candidates I interviewed asked me out on a date and from then on I took to wearing a ring on my wedding finger to avoid a repeat incident. Of course, if you’re single, business networking can be a good way of meeting new and interesting people; two of our team ended up meeting their long term partners through work.
Some business relationships might never reach business friendship level, but the best ones do. Similarly, some existing friendships might move into the business arena, which is a subtle transition to manage, but great when it works out. What defines a business friendship is mutual respect, understanding of each other’s needs and an enjoyment when working together. The more of these that you have in your industry the better and you never know, some might become life-long friends too.