B is for Business Basics: don't let your grand vision blur your business acumen
When you're in the pursuit of achieving great social change, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the day-to-day business basics that keep your enterprise afloat. In the second extract from his new book The Social Entrepreneur's A to Z, Liam Black reflects on how easy it is to get intoxicated by your own rhetoric – and most importantly how bad this can be for business.
“You can practise shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become very good at is shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.” Michael Jordan, basketball legend
At the height of my messianic fervour about social enterprise in the late 1990s, I opened the Liverpool Echo newspaper and basked in the glory of an interview I gave in which my brilliant insights about enterprise and regeneration were laid out for all of Merseyside to see.
Social enterprise, I asserted – with all the confidence of the social entrepreneur with a few years of trading under his belt (some of them profitable) – was the powerful wind which would propel the city out of the doldrums. My wife said she was very impressed as she handed me a glass of red wine. And I think she was being sincere.
On returning to my office in the morning there was a piece of paper stuck to the door. It was from Stan Riley, one of the upholsterers and our trade union convenor: “Liam, I read in the Echo you will be transforming the city. You can’t even get our wages right. Good luck with Liverpool.”
Ouch. We had been having persistent problems in the finance team and many of the guys had not been getting the right wages and there were constant issues about tax codes. In a company where many of the workers were paid weekly in cash this is a big issue. In a social enterprise that was set up to offer secure work for the long-term unemployed this is a failure of mission.
I was intoxicated with my own rhetoric and liked being on stage much more than chasing down systems failures. I had forgotten to pay close enough attention to the dull but critically important basics of running a business.
Liam, I read in the Echo you will be transforming the city. You can’t even get our wages right. Good luck with Liverpool”
Many parts of running a business are indeed very dull and I’ve always been drawn to the big picture not the micro stuff. But this has caught me out many times. Stan’s laconic note is the best reminder I’ve had about leadership hubris.
By all means aspire to change the world but make sure the vehicle you are using to drive that change has an engine that works!