Why do businesses keep trying to find a ‘magic’ playbook?

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The writer is an investor in technology start-ups at Samos Investments

As we enter the final quarter of the year, many of us are reflecting and taking stock of our achievements in 2021, another strange year.

Whether you are a small-business owner or part of a global business, the basic challenges remain the same: using the resources you have to build an amazing product or service, while also finding a way to stay ahead of the curve.

As a venture capitalist, I’ve been in pitch meetings where, at the moment when the team starts talking about its vision and plans for executing it, you have a gut feeling that these people will do great things. The bigger question is: how do they get that DNA into the rest of the team and, more importantly, how do they keep it going?

We all want the secrets of the playbook on scaling and talent attraction. One place I have found useful is the podcast Masters of Scale. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and partner at Greylock, a VC firm, has recorded hours of detailed conversations where he interviews some of the world’s best chief executives and their growth strategies.

So, how can we all get better at placing the right bets, and should that bet be on the technology or the people behind it?

I believe these are the top four things any company scaling at speed needs to get right:

A clear proposition

I looked at the careers page of Nigerian start-up Okra — an API (application programming interface) superconnector that creates a secure portal and process to exchange financial information between customers and banks — to understand how it was selling the proposition to engineers.

In addition to the job description, the company references recent fundraising news coverage, which tells the story of why investors were excited about the business and the founders’ ability to execute. Have we lost a bit of this magic in larger organisations?

As organisations grow, it is easy to focus on the day to day and forget about the charm of the origin story as a way to get new employees to feel the same energy as the founding teams. Okra’s head of people, Bodunrin Akinola, believes that the reason it is able to attract global talent is because candidates recognise that the company is offering an opportunity to be a part of something special in financial services in Africa.

Leadership and empathy

Those at the top have a responsibility to make space for staff to thrive. It means investing in wellbeing and creating inclusive environments. This takes time. Leaders have had to adapt to the new needs of their workforce. I am seeing more companies rolling out financial wellness and mental health apps and I’m optimistic this is here to stay.

Building a strong network within and outside the organisation

There is a global war for talent and the pandemic has made it even more competitive as teams hire more remote workers. Tech leaders at the top start-ups are often ambassadors for the company, attending events, hosting meetups and essentially creating brands for themselves. There is a certain attraction that comes with having a well known chief technology officer. Someone who does this well is Meri Williams, CTO of Healx, an AI-powered patient technology accelerating the discovery and development of rare disease treatments at scale. Williams is well known on the tech scene as a speaker at events, author and an advocate for more representation in tech.

Be prepared for the unexpected

Drafting a business continuity plan can cover issues such as ensuring workers can work from home to being prepared for supply chain problems. In Nigeria, fintech start-ups have faced significant disruption from government regulators placing roadblocks, which have caused some start-ups to freeze activity. Having seen the impact on business for her counterparts, Fara Ashiru Jituboh, co-founder of Okra, and her team have initiated open conversations with the government to help them understand the business and work with them.

The UK government has taken steps to ensure open dialogue with business leaders to understand their concerns and involve them with policy formation.

I believe that there is no one-size-fits-all playbook. There are elements of business success that can be modified, but ultimately my advice is to be your own playbook and scale up in a data-centric way, understanding your people and their drivers and supporting them in building their knowledge. When your teams are at their best, and fully understand the “why” of the business, the rest will follow.

 

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