Dr Louise Beaumont - A Masterclass in Talent for start-ups, scale ups and beyond...

Interview   –   6 April 2021

Dr Louise Beaumont works with legislators and regulators to create disruption, with organisations to cope with disruption, and with start-ups and scale-ups to exploit disruption – with open and accessible data as the guiding principle.

She works with legislators and regulators in her role chairing techUK’s Open Finance & Payments working group, focusing on the full gamut from Open Banking to Open Data.  She works with corporates to cope with disruption both in her advisory roles with Pay.UK and Bottomline and as a public speaker and commentator.  She has invested in and holds board and advisory roles with start-ups in various sectors including Funding Options in the FinTech sector and Message Heard in the podcasting sector.

We turned to Dr Beaumont for a masterclass in talent – mining expertise garnered in the full panoply of arenas from scrappy start-ups, to feisty scale-ups, to venerable incumbents - and the legislators and regulators who watch over them.  She has a unique breadth of perspective: as both the entrepreneur and the investor; the advisor and the grafter; the chair and the executive – which means she’s seen the talent challenge from every angle.

And, with a Doctorate in Semiotics and Corporate Identity from the University of Strathclyde, it’s no surprise that she has a sharp take on the business world and the people running it.

 

Louise, you are an expert in taking businesses through their lifecycle – what have you seen work well and what are the pitfalls?

Well, let me take you through the journey because there are three parts to this. Firstly, what do you do when you’ve got an idea; how to start-up successfully. Secondly, how to scale without losing your sh*t.  And thirdly… congratulations, you’re an incumbent – how to avoid ossifying into obscurity.

 

So, let’s look at start-ups through the talent lens.

It starts with the entrepreneur who has had an idea for a business - if they want to succeed, they have to begin with an incredibly brutal self-appraisal. They need to ask themselves ‘do I have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?’ Coz it’s never the stuff the business books pontificate about….

You need to have real ambition over and above the average bear. You need to have an optimism that drives not just you but everyone you meet - a contagious optimism.

You also need deep reserves of energy and be able to donate that energy to others. It is not enough to get yourself up in the morning and get the job done, your energy has to get everybody moving in the right direction and delivering the goods.

And you have to have buckets of charm - and that charm has to be easily metabolised by others.  If you are asking people to do things for you, work with you, believe in you, invest in you when there isn’t an enormous amount of track record, then the only way to get them over the line is to make sure they like you.  

So, assuming you have a decent idea, ambition and optimism, energy and charm, then you need to ask yourself, where am I getting everything else that I need to wrap around me in order to be successful?

Be clear eyed – you’ll need finance, ops and legal skills.  You’ll need sales, marketing and delivery.  But the really smart entrepreneur is the one who decides to double down on their own skill set, bringing in people who bring depth and breadth to their own capability.

That’s when you know whether you’ve got an entrepreneur who wants to be commercially successful or someone who just wants to be supreme ruler of a niche kingdom.

 

What’s the difference there do you think?

Someone who wants to run a kingdom says ‘I’m going to bring in people who have complementary skills to me but I’m going to make sure I’m the only one with my skillset and I’m going to make sure that the investors can’t get me out because I’m indispensable to the business’.

You know you have an entrepreneur who wants to seriously build deep value in the organisation when they go ‘you know what, I’m going to have all of the skills that I need and I’m going to have depth in every area AND people in the business who are like me’ - that’s when you know you have someone with deep-seated confidence and a business that can make money.

 

That’s really interesting. Now tell us more about, as you put it, ‘scaling without losing your sh*t?

In a similar sense to the start-up stage - you have to run through the same brutal assessment – do we have the skills we need? Because it’s true that whatever it is that got you here is not enough to get you through that scale up curve.

The reality is that most founders don’t stay the course and most of the first set of hires don’t stay the course or stay in the same roles at the top of the organisation. It is incredibly rare to find a company that can scale up without, as investors regard it, ‘professionalising’. The scaling conversation tends to be much less clear eyed and far more political.

A smart first step is to get the constitution of the Board right so you have Non-Execs on the Board who know how to operate companies, because if you get to scale up point and the only people you have on your Board are investors then you are going to be in trouble. The reality is that if they are professional investors then they’ve never run a business, so they won’t understand yours.

They’ll evict the founders and then they’ll fire the professionals that they hired to replace them, but what they won’t do is say, ‘we are getting it wrong’ because investors don’t look at themselves and say ‘we don’t know what we’re doing’. So, it’s really important to bring on board smart Non-Executives who can stand back and guide the Exec based on deep reserves of relevant experience.

When building talent in the Exec of your scale-up, you really need to understand the individuals you are hiring and how they will work together as a team and I know that sounds so basic but the mistake people often make is ‘but this person is great…they worked for Google and Amazon’. They see big blue-chip companies but don’t understand why s/he went to those companies, why s/he didn’t stick with those companies and why s/he’s now trying to get ‘sexy by association’ by working for a scale-up.

They’re buying the wrong thing; they’re buying a logo graveyard masquerading as a CV and that individual is selling a pipe-dream; ‘I’ve done it for the big boys and I can do it for you’.

However, the company itself needs practical skills suited to the hard graft of growing a scale-up, rather than the the sexy, fun, excitement of launching a start-up. And remember, the risks are much higher in a scale-up. It’s the most dangerous phase because fast, uncontrolled growth kills businesses.

 

Now onto this third stage…from ossification to liberation.

The reinvention from ossification to liberation is a really interesting one. Organisations ossify incredibly quickly from the middle out and what I mean by that is that they become very rigid in their thinking and incredibly process driven.

They also become very inward looking rather than outward looking and when all these things compound people become fearful. They become scared of new thinking, scared of changing things, and they say ‘no’ far more than they say ‘yes’. And they say ‘we need to think about it’ in a bid to slow things down. They become very incremental.  They favour the status quo.

As companies become ossified, their pain threshold becomes unimaginably high. So much so that they do not even recognise that feeling as pain – ‘it’s just what it’s like around here’. 

The only thing that is a game changer in that environment is talent. Because talent drives attitude, behaviour and culture.

Talent is the circuit breaker. It’s not just one person who can make a difference – a new CEO can’t be expected to change everything. Change has to happen on the Board as well as in the Executive. Unless you get the Board moving at the same time, the Executive will remain hostage to the previous set of expectations. If you allow the Board to punish the executive for crimes of the past then you will ruin the new Executives that you bring in – the scab never heals over.

 

Is there any advice you would give to young talent today?

Everyone talks about young talent and the dearth of work for them as we endure the pandemic.

Those kids who are leaving university now and that found a way to make the university experience work for them are the ones that you want to hire because they’ve taken a truly awful experience and turned it into a personal success.

Young talent going into an ossified organisation will probably go backwards – very little will be asked of them or expected of them. Other than getting a logo on their CV, they probably won’t get much in terms of development. As a student, if you’re leaving university now then think of the organisation as more than a logo – ask yourself ‘what am I going to be allowed to do there?’

You have to ask yourself ‘do I want to be somewhere where an outrageous amount will be asked of me and the success of the company in part will fall on my shoulders’ in which case, go and work at a start-up. Less will be expected of you at a scale up.

If you want a safe job, well you’re deluding yourself because no job is safe!

 

Let’s take the tech industry for example – would you give any specific advice to young talent exploring that area?

Well, technology is so pervasive. Every organisation uses technology, some organisations create technology, and some organisations clip it together for other organisations.

So where do you want to be? Do you want to be generating the technology in the first place? Do you want to be working with the people who clip that tech together to turn it into a solution for a client? Or do you want to be on the client side using that technology to do something interesting.

So, if anyone says to me ‘they want a career in tech’ I send them away to think of a better question, coz they clearly aren’t appreciating how pervasive technology is!

I would always say to young talent ‘how many decades do you have to work before you retire?’ And that is always a shocking question to someone who is 21 or 22 years old and just leaving university. And the answer is 50 years or more…5 or more decades. What is it you like doing? You should really choose something you like to do because 50 years is an incredibly long time.

When people say they just want to make money, I lose interest. Money is a side product, and you need to decide: Do you want enough money to live? Do you want enough money to live well? And if you want lots and lots, and you’re a masochist then there are brands in the financial services space that will definitely harness (and use up) your life force.

You have to ask yourself what price happiness.

From a personal point of view, I’m generally thinking about work or talking about work from dawn ‘til dusk. And by the way, I think the thinking bit is by far and away the hardest work you can do. Most people try and avoid it for that reason.

I cannot imagine a life not bound up with work where I did not enjoy what I was doing and I worry about those people who really are just driven by money. It says that you are taking and not giving. Work should be a symbiotic relationship where everyone benefits.

 

Louise, you talk about positive disruption and helping corporates cope with disruption – can you talk about how start-ups can exploit disruption?

Think of disruption as the tilling of the soil. It breaks up clogs of mud and turns it into fertile ground for seed. Disruption is the precursor to innovation. You need some kind of disturbance for innovation to get sparked and therefore ultimately, one hopes, for competition to follow.

What are start-ups looking for? It might be a new market, it might be a place where incumbent players have proved they can’t succeed. For example, if you think about the podcasting space-many of the incumbent players thought that podcasting was just making their radio programmes available for on demand listening. Radio is radio. Podcasting is podcasting. And just because you wrap it up and say ‘it’s a podcast’ doesn’t mean it’s a podcast. There are plenty of radio companies who have been unsuccessful in the podcasting space because they can’t get past their business model and behaviours, so more agile companies with a different business model and set of behaviours have been able to exploit the space. That’s a universal lesson.

 

If you look back on your career – what’s the job you’ve enjoyed the most?

I’d say broadly, all of them, but I do have some rules.

I like to work with people I like, doing things that matter, where I can make a difference.

I generally enjoy myself if I live by those rules.

 

What do you think scale-ups are missing or finding most difficult in terms of talent today?

It depends which sector they’re in, but in tech it’s often because the businesses are founded by techies - they tend to build up the technology side of the business because it’s what they care about most. You might find they have hundreds of people knitting tech and they have really subscale marketing and sales or their operations are really poor.

Particularly in B2B technology, marketing and sales is often the poor cousin. Of course, the tech is important but it’s all pointless unless you have strong, capable sales and marketing teams so you are selling what you can deliver, and you’re delivering what you sold.

Think of a strong business as an equilateral triangle, where sales, marketing and delivery are equally strong, supported in the middle by finance and ops.

If your triangle gets pulled out of shape, your business will fail to sell what you can deliver and then fail to deliver what you sold.

 

You have advised both start-ups and scale-ups – are they the same messages for both?

I am the Exec Chair of a podcasting company, and the CEO got me involved before it was even a business - I was the first investor.  Not only was it a start-up, the CEO was a first time founder, and the trick was to help him understand everything that was involved in running a business but only reveal it at a pace that could be metabolised - if you do the whole reveal before your founder is ready you cause panic, because it can be pretty over-whelming.

I’m also an advisor to a scale-up company where I was one of their earliest investors. With a start-up, you can afford to have a ‘shake it off’ attitude to mistakes, but when you’re a scale-up anything that doesn’t go quite right can cause ‘speed wobbles’ which can be pretty alarming, so a measured perspective that draws out the core narrative can be really helpful.

 

What about incumbents?

I also work with organisations going from that ossification to liberation stage and it’s all about getting them to think differently. With commercial organisations, an interesting method to get them where they need to be is to focus on their clients.

You often need to win a new generation of clients because your existing client base is holding you hostage in the past. Their expectations and demands haven’t changed so what they ask of you hasn’t changed either – and before you know it, you’re old hat, and they’ve leap-frogged to new solutions, leaving you for dead.

This can be a real shock to people, so you have to offer the advice at the right time – when they can take it on board.

 

And personally, what does the future hold for you?

I don’t know – I’m not clairvoyant! 

I’ll just play by the rules that work for me: work with people I like, doing things that matter, where I can make a difference.

Thank you so much for your time today, Louise. We feel like you’ve given us the tools (and determination!) to set up a start-up and scale it ourselves…

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