Are successful business people born or are they made? In most cases, it’s a combination of the two. Some entrepreneurs have personality traits that make them natural leaders with inspiring ideas and boundless drive. Others work hard to learn new skills and improve their management style. But too often the bosses of small businesses say they haven’t time to seek the guidance that could help them run their company better and boost its growth.
A little business education goes a long way in helping SMEs succeed. Lancaster University Management School runs a programme called LEAD, which is designed for owner-managers, and it estimates that nine out of ten of the enterprises that have taken part experienced an increase in turnover, productivity and profits. Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer, also believes that firms run by people who‘ve had tuition in good business practice are more likely to thrive. Bilimoria said in a recent interview that he’d support the creation of a nationwide competition to give SME owners places on courses at respected business schools, paid for by the Government, to boost the UK economy.
Sadly, the powers that be don’t share the Cobra boss’s vision, but there are plenty of ways that busy, cash-strapped bosses can still educate themselves in being better at business. Since many resources are free of charge, all business owners need to find is time. And while that’s a valuable commodity, it’s important to take a step back to see how your operation really works and where it needs attention. And those entrepreneurs who think that formal education bears little relation to the day-to-day working of a business should overcome their prejudices and seek the help that’s readily available to improve their enterprise’s prospects.
The Government offers help to small enterprises that are keen to learn. Its Growth Vouchers scheme allows companies with fewer than 50 employees to apply for a voucher worth up to £2,000 to fund business advice on topics including improving leadership skills, cashflow and finance practices, recruitment, marketing, and the effective use of digital technology.
Already successful firms with fast growth potential could also take advantage of the Government-backed GrowthAccelerator programme. This pairs SMEs with experts who can help to devise clear growth strategies. But the initiative also offers match funding of up to £2,000 to allow owners and senior managers to develop leadership abilities. A small fee is charged on a sliding scale depending on the size of the company, and more than 15,000 businesses have already been helped.
The Government’s website Great Business also offers a variety of links to information about business skills and professional development.
One great potential source of support, help and advice for small business owners is local higher education (HE) institutions, such as technical colleges and universities. Many of these centres of research and learning have departments dedicated to working with SMEs, yet one of the greatest challenges the bright sparks face is making contact with the business community. A study by the Council for Industry and Higher Education found it was often the business bosses who stand in the way of closer working relationships between local HE providers and small companies. All of the SMEs questioned said that they’d turn to a colleague first for guidance rather than a university.
But small firms could be missing out on state-of-the-art research and thinking, as well as free guidance. The Northern Leadership Academy is a prime example. This partnership of 22 HE and further education providers based in the North of England works with the bosses of SMEs in the northern half of the country to improve their leadership abilities in an attempt to close the North-South productivity divide. Its members include some of the best business schools in the UK.
HE institutions do offer differing levels of support, so the best place to start is probably the website of your local college or university, searching for ‘SMEs’ and ‘business workshops’. The National Centre for Universities and Business is another useful source of information.
In the 21st century, it’s possible to get most things on the internet, and that’s even true of a business education. The Open University can claim to be one of the UK’s biggest business schools, with almost 5,500 business and management students. It offers e-learning courses ranging from full MBAs to short courses on management, all conducted remotely and flexibly, both of which are attractive options for time-pressed business owners.
However, the latest trend is for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This is a form of free-to-use, open access tuition where course materials are shared via the internet, meaning that those running companies can dip in and out for information when and if they need it. Support comes in the form of interactive user forums peopled by students, professors and teaching assistants. One of the strongest UK examples of this new social approach to online learning is FutureLearn, which was established by the Open University and incorporates resources from various universities in Britain and worldwide, as well as eminent institutions such as the British Library, which itself boasts a range of great business resources via its Business and IP Centre.
Many SME bosses still prefer the personal touch, and opt to seek advice from a professional mentor. Even then, only one in 20 SMEs used a mentor in the last 12 months, according to recent research by Warwick Business School and BMG Research, despite most admitting that such intervention can bring about positive change.
Those who do use this type of external guidance recognise its value, and, again, tend to achieve better growth, the Warwick study found. One big challenge is finding a mentor in the first place. About one in four SMEs turns to their accountant, while a quarter seek guidance from family or friends. Otherwise, 28 per cent of those who have been mentored found their guide at a business or networking event, ten per cent were put in touch via the public sector, while eight per cent used word-of-mouth recommendations.
There are specific places where businesses can go to find a mentor. The Government recommends Mentorsme, a web portal that currently has access to about 27,000 mentors and which seeks to pair SMEs with experienced advisors for free. Business networks, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum of Private Business, and the British Chambers of Commerce can help their members find the right help, plus they run events where mentoring relationships are often forged. The Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs also runs a service to introduce small firms and qualified mentors. SMEs in creative fields could turn to the innovation charity Nesta to be paired with mentors running their own successful companies in similar sectors.
Business owners should have the humility to admit that they don’t know it all, and that they could benefit from a little learning from time to time. When a business starts out it’s possible for one person to take a hands-on approach in all areas, but as an operation grows, the boss has to realise his or her limitations, and seek help where knowledge is lacking. Not to do so is to hinder the potential growth of your enterprise. Remember, no person has all the answers, but a true leader will know when to admit it.
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