“What is the secret of your success?” – one of those questions that can fill any business leader with dread.
The pressure to come up with a pithy, erudite and inspirational answer can feel immense. Books have been written on the subject, research carried out by some well endowed foundation (usually American) and quotes by the likes of Churchill shared. But the lessons from the leading successful businesses are ordinarily simple: be clear; be authentic; be visible; work as a team player; know your strengths and recognise your weaknesses.
At an IoD business seminar I chaired recently the advice was given a North East flavour – make decisions: if in doubt, don’t do it; trust your gut feeling; don’t shy away from the difficult decisions; do one thing and do it well; don’t try to do or be everything.
Some of the best business people start out with small foundations, but common to all is a pragmatic approach to failure. Scotland has an excellent reputation for its entrepreneurial and inventive spirit – all manner of historic inventions and breakthroughs are credited to Scotland or Scots – including the pneumatic tyre, the fountain pen and the self-seal envelope, all made in Aberdeen.
It may be a fallacy to say that being an SME automatically equates with being entrepreneurial, but SMEs need to be nurtured and supported as a strong driver of growth in Scotland. They play a pivotal role in the Scottish economy, providing an estimated 1.1 million jobs and account for 99.3% of all private sector enterprises, according to Scottish Government figures.
Lloyds Bank reports that 42% of millennials want to work in smaller organisations. But SMEs face particular challenges in engaging, training and retaining young people, with generally smaller budgets to dedicate to skills development needs. Those challenges are even more acute in the North East where SMEs struggle to compete with the financial and training packages on offer in the oil and gas sector. Projects like Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) aim to encourage the recruitment of young people and vocational career paths into the private sector through apprenticeships. As companies tackle the energy industry downturn, we need to understand how to weather the current storm at the same time as preparing for the future: are there opportunities for wider engagement with a younger workforce?
The DYW estimates that of the 11,000 businesses in the North East, approximately 700 currently offer apprenticeships or work experience for young people. While we understand the imperative of developing young people now, these figures suggest a disjointed approach to skills development.
For SMEs, it is not necessarily the case that they don’t want to step up to the challenge, but often simply don’t know how best to do so.
Taking on young people is an opportunity for SMEs to remedy their skills gaps in the current downturn. The Investors in Young People Award is a measure of good business practice – it recognises commitment to people in the early stages of their career – and Ledingham Chalmers is proud to be the first law practice in Scotland to have earned this award.
Offshore Europe sparked conversations around the theme of inspiring the next generation of talent. But an important first step will be to give young people a seat at the table. For young people starting out in the job market, knowing the best route to achieve their goals can be overwhelming. As North East businesses we need to take a practical approach and first engage with young people, guide them through the process and assist them with choices by providing opportunities to develop their skills in the working world.
We need to resist the temptation to revert to generational typecasting. Just because computing science wasn’t even a topic when I was at school is no excuse for me being an IT dinosaur (indeed, my last book purchase was a basic guide to coding, as I strive to keep up with my seven year old). Just because we see our children glued to mobile devices doesn’t mean they can’t engage and communicate effectively – they do, just differently. We have a lot to learn from one other. Another clear message from the IoD seminar was that the learning never stops, even for those who appear to be at the peak of success.
I have set myself a challenge over the next year to invite a young person to join me as a guest at all industry events. Are others out there prepared to share their own take on success?