I wanted to begin this piece with a question that will sooner or later trouble all small business owners – how come some businesses grow and prosper, almost from the day they are born; and others are almost immediately fragile, quickly become flustered, and ultimately pass quietly into the great business graveyard in the sky? As a small business owner of twelve years standing myself, this is certainly a question I wished I had an answer to … and, I have to say, one I never really came close to resolving. Now though, with the wisdom of hindsight and 20 years of academic navel gazing under my belt, I have concluded that some business owners know what they are doing and others don’t!

 A-hah, I hear you say, rocket science this is not, and of course you’d be right. Nevertheless, that apparently simple observation has a few hidden fish hooks – what is the “what” that these successful business people appear to know all about, and just exactly how do we go about developing the “knowing”? This is the question I have been wrestling with over the past 15 months or so.

 Assisted by the Tertiary Educations Commission’s Sector Leadership Investment Fund, I’ve been part of a public/private sector partnership that has included an Industry Training Organisation, a government owned tertiary educator (Unitec Institute of Technology) and a small number of committed postgraduate students of business at that institution.

 Over much of 2009 and 2010, the team involved has been touring the length and breadth of the country, asking those questions of small business owners and trying to make some sense out of the answers. At the end of all this, we thought we had been able to identify what the “what” is, by isolating eighteen specific points of difference between successful and unsuccessful firms – at a bit of a stretch, you might say that these are the things that successful firms do well and that unsuccessful firms do badly!

 So what have we found so far? As you might expect, there are of course some relatively predictable outcomes, but some less expected issues have emerged. For example ….

 Business owners tend to operate across a very short term and nearsighted planning horizon

  • Many business owners are technically very competent, much less so as business managers
  • Firms who are members of franchise chains or buying co-operatives are typically more proficient than those who are not
  • Rather than there being a single profile of need within the firm, there are several small pockets of need – i.e. things that the boss can do better, things that the sales staff can do better, things that the technical operators can do better. Very much a case of different strokes for different folks.
  • There is a very common managerial reliance on “learned it the hard way”, and owners are often sceptical about the ability of coaching, training or mentoring to improve performance.
  • However, coaching, training, and mentoring are widely accepted as relevant for others …. but not for me!

More info from:

Ken Simpson, Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Creative Industries and Business, Unitec Institute of Technology.

Enail :

1 Comment

  1. Steve Barnett says:

    Yes Ken, it seems that maybe coaching in situ is the way to make a difference – that we can help most by stepping out of our institutions.

    To me it seems that the main challenge is to break the “education spell”: to interrupt the set of assumptions and expectations that we all have and maintain, especially those of us who are well schooled, about what knowledge is and how we get it; what work is and how to organise it.

    Industrial school culture tacitly dominates most everyone’s expectations and practice of education and management and it’s not effective (any more). Only as we break its spell will we be able to do coaching that savvy business people will pay good money for.

    I’ve coached many firms in the $1M – $50M turnover; 5 – 50 employee range. They survived the >80% ‘infant’ mortality of the 1st year or three typically because they landed “butter side up”: they happened to start out with a technical skill, hence product or service for which there happened to be a ready market for and for which they happened to command an adequate margin.

    That works fine until the environment changes or they grow too complex for the boss to personally handle. Then some bosses seek help. Of those, the ones who are prepared to admit they don’t know, and are prepared to learn new behaviours, are coachable. They others aren’t. That doesn’t leave many!

    In practice, coaching isn’t about communicating extensive knowledge of business theories. The knowledge required is typically basic. The main knowledge is in the art and practice of business coaching. It’s an extemporised dance for coach and client.

    In contrast to industrial education, the coaching process is essentially opportunistic and learning is experiential. It crucially produces results through behaviour change. It’s about establishing systems and processes to encourage and support people to risk behavioural changes around the way they relate to colleagues, customers, and suppliers.

    “That’s education, but not as we know it Jim”. So I maintain that we have to risk stepping right away from our classrooms, props and typically irrelevant assessment, to market and deliver a radically different experience and result. If we really want to help then we have to radically change the way we do teaching and learning and the way we market it (in the broadest sense of the term).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: