What Big Businesses Can Learn From Start-Ups

Joanna Swash, Group CEO of Moneypenny, looks into why big businesses should look to start-ups for some advice on how to become a business of the future.

Established corporations spanning the globe may seem a world apart from small start-ups, yet, in today’s ever-changing business landscape, there are some important lessons that big business should learn from start-up philosophy.

Company Culture

Let us begin with culture, those little things that together create shared values, attributes and characteristics of an organisation. Sounds simple. However, these values, attributes and characteristics can be so complex to define that some, especially those in the traditional hierarchical organisation, do not invest the time nor recognise their significance.

But since when did good CEOs take the easy road? Culture and leadership are inextricably linked, impacting the overall health of an organisation, people and customers. Get it right and you have a strong, resilient culture, one where people are connected to the values and goals and reflect this in every action they take. 

Whilst there may be less structure, more of flying by the seat of your pants attitude in a start-up, inherent in its culture is a close working relationship and clear shared purpose. Everyone is passionate about the business, their role and working together to achieve success. 

When hiring, the culture is at the forefront. Yes, there may be a unique skill set that is being recruited for but for it to work the new recruit has to ‘fit’ with the small team, the culture. An important lesson for all businesses to learn. We all appreciate the cost of recruitment and the cost of getting it wrong. People are our biggest asset so we need to set them up to succeed, they may be the best of the best but are they the best for your specific and unique organisation? 

Continuous Learning

Call it failing forwards, agility, or innovation. To succeed in the future businesses need to be able to identify what is working, react and adapt, learn and continuously move forwards. Start-ups don’t have the safety cushion of being a market leader or even goodwill, whatever decisions they make impact the whole of the business and even whether they live or die.

Just because you’re currently the biggest or the best, does not mean that you should rest on your laurels. Maintaining the status quo just does not cut the mustard. The businesses of the future will be those that are seeking out new opportunities, reacting quickly to changes in markets, innovating, making mistakes (within reason), learning from them and moving forwards, always learning. 

Active Listening

In always learning, you need to be always listening. You need to be a curious leader and inspire that in your people. And you need to be visible.

Active listening is not simply hearing what someone is saying but taking note and acting upon it. I’ll admit, it’s far easier to do in a start-up, a small team of focused individuals. However, why can’t we scale it up? In our teams, our departments, our offices?

I mentioned it in the first point I made, people are our biggest asset. We employ them for a reason. So listen to them. In having diversity of thought in your organisation and creating a strong culture, you can harness the power of your biggest asset. Let them be a little creative, run with a project that isn’t necessarily within their role, see what happens, see what they learn, and see what that means to your business. 

Just as any CEO does not always have all of the answers, neither do all of your people all of the time. Surrounding yourself with brilliant people and empowering them to do their ‘thing’, that’s the power of a CEO.

Working Together

By definition, start-ups are hungry. They are creating something new and looking for new and better ways to do things. They are also constantly collaborating, sharing and embracing new ideas and technologies.

Information is power. I agree. To a business, data is king. Within a business, though, the power comes from the sharing of information, and subsequently from peoples’ interpretations, ideas, opinions, and perspectives. 

In the hierarchical world of departments and sub-committees, holding on to information and knowledge can seem like the only way to keep hold of some power and security. It allows departments and people that are integral to the success of the business to become isolated and self-serving. It can be down to fear, insecurity, and culture, but these barriers need to be smashed. The best ideas come from different perspectives.

There’s a reason that big business partners with agile start-ups. Together, they fuel growth and innovation. The balance of power has shifted, however. Start-ups have a lesson or two to teach about culture, collaboration and ways of working. And CEOs of big businesses need to sit up and take note if they are to take their businesses into the future for the long term.

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