“Business resilience is no different to personal resilience,” according to businesswoman Judith Armstrong. “Ultimately it’s about your support network – as an individual, building resilience comes from your friends and family, in a business it comes from your relationships with your customers, your staff, your shareholders.”
With the ongoing uncertainty of how Brexit will affect British businesses and trade, firms are facing potentially turbulent times ahead. Armstrong, chief executive of Millennium Point, a venue for science, technology and learning in Birmingham, was part of a panel discussing how to steer a business through a period of upheaval at the Guardian’s recent Business Made Simple event in the city. The wide-ranging discussion tackled overworked business leaders, difficulties with recruitment and improving staff engagement, as the panellists revealed their strategies for making a business more resilient.
Keeping staff updated on how the business is faring is crucial, said Tony Hague, managing director of PP Control and Automation, a manufacturer that employs more than 200 staff at its site in Walsall. “It’s about open communication, whether that news is good, bad or indifferent.”
Rather than telling staff about a problem and presenting them with the solution, business leaders should involve employees in coming up with the answer, Armstrong said. Too often, communicating is seen as “telling people. But people don’t like being told what to do. As leaders we can forget those basic principles.”
Recruiting young people
The manufacturing sector struggles to attract young recruits, Hague said. He recalled a visit to a school 15 years ago where he gave a talk to an auditorium of 110 sixth-formers. When he asked who was considering a career in manufacturing, not one hand went up. He said young people still have a poor image of manufacturing. “They think dark, Dickensian, repetition, low paid. It’s getting better in certain areas, but we have a long way to go. If you go to Germany and talk about manufacturing it’s a completely different concept.”
He now works with primary and secondary schools, raising awareness of careers in the industry. Too often businesses blame the government for the skills gap, he said. “I go to a lot of events where people moan about the lack of skills, and I say, what are you doing [about it]? And they say it’s a government problem. And I say no it’s not.”
Jodie Cook, who runs JC Social Media, a social media management and training company, introduced an initiative called “one more desk”. It means there’s always a desk free for anyone wanting to do work experience. “We end up hiring a lot of them,” she said.
Make time to develop your business
Many business leaders admit to struggling to find time to work on their business. The panellists shared their tips for freeing up time. Cook said she delegates tasks, looks at what can be automated, and stops doing anything that doesn’t add value to the business. She travels and visits similar firms abroad to get ideas for her business. Armstrong agreed that prioritising was key when everyone felt overworked and overwhelmed. “It’s about talking to people and saying, ‘we’re all swamped, what do we need to focus on, what are our priorities? Let’s get back to that shared purpose, and figure out how are we going to do this’,” she said.
Develop an engaged workforce
Staff engagement is critical, said Hague, who asked his employees to decide on the core values of the business. The company, which makes products for other manufacturers, encourages workers to visit their clients. “We make sure all the people who work in the factory … go and visit the customer regularly, they understand what they’re making, where it goes […] so it’s not a faceless customer.”
Focus on what you’re good at
While it can be tempting to chase revenue, it’s important to turn down projects that aren’t right for your business, the panel agreed. Cook said she has turned down work in the past. “Someone wanted us to get them to Christmas No 1!” she said. She recommends sticking with what you’re good at. “There’s more of a danger in spreading yourself too thinly than specialising in a narrower set of things.”
The Guardian’s Business Made Simple event, supported by Vodafone, on Steering a business through changing times, took place in Birmingham on 16 May