F*ck Plan B: An Interview with Dominic Monkhouse
Today we’re talking to Dominic Monkhouse, founder and MD of business coaching firm Monkhouse and Company. Dom has many years’ experience working with a variety of firms, particularly in the tech industry, to help them understand their workplace culture and scale up their businesses to deliver considerable growth curve.
Dom is the author of a new book, ‘F**k Plan B – How to scale your technology business faster and achieve Plan A.’ The book outlines his highly profitable approach to scaling-up, and is a must-read for all tech CEOs who want to achieve consistently high levels of growth year-on-year.
Welcome to the PUSH blog, Dom. First, can hear a little about your background?
Sure. I did a degree in agriculture then joined the Marks and Spencer graduate trainee programme. Later I went into the pharmaceutical industry because I wanted to learn how to sell, and after a stint in IT and CRM development I took over the running of Rackspace. When I joined we had few staff and fewer customers but I took it to 150 people and £30 million turnover. A few more scale-ups followed and in 2014, following the birth of my daughter, I decided to work for myself. At first I called myself a business consultant because I thought the term ‘coaching’ was a bit ‘Kum-Ba-Yah’, if you know what I mean! Then I realised that coaching was what I was doing and I embraced the term. Now I’m most definitely a coach, and clients like me because I’ve sat where they’re now sitting. I’ve been there, and I couldn’t do what I do now if I hadn’t.
What particular skills do you bring to your coaching philosophy?
I like the approach outlined by Verne Harnish to scaling up, which is Strategy, Execution, People and Cash, and if I have pick two that I feel are ‘mine’, it would be Strategy and People. Right the way back to my days at M&S, my success has been around hiring and motivating people, and if you have the right strategy and the right people the execution and the cash will be taken care of. I honestly believe that.
Do you apply the same principles to every firm you work with?
One of my guiding principles is to look for clients whose CEO is humble enough to know that they don’t know everything and are curious enough to want to learn more. That’s my ideal client; the person who will feel consciously incompetent while we’re working through the change period but will be prepared to stick at it and put in the hard work because they are committed to change. This isn’t easy because many people don’t like to feel out of control but if you work at it the rewards will come.
At what stage do firms approach you for help?
It’s usually at the stage when a CEO has a problem and they’ve got to the point where they don’t believe they can solve it without help. They look for answers, and maybe find some of my content online and if that catches them and they see the potential of what I can do, they reach out for solutions to their problems.
What kind of problems are we talking about?
Quite a lot is around company culture. It also could be organisational structure and difficulties with scaling up.
What are the most common roadblocks in the way of achieving growth?
There’s often a roadblock around talent. If, for example, you have a start-up you often end up with a whole team of multi-disciplinary players and as the business grows the guy who had six jobs and could hold them all down is now not good enough at each one of them to be a main player. So that can cause tension. Or as the business was scaling the top salesperson because sales manager or development guy became head of development. So people are moving into management jobs because they are great at their functional skill, but not at management, and that can cause real difficulties.
Let’s turn to your new book. Tell us more…
This book is about people and culture, and achieving ‘Plan A’ is about getting the right people. Jim Collins says it is about getting the right people on the bus and knowing where that bus is going. I think that’s true; for me, that is Plan A. I really believe that if you have the right people and you know where you’re going, you can sort out everything else along the way. And the best people don’t need a lot of management. That can be a shock for the management team to hear! Often I sit down with an executive team and I say, ‘Think of your best people and describe them in comparison to your average staff.’ And hear the words ‘proactive, self-starting, not needy’ etc. These people aren’t being paid higher salaries than anyone else, yet can be 2x, 5x, 10x more productive. So these are the people we need to look for, because if we have them we can then focus on finding customers and servicing them, rather than micro-managing the team. That’s what’s important, and often it can be a relief for the exec team to hear this.
In the book you have five core principles for business success…..
Yes. The first is that the customer is king. If we don’t have customers we don’t have a business. Smaller firms have fewer problems with this but when they get big they often lose sight of who core customers are and what they want. It’s surprising how many firms pay lip service to the idea of customer as king and have built systems that their customers find difficult to negotiate. Then somehow, the customer becomes someone seen as hard to deal with or even as a kind of ‘thief’! So having clear definition of this is vital.
The next point is default transparency and honesty. For example, I often to say to firms, ‘Be honest, and share details of every person’s salary’. Some are OK with that, others are horrified and tell me that if they share details, their staff will know that the pay structure is unfair. So solve the unfairness situation! The fact that you know it isn’t fair and you haven’t resolved the problem and you think people haven’t worked out means you’re being disingenuous. Sort it out.
I hired a guy who ended up being my head of networking - he hadn’t finished a computer science degree, was running a pub and no-one would touch him.
Thirdly, there should be diversity in recruitment. Every single time I’ve gone out of my way to hire in a more diverse way we have ended up with different ideas and a better business. I think that principle of diversity for the sake of diversity is a good one. Some of the best people I’ve hired would’ve been off the radar of every other recruitment process. I hired a guy who ended up being my head of networking – he hadn’t finished computer science degree, was running a pub and no-one would touch him. I hired him because I loved his passion and energy, and I knew we could sort out the education certification later. And I’ve hired great people from Eastern Europe whose English hasn’t been perfect and no one would hire them for that reason. I hired a person who ended up running our internal IT security and his CV was handwritten on biro on pages torn from a school notebook. Most people would’ve thrown that in the bin because he hadn’t typed it. I love looking for the talent that other people are knocking off the table. So you need to go the extra mile when you look for innate talent.
The fourth point is to think about small teams. A small team is a bit like a scout patrol; everyone knows what’s going on, what everyone else is doing, and everyone is accountable. When you’re talking about a team of 150 no-one seems to know what’s going on, there are passengers all over the place and we’re in silos. Customers find big teams hard to navigate and hate it when they’re passed from department to department. So you need to concentrate on building small teams to service small groups of customers. Customers and staff love it because there is transparency and accountability. You’re building a business out of blocks of customers and that has been incredibly successful for me.
Finally, managers should think like business coaches. Often I ask people about the work they’re most proud of. When they’ve considered that, I ask them to put their hands up if they were managed by their boss to do this. And no hands ever go up! People do their best work without managers, therefore managers need to be coaches, knowing what a great day at work looks and feels like. No one has ever been to the Olympics without a coach, and professional sports teams have loads of them. The manager shouldn’t be telling you what to do and checking the homework. They should be there to help the employee doing a good job to do even better.
Why is having a big idea – what Jim Collins describes as a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) – so important and is it possible to have this without a clearly defined purpose?
Yes and No! Jim Collins researched companies which did well and which didn’t, and what he was struck by was that companies that outperformed the benchmarks he was tracking had this 20/30 year vision of where they might be. They had a concept, they asked themselves, ‘What are we passionate about, what can we be the best in the world at and what do we make money from?’ And the BHAG is, ‘Where could that take us in 20 years’ time?’ So having clarity around these concepts is vital. Either think small, which is fine, or believe you can change the world, have a vision and show your staff where the company is going. If we want to get people on the bus we’ve already mentioned, we have to make sure the destination is attractive. No-one wants to go on holiday to Scunthorpe!
‘What are we passionate about, what can we be the best in the world at and what do we make money from?’ And the BHAG is, ‘Where could that take us in 20 years’ time?’
Finally, in the age of the pandemic and what is undoubtedly a challenging period for businesses of all shapes and sizes, are the principles you’ve outlined in your book applicable to the situation businesses are facing now?
Thinking about clients I work with who are thriving, not just surviving, I would say that the common factor is that they are all customer-centric. If you know your core customer and you’re serving them effectively, you are in a good position to be able to pivot. Your customer hasn’t changed but perhaps their thinking has, but if you’re aware of that you can pivot according to changing needs. I think it’s also important that the CEO has a growth mindset. One of my clients is a digital agency and they furloughed a few people during lockdown, but not most, and they’ve worked hard to reposition the organisation, double down on sales and have had some amazing client successes. One of their clients was 100% offline before lockdown and they’ve got them to 90% online revenue during lockdown. In contrast, one of their competitors furloughed everyone for 16 weeks and is just coming out of hibernation now – so which of those businesses will be in better shape by Christmas? The growth mindset, even in tough times, is fundamental. You can only create value for your clients if you really understand them, and if you do that you can charge more and therefore run a more profitable business that allows you to be successful. People who are fearful are going to try to cut prices to attract customers, which will decimate their profitability and they’ll spiral to disaster.