Attributes of a Great Leader in a Scaling Business

Guest Author: Sam Smith

Drawing on Sam Smith’s (ex finnCap Founder & CEO) extensive knowledge of successfully scaling businesses, we asked her to identify and champion the attributes of a successful leader in this space.

At age 24, I left KPMG as a newly qualified accountant, moving out of large corporate life into the world of entrepreneurship and fast growth business. This ecosystem was where I felt ‘at home' for the first time, and I have been a massive advocate of the scaleup ecosystem ever since. My journey building finnCap, a successful stock market listed financial services business, involved acting for hundreds of growth companies across multiple sectors, quoted or private, where I saw a wide variety of leadership styles and learnt (over 25 years), what led to growth and what didn’t. What got investors excited and what didn’t. What got teams motivated and what didn’t. 

I learnt from each and every entrepreneur that I came across, to understand what it took to be successful, and in some ways more importantly - what didn’t work. I assimilated all these learnings and experiences to form my own view of what it takes to build a great business that can scale. I developed my own style of leadership, which was above all authentic, and built a unique culture that helped us scale from £1m turnover a year to £1m turnover a week. So, what are the key attributes that make a successful leader of a scaling business? 

I think the important place to start is at the beginning. First-time entrepreneurs, or those that may not even realise they are entrepreneurs but are building something, start with ambition, an idea and energy, but the clear standout factor from the start has to be self-awareness. 

Leadership styles take time to build. Finding your own leadership style and your true authentic self takes time. In fact, it is probably always evolving. New leadership skills need to be built over an extensive period and there is no manual entitled 'how to be a CEO'. It is on the job training and different skills are needed at different times over the scaling journey. The problem is that without self-awareness, you can’t see what you need to learn and do something about it.

My number 1 attribute of a successful leader must be self-awareness

This is something that can also be worked on. Coaching, mentors and more formal leadership-based training can help you see which areas you want to work on, and the blind spots that you might not see on your own. Ego plays no part in this and the less ego you bring to the self-awareness journey the better. You don’t always know what you don’t know!  I always used to say to myself - every year I will get out of my comfort zone and work on the thing that I like the least. That is where the most development and magic happens. Don’t take the easy improvement - start with the hardest first. Get really honest feedback about what this is. Be prepared to listen. 

The first skill that I really started to work on was my confidence in speaking in public - my inner orator - whether to talk to the team about strategy, or to make a thought leadership speech to the industry. This was important to our scaling journey as you need to build a brand and a story. In the modern world of information, storytelling and building your inner orator are so important. Whether it is used to inspire the team, sell your vision, persuading a company to merge with you, recruit key people, or pitch to clients - the ability to communicate effectively is key.

This brings me to my second key leadership attribute - building your inner orator.  

It is also one skill that I often see put to the bottom of the list because it is too hard, there isn’t enough time, or it is something many people really don’t want to have to do. For a lot of entrepreneurs this is something that we find uncomfortable, and therefore if you can master it, it quickly becomes a competitive advantage as it is so hard to acquire, yet incredibly valuable. Many scaleup entrepreneurs quickly identify that there is more to running and growing a business than they realised and they want to build their leadership capability. The investment in your speaking skills is something that I found, and still find, to be an invaluable investment and one that absolutely helps scale. It builds confidence and gets your message to the outside world and to your team. Articulating a story and your personal and business 'why' drives real engagement and an aligned team.

The third attribute is around mindset.

 As CEO you are the company’s growth champion. It starts and ends with you. You have to have a growth mindset and build a culture of growth into the business. Opportunities appear when you are fully looking at growth - thinking big is extremely important. It is always helpful to be optimistic, but that isn’t the important bit - it is the growth mindset that will help you open the window of opportunity and see what might be possible. At every stage of growth, new opportunities arise if you are in the right mindset to see and hear.

My fourth key attribute is belief.

You have to be a believer - with true grit to get through the tough times. I faced many different internal and external crises during my 24 years as CEO, but in every event I never lost the belief in what was possible and never ever thought we would fail. 

So, my top 4 attributes for a leader of a scaling business are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Communication skills - building your inner orator 
  3. Growth mindset
  4. Belief

There are many other skills which are required but can come in different shapes and forms and I don’t think I have seen any consistency throughout my career. The overarching one, which I have written about in my book 'The Secret Sauce - how to superscale your business and empower your talent with empathetic leadership' is around a leadership style.

Empathetic leadership - what does this look like? 

In today’s business environment what attracts talent is not just about money, it is about culture. To build the team you need, and to have the best possible chance of success requires a willingness to build empathetic leadership skills. For me this means focusing on making sure each and every person working in your business feels valued and brings their best self to work. 

A happy team are a productive team and much more likely to lead to growth. The most important skills here are listening, hearing and reacting to what is being said. Taking the time to treat people as individuals and be flexible where needed. The ability to care and show you care is fundamental. This style of leadership is becoming more important in winning the talent race and revolves around finding your own authentic style. So, your style of leadership and being authentic is what is most critical here. If you don’t think you are a traditional leader, the good news is there isn’t one anymore. Your style is good enough. Having the ability to be your true authentic self with confidence is the harder part. 

Being a culture setter is important and leading from the front. Being a visionary and someone who can see the big picture and cut through a lot of the noise.

Risk taking is sometimes considered important – I think what is really important is the ability to know when to take risk and when not to, not just to be a risk taker.

Being a great networker is also a key attribute when trying to build a business - not always necessary, but I think important. Networking comes in all forms and doesn’t just mean the extrovert at the party. Everyone has their own relevant way of networking, and one is as good as the other. 

Being a team builder is also a key attribute. Knowing who to hire, who won’t make it on the next stage of the growth journey, and spotting your future leaders are all key skills. Hiring someone better than you and not being afraid of that. I always thought making myself replaceable was a key goal. It took a long time, but this mindset helped me to find great people, empower them, and grow the business. Trying to make yourself replaceable is probably what takes good leadership to great leadership and should never be something to be feared when building a great business. Although easier said than done!

All these skills can be built on during your growth journey as your company gets bigger. There isn’t a one size fits all in entrepreneurship, thank goodness, and that is what makes it so much fun! Individuals, doing their own thing, being self-aware, having belief, pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, always in their growth mindset, and building great communication skills to sell their vision and inspire their team.

If you focus on these leadership skills, growth will come and you will succeed in getting to your next stage of growth, wherever that may be.

Sam Smith bio

Entrepreneur Sam Smith is the founder, former CEO, and adviser to the Board of finnCap Group Plc. Sam was the first female chief executive of a City stockbroking firm and has worked on over 200 transactions, IPOs and secondary fund raisings. Under her leadership, finnCap is now a leading advisory firm for the business of tomorrow. Sam actively champions investment for female-led business through the finnCap Ambition Nation: Female Leaders Series to help create better networks and demystify financial jargon. Sam is also passionate about empowering young people and helping them develop essential life skills. She is spearheading a campaign for entrepreneurship to be integrated into the school curriculum and works with organisations such as YourGamePlan, icanyoucantoo and Modern Muse to help create a fairer foundation for young people, irrespective of their background. Sam is part of the Government Taskforce on Women-Led High Growth Enterprises, supporting the next generation of female entrepreneurs, and is also on the advisory board for Everywoman, which champions the advancement of women in business, and is also Patron to The Entrepreneurs Network.

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