Expert advice: ‘The best business lessons I ever learnt’

We asked dozens of corporate giant C-suites and founders of SMEs for the best business advice they have ever been given. Here are some of their words of wisdom

 “It was Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who said, ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ Those words have never been so important to heed.”

Gerd Leonhard, chief executive officer, The Futures Agency

Ian Rand from Barclays Business Banking
Ian Rand from Barclays Business Banking

“The best business advice I’ve been given is to acknowledge that leadership is hard, and this means accepting that you’ll need help and won’t have all the ideas. Leaders can sometimes think that they should make decisions on their own to demonstrate that they have full grasp of a situation. But instead they should constantly ask for advice. You never know where the next big idea will come from, but it probably won’t be you.”

Ian Rand, chief executive officer, Barclays Business Banking

“It’s so important to listen to colleagues of all levels and experiences. Employees will never feel comfortable speaking their minds unless companies create an overarching culture of inclusion. We use an online platform called Chatter. We’ve found that actively listening to our employees in this way has had a dramatic impact, empowering individuals, regardless of role or region, to have a voice that is heard.”

Andrew Lawson, executive vice-president and general manager UK, Salesforce

“The hardest but most valuable lesson to learn is your approach to failure. When I first started out as an entrepreneur, one of my businesses failed badly. Although things didn’t go the way I had hoped, my backer sent me a note saying that this business had failed despite me, not because of me. I still use this piece of advice today, which helps me to depersonalise and keep track of my objective.”

Rich Gelfond, chief executive officer, IMAX

Carl Reader is author of The Startup Coach
Carl Reader is author of The Startup Coach

“My dad told me in my early days of working to keep a contacts book. Since then this has moved onto my iPhone, with emails and social media handles rather than landlines and fax numbers, but it has been amazing how contacts from over a decade ago are still relevant to me today, and how a strong network is vital.”

Carl Reader, business adviser and author of The Startup Coach

“Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds. This means stay humble, but always be brave enough to dream big. I’ve often repeated it to other entrepreneurs – that, and to think like a toddler.”

Paul Lindley, founder of Ella’s Kitchen

Kate Burns
Kate Burns from Hambro Perks CREDIT: © MAX LACOME/MAX LACOME

“[Executive chairman at Twitter] Omid Kordestani once told me (while we were scaling Google rapidly), always hire people smarter than yourself, but also people you inherently get on with. One day you could be stuck in an airport with them for hours.”

Kate Burns, chief executive officer of Media Tech at startup accelerator Hambro Perks (and Google’s first international hire)

“ ‘Frustration comes before a breakthrough.’ What I like about this is not its truth – that is inevitable, as most breakthroughs need tension to be achieved – but the philosophical view it provides. It places you in your own story and allows you to imagine the perspective from the future, which in turn gives you permission to accept the frustration of not being where you wish to be.”

Mark Curtis, co-founder and chief client officer, Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive

Leo Rayman
Leo Rayman from Grey London

“The best advice given to me came in the form of the following story. There are two hunter-gatherer tribes searching for food. One group splits up and covers a large area. The second grabs a charred stick from a fire and breaks it on the ground. Whatever direction the stick points, the whole tribe go. Despite being no more strategic, the second group find more food because they travel all together in the same direction.  So, in business, choose a direction, communicate it to your crew and go together. That is what real success is made of.”

Leo Rayman, chief executive officer of advertising agency Grey London

“The head of our Spanish organisation once explained to me he takes a ‘nose in, fingers out’ approach to management. As a business leader, no matter how much you want to, getting involved in everything makes you stressed and unproductive. Set up a reporting structure which means you only have to be involved in making the critical decisions, freeing up your time to tackle the bigger challenges which, ultimately, you’re paid to overcome.”

Matt Cross, UK managing director, Hotwire Global

“ ‘Don’t do what I say, do what I mean.’ This is my favourite quotation from a friend, and an amusing way of remembering how important it is to be clear in your communication.”

Aidan Bell, chief executive officer of e-commerce service EnviroBuild

“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given was to ‘hire positive people’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about your team blindly saying ‘yes’ to everything; innovation flourishes when you build a team that challenges the status quo. But it is about a team that communicates ideas and feedback in a positive, productive and fair manner. In the end, happy staff are productive staff. It’s a win-win.”

Pip Jamieson, chief executive officer of professional networking platform The Dots

Ed Molyneux from FreeAgent
Ed Molyneux from FreeAgent

“The best advice I’ve ever been given is: ‘Make sure you are a painkiller, not a vitamin.’ You need to be offering something to customers that it would be painful for them to live without rather than just a nice-to-have – then your business will have more chance of longevity and success.”

Ed Molyneux, co-founder and chief executive officer, FreeAgent

This article was first published in The Telegraph in March 2018

Published by

Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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