Professionalism in an entrepreneurial company
Yesterday, I was in Holland where I did a Q&A session with the Dutch team. Every once in a while I like to meet my colleagues locally the countries, where the local teams has the opportunity to ask all kinds of questions, and I have the opportunity to hear how they view the world and explain what direction Just-Eat is going. It is interesting for me to see what aspects are being brought up, and even though there always are some classics then there are some surprises here and there.
One of the issues we spend some time on yesterday was “professionalism”. Several people asked questions that were related to getting more structure & planning, more defined roles & responsibilities, better coaching & training, etc., i.e. all the stuff you would expect from a professional company.
Any successful, high-growth company goes through the different phases from idea/concept, early start-up, early growth, etc., and the trick is to get it right in each of the phases which are often very different from previous phases. And if a company doesn’t adjust quickly enough to a new phase (often pro-actively pushing into the next phase), then coming to the next level is only more difficult, if not impossible.
The challenge is that people also need to change. Some people are brilliant in one phase, but out of their depth (or just not motivated) in the other phases. A few can actually master many phases, extremely few work well in all phases. Nothing new here, this has been part of the technology and management literature for many decades, but the interesting thing is that it is still so difficult to get right, and the key reason for this is that “people” don’t get it. Or rather; they might understand to some extent, but they are not actually taking the full consequence.
In Just-Eat, one of the challenges we have is that we want our culture to represent both professionalism as well as entrepreneurialism. Entrepreneurialism I believe is about energy, willingness to take risks and mental flexibility. Key elements of professionalism is for me about applying the necessary levels of intelligence and structure. Some people believe the two things are not compatible. That is absolutely not true! It gets harder as a company grows, absolutely, but if you roll over and surrender to one view then it only gets worse.
Of course sometimes the two will clash, but at a closer look it happens less often than what we normally would think. Sometimes people that are out of their depths will complain about things no longer being entrepreneurial enough, and things are now “corporate and bureaucratic”. Likewise, sometimes some would say it is difficult because a situation is not handled professionally enough, “more time/analysis/structure/money” is needed, but maybe the problem is difficulty in getting on with fixing the problem, and taking a bit of calculated risks (”sometimes” is the key word here …). In many cases where I hear one of the two sides it is more excuses than real problems. Yes, it is tough sometimes to get it right, and I don’t always have the ultimate silver bullet either, but I am certain that the two sides can live together in healthy competition. When building high growth companies it is the right thing to balance the two. The right mix will change over time, but they both need to be there. Those that believe professionalism is equal to bureaucracy lose out on major opportunities.
At the personal level, I think it is important for all who loves to participate in building and growing businesses, that you do as was stated across the Apollo Temple in Delphi: “know thyself”. Understand what part of company building you are good at, and motivated by. Don’t fool your self into believing you are great in all phases. And be happy to leave the organisation the day you can see things are no longer good for you – and move on without moaning about how the company will now be destroyed and everything was better in the old days. You could of course be right, but the future progress of the company (or lack of) will typically tell the story.
Get the balance right in your culture for each phase, and I promise you have one of the most important things in place when building and growing a company. Very banal in theory, very difficult in practice.