Leadership and Management

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High-flyers: loose cannons or your greatest asset?

For a business owner, having an ambitious second-in-command can be a double-edged sword: is it better to reel them in or let them soar?

Last updated: 21 Jul 2020 5 min read

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  • Allowing ambitious, capable employees to flourish can benefit your business and reduce staff turnover
  • A mix of solid, dependable types in the team can help to balance out the eager high-flyers
  • If someone is overstepping the mark in a bid to get ahead, there are ways to rein them in

Life as an SME owner can be extremely stressful, and high on the list of start-up woes may be the ambitious senior hire who wants to run the business. Reel them in and you risk them leaving. Let them fly too close to the sun, however, and they could bring your little empire crashing down.

After speaking to several business owners and experts, the consensus seems to be that ambitious, capable employees should be allowed to flourish. By making the most of their enthusiasm, your business can reap big rewards.

“When you’re an SME owner,” says Susy Roberts of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, “your biggest asset is having really talented people around you, particularly if they can bring some structure to the business.” She cites the case of a client whose second-in-command has excelled at forming a rock-solid base on which her boss’s glittering ideas can stand. “He has learned that by getting great people in, it has enabled him to grow his business really quickly,” Roberts says.

Another benefit of empowering your senior hires is it can reduce staff turnover – or ‘churn’, as Roberts refers to it. “Good SME owners want to keep people,” she says. “They don’t want people leaving because they feel underused.” Young people are especially quick to disappear if they’re not given the freedom to fly, says Roberts. “If they feel they don’t have enough opportunities, they’ll just jump ship.”

Too much too soon

Stefano Maifreni, founder of business expansion consultancy Eggcelerate, found himself wondering what to do with something of a high-flyer when he appointed a new expert in operations and enterprise resource planning (ERP). “It was a pretty rare skill set in our arena,” says Maifreni, “and the person we hired immediately wanted to restart our ERP from scratch and also take over key financial operations. Showing initiative was great, but his ambitions were all a bit ‘too much too soon’ and potentially disruptive.”

Maifreni’s solution was to challenge the new hire with objectives that were slightly out of his comfort zone. “I also had to balance a collaborative and more direct style of managing him,” he says, “and ensure that there was a continuous review of the projects he was working on.” It worked – this approach channelled the employee’s energy and drove positive change for the company.

“Having a high-flying workforce far outweighs any potential negatives. You can benefit so much, not least because you get different perspectives and people who are happy to challenge the status quo”Gary Cattermole, co-founder, The Survey Initiative

Andrew Barrow, founder of insurance broker AMB, is always looking for new ways to empower his small team. Last year, he made two former account executives company directors. They are now more involved than ever in the running of the firm, and will play a key part in Barrow’s own exit strategy. He says the result of promoting the two directors has been a major increase in how involved they are in the business. “It’s in my interest to grow the business because it will be worth more, and it’s in their interest to grow the business because I put them on a profit share,” he says. “But beyond that they’ve also got different skill sets from me and we can play to everyone’s strengths.”

Benefits of high-flyers outweigh the risks

Gary Cattermole’s knowledge of employees and their motivations has been gleaned from two sides of the fence. On the one hand, he is co-founder of an SME named The Survey Initiative; on the other, his business just happens to help firms understand what makes their employees tick.

Cattermole says one obvious (if often unfounded) reason an SME owner might want to clip an employee’s wings is because they are worried the worker is going to learn the tricks of the trade and then set up a competing business. It can happen – Roberts has a cautionary fireside tale of a CEO who made an employee feel undervalued because he felt threatened by him. The employee left, formed a competitor business and is now thriving.

Cattermole says: “While there are some risks, having an enthusiastic and high-flying workforce far outweighs any potential negatives. You can benefit so much, not least because you get different perspectives and people who are happy to challenge the status quo. As a manager, that keeps you on your toes because it’s possible to become too comfortable.”

A final thought: hiring an entire team of high-flyers might be a mistake. You do, after all, need some solid and dependable souls who are just happy to turn up and get the job done. As Cattermole says: “It’s all about having the right balance, and I think I would always want a mix of both.”

Three steps that show your #2 is overstepping the mark:

1. They take an open dislike to another team member

“Deal with this as soon as you can,” says Lisa Pantelli, an employee-engagement specialist, “because a good second-in-command should be repairing cracks in the team, not creating them. You may need to involve HR or perhaps consider a personal coaching plan to help hone their people-management skills.”

2. They said something publicly to a client or supplier that is outside their boundaries

“If you think it’s about to happen, get in there early and make sure you’re clear about who has responsibility for what,” says management-development consultant Peter English. “Let them know what needs to come from you.”

3. They do something that damages the brand

“We’re known as a trusted brand and people come to us because of that,” says Andrew Barrow. If one of his team were to endanger that reputation, he says, there would be words – although he points out that having a solid and open relationship with your deputies should mean this never happens.

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Leadership and Management, Strategy and Planning