I got a notification on Linked in this morning as I headed out my front door on my daily dog walk. I really hadn't realised that it was our anniversary let alone how long we have been in business. Considering the average job tenure is for between 2 and 3 years, running a business for 17 years is quite some achievement and especially as I get as excited about Collingwood now as I did back in May 2005. Here are some of my reflections on how we still have a thriving business after 17 years.

1. Why did we start Collingwood Executive Search? 

My previous employer and boss were fantastic. It was both a great learning ground for me to develop my own client portfolio but also an environment that I could have an impact in especially around leadership. I helped to double revenue but my boss made some bad decisions on the recruitment consultants he brought in and our culture deteriorated to being a transient one where more and more consultants came and exited through a revolving door and all the talk was around "what fees will you do this month" rather than have we delighted our clients, how can we innovate and improve what we do and does our team have an aligned purpose and set of values. It became a fee focused business and it didn't sit well with me. Feeling down, one of my clients gave me a pep talk and introduced the idea of setting up our own company where we could create an aspirational culture, offer the value added services that would delight our clients whilst also developing a team that would nurture a culture that I would love to work in. In May 2005 Collingwood was born.  

2. Aspirational clients are everything

We have always been a marketing rather than selling led business. We have told stories and relied on client referrals rather than have a team cold calling every day. We started by investing in Google Pay Per Click which kept the phones ringing off the hook for 8 years but we eventually realised that this route was bringing in too many clients that didn't really believe in our retained model that succeeds when companies invest time and collaborate with us. Google PPC brought in an array of clients that saw Executive Search as a magic wand to solve their impossible recruitment challenges! Around 2016 we met Mr Bryan Adams from Ph Creative who became a key instigator of our desire to attract aspirational clients. He made us stop investing in Google PPC and start to use content marketing and storytelling to attract aspirational clients that we previously could only dream of working with. We halved our business overnight and took 2 years to build it back but we now have a portfolio of clients that we would do anything for. We are proud to call them our clients and love that they respect us as subject experts and listen to our creativity and innovative ideas to help them recruit the talent they need to enable their growth strategies.

A key question we used to ask ourselves was how proud were we to discuss our clients with our friends and family. At times during the Google PPC days we were too embarrassed to! 

3. Having a team aligned to a common purpose and set of values is key

Forget recruiting people who can do a job and earn money for you. You must really think about what the purpose of your business is. You should also consider your core values and ensure you recruit people who align to the two. This was a new concept when we started out and it really cost us. We recruited far too many journeyman recruiters who were only motivated to come to work for one thing. BONUS! Since realigning our team I have never been prouder of Collingwood. Don't get me wrong, we have always employed some amazing people but never in a totally aligned team. Today, we are totally aligned and the result is a strong ethical culture of individuals looking out for each other, a culture of well-being and one that is totally focused on delighting our clients. Fees and bonus is still important but I rarely hear it talked about. Delight our clients and these things come anyway.

4. Never become complacent and constantly look ahead

We have never taken any of our success for granted. We have had too many downs to realise that the garden doesn't remain rosey forever! I guess I am a bit of a pessimist and so constantly plan for 6 months time. This comes in the form of being at it all the time to both deliver recruitment assignments and leadership programmes in the way we have promised our clients but also incessantly learning and trying to improve. Filling our opportunity pipeline is also really important and we do this through caring for our clients, gaining referrals from delighted ones and relentlessly using marketing to tell our story. 78% of our revenue came from existing clients last year and this has been our drumbeat for 17 years.

5. Be honest with yourself and be transparent with your team

I am a bit of a heart on the sleeve leader. It helps that my face tells every story but I genuinely prefer to share the ups and the downs with our team. They need to know what is going on whether it be good or bad. Together we can solve any problems that come our way but suffering alone is likely to make things far worse. You need to have a team that you can trust though!

6. Create a solid spine

We have an amazing operations team who have created a solid spine for our business. This means we have a robust set of processes that enable us to deliver success for our clients. We have invested in platforms that provide us with all kinds of data that allows us to reflect, learn and improve. Our spine also provides a high level of governance and removes a lot of risk that would otherwise be in play.

7. Create a culture of personal development

We are genuinely a team with a growth mindset and having such individuals with an appetite for learning requires a consistent investment in it. We don't really believe in classroom training and instead get together twice a week to read books, watch videos and listen to podcasts. We have key subjects that we agree we want to learn about and everyone finds content that will help us learn about these gaps in our knowledge. It has been a fantastic initiative that has become a core element of our culture. 

8. Look after mental health and well-being

This is a key priority for us and our team. We have had a mindfulness coach for over 4 years now who hosts weekly sessions with our team to talk about all things around mental health and well-being. It has created a really open conversation where people really don't mind sharing what is bothering or worrying them at work or at home. Armed with this knowledge we can do something to help. Covid was a breeze for Collingwood as this open culture had prepared us and we were already a very resilient and robust team.

9. Enjoy the ride!

You might have visions of what you want your business to be and how you want it to perform. However, there are so many things that will arise without warning that will make the ride more interesting and perhaps less in control than you would like. Just enjoy the ride and build in time every week to reflect on what is happening so you can learn and react well. Be present, enjoy each day and don't think too far into the future.

10. Be grateful

Leading a business is extremely rewarding. You have an opportunity that only few have or take. It can be an amazing way to spend your life and provide benefits that far outweigh the stresses and strains that leaders and owners will have. Just be grateful to have the opportunity.