Parental skills on the board

Financial Times

The biggest challenge is not in the workplace, but at home coping with parenthood

The biggest challenge that any of us can face is not in the workplace, but at home: parenthood. Suddenly, there is a noisy little bundle of joy who demands our total commitment and unconditional love, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The challenge of starting a business is a close second, with eager anticipation followed by many sleepless nights and much metaphorical, if not literal, nappy-changing. But just as a sensible new parent gets help from experienced family members and other subject matter experts, a wise entrepreneur seeks the advice of their mentors and even engages a business coach.

Business coaching has expanded rapidly in the last few years, and is highly recommended as long as you find someone who really knows their stuff and who understands exactly what you are trying to achieve with your business. Nowadays, there is no stigma in hiring a business coach; the top sports people are coached every day as they are always looking for that extra edge in their very competitive environment.

Even the simplest coaching can produce immediate results. Typical first tasks include helping the entrepreneur set realistic objectives and then attach some priorities, to separate the wood from the trees. But people are complex and the underlying reasons for a lack of perspective or poor performance may involve deeper issues which need to be addressed by a subject matter expert.

One such expert is Stephen Schneider, who has considerable experience in human resources, working at board level in several public companies and with Henley Management College before starting CPS Ltd in 1996. His company provides coaching and mentoring for senior executives who suddenly find themselves out of their depth.

The challenges people face in a new role centre around the different tasks they now have to do, but Schneider explains that fundamentally it is about the person themselves and how well they are psychologically equipped to deal with their new responsibilities.

A common problem is dealing with a strong authority figure. This is significantly aggravated if the new board member has had issues with their own parents, who may have died when they were young or have been largely absent when they were growing up.

Schneider also talks of 'envy pre-emption', when a client finds themselves under-achieving through feelings of guilt at out-shining their parents. They may be the first in their family to go to university, or feel uncomfortable that they have higher earnings and better opportunities than their parents. This can lead to a lack of willingness to perform to their maximum potential if they find themselves confronted by a strong character in the boardroom, despite excellent credentials for getting there in the first place.

They may have achieved significant results, exceeding all their financial targets in their previous role, but still struggle in the boardroom. Schneider explains that an authoritarian style, which may have worked well to deliver profits, is usually inappropriate in a functional board, which requires consensus.

A good board member has to be able to show expertise in advocacy, which Schneider defines as being the ability to hear all the evidence, come to sensible conclusions and then provide clear recommendations. This is a complex undertaking as a board member has to have knowledge of all the business activities of the company despite not necessarily having first-hand experience in some areas.

The techniques that Schneider and his colleagues use to address the challenges of joining a boardroom are just as important for a small business. All entrepreneurs should consider asking for professional help, especially when the company itself becomes more grown-up. Schneider defines this point in the growth of the business as precisely thirty-two people, when the internal communication begins to break down and it is logistically impossible for the entrepreneur to be father or mother to everyone, all the time.

Entrepreneurs are very complex and driven people, and this may be due to their having had issues with their parents when they were growing up. So it is ironic that when these entrepreneurs become successful they suddenly find themselves in loco parentis, acting as a mother or father figure to their members of staff, who can be more demanding than real children at times.

Entrepreneurship is a tough road, with some very hard lessons learnt along the way. During this journey you will undoubtedly develop some very important life skills which will certainly also be useful if you also have children. But you should never be too proud to ask for help.