CEO and Help to Grow: Management Mentor Helen Tonks: 5 Tools for Business Growth

CEO and Help to Grow: Management Mentor Helen Tonks: 5 Tools for Business Growth

5th September 2022, 11:54 am

Leading a business is hard at the best of times. The last two years have presented business leaders everywhere with unprecedented challenges. 

As we look ahead to a recovery, many challenges still remain such as supply chain problems, labour shortages and rising inflation. But the time is ripe for equipping SME business leaders with the skills and know-how to navigate these challenges. 

Helen Tonks is CEO of Hydraulics Online. She’s also a mentor on the Centre for Enterprise’s (CfE) Help to Grow: Management programme, which helps leaders learn new skills, drive growth and productivity and reach more customers.

In this blog post, she explores five tools for ensuring long-term business growth:  

  1. A clear vision for the future

My husband and I launched our business in 2004. Before going to market, we agreed on a shared vision. We decided that we were going to create a specialist, customer-led hydraulic equipment and systems provider that offered a viable alternative to traditional, product-led industry players. Almost 20 years later, our operating environment has changed significantly but our vision hasn’t.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that as a business leader, you have to be absolutely clear about why you’re in business. What problem are you trying to solve? What future are you trying to create?

“At Hydraulics Online, our vision is madly bold – it’s to be the world’s leading independent fluid power provider. We won’t get there in our lifetime, but it absolutely guides all that we do.”

A clear vision gave us the confidence to elbow our way into a well-established industry and launch as a digital-first business. It also helped us innovate continuously along the way. And today, we serve clients in 130 countries around the world because of that.

As an SME business leader, how might innovative thinking help you create the future you seek for your business? How are you going to compete in the market? How will innovative thinking help you maximise customer value? And what will help you stop confusing your company’s product with your company’s purpose?

R. Michael Hendrix, partner at the innovation consultancy IDEO, describes innovation as “not always about starting something new out of nothing”. He continues: “Often, innovation is about seeing things that already exist and visioning them assembled in a different way to create something new.”

  1. Customer insights and fresh perspectives

Horst Schulze, former President and Chief Operating Officer, Ritz-Carlton Hotels, said: “In a business, customer service is everyone’s business.”  I love Schulze’s principle here because I think it’s so spot on. Through every interaction with your business, customers are building a picture. And at Hydraulics Online we have proven great customer service has no limits. We really do make the miles disappear when supporting our global customer base remotely. 
“If you’re going to survive the next set of challenges, you must know who your customer is. What do they want? And why have they come to you? Are you successfully delivering?”

The pandemic provided businesses with new channels for engaging customers. This led to rapid business digitisation – from the enhancement of e-commerce capabilities to the proliferation of video conferencing communication.

Overall, this has been a boon for firms and customers. But it doesn’t take away from you as a business owner doing the hard work of really understanding your clients’ desires and frustrations and ensuring you continue to be relevant to them.

One of the things I love about the Help to Grow programme is that you get to hear different stories about how your business leader peers are adapting and how they engage with their customers. It offers a fresh perspective on your own situation. 

Remember – your brand is what people say about you behind your back! It’s not just about your logo, it’s about your values and the consistent experience that people have when they interact with your company. 

  1. A strategy for sustainable growth

You can have the best product and best service offering. But if you don’t have the right people in the right roles with the right tools, your business won’t grow. This means creating a culture that allows your team to flourish.

Mark Johnson, author of Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth advocates a “future-back approach.” That simply means casting a vision of where you want to be and then working back from there. Also, get creative with resources to make sure that as you pursue growth, you aren’t creating cashflow problems or unnecessary pinch points in your strategic change plans.

Doing all this impacts and shapes company culture massively. It inspires staff and makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

“Businesses should never chase growth or scale for the sake of it… not everybody needs to dominate the world. But we can all strive to be as productive and sustainable as possible.” 

  1. An approach to operational and financial challenges

Today, technology is improving exponentially while the cost per unit is also decreasing rapidly. Azeem Azhar, author of Exponential, a book about our rapidly evolving technological world says: “In the early years of the computer industry, the number of industries that were actually impacted by exponential change was quite small.” 

He continues: “Today, with billions of us having smartphones, technologies that are improving exponentially can affect really large numbers of people and businesses very, very quickly.” 

Leaders need to get under the bonnet and into the data to make sure they really know what’s going on within their business. 

“For business leaders, the challenge is to harness the tech opportunity appropriately, to help smooth out bottlenecks and inefficiencies in various operations.” 

  1. Dedicated time to personal development

Personal development is an area that business leaders can easily neglect. It takes real intentionality to create space and time to reflect on what you’re learning, how you’re learning, and where there are gaps in your knowledge and skills. 

As a business leader, it’s possible to stagnate and stop pushing boundaries. The trick is to learn how to continually step out of your comfort zone without losing your nerve. The flipside is that you fall behind while others move forward.  

“What has kept me buoyant, sane, and confident has been my network – other business leaders from a diverse range of sectors and Manchester Met.” 

It’s been great to connect with fellow SME managers, peer groups, and mentees on the Help to Grow: Management programme. Having someone there who understands the struggles and loneliness of leadership is invaluable. Mentoring creates a particularly safe space to do that.  

Discover Help to Grow: Management

The Help to Grow: Management scheme is an invaluable opportunity to build business resilience following the impact of COVID-19. Taking place over 12-weeks, it’s designed to fit around your commitments and help you consolidate a long-term plan for growth. 

As well as practical management training, you’ll benefit from 10 hours of one-to-one sessions with a mentor who will offer you personalised support to help your business reach its potential. 

Explore the Help to Grow: Management programme 

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