There are thousands of books, podcasts, blogs and coaches dedicated to the mindset that business leaders need in order to succeed. But is there a set of common skills that leaders must embrace, regardless of size and scale, in order to succeed both personally and for the organisation around them? 

Here is my mindset cheat sheet that combines all the advice I have assembled and why these skills ensure businesses maintain the competitive advantage. Regardless of the size of the organisation, these four pillars are the common ground that I believe equal success: excellence, agility, communication and courage.

Excellence

In my experience, success comes from an obsession with excellence. This obsession must start at the top of an organisation and embed that behaviour firmly in company culture. Tom Peters, one of my favourite business management thought leaders and bestselling authors, talks about this in his recent book Extreme Humanism. (I don’t want to brag but I even have a signed copy of this, his nineteenth publication!)

Peters has interacted with thousands of organisations and individuals over 43 years and believes that excellence is not just a message or way of doing some things but rather the way of doing everything. Service is key: service to one’s teammates and colleagues, service to one’s customers and vendors and service to our communities. 

With a drive for excellence comes the compelling need to question everything – people, processes and technology – and replace any mediocrity. This is a key tool to strike down slow corporate processes that hold back progress in business operations and the technology that underpins it. 

Success comes from an obsession with excellence – this obsession must start at the top of an organisation”

Agility

No business leaders including big corporate ones can opt out of an agile future. And frankly, it’s about time! 

Nespresso was a skunkworks project at Nestlé, so it’s not only small businesses that innovate fast, however, this is often the exception and not the rule. The pace of embracing innovation is a challenge in every large enterprise I’ve encountered.

Is it mindset? Is it accepting dated processes for decision making? In some cases, yes, it is. It’s a mixture of complacency, for example: ‘it will never catch on’, or ‘we don’t need this to be successful’; legacy tech being costly and time consuming to replace and a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude often wins. Equally, there is an understandable need for standardisation and risk management in corporate enterprises. Running 1,000 pilots adds complexity to big corporates needing to manage consistent service and risk, in particular, reputation around investing in something that could fail. That, to my mind, is still a mindset issue because it can be just as damaging not to try that innovative, new technology as it is to try it and fail. 

Communication 

It is vital to be able to present well, be structured in the way you work and be analytical in the way you think. Leaders need to be able to communicate to employees, customers, the media and investors. Einstein-esque visionaries in any size organisation often lack commercial flair and communication skills that isolate them from those they need to effectively communicate with. So not only is the ability to communicate well essential, but so is the desire to be communicative essential. 

Courage

Continuous learning, and applying that knowledge to courageous decision making, can combat the laborious processes that often slow organisations down. As is perpetually discussed, large enterprises often have challenges with embracing agile technology, whether that’s because of a fixed mindset that ignores new ways of working, or slow and laborious processes making progress glacial. Too often, enterprises buy tech from the mega vendors because they are pre-conditioned to do so. Again, is this a mindset issue?

What about the differences in mindset between leaders of different sized organisations? Is identifying those differences seen as important when laying out a blueprint for success? Melissa Morris, CEO of Lantum, a workforce management platform used across thousands of NHS organisations from large hospitals to integrated care systems, believes scaleup leaders have a lived reality that lends itself to having a different type of drive. Founders and CEOs of scaleups have to be paranoid given that they are competing with a vast number of incumbents. Growing a company is often akin to the David vs Goliath scenario, where founder CEOs have a very a big incentive to make the business work, often with their whole identity tied up in the success of a business, Morris told me. 

On the other hand, large organisations have executive and non-executive boards, experienced leadership teams and many more resources at their disposal, so success is rarely on the shoulders of just one person. The pressure is different, and the different mindsets are different as a result. 

Establishing the right mindset is the first piece of that puzzle and one that all business leaders should consider”

Conclusion

Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all in business, with the mindset required of a FTSE 100 CEO different to that of the mindset of a scale-up leader. But to my mind, regardless of the size of the business, there is a blueprint to the perfect mindset and that lies firmly in the characteristics of striving for excellence, being agile, being a great communicator and being courageous. These identifying characteristics can be applied across geographies, industries and different scales of organisations. They should form the foundations of any business that wishes to succeed and are unlikely to be absent in any successful stat-ups or scale-ups. Yes, there will be exceptions – many large enterprises display none of the attributes on my list and yet are hugely successful. But, they became successful in an era when there was far less of a focus on the kind of differentiators that stand one new business apart from another. Could those global entities stand toe-to-toe with a modern, more nimble competitor if they didn’t have decades of success behind them. Perhaps not. Whilst defining a blueprint for success that cuts across all types of businesses maybe a challenge too far, it is almost certain that those which do succeed will share some common DNA. Establishing the right mindset is the first piece of that puzzle and one that all business leaders should consider if they hope to prosper in the new era of commerce. 

Emma Sinclair MBE, co-founder of EnterpriseAlumni