Born to Business

Monday, March 1, 2010 - 09:08

Blessed are those who are certain of their goals in business. Sue Jackson is one. By Richard Jones.

While many of her peers may have been agonising over what they wanted to achieve or how they wanted to achieve it, Sue Jackson had no such doubts.

Jackson is Executive Chairman of Solterbeck - a company that works with clients on performance improvement - a Director of Performance Centre International and a Melbourne board member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation.

"I came from a family background of small business," says Jackson. "If, when I was 19 years old and doing a marketing course at university, you had asked me my goal, I would have said that I wanted to run my own business."

Jackson left university and started her career marketing fast moving consumer goods before moving on to work for a marketing consulting company. After a couple of years she was asked to become a director; four years later, in 2000, she bought the company. Accordingly, she is qualified to comment on what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Jackson believes entrepreneurs can be likened to explorers, not quite knowing exactly what is up ahead. But they're not completely risk averse, rather they are creative thinkers and they have some salesmanship about them.

Great managers, believes Jackson, are like generals, managing the day-to-day aspects of the business; and while the best entrepreneurs have the capability of operating in both modes, it is not all that common.

"One reason for this is that some entrepreneurs find it hard to let go of the details in a company they created, while some others are just not good at the details.

"They're what I class as 'serial entrepreneurs', because it's really the idea, it's the passion, it's the possibilities, that thrill them."

Jackson believes this is why so many entrepreneurs match themselves with good general managers or chief executives who will look after the nuts and bolts.

Female entrepreneurs

Jackson is forthright on the opportunities and benefits for women in the entrepreneurial channel.

"As a female entrepreneur you can guide your own path. There are many female entrepreneurs who have started a company from home," she points out.

"They've had good business careers but, while at home, they decided they wanted something more flexible. They've come up with a good idea, and now some of them are running $20 million companies."

She believes that to follow a corporate career, there's more of a need for a steady path. The need to be able to stay with a company for five or 10 years and not to be interrupted with some of the lifestyle demands that come with family.

Jackson has no doubt that running and driving a company is a challenge.

"I think it can be a struggle when you're running a growing company," she says.

"My company is still relatively small, but it's really different running a company of seven people, versus running a company of 20 people, versus running a company of 40 people, and I'm sure a company of 100 or 200 people would be different again. All those stages require different structures, and different realisations in terms of things like culture."

She maintains that culture is relatively easy to maintain in a small business with only a handful of staff "because you can touch every one of them".

But, she says, once the business has a broader structure of management in place you are reliant on those managers to define and maintain the culture.

"I also struggle with letting go. One of my company's strengths is account service, and, with my consulting background, I'm good at it. However, I can either stay and do the role myself or I can help foster and train 10 others to do it.

"You've got to let go and give people an opportunity to do the job, and not think that you're the only one that can do it. You're not the only one that's started a company and you're not the only one that's managed account service!" she says.

Flexibility a key

Jackson says flexibility is a key to success. As an example, one of her companies had two main business streams: one was incentive travel and conferences, and the other, marketing consulting.

"We started to see an emerging performance-improvement market, especially in the US, and we believed that it would develop in Australia. So we just decided one day not to take on anymore marketing consulting clients. We actually turned them away, and focused 100 per cent on new business in the performance-improvement area. It took about five years before our last marketing consulting client left and now we have more than 30 performance- improvement service clients."

In the past, she says, most performance- improvement programs were directed at salespeople, but now the growth is in the area of recognition, of peer-to-peer recognition.

"People across an organisation have a need to be recognised, and one of the ways a company can better instil its corporate culture and values is to promote them in an enterprise-wide program."

Jackson also believes in the importance of having the right people in the right job.

"A year ago we employed a chief executive. I sit down with her and we talk about what our strengths are and where our focus should be. I think our chief executive can probably run our company better than I can; she has much more experience, and she's run companies of 200 people, so she's been in a place that I haven't even been to yet."

But for Jackson it is the perfect mix because it allows her to operate more in the entrepreneurial space, an area she finds more natural.

Mentoring and structure

Another key to her business/entrepreneurial mix involves a strengthened focus and confidence achieved by linking up with a business mentor.

"I was introduced to a successful businessperson and entrepreneur and it has been a really interesting journey. One of the very first questions he asked me was 'what brings you happiness?'.

Jackson says it made her stop and think. "Because he said he couldn't help me on my path if I didn't know what I wanted to achieve.

"What I discovered was that my company is one of the things that brings me happiness. I love business possibilities and the things we haven't yet done; the things that I need to learn. I get a real buzz out of it.

"At that time, I was very heavily involved in managing the company, so I effected a real change as a result of looking at that simple little question."

As to the future, there are lots of great and interesting things that Jackson is working on at the moment, one or two of which may come off.

"I don't know which two at this stage, and it actually doesn't worry me; it's really much more about the journey..."