Build strength in numbers

If employees feel they are a pivotal part of a consultancy, the founders can concentrate on securing the future of the business, says Geoff Nicol

That glass ceiling… it hurts. One of the reasons Doug Alexander and I set up Navyblue Design Group in 1994 was that we both had unsightly bumps on our heads. We’d managed to move a fair way up the slippery pole at the various design consultancies at which we’d worked, but now it was clear we’d come to an impasse. If we wanted to fly to the moon, we’d have to build our own rocket.

But we didn’t want history repeating itself. We aspired to a culture where talented people could thrive, where they’d want to stay, and where there was opportunity to make it to the very top of the tree. There needed to be a real sense that employees were part of a company, where they could have a joined-up career path, rather than just treading water for a couple of years before moving on.

I’ll be frank – our motives weren’t purely altruistic, they also made business sense. Our previous experience had taught us that to get the best out of people, they need to feel appreciated, contributing to and sharing in the success of the company. That’s partly why Doug and I decided not to name the company Nicol Alexander or Alexander Nicol. That and because it’s not all about us – we just happened to be the people who set the ball rolling. We’ve always said we’d prefer to make 10 per cent of £100 million than 100 per cent of 1 million.

Design may sell anonymous creativity and ideas, but they are delivered by flesh-and-blood employees. Finding the right people, who fit in and are prepared to get stuck in, may be incredibly difficult, but it’s also critical. And once you’ve identified that exceptional someone, give them the space to grow – allow them to make mistakes, expose them to different aspects of the business, prepare them for what’s to come.

It’s a truism, but everyone reacts differently to pressure and responsibility – there’s a fine line between buzzing on adrenalin and drowning. We need to know what makes everyone around us tick. Everyone at Navyblue is encouraged to undertake an exercise called Strengths Finder, which does exactly what it says on the tin. We then try to build on these attributes, to harness them for the greater good of the individual and the company.

The proof is in the pudding. Several people who joined us as designers or project managers are now full board members. They’ve made their mark, and their prize has been a stake in the company. Everyone else can see it’s possible to make it to the ‘high table’, and that in a rapidly growing company, there are always opportunities.

Building a strong tier of management directly beneath Doug and I has always been a priority. It eases some of the personal pressure, and helps to give our clients a better, more reliable quality of service. And while management deals with day-to-day matters, we’re free to concentrate on the broader picture – strategy, planning, growth and the future.

Ultimately, that’s what the management team represents – the future. We’re sprightly and enthusiastic enough at the moment, but, inevitably, there will come a time when Doug and I will want to call it a day. I certainly have personal ambitions I’d like to realise outside of the design industry, and want to have enough zip left to achieve them. Whatever we do, we don’t want to leave our friends and colleagues high and dry. That’s hardly the most gracious way of saying ‘thank you’. We’ve seen several iconic design consultancies shut their doors or sell up in recent years, just because they never thought things through. Was this a part of their original vision? Somehow I doubt it.

We’re not saying our methods and systems are perfect. There’s no badge or certificate. But the future welfare of our staff is something we take very seriously. We recognise it needs continual review and investment, but we believe it gives us clear purpose and direction – that’s why it has been on our board agenda for so many years.

When we finally do hang up our pencils, we’re pretty confident that there are enough talented, dependable people on board to carry on the good work, who thoroughly understand the consultancy ethos and have come up through the ranks and feel part of something special. And we hope they take a leaf from our book and look to the next generation of management, to make sure that when they move on, they’ll hand over the reins with the same level of trust and conviction.

Geoff Nicol is managing director of Navyblue Design Group

Handling your succession:

• Build a culture where staff know they can ascend to the top of the corporate ladder

• Identify your employees’ individual characteristics and put them to use, to benefit both the individual and the consultancy

• Develop a strong management tier so the founders can concentrate on the group’s long-term goals

• Constantly evaluate working methods, making staff welfare a top priority

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