Agility is a much-prized thing in business. The word often serves as shorthand for the dynamism, changeability and risk-taking that traditionally comes from small businesses. And traditionally, as a business grows, so its agility is abandoned in favour of more rigid hierarchies and best-practice codification.
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But there may be another way. We sat down with Nick Longden, former Xero Sales Director and sales expert, to find out if a business can keep that agility as an SME and beyond.
Xero to hero
Nick Longden joined Xero in September 2012 as its first UK Sales Director, and its 13th UK employee. The accountancy software business has, of course, grown significantly – in the two years that he was with the company his team went from two to 45 – and the company now has around 500 employees worldwide.
Xero had the challenge of taking on the established UK giants, and to do that the company had to take a fresh approach. The software was simplified for end users, and to keep it as accessible and attractive as possible, the business had to keep its all-important agility as it grew. It kept a keen eye on user feedback, and adapted accordingly; it adapted its hiring process as the team grew. Through staying agile and dynamic as a larger company, Xero is now a big hitter in accounting software worldwide.
First things first – how would you define agility in business terms?
In the context that I’ve experienced it, it’s the willingness to change, and change rapidly, based on market conditions. It’s the ability to react to different business conditions and challenges that are put in front of you.
Why specifically do you think it's common for smaller companies to be more agile?
I think in general, it's to do with the open mindset that people tend to have in small businesses. It's the attitude and passion of the people that work there - that's what makes businesses agile. It’s not necessarily tied to size.
People who work in larger companies are happy to turn up for their nine to five and blend in, whereas what I tend to find in small businesses is an extremely passionate mindset. By the nature of the number of people working there, they're more visible. People are lot more accountable when they can’t disappear in an organisation. They therefore have to make decisions and be pragmatic, otherwise the business suffers.
Is it possible to keep that agility once a small business grows?
I think it's driven from the top. If you look at Xero for example, it’s grown to 1,600 employees, and the CEO Rod Drury is still very visible – not only internally, but also externally in terms of being the face of the business. Agility is absolutely still there thanks to how active he is, driving the passion from the top, interacting with the staff. That passion is never diluted.
Otherwise, it comes from having clear goals and objectives, and making those goals visible. Everyone should be working towards a common cause. We go by the phrase that it's the fast that eat the slow, not the big that eat the small. You can never stand still; you have to have the mentality of continuous innovation and a willingness to try something new.
So invention and innovation are also important to staying agile?
If you look at Apple, they would set aside 20% of their time for innovation. I think that mindset is what helps you to stay adaptable, empowering every worker to come up with new ideas.
The right balance needs to be struck between monthly numbers and the one- or two-year vision for the business. You can’t ignore the medium term planning – looking to where the business needs to be in 12 months rather than just a month or five years.
Did you enjoy this article? It was first published in the magazine for high-performing professionals The Leap.