In our latest episode of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses., we chat with Colin Tenwick ex-CEO of Stepstone and Bookatable, to discuss what he learned working through different eras of tech, and the importance of not recruiting a board in your own image.
Listen to Episode 2.1:
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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses where we chat to business leaders about the building blocks of their success, and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. I’m Fiona Moore, and today I’m welcomed by Colin Tenwick, a prolific chair, and non-exec, notably working with ECI at Auction Technology Group, which followed a career including CEO roles at the likes of StepStone and Bookatable. Colin, welcome! There are so many more companies I could have named, but I think it would’ve taken the whole podcast.
Colin: Well thanks for that, hopefully not, but yes, thanks for that. When you’ve had as many years in tech as I have, at the end of the day, I suppose, you’re going to have a few companies under your belt.
Fiona: If we go right back to the start of that career, prior to your CEO roles, what was your first ever job, and what did you learn from it?
Colin: My first ever job, I was with IBM as a graduate. I joined IBM down in Havant in Portsmouth, where they manufactured mainframes. I was working with them in engineering procurement. I did a degree in business, but I was in engineering procurement as a graduate trainee, and very, very rapidly realised that I wanted to go into the more commercial side.
That wasn’t going to happen with IBM. They really did want me to stay with them. So, I moved to a bureau, one of the very first computer bureaus in the City of London in Berkeley Square, servicing the advertising industry. Really, you know, what we’ve seen with today’s SaaS environments is that almost the whole thing has come full circle. In those days, however, all the expense in IT was the hardware, and you gave the software away, and now it’s the other way around. So, it’s interesting.
Fiona: And what did that background teach you about tech?
Colin: I’ve been very fortunate to have worked through many, many different phases of technology, very much the leading edge throughout the last 25-30 years. There are some key things. Some of the key things you see are, you know, the customer is absolutely critical. Having really, really smart people around you and being able to dream the possible and sometimes deliver it. But back in those early days, again, very bright, smart, can-do international-focused people who were really at the forefront of bringing some technology to the UK at that time. It was a US company that was then coming to the UK.
Fiona: That sense of the customer being absolutely critical, it’s something we hear a lot from experienced CEOs. That’s something they’ve definitely taken to heart and is normally why their businesses are so successful. When you think about your journey from that role to then becoming a CEO, was that something you already knew? Did you find the transition very easy, or was that something you had to learn?
Colin: I think there was increasingly for me a recognition that I had a number of senior roles with US-based software businesses, which were very fast growth, very aggressive, very ambitious, running European operations, opening up new markets. But at the end of the day, you were a glorified sales and marketing director. So, whatever the title was, General Manager Europe or whatever, the reality is a lot of the things that you do as a CEO, which is actually all parts of the journey, including product, finance, HR, etc. All those other key parts really were missing in those roles. So, I reached the position where it was a case of, if you want to make the step to being a CEO, you’ve actually got to step off this particular train, which was incredibly successful, and from a job satisfaction perspective, incredibly interesting. And instead, start putting into practice a lot of the things that perhaps you thought you wanted to do if you had influence over, and the ability to look at the much broader sense that the CEO should do.
Fiona: And was that an easy transition, I suppose, when you know what you’re doing, and you’ve got quite a clear remit to suddenly then sort of like you say, having ownership over products, but also people. Was that something you found quite straightforward?
Colin: I think the thing I found straightforward was that you know, don’t think that you can be the expert in everything because you’re not. So, then it comes down to how do you encourage, work with, attract the very, very best talent, you know, the best finance director, the best chief people officer, the best head of technology that you possibly can. And your job increasingly becomes then the orchestrator, the conductor. How can you bring value to these people? So, and the other thing which I see too many times actually now as I’ve been chairman now for another year, don’t be afraid to recruit people who are vastly different to yourself. Because the reality is not everybody can be in the same image, have the same skillsets, or indeed the same sort of habits that you do. In fact, the last thing you want is a bench where everybody’s exactly the same. So, what you’ve got to do is you’ve really got to be quite open to recognising that the job here is about attracting the best skillsets for those individuals, and they will have different motivations and different requirements
Fiona: It can be quite a difficult process there because I think lots of people recognise the importance of that diversity of thought, especially around the board table. But our natural inclination is if someone sounds like us, they’ve got a similar way of approaching business to us, we go, that’s great. They seem fantastic. Is that something that you’ve had to deliberately switch in your mind to try and actually not find people who work and operate just like you?
Colin: I think initially that was the case. I don’t think now, but it is definitely an issue that I think first-time CEOs, and senior execs in roles, need to be very, very conscious of. And actually, the worst people are the sales and marketing people because they always seem to recruit in their image. So, it’s quite interesting that you do, I think, have to make sure that you understand what is that you’re trying to do. Understand what the skillsets that you need are. Don’t lose that intuitive feel because that intuitive feel is absolutely critical, but you should also have the checks and balances in place.
Fiona: I wonder why you think sales and marketing people are more likely to hire in their own image?
Colin: I’ve always found salespeople just love being sold to.
Colin: They don’t have a great sort of cynical view in them in which they should do. So, yeah, it’s an interesting one.
Fiona: And obviously starting out in sales, quite a lot of I guess a big part of the growth in tech businesses is that sales side. Do you think that’s changing? Do you think life’s getting harder or easier for tech businesses now when it comes to selling?
Colin: I think the routes to market today are vastly different to the ones which were in place let’s say 30-35 years ago. In those days it was pretty much Route 101. You know, you recruited salespeople, they carried a bag, they carried a quota, and if you were lucky marketing-generated leads for them to work on and there were sort of events to go to, etc. And don’t get me wrong, that still plays a very important role, but it was pretty much the only route. Then we started to see the emergence really of channels, value-added resellers, and value-added distributors. So, that brought a whole new game, and a whole new set of responsibilities, and requires for a company to actually work with the channel, and so, we saw that evolve. Then we’ve seen how direct-to-consumer marketplaces have evolved.
So, the channels open to businesses today are so vastly different that it’s important that the commercial side of the organisation understands what is the right one for them at the right time, and understanding what the various trade-offs are because they’re all trade-offs. And depending on the size of business, you know, those trade-offs can be critical. If you get the trade-off wrong, then it’s going to stumble your growth, and you lose market share. So, it’s a much more complex environment today. That said and done, successful businesses today that I think have got that clarity and that real core focus can be extraordinarily successful very quickly.
Fiona: Really interesting to hear Colin Tenwick there discussing his own varied route to tech CEO, especially the importance of diversity and talent and skillsets in order to be successful. In the next episode, we discuss turning around a .com failure and the importance of scratching the itch of a CEO role.
Listen to the next episode here: