What do growth consultants teach? The UK's top guy tells us

Business growth guru Gerard Burke talks to us about his cherished tips for quick success

When it comes to business growth, Gerard Burke is a bit of a celebrity. During his almost 10-year career advising businesses, especially entrepreneurs, he has helped more than 1,200 people to get more out of their companies. He has been there to help them grow, diversify and cash out.

While doing so, he also managed to build himself a pretty impressive reputation, not to mention a successful company, Your Business Your Future which runs its programmes in partnership with London’s Cass Business School.

As programme director of the Cranfield School of Management from 2004 to 2010, he transformed its Business Growth and Development Programme into the first place entrepreneurs would head to in order to improve their skills. Over 600 owner-managers participated in BGP during his time at the helm.

Pretty impressive, but Burke’s growth tips are actually pretty simple. Commonsensical even. You certainly don’t need an MBA to understand them. In this lies the beauty of Burke’s approach, not to mention the secret to his success, and that of many, many others. 

Your venture Your Business Your Future is pretty new. What kind of people are have you worked with so far?

We work with ambitious owner managers who own and run their own businesses and are ambitious for it to be different and better in the future.

We are very specific about the people we work it. We work with already established  businesses, not very early-stage start-ups. This presents a different set of challenges, namely growth and development.

For example, the owner who has already established a machine and knows that the machine can produce a turnover and is generally sound but wants that machine to work more effectively.

What are the typical challenges your clients encounter?

Firstly, growing the business. Then, arranging a transition, like passing ownership to someone else or a period when you something big is going to happen.

We also have managers who have recognised challenges about themselves. Possibly, they feel that while the business is successful, it is consuming too much of their time. They are falling out of love with it.

A lot of these people start a business because they are good at something or have a particular skill… but because they are so good at this thing, they end up with too much work and take on more people and accidentally end up running a business.

The owner-manager is good at the thing that the business does. But then they have to manage the business, the business can outgrow their management capabilities.

One of your key points has been working on transforming entrepreneurs from hero to strategist. What do you mean by that?  

This is the single most important thing that is fundamental about our approach.

An owner-manger business looks and operates the way it does because it is run by a person.

I am an owner manager and my business is a reflection of me. If we swapped roles, it would end up being completely different. It is an extension of the individual and the two end up inextricably linked.

So when deciding what the future of the business will be, you have to look at the owner-manager and their own personal ambition and drive.  You have to ask what they want.

A lot of people assume that they have to become the strategist. They think that they have to stop doing the stuff they used to. But that might not be what they want.

Ultimately, you have to clear about what you want for yourself.

What rewards do you want to get from your business, financially and otherwise? How much time and energy are you willing to put into the business? How long do you want to keep doing this for?

Different individuals will make different choices. All of the choices are valid but they lead to different outcomes and different plans on how to get your end goal.

Client Profile One: Go Ape – Tristram Mayhew

Mayhew originally started the adventure holiday business as a lifestyle choice.  He had fairly limited goals and objectives for it. He was really only challenged by others and realised that if he keep it in this limited capacity he would lose his best people because they would go elsewhere.  He then decided he would really push for growth and ended up taking on a much more strategic role.


Do people usually need outside consultants in order to move to the next level?

It can definitely help the individuals. But we are not consultants. We don’t tell people what to do in that way.

We run development programmes where we get groups together and help them decide what they want. And then they design, build and implement a business that can deliver this. We’re there to provide the support but it is the teams that decide.

The key thing is to recognise the implications of your decision. If you want to dedicate more of your time to your original passion and less to managing, you will probably not be able to grow into a very big business. But that is ok.

Do people want to get bigger or keep personal control of their business?

The majority doesn’t want a very big business. They typically want a business that is a bit bigger. Most people just want to feel proud of their business.

When they retire, they don’t want to say they ran a small business, but that they ran a really good small business. It is these personal connections that are more important than the scale.

Client Profile Two: T-SA – Tak Shimazaki

Talented Japanese architect Tak Shimazaki felt he was more of a “traditional artisan”.  He was an architect working for a big company but found he couldn’t express his views there. He left to set up on his own firm with another architect. They became  successful and took on 15 – 20 employees.  When Shimazaki came to Burke however he was not doing architecture anymore. He was pitching so that other people in his team could work.Burke helped Shimazaki determine that he wanted to spend at least 50% of his time doing architecture and the rest articulating the beliefs of the firm. Additional management was brought in.

What do you do when people come to you who have struggled with their business?

This is a situation which often happened when people who have been running the business for a number of years find it’s not achieved what they wanted it to achieve.

If you are the owner manager everybody else takes their lead from you. They’re watching you all of the time. You’re communicating all of the time, whether you mean to or not.

Your mood is observed. The words you say and the way you say them is listened to. This is all very important to other people.

If the boss comes in a good mood, all is booming, everybody feels great. But if they come stomping into the office repeatedly everyone will wonder oh no what is going on. It can demotivate people.

This further demoralises the manager and you get this negative downward spiral. If that carries on, the business can feel like a dead weight.

What we do is help people break that circle and create a new circle, a positive reinforcing cycle, by helping the owner managers to articulate what they want for themselves and the business.

If they get this right, they will feel reenergised, and the business will do better.

If you had to pin down your success to one thing what would it be?

It is our single most important belief that the single most important thing is the person, the owner-manager themselves. An awful lot of what we do is to help people be clear about what they want. This is unique to us.

We do all the other conventional stuff like marketing, sales, and that is important but there is nothing fantastically different about these areas.

Your course is sometimes viewed as an MBA on the quick and cheap. If you achieve such good results so quickly are MBA’s even necessary?

Horses for courses. An MBA is fine for what it is. In the owner manager world there are some people who have MBAs who start a business and they’re fine but they will quite often come on a programme like ours anyway.

An MBA gives you a huge tool kit of ideals and approaches from the world of business but it does so independent of context.

The idea is that wherever you get in your career in business, you will always have your tool kit and will be able to pick up right tool. This is fine, as far as it goes.

Our approach is to think that a lot of the tools you’re never going to get out of the box. They will just stay there for the duration of your career. We say, let’s figure out exactly what the tools you need in your business and let’s get them out right away so you can start using them.

Thanks Gerard!



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