The power of the outsider: Why every business needs someone who doesn’t know its business
Good business leaders expend a lot of effort creating a positive internal business culture. They spend time getting to know their teams and delegating the right tasks to the right people. They know their product and services like nobody else and have an unparalleled understanding of their organisation.
If anything needs adjusting or something needs to be overhauled, great leaders will be the first to identify it and act. Right?
Well, not as often as you would think.
The power of a fresh perspective
It may seem counter intuitive at first – but one of the most important factors in ensuring your organisation runs to its potential is to constantly have someone who at first knows very little about it to come in and take a look.
That outsider comes in with no pre-conceived ideas or – perhaps even more importantly – no political baggage, personal affiliations or ideology. If they see a problem, they see a problem. It’s that simple. They aren’t bringing a personal agenda or bias the way even the best internal leaders may do subconsciously.
The right outsider can do more to overhaul and refine your processes in a few weeks or months than most internally built working committees can do in a year.
Challenge and support in equal measure
Realising you can benefit from an outsider is a good start, identifying the right person is a delicate task.
Firstly, it’s not about bringing in the smartest business genius you know. Often successful business people make terrible mentors. They may do things instinctively they simply can’t teach to others as they don’t have the skills to impart that knowledge. As a result they can be emotional in trying to get their message across, rather than practical. Your mentor should offer an honest perspective grounded in practical actions you can take forward. Empathy is more important than genius.
The person you bring in should have real world experience in what you need their help with, not just be academically sharp. There is often a large gap between theory and reality and you need to know the person can bridge the two.
The right outsider challenges you, rather than simply supports you. It may be nice to have someone constantly patting you and your team on the back saying how well things are going, but that’s ultimately self-defeating. You need someone who also makes things a bit difficult and forces you to revaluate why you do what you do.
Getting internal buy in
When bringing in an outsider, it’s vital everyone internally is on board. This is especially true if you bring in someone you may have an existing relationship with. You don’t want it to appear like you’ve brought in an external ally to help force through your ideas.
When they first come in have them meet all the key stakeholders at the same time. Make it clear everyone has a direct channel to them if they want to discuss things. Critically, make it clear that no stakeholders – including yourself – will have ‘off the record’ or ‘secret’ meetings. Everything needs to be transparent and above board. That way your team will know the outsider is there for the company’s best interests and it becomes much easier to make changes.
Without focus, you have therapy
If you decide to bring in an outsider, you face a choice between picking somebody you have a strong relationship with and may work ‘pro bono’ (for want of a better phrase) or someone you pay for their time and insight.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with paying someone and many business people feel more comfortable with this arrangement. At a minimum, it’s easier to set down clearly the time and commitment a paid outsider will give – something that is trickery when someone is working for free and there is always concern you will feel you are asking too much of them.
The key factor if you decide to pay for external advice is to make sure that the arrangement you come to is directly linked to the challenge you face. For instance, if you are struggling with productivity and bring in someone to try and identify a strategy to fix this issue, then set a performance goal. That way, the advisor is striving to help you reach that defined objective.
If you don’t formalise a goal, it is possible the advisor can drift along for years on your payroll with no real measure of whether that are genuinely contributing to a better performing company. You could effectively be making in the advisor’s interest to remain an advisor indefinitely.
Focus is also key for an advisor you aren’t paying, of course. But it’s a particularly costly lesson if you have a commercial agreement.
Additionally, if they are with you too long there is a risk they no longer offer the advantages an outsider does as they eventually become part of the status quo.
Without focus you are paying for therapy, not mentoring.
‘Change leaders’, not cheerleaders
Having a sharp, professional external pair of eyes on your business at all times is one of the best ways to add value to your business .
You need someone who support you while never flinching from asking the difficult questions which keep you on your toes. Finding cheerleaders or supporters is relatively easy. What’s difficult is finding someone who makes things tough but does so for the greater good.
If you want to fix things internally, often the answer lies outside.