Foundations: Lessons From My Early Career | Soul Spaces

Foundations: Lessons From My Early Career

Updated: March 21st, 2024

Published: January 29, 2023


On the 14th of January 2013 I collected the keys for a 3rd floor office in Hatton Garden along with some construction drawings I could barely make sense of, unbeknown to me at the time, my life was about to change.


After University, I felt lost. In truth, I felt lost throughout my adolescence, especially in my education. I crawled through the education system with anonymity, luckily finding a teacher in college who took an interest in me and stirred a passion for history. I got my degree from the university of Brighton, going to university is to this date, the best investment I have ever made. By 28, I had paid off my student loan of £35,000, 6 years after graduating.

My parents grew up in and around poverty, single parent families, council estates in the 1960’s and 1970’s, they both witnessed their mothers being physically abused. They occasionally have a competition between themselves to find out who grew up poorer, it’s a badge of honour they wear with pride but also hide with a strange sense of shame. They have always placed a lot of value on working, having a job, earning money, they celebrate our promotions more than our birthdays and feel more pride at a pay rise than they did when we got our GCSE’s.

Collecting the keys that morning, I felt intimidated, I had done the courses but I had no experience or real understanding of what was expected of me in the role I was about to perform. If you had said to me at the time, three years later you will be an MD of a construction company and seven years later you will be turning over ten million pounds making a 15% profit, I would have laughed.

This is of course what has happened and is what has led me to write this short book. I am passionate about reading but find a lot of the books I love focus on CEO’s, executives and people who already have leadership experience. Sharing my experience of being thrown in at the deep end, learning on the job and growing a successful company in a short period of time is for the young managers, aspiring managers entrepreneurs or anybody who feels they can do more.

I spent a lot of my life wanting to do more but not having the platform to do it, I believed in myself when it felt like nobody else did, when I felt anonymous, I knew I had value to give. This is for anybody who has ever felt something similar.

Life is too short to learn only from your own mistakes.

Foundations

The early stages of your career can be compared to a degree. The first year is about enjoying the time and the new environment you’re in, getting to know the people and passing all the tests that are thrown your way. By the second year a lot more is expected, you really need to start showing an interest in a specialist subject, honing your craft and not just passing your exams but doing all you can to excel. By the third year, you should be doubling down on your craft, have made a name for yourself and form the professional version of a dissertation which is the results you have to show at the end of the year and return on investment the company has provided for you.

I’m unsure I ever pushed myself as hard as I could throughout my education but in the workplace, I was a different animal. I didn’t necessarily realise it but I was money motivated, a self-starter and loved the autonomy the workplace provided. After a short stint learning the basics of our industry on site, my first year was tasked with forming the businesses first ever small woks division, contract values from a few hundred pounds up to £100,000.

I had a fear of failure, a fear of letting myself down that drove me forward every day. We are all different and have different motivations, some have internal motivations, failure, success, ego; others have external motivators, children, a mortgage, a dependent family, whatever yours is, identify it, magnify it and embrace it. To say I worked my arse off would be an understatement. I worked six and a half days a week, allowing myself Sunday afternoons to get some well-deserved rest for the week ahead, I didn’t holiday. I can’t sit here and recommend you do the same but I can tell you that I don’t regret those years and giving myself the best possible chance I could to be a success in business.

I felt personally responsible for the success or failure of the division I was heading up. I didn’t care about titles or pay; I saw the opportunity ahead and what it would do for me if I was able to make it a real success in terms of both profit and client satisfaction. I ran my own book and owned every stage of the process, initial meeting, surveys, costing, pitching, delivering, billing and then aftercare, if I done as much as I could myself I would save overhead and be able to increase profit, to be an entrepreneur you need to have the ability to wear many hats.

I would get in every Monday at 7am, send out all the costs I had formed over the previous week and weekend and provide clients with a deadline date for confirming the works. I would work out that by Monday mid-day I had often paid my salary for the week from the profit earned and could then spend the week focusing on my pipeline for the week ahead as well as delivering for my clients. I treated the business like it was my own, this is something which I did naturally but now understand how valuable this is for a CEO. Will you treat their money and time like you would if it was your own business? Will you treat their clients as if they were your own? If the answer is no, I would recommend you don’t consider becoming a business owner. If the answer is yes, you may have the foundations of forming a successful business when you’re ready to do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this period of my professional life, it was hard work, relentless and I made many sacrifices, relationships, time with family and my health but I was prepared to make them so I could give myself the best possible chance of achieving what I wanted to achieve. If you are unwilling to make sacrifices at this stage of your career, it’s unlikely you will get to the next stage you desire whatever that might be. During this time, I thought I had met the love of my life, we had just moved in together and I was genuinely happy. As my work took over our time became limited and even when I was there, I wasn’t present. When we broke up, I wasn’t upset, I knew it was the right thing at the right time of my life. I needed success more than I needed love during these early years of forming my career. Lisa was just one of the many sacrifices I made during these years.

I have been accused of being like a “dog with a bone” I can be obsessive about an idea and get to the nth degree with it in no time at all a trait I share with one of the biggest influences in my life, my mentor. During this period, I didn’t refer to him as my mentor but looking back he was, and so much more.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to anybody in the foundation years of their career is find a mentor. I was lucky enough that my mentor (FM) found me, if he didn’t, I am pretty confident my career within six years wouldn’t have taken me from the bottom rung to being the CEO of a £10million office design and build operation. You shouldn’t look for the perfect mentor, I can tell you, a lot of people thought mine was a mad man but like most mad men he was also a genius in his own environment. As the mentee you need to understand the positives and the negatives you are observing and pick and choose what you decide to put in your arsenal. I understood early on that I could never sell as well in a first meeting as FM but I took some of the good and identified other areas where I could better him. Looking back, I remember vividly some of the lessons, harsh lessons he taught me.

It is always your fault.

If you truly believe this and understand this statement, then you will always improve. Skinny shoulders in business don’t last very long with all the weight and pressure they need to hold. You have to analyse every fuck up and really believe you could have avoided the situation if you had done more. Sometimes, it may not be true, force majeure or a complete freak of nature may be to blame but if you can be hard on yourself then there is no situation you can’t deal with or become better from.

There is always more you can do.

How many times have you heard somebody say when leaving a pitch “we’ve don all we can now” or “it’s with the client to decide now”? This is how most people act and believe. The individuals who strive to be great don’t believe this to be the case. Once the pitch is complete, the game really begins, there is more you can do! Do you call the client the next day for feedback? Have you followed up on their feedback? Worked late to include their feedback on your model, design or floor plans? If you haven’t then you aren’t doing enough. If you are looking, you will find the extra 1% that can make all the difference. 

Celebrate your success.

You should be hard on yourself and on those around you. We all strive to have a positive work life but fundamentally there should be some tension in business, if there isn’t I would challenge whether the business is striving for greatness. When you do achieve your goals or objectives remember to celebrate with all those who have contributed big or small. Feeling part of a winning team is an intrinsic desire for all of us as human beings. Surprise your team with champagne, sushi, afternoons in the beer garden, it really matters and makes a huge difference. Celebrating and sharing your success, letting your guard down in those moments will transform your culture. 

If there is nobody internally in your current circle who you believe can provide the mentor role then find somebody from outside. Reach out, people love sharing and teaching. As the mentee you need to be prepared for your sessions, the emphasis is on you to get the most out of the relationship. If you have a bum session, then it’s your fault.

What you also need to remember is the mentor relationship isn’t forever. After 3 years FM and I were in many ways so similar the relationship needed to change and I decided I would experience with more formal coaching, a life coach and a business coach. The tell-tale moment was when FM was late to a meeting on a Friday morning, which wasn’t be any means unusual! I was left with the client and their professional team. They had come armed with their questions on our commercials and project timeline. By this time, these questions were easy for me to answer, I had seen FM do it hundreds of times. When FM did stroll in and begun answering the questions I had already answered the client almost laughed, it was like we were reading from the same script, in some ways we were, it was the script he had crafted over years and years of practice which he had passed on to me because of his desire to nurture.

Our relationship as mentor and mentee was less formal but since then I have encouraged my teams to find mentors for their specific roles and monitored the progress and sessions to ensure the time is well spent. I have often found the worst mentors are founders. Founders are special, I hold them in the highest possible esteem, the founders I have worked with have an energy around them that is unique and authentic, they are a special part of the business world. The problem I have found when trying to learn from them and spending time with founders is that they are often mercurial in their actions and terrible at reflecting on their past successes. They struggle to spend time dissecting what’s happened as they are uber focused on the 6 months ahead. From my experience I have also found they aren’t natural nurturers, they are excited by the chase and moving at pace, slowing down isn’t an option. All founders have gone through a time where survival was the only goal, once you have been through such a time it’s hard to shake that energy off.

The key take-aways from this chapter.

  1. Get a mentor. No excuses. Think through your personal and professional circle and reach out today.
  2. There Is always more you can do. Go through your live deals now and write down what else you should be doing.
  3. Find your motivation. Your motivation is unique to you, find it, magnify it and use it to your advantage.
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