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20 leadership lessons from 20 years as an entrepreneur

Ever wish you could go back in time 20 years and teach yourself the leadership lessons you know today? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently … What would you say to yourself? What would I say to myself? What lessons have I learned in the past two decades that I wish I’d known when starting up? Here’s my 20 leadership lessons I wish I’d known when starting up.

1) A “boss” isn’t the same as a “leader”

Bossing people around. Shouting. Pointing fingers. These aren’t the actions of a leader.

As a leader, you need to lead. This often means working longer and harder than anyone else. Show by example what you expect from your team in terms of work ethic.

Equally, when something goes wrong, don’t be the voice that’s raised loudest in condemnation. You can identify mistakes without yelling at someone in front of the rest of the team.

2) You can’t force a culture

Your company culture is more about what you do than what you say. You can insist that your company is a green and pleasant land in which to work until you are blue in the face.

But your actions will speak the loudest. Be a “leader” and not a “boss” if you want to create a company culture that nurtures talent and encourages commitment.

3) Don’t think “I”, think “team”

It’s not all about you. It’s a team effort. Leaders who say “I” a lot tend to be leaders who think about themselves instead of their team and the business as a whole.

4) Don’t be afraid to hire for personality

Hire people fast. Train them intensively. Those are words to live by. Personality is in many ways more important than skillset. Choose people for how well they will fit in with your team and train them to have the skills you need them to have.

One of the things I’m proudest of at Fantastic Services is the way we nurture the people we hire. We see a lot of them go onto great things internally and externally.

5) Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you

On the flip side, sometimes you need those skills and experiences. Don’t be of a mindset that because you’re the “boss” you need to be the best at everything.

We all have our areas of expertise. No one can be across everything. Where your expertise ends, don’t be afraid to hire someone who is an expert in the thing you need to know.

6) Draw attention to hard work

When noses have been to the grindstone for a long period, it’s good to give recognition to the people you noticed really put the work in. If that’s the whole team, make sure they know it.

Even when it’s just another day, heartfelt praise raises self-esteem and contributes to creating a positive place for people to work in.

7) Don’t pass on the criticism

While a new entrepreneur, I’m sure many of us had the experience of being criticised. Customers and clients. Other entrepreneurs. Even friends, who meant well but sometimes still sprinkled a little criticism in with their support.

Remember that it’s your job to absorb that criticism. Don’t pass it on to your team. Remember that boss early in your career who thought it was okay to take their negative feelings out on their team?

Try to remember who that boss is. Don’t be that person.

8) Get the whole story

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell exactly where your company is “at”.

You might have your sales team saying they have problems while the people delivering your services saying they’re getting fantastic feedback. You might have people in accounts saying everything is great while you know people have complained about a product you offer.

As a leader, you need to be aware of and balance all of these different opinions – well-informed or otherwise – and actually know how your business is doing. Don’t just rely on one perspective, even if it’s your own.

9) Define your message

Once you have taken all of the different perspectives on your business into account, it’s your job to – sometimes quietly, sometimes actively – broadcast a cohesive message to your team in a positive, proactive way.

Companies that operate with too much opacity don’t usually have a great culture. Be strong. Be clear. Be open.

10) Practice being self-aware

As well as awareness of your company, you need to be aware of yourself. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses will help you build the right team and even, in my experience, find the ideal business partner.

11) Use your network for feedback

Networking plays a vital role in building a business. At Fantastic Services, we offered free services and more for both charitable reasons and to build firm friendships with local firms and people.

But your network has another important role it can play – that of feedback generator. If you need an outside perspective on a problem or opportunity, it’s a great place to look.

12) Stress-test your old ideas

Over the course of a career, it’s natural that people get stuck in their ways. Avoiding this calls for regularly stress-testing your old ideas.

Does the approach you had or your standard response on a topic still hold true knowing what you know today? Spend the mental time to ask yourself and be sure. Changing your ideas in response to new developments and data is not a weakness.

13) Listen

Good ideas can come from anywhere. Inside or outside your organisation. From those at the very “top” to those at the very “bottom”.

Keep your ears open for new ideas. Whether they come from remarks made by customers, team members, your longest-known business partner, or the new hire that just walked in through the door on their first day.

14) Treat everyone with 360-degree respect

This is something I’ve always had firm ideas about, but 20 years as an entrepreneur has definitely underlined how important it is.

Whether someone is working as your CFO or the company’s newest cleaner, they are a person and should be treated with the same level of respect.

15) Build 360-degree happiness

Build on that basis. Being treated with respect. Feeling that their ideas are listened to. There are many ways your team should be treated by their leader if you want them to be happy. A happy team is a motivated team.

16) Offer a virtual presence

This is a new one that the events of 2020 have brought out into the spotlight. One of the successes we’ve had when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic at Fantastic Services is in creating virtual events and forums to keep our franchisees connected.

Providing virtual coaching is a great resource for franchisees and team members alike. As is enabling them to connect with decision-makers in the company to make sure they feel listened to and informed.

17) Fall down seven times…

“Fall down seven times, stand up eight” is probably my favourite aphorism. It encapsulates the strength of resilience that I believe every entrepreneur needs if they want to succeed.

Determination might be even more important than intelligence or natural talent when it comes to what defines your future success. If you want to succeed, prepare to be knocked back a step for every few steps you take.

18) Rule through security

We’ve all seen corporations that seem to operate on a system of shaming individuals or striking fear into sections of their workforce.

But the most powerful tool you can use to energise and motivate your team isn’t fear or shame. It’s security. If you can provide a working environment where your team feels safe, they will be more innovative, more creative, and more loyal.

19) Don’t let profit always be the driving factor

Constant worrying about squeezing every penny out of every action can detract from other, sometimes more valuable, goals.

What about sustainability? Your values? Your overriding purpose for your company?

It’s often said that you should concentrate on the process and let the product come. You could also say concentrate on the process and let the profit come.

20) Improve your work-life balance

Finally, one of the leadership lessons I’d known twenty years ago is the importance of work-life balance.

Starting your own company can be a time of incredibly long hours and endless hard work. It’s one of the reasons I’m such an advocate of the franchise business model today (why do all that hard work when someone else already has?).

Whenever you can, do everything you can to make that work-life split a little more even. You will find it all the easier to do all the things a leader should be doing if you’re coming from a place of balance.


Rune Sovndahl

Rune Sovndahl, is the co-founder of Fantastic Services – an international brand with 10+ years of experience that combines technological innovations with bespoke customer care to deliver services for the home, office and garden. Rune, who is Danish, moved to London 20
years ago to study for a BA (Hons) in Business Information Systems Design at South Bank University. Following completion of his degree, he was accepted onto a graduate programme with British Telecom. In 2003 he also established the European Young Professionals committee in London and was involved in its website’s creation as well as in the recruitment of more than 200 new members, also working for lastminute.com as Head of SEO before establishing Fantastic Service in 2009.