Think at London Business School
Friday 27 January 2023
How can you seize the digital opportunity, harnessing the power of technology across your business while avoiding the pitfalls?
By Julian Birkinshaw
Driessen Group was a family business, with about 150 employees specialising in HR-related services for the public sector in the Netherlands. We were growing fast, we were in the news, but it wasn’t clear to me where we were heading.
There were many questions that I didn’t really have the answers to. Like many bosses of family businesses, I didn’t understand the purpose of growth. What is it actually for, when you stop to think about it? How could we grow without losing the thing that made us special in the first place – which was being small – and without spoiling the party?
I knew I needed time away from the business – to work on the business instead of in it. The Developing Strategy for Value Creation programme at London Business School asked the right questions: Where do you want to go? What do you want to sell? As the company grows, what do you want to become? Equally importantly, what do you not want to become?
It made me realise that, in order to grow the company effectively but in the right way, we needed to give people opportunities – we needed to transition from a family business to a family of businesses. It was very exciting to come out of that first course with a coherent strategy and a vision of what the business should be.
I then put a lot of effort into designing very simple models into which the strategy would fit and work. This is really fundamental: everyone in the company knows and understands them, which is key to securing buy-in. You need to define what is really important, and whether it should inform the model, so we put a lot of energy into getting consensus and agreement to get that buy-in.
That was the first programme I took, in 2012-2013, and I have now taken five in total. I have been on a journey through all of them, in a logical progression, and have gained so much. Even if you don’t go on to implement everything you learn, increasing your understanding can be hugely valuable. For example, after the first strategy course, I went on the Mergers and Acquisitions programme. It made me realise that, while it can be the right strategic move at a particular point in time, making acquisitions wasn’t how I wanted to grow and we would only do it if it was really necessary. I realised that the Corporate Start-Ups course was much more appropriate. I then did the Executing Strategy for Results course. This gave me a lot of tools – it’s very practical and enables you to implement strategy in order to get where you want to be.
The environment is so conducive to enjoying yourself. I was also surprised at how people interact with each other. Of course, people are different, but our similarities are greater than our differences, even for people from very different backgrounds, and it was extremely rewarding to be in that environment.
“As the company grows, what do you want to become? Equally importantly, what do you not want to become?”
“To create impact at scale, you need to empower others. You need as many people as possible to be happy in their work environment”
Because the courses had made me aware of the importance of giving people the opportunity to run their own business, we then sent all company directors on the strategy value-creation course. It took two to three years of working on the strategy to implement it, and today the leaders of each business are executing the strategy and we’re growing and evolving.