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Q&A with Duncan Cheatle

Ahead of his appearance at Elite Business Live 2020, we caught up with Duncan to get his insight into changing talent demands in the digital age.
18 December, 2019

Q&A with Duncan Cheatle

As Founder and Chairman of The Supper Club, Duncan Cheatle has spent over 16 years engaging with entrepreneurs and championing UK enterprise. As a response to the talent challenges he has seen scaling businesses face year on year Duncan more recently founded Learn Amp, an employee success platform with a mission of ‘making work life, work better’.

Ahead of his appearance at Elite Business Live 2020, we caught up with Duncan to get his insight into changing talent demands in the digital age.

What was the light bulb moment that led you to creating The Supper Club? 

I’d been going to lots of speaker-based networking events and found myself frustrated with the format. I remember one event where the speaker wasn’t bad, but when I turned around to talk to the other people there, every one of them was a lawyer, or an accountant, or a life coach. And this was meant to be an entrepreneur’s event. At that point I thought, there’s got to be a better way to meet my peer group. So in 2003 I started inviting a few other business leaders to a round table and our mantra was ‘no accountants, lawyers or life coaches’. We’ve now hosted over 3,000 events focussing on scale-up businesses.

Talking of scale up businesses, what do you think are the biggest issues facing scaling businesses in the UK at the moment?

People talk about funding, but I think there’s plenty of funding, and has been for the last 20 years. For me the two big stand-out things are talent and technology.

With talent, digital skills are only one small part of it. The real challenge is broader: it’s finding the right soft skills, and people with the self-awareness and temperament to drive their own continual development. Things change fast, and you need individuals that are happy to explore and develop.

Technology, meanwhile, is a two-sided coin for scaling businesses. Those who are deploying technology successfully, with vision, are getting ahead fast, transforming industries almost overnight. On the flip side this disruption means that we’re seeing business risk manifest itself much faster than we used to. Technology is creating an increasing level of transparency and speed, with which mistakes can be broadcast in no time at all.

I think technology is great but equally terrifying if you’re not well equipped and keeping on top of it.

Talent has always been an issue for businesses, but how have you seen those challenges change since you started The Supper Club?  There’s a lot of talk about changing cultures, millennial talent, different demands…

I think those are manifestations of underlying problems. There are two stand-out issues for me.

One, we have an education system that isn’t setting up people to enter the workplace. Since OFSTED came in, and schools started to obsess about exam results, the unintended consequence has been that kids are being taught to pass exams rather than to learn and develop skills. It’s a real culture shock to leave that structured environment and enter the workplace: they often don’t have the soft skills employers are looking for and they have to adapt quickly.

That leads on to the second issue…the unhelpful labelling of millennials and Gen Z’s as ‘snowflakes’. It’s hardly their fault that they’ve come out of a system that hasn’t prepared them, during a time when everything they do is amplified on social media. I think they are the two big talent worries for businesses: finding soft skills and also creating a supportive work culture to get the best out of younger talent.

What impact do you think the right talent can have on businesses?

It really is the difference between success and failure. However good your product or service is, if you’ve got a poor team you’re going to fail. Whereas you can have a second-tier product, but with a great team you can still win out.

If you get A-star players, the real stellar performers, they deliver twice or even three times the value of an average player. If you’ve got the capability to attract that very top tier talent, there’s a multiplier effect: you can get a whole team of those people. I’ve seen the impact of this first-hand in my own businesses.

What do you think is the trick to attracting that kind of top tier talent?

You’ve got to be very clear of on your vision, mission purpose and values. People are increasingly looking for a sense of purpose at work, rather than just a pay cheque, so why and what you do is key to attracting talent.

Then it’s about providing an amazing experience – but there’s more to this than putting greens and ping pong tables. It’s about three aspects: creating a culture around your values and work ethics, making a physical environment that people are going to enjoy and, lastly, developing a digital environment.

This last one is often overlooked. You need to create a digital structure around onboarding, career progression and professional development to retain younger talent for longer. They need to see the benefit to them, and their career trajectory, or they will take their talent elsewhere. That’s where a platform like Learn Amp comes in: to engage employees, communicate the opportunity to them and essentially retain talent as a result.

To hear more from Duncan, join us at Elite Business Live 2020. Find the advice inspiration you need to grow your business, whatever your challenge: book your tickets today