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Peak Performance: A conversation with Chris Cole

Author Matthew Birchall

“If you want to distil that into a headline then I guess I’d say it’s about always being on. It’s easy to dodge this conference or that meetup, but in reality you sit there, you chat, you learn.”

“When I was about 11 or 12 I started laying in bed thinking about the sectors that I wanted to launch my business in. Advertising seemed exciting; real estate seemed bold; but, in the end, I opted for recruitment: I had always had an interest in people’s careers and it seemed like there were very low barriers to entry at the time.”

“You can have all sorts of plans and strategies in place,” Chris Cole remarks, “but unless you actually deliver on them they don’t mean anything.” In a characteristic turn of phrase, the COO of Make it Cheaper, the self-proclaimed saving experts on a mission to put a smile on the face of British business, lays out his workplace philosophy. And having just made a third successive appearance on the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, it certainly seems like a philosophy with a practical pay-off.

We sat down with Chris to discuss his views on creating a culture that puts the customer first, his thoughts on how to tap into a winning mindset, and his opinion on what makes a great leader.

Chris’ Key Learning Takeaways: 

  • Treat your clients like you would be wanted to be treated yourself

  • Accept that you’re not brilliant at everything. Smart, savvy leaders play to their strengths and delegate when necessary

  • Getting your mentality right is the most important aspect of learning and development.

  • Simple test 1/10 when learning a new skill. Rate yourself out of ten. Where and how can you improve? Apply, assess, reflect.

  • Customer experience – use stories to frame what an excellent customer experience looks like 

Have you always had the entrepreneurial urge?

I come from a fairly hard up background, so I was always motivated to push on for something more, and for me this meant building and running companies. The impetus for this, most likely, came from watching my dad lose his job when I was a kid, after having worked tirelessly for a big corporate. If nothing else it made me think seriously about doing my own thing and controlling my own destiny.

“When I was about 11 or 12 I started laying in bed thinking about the sectors that I wanted to launch my business in. Advertising seemed exciting; real estate seemed bold; but, in the end, I opted for recruitment: I had always had an interest in people’s careers and it seemed like there were very low barriers to entry at the time.”

So that was that really. Once I had narrowed down my focus to just these three sectors – this was before I made the final decision to pursue recruitment – the task was relatively straightforward in that I purposefully focused all my efforts on achieving my goal. This is not to say that there weren’t a few trips and slips along the way, but the broad plan and intention was already in place.

How did you get your start in recruitment?

My grandad was involved in what is now called 3i but was then known as ICFC, a venture capital fund that supplied capital to post-war startups. When I told him I fancied working for myself he said that I should look into either getting experience in sales or finance to begin with, because all the companies he saw fail failed because they either couldn’t manage their finances or couldn’t sell their idea. I decided to go down the sales route as I didn’t particularly fancy finance.

“I was lucky enough to join Johnson & Johnson on their graduate program, where I did sales and marketing work. It was a great experience for an ambitious 21-year-old boy: I was knocking on the doors of chemists and small businesses trying to sell them everything from baby powder to KY jelly!”

It was a real baptism of fire, but it gave me a good feeling for sales, what working for a big company was like – both the good and bad parts – and some street credibility in case it all went wrong and I wanted to start my own venture.

From here I made the plunge into recruitment, by joining a company called The Hydrogen Group, where I rapidly became the highest biller. After spending some time at Michael Page, the market leader in recruitment, I set up a company with some folk there which went on to become The Hydrogen Group. Our goal was to create a business that we could list in ten years for more than fifty million quid, and that’s exactly what we did.

Why was The Hydrogen Group so successful?

The thing that we got right with launching both The Hydrogen Group and Make it Cheaper was that we sought to disrupt the market before disrupting the market was in and trendy. Our approach to recruitment at Hydorgen Group, for example, was so completely different that we changed the whole market.

We were the first recruiter that was candidate led: we quickly realised that candidates control both the supply and demand sides of the market, so we really focused on treating our candidates like we would want to be treated ourselves. This had a massive pay-off in terms of our reputation and it had a massive pay-off when it came to our bottom line.

If you’re a recruitment business then you simply must have great candidates. Clients are looking to work with people who have great candidates and who can offer them a great service. We were able to scale our business by getting this right, turning over 100 million quid per year with a staff of 400 when we listed.

What about Make it Cheaper? Can you tell us about your vision for the company?

The purpose of Make it Cheaper  is to put a smile on the face of British business, and our vision is to save millions for thousands: millions of pounds and million of minutes for thousands of small businesses across the breadth of the UK. But what exactly do we do on a day-to-day basis?

We help small businesses get a better deal on essential business services and utilities, saving each business owner a heap of time, money and hassle, so they can get on with what’s really important: growing a great business, building a world-class product and creating jobs for the local community.

You’ve spoken about your background in sales. What other skills have helped you forge a successful career?

Always seeking to learn and develop – both professionally and personally – has been a huge boost to my career, and I think this goes hand in hand with having the self-awareness to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. Where possible I’ve tried to play to my strengths and delegate tasks that I’m not so hot on. This is obviously easier said than done when you’re running a small start-up business and the default tendency, at least in my case, is to try and do everything.

But I think it’s so important to accept that you’re not brilliant at everything. The key is to actively seek out the best people possible, and to give them the responsibility and trust to just get on and do it.

What’s been your best learning experience?

I’ve learnt that not much happens when you sit in your front room watching the telly! Even though I’m naturally shy, I’ve found that going out and meeting people and putting yourself in new environments and embracing new experiences is the best way to learn.

“If you want to distil that into a headline then I guess I’d say it’s about always being on. It’s easy to dodge this conference or that meetup, but in reality you sit there, you chat, you learn.”

But you’ve got to get your mentality right. I actually think this is the most important factor when thinking about learning and development, and that’s why we use a program called Winning Edge  to make sure that our team stays focused. I would say that 80 percent of the people who have gone through it have said that it’s life changing. If I had just one pound to spend on L&D it would be on Winning Edge; it’s just so effective at getting people to understand what they want and how they can best achieve it.

And how do you ensure you stay at the top of your game?

I remember reading a book by an Olympic coach who spoke about how humans are innately good at learning. We’re wired in such a way that you can basically learn any new skill you want, the key is practice. His model is refreshingly simple: apply test your review your performance and grade it out of ten. It’s amazing how effective this simple method is.

When I was in recruitment I actually used this method to learn how to sell better. On the train home I would give myself a quick score out of ten on the four or five things that I was focused on. How did I do that day? Where could I make the biggest improvements? What calls have I got tomorrow that I can prepare for? This was, and is, my mentality when learning something new.

So for me it’s not about necessarily doing anything fancy. You actually want something as light touch as possible, something that can be completely owned by the person doing the training. It’s not about HR forms and reviews: it’s about getting stuff done and committing to the learning.

What would you include on your learning playlist?

Good to Great  by Jim Collins is my first pick. The reason I like it is that it’s a statistically based account of what makes companies outperform their peers. Even though it was written prior to digital disruption, I still think it more than holds up. My second pick would be Legacy, a book that looks at how business leaders can apply key learnings from the All Blacks. As a leader myself, I find the All Blacks’ desire to leave the jersey in a better place inspiring; it’s a great example of purpose in practice.

I also swear by getAbstract, a brilliant online tool that gives you two-page summaries of business books like Good to Great. Because it identifies the key points it saves you wading through 300+ pages. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of half-read books lying around the house!

How do you create a culture that puts the customer first?

It comes back to the idea of treating people how you would want to be treated. It’s as simple as that. If you’re not treating customers how you would like your relatives to be treated then you’re not doing it right.

You can spend a lot of money on training and development, but it comes down to selecting people with the right mindset. What I’ve found to be most useful has to be to use stories and speakers to frame for our team what we mean by an excellent customer experience. It’s important to be very clear about what you expect. And once you do that you need to make sure that you take customer feedback as seriously as you do any other part of your business: great customer service then becomes part of your culture.

Once you’ve got the culture of customer service in place it’s about then addressing any technical demands that your team may have. They may be there attitudinally but perhaps they need to develop a specific skill-set to help them deliver on their goals. This is where the mindset to learn and grow comes in.

Recruiting with success: How do you do it?

You need to know what you’re looking for and why you’re looking for it. But ultimately it’s about heart and attitude. There is no compromise in hiring, so you should never take on board someone you don’t fully believe in. What I’ve found over the years is that the difference in performance between those marginal hires and the people that really impress is astronomical.

CIPD actually says there is a 1000 times difference in performance between average and good, so don’t be afraid to interview as many people as possible until you find the right candidate. Then darn well get them! Keep them, train them, engage them, develop them, pay them, reward them. And they will repay you a million times over.

The last thing I would say is don’t judge a book by its cover. Recently I was involved in hiring someone in our Australian business and their first impression wasn’t great. To be perfectly frank I didn’t think they looked the part. If they had even a slightly more put together appearance then I wouldn’t have had a second thought. But after listening to their experience, and figuring out what they’ve overcome, achieved and done to get to where they are, you get a much fuller appreciation for their potential and relative fit. And sure enough the person has turned out to be really good, a superstar in fact.

What’s the key to powerful leadership?

It’s about integrity and consistency, so knowing what you stand for and following through on your values and principles. Someone once said to me that when you’re a leader and you walk through a business and accept that something isn’t up to standard you immediately set a lower standard. So you need to know what you stand for. If it’s not right then you’ve got to call it out: you should never compromise on your standards.

Communication is another non-negotiable. As a leader it’s your job to communicate to the team what’s going on and why it’s going on. And you need to do this in an open, transparent manner and seek the opinion of as many people as possible. Every employee needs to know what good looks like in their role. How do you measure this? This is what’s in it for you if you deliver and what’s in it for you if you don’t. You can’t go too far wrong if you trust your people.

Author Matthew Birchall