Twenty years after biting the bullet following personal tragedy and founding Novacroft, CEO Debra Charles has established something of a reputation for her colourful, non-conformist and collaborative approach to business. In the midst of Novacroft’s big birthday celebrations – which come hot on the heels of a challenging few years – we asked Debra what she’s learned along the way. As ever, she tells it like it is.

1. SUCK UP YOUR FIRST FAILURES

If at first you don’t succeed, you have a choice: find something else to do with your life or put your energy, will and determination into learning from failure and keeping going. My first big ‘ouch’ moment came very early on when I invested the money I had just inherited from my parents in a piece of software. It didn’t work and I felt I’d frittered my parents hard-earned savings away. But I had faith in my idea and giving up just wasn’t an option.

2. DON’T LET FEAR GROW LIKE DOUGH

Fear is a debilitating state of mind but if you strip it down and dissect what it is you’re really frightened of you are liberated to take action. I was pretty fearless at the start of Novacroft’s life. Because of the loss of my parents, fear had disappeared for me – after all, what’s the worst that can happen when the worst already has? But fear crept up on me recently during a challenging time at work. Out on a walk in the midst of those challenges, I realised life is a journey – it’s about what you learn along the way that matters. So I was spurred on to think about what to do to put it right. I realised I could take the air out of fear by doing something instinctive, if a little unorthodox. I introduced a major change programme, nurturing the team of people who are today driving the business forward, and now we’re making a real difference.

3. AIM TO DO GOOD NOT MAKE MONEY

Putting a purpose at the heart of a business gives it greater power and potential than where money is the prime motivator. It’s always worth investing in bringing your vision alive for your team. I’m very conscious of this when team members take up my invitation to talk about their entrepreneurial ambitions. Those with a real passion for what their business will do rather than how much it will make seem far more likely to succeed.

4. SEE THINGS IN DOG YEARS

Any business has to be agile enough to respond quickly to problems and opportunities – and seeing business life in dog years can help! When one year is equal to seven, the pressure is on to make the most of every moment and grow up fast. Thinking like this and seizing the day has helped us in lots of ways and particularly when we caught the wellbeing wave in our own way with Ucando-it, our reward and recognition programme.

5. GET ON BOARD THE STARSHIP ENTERPRISE

Life gets dangerous when you’re so engrossed in running a business that you don’t look up to see what’s going on in the world, in your markets or within your workforce. Safety – and success – come from what in my mind is akin to being on the deck of the Starship Enterprise! Having headlights on the future, a helicopter view on today and support from behind gives you the best chance of being aware and prepared for anything.

6. KNOW WHEN TO DIY RATHER THAN OUTSOURCE

When you’re helping clients rise to their challenges and it becomes abundantly clear they need a product or service you don’t provide, it’s your call. Do you recommend a third party supplier? Or do you dive in and do it yourself? From our experience of deciding to set up a customer care centre and produce smartcards ourselves, when the product or service is pivotal to the project and you believe you can do it really well, I’d say go for it.

7. CARE FOR CLIENTS AS REAL PEOPLE NOT SUITS

The kind of business relationships that get to the heart of clients’ challenges and go the distance aren’t rocket science. They’re simply about human beings wanting the best for each other. I’ve learnt that people who wrap themselves in the blanket of ‘I’m a client and you’re a supplier’ aren’t our kind of client. We are at our best when we work alongside our clients, helping them as individuals, as teams and as an organisation.

8. BEWARE OF CHANGE FATIGUE

At the risk of sounding contrary (see point 4), there does need to be some balance between seizing opportunities to do things better and bouncing employees around with what can feel like continuous, chaotic change. Maintaining an appetite for change is of course about good communication and planning but if people already feel so full they can barely move, it’s never going to work.

9. STAY CONNECTED TO YOUR PEOPLE 

All-singing, all-dancing rewards and recognition programme with amazing prizes for top performers? Check. Regular team meetings? Check. It’s easy to think you’ve got employee satisfaction sussed but don’t ever be fooled into turning your focus away. As we’ve discovered, ideas that lit up people’s faces at first can pall when no prizes come their way. Everyday niggles can mount up and really matter. Take notice and take action.

10. BE A CAPTAIN OF KINDNESS NOT OF INDUSTRY

Kindness gets a bad rap in business, where it’s traditionally been seen as something naïve or weak and altogether inappropriate for a serious, ambitious business. In my book of business building, being kind – by which I mean being empathetic, generous and considerate – is right up there with the top success factors. If you’re not looking after your own wellbeing and considering the wellbeing of others you’re simply not being effective.