Why I stepped back to make Go Ape flourish

Tristram Mayhew shares the management secrets that took Go Ape from start-up to two continents and 700 staff

I’ve never really been comfortable with the word boss. But then it was pointed out to me that’s what everybody saw me as.

I like to think it’s a trust and respect based relationship where we actually genuinely like each other and we like spending time together. That’s the sort of culture I’ve tried to build.

When we first started there were about 11 of us and we simply built the course and put everything together. I helped lug stuff round the forest and built the course up in the trees. I was the van driver. The sandwich collector. All sorts of things. So we really did muck in.

As we got much larger – we’re now maybe 700 people in the UK and America – I had to take a different stance. You can’t hope to have the same depth of relationship with everyone, but you work out what culture you want and the values of that culture. In our case this was:

  • to create worthwhile, rewarding jobs
  • to be socially and environmentally responsible
  • to encourage people to live life adventurously
  • and, to keep the adventure in adventure and to do the right thing

We put that on each of our job descriptions and we recruit for that. We try to recruit people who share the values that resonate with me. We recruit on personality above competency or technical skills.

Technical skills in our case are something you can learn, but people skills and people fit is something which is much harder to train.

From start-up to growth company

In the beginning when you set up a business, you find yourself doing all the jobs. You wear about 11 different hats, but if you want to grow, you have to delegate that. You can’t do it all.

In fact it’s much better, as Cranfield Business School taught me, you should try not to be the superhero of everything but to in fact go from hero to zero, where you step out of doing your day job, as it were.

That allows you time to think about where the business is going but it also requires you to delegate the jobs you were doing to other people who are probably more competent than you anyway.

It also gives you time to coach them, to encourage them, to work on the future of the business and to make sure the business is steering where it needs to go whilst they are getting on with what they do very well.

The art of delegation

So, for example, I no longer have any direct support. I have nobody reporting to me and I don’t have any specific responsibility. So that means I can get involved wherever and whenever I want.

As an example of delegating out a role, our operations director, who is an extraordinary guy, had to divvy out his job into four full-time roles. He found it hard to give up that control, but actually he picked good people and they are now doing a great job. They’re even having to divide their roles into two or three because as you get bigger, there is just too much of a workload and you constantly tread a fine line each year between delegation and abdication.

It’s been very successful for us and it’s important to allow good people to come up through the company.

Business is a battlefield

I think my military training probably taught me that if you drop somebody in the deep end and allow them to fail; if you encourage them to take risks and not pull them over the coals or punish them; if they make mistakes, but you encourage them to try and make mistakes because they learn from them, then actually eight out of 10 times people swim rather than sink.

So business is a bit like a battlefield. There’s all sorts of things that can go wrong, which can throw you, but you just need to give the people confidence and the training to deal with the unexpected rather than training for specific jobs.

If you encourage them to go for it, then usually people surprise themselves and pull off things they never knew were within them.

Tristram Mayhew is chief gorilla at outdoor adventure company Go Ape, which won the SME title at The National Business Awards in 2009. Entries this year close on May 31. To enter visit www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk .

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