My 11 lessons after 5 years as 11:FS CEO

 David M. Brear photo
David M. Brear Group CEO
6min read

The 5th of April 2021 signified 5 years since we started 11:FS. 5 years since we were all stupid enough to quit well paid jobs to start a business with no capital, no brand and no reputation. Taking on competitors with tens of thousands of people and hundreds of millions to invest...

But it's also over those years that we have built a globally recognised brand, delivered some of the most impactful work on the planet and for some of the biggest companies on the planet. We have won Consultancy of the year 2 years in a row at the British Bank Awards, been identified as one of the top 10 UK Startups by Linkedin and even been recognised by the Financial Times for our inroads into Management Consultancy*.

So, when the team asked me to mark our birthday celebration in this week’s 11:FS Unfiltered, I took some time, wrote a list of 97 things I’ve learnt over the past 5 years and narrowed it down to 11. Being open and honest is the most Unfiltered thing I can do.

Each of these things could be a blog in their own right, and maybe they will be one day, but for now here is the good, the bad and the ugly of what I have learned over the last 5 years trying to make 11:FS everything it can be:

Being open and honest is the most Unfiltered thing I can do.

1. Purpose over strategy:

While strategy is important to align what you're doing and why, the purpose behind what you do is what gets people out of bed everyday. While strategy changes, your purpose will not. You have to have a strong purpose and align people back to it as often as you can as it gives everything deeper meaning.

2. Action over perfection:

My bias is, and always will be, towards action. I firmly believe you are what you do, not what you say. For you, and for your team, you have to lead by example and my example is always action.

3. Macro over micro-management:

It’s a given we hire great people but it’s important that you give great people space to step up. I like to create GAPS (Goals Allowing People to Step-up), as I call it, which means you allow people the space to use their initiative and don't tell them precisely how to do it, acting more like a coach than a manager. There are exceptions to this where the task is urgent, if there is underperformance or the goals are significantly shifting, but as Steve Jobs famously said “you don't hire smart people and have to tell them what to do”.

4. Attitude over achievement:

While this sounds counterintuitive you have to focus on the things that drive achievement not the achievements themselves. This allows you to create clear values, and the behaviours that drive them, in order to ensure you build a sustainable environment. For us we have aligned our whole performance management structure to this principle. If you don’t align to what we collectively believe drives the best environment, then it doesn't matter how much you achieve it won’t be recognised.

5. Frameworks over feelings:

One learning during the last 5 years is that most people are bad at tough conversations. It’s human nature. Giving people a talking framework relieves the personal focus on hard conversations, and focusses it on what matters most and that is improvement. We use our values and peer feedback in this way to remove bias judgement, and move conversations to measuring the ideal vs the reality objectively.

6. Efficiency over excellence:

It is easy when you’re winning to get fancy and overthink things. From day 1 going forwards to wherever we will be in 10 years time, we will always ask ourselves if there is a lower effort or higher impact way to do what we are doing, or if we even should do the thing in the first place.

7. Better over best:

I don’t really care who is the “best” or “most talented” person in 11:FS. I care who is getting better. This is the sign of direction of travel for them and for us. Our whole performance management process is geared towards the continual pursuit of better. I have definitely found over the last 5 years, and wider in my career, that the best performing people are those who are passionate about what they do. This passion drives them to be better and that drive makes the company successful.

8. Understanding over input:

This has been a big learning for me over the last 5 years. Consensus decision making is the enemy of good strategy, delivery and speed. While you want everyone to understand what is happening, you are hiring experts to decide what those things will be. Whether this is talent, culture, development language or anything else. You have to avoid every decision becoming a consensus else you become slow and deliver the worst of all solutions. You have to push decision making to the edges and allow the most qualified person to make the decision and move the thing forwards.

9. Process over people:

This one sounds the wrong way around for such a culture driven organisation, but it’s all about building out stable foundations for greatness. You have to have certain processes in place, defined by your culture and values, to unlock the potential in people so they can achieve more than they have ever done before. Great people alone cannot build a great brand and no single person can drive all of the success you want. It is why Simon, Jason, Ross and I got together in the first place. We knew we would be more successful together than apart.

10. Culture over everything:

This one is hard and leads to some really hard decisions. When you have a set of beliefs as a company, you must hire, fire, train and reward based on these beliefs. Sometimes that means you have to remove people you like as people for the sake of the company and that can be difficult and often upsetting. Facing these issues, where someone might be brilliant but bad for your culture, is really tough but if you don’t stand for something you will fall for everything as they say.

11. Journey over destination:

These last 5 years have been the hardest work both physically and emotionally of my career with some really hard times and hard decisions. What makes it hard is that I’m trying to build a business that is great to be at not just one to deliver great things. But with all its challenges I still wouldn’t change this for anything. The journey and the day to day of what we do is what I love. Whatever the destination will be, you have to love the journey.

I constantly think my learning of what is important needs to evolve at the speed of light to keep up with the speed that 11:FS is growing.

Right there are my top 11 things. There are hundreds more and hundreds beyond them that I’m yet to learn. I constantly think my learning of what is important needs to evolve at the speed of light to keep up with the speed that 11:FS is growing.

I have to admit that some of these lessons were hard won. I encountered many surprises along the way in the last 5 years. I suppose that is the nature of being a CEO. Still, I’m a stronger leader than I was a year ago, and I believe the company is better for it.

As we go into a new world order, going back into the office and hybrid asynchronous work being a new normal, then there will be new challenges and new learnings for us all.

I can’t wait to see what I learn next.

*Ironically the nomenclature “consultancy” brings bile into our mouths but its industry respect and we will take it with a bow!

 David M. Brear
About the author

David M. Brear

David is the CEO of 11:FS and since his dream of being a sportsperson was crushed (along with the ligaments in his knee!) and he had to get a proper job, he has worked in pretty much every angle of financial services industry but never lost that competitive desire to win.

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