Find a pace that works for you, your colleagues, and the market. It’s a balancing act, so be prepared to adjust that pace. I always like using a variation of the standard 80/20 rule here: 80% of your time will be spent working on the business, and only 20% in it.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Gilkes.
As CEO, Bob oversees the strategic planning and corporate business development function at Epro. Bob’s role is to anticipate and identify opportunities, and lead new investments and partnerships. Under his leadership Epro is experiencing rapid change and new success.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As a fresh-faced Cambridge graduate in the swinging 60s, my father moved to Botswanaland as a district attorney with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Cattle rustling, disputes over wives, the usual stuff for a 24-year-old to address! Very much about people.
A business career followed, leading technology firms across both sides of the Atlantic with a number of successful public offerings. You often learn from your parents, and at a young age I wanted the same opportunity to build teams.
My first ever job was as a software games tester: perhaps the best job a 16-year-old could have! But at the time it was a young man’s game and by the age of 27 I found myself as European Marketing Director for a global technology business. Why did I leave? For the love of a woman. Also like my father!
Together, we set up my first business, moving through enterprise grade aviation software, resource management, and then after the difficult birth of my daughter my focus became health. Initially I created a small number of technology organisations within the pharmaceutical field and now more directly with the NHS as CEO of Epro.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I am in the rather unusual position of working very closely with the original founder of the company I lead on a daily basis. Some unique dynamics, but I wouldn’t change the opportunity. I’ve learnt so much from him.
But despite not being the founder this time around, I have absolutely the same sense of ownership and responsibility for the business and the people, as if it were my own. People ‘buy’ people and I realised that I wanted to commit to this company because of the passion, energy, and driving nature of the founder. I committed to what he represented in terms of quality and enthusiasm, which are both very admirable things.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I identify a second phase in my career following the very difficult birth of my daughter. At that point, my perspective on life and what was important absolutely changed. It was no longer solely about the bottom line.
I became more aware of why I made the decisions I did. It became about the importance of legacy and the people around you. It genuinely becomes about improving things — and not just lip service. You can’t live by lip service when you have a responsibility for a child with a lifelong disability. Whatever challenges come to find you, you meet them.
But when it comes to thinking about ‘giving up’, I never have. That’s not a wild or grand gesture on my part; it’s a fact of life that I am singularly unemployable by anyone else now! Doing anything else is therefore not an option, it’s not in my mindset. If the desire to continue on regardless is in your DNA, you can’t make a decision on whether to give up or not. You just carry on.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The interesting thing is that conventional wisdom tells you to start any business with a view to an exit, or you decide it’s about lifestyle. Epro is not my business and in some ways that focuses my journey now towards building people and building choices for the future. We don’t have the typical commercial imperatives, and that means we’re learning about what that exit is, because it’s so intimately tied to the people within it.
When I think about having grit or resilience in my role, I don’t question such things; I work not for financial gain, because that’s not the relationship I have with the business. I do it because I enjoy it, it’s who I am. If that’s grit and resilience, fine. You slowly learn your own perspective.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Epro is a British healthtech company that has been in stealth mode for over 15 years! It’s a company which still, despite its maturity, retains many of the startup values you’d expect to see in a younger company. I cherish that element.
Without traditional shareholders to appease, our investment mindset can be different and we prioritise investment in our NHS customers. It’s been a long journey, but I genuinely believe we have some of the best talent and strongest intellectual property supporting the NHS. Few outside our niche market have ever heard of us, but that’s okay. The NHS has..
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
At 27 years of age, I found myself working for a global technology business, but with over 100 years of very grand history. They had equally grand offices in central London with directors’ car parking, directors’ chauffeur, directors’ dining room, and even a directors’ toilets. As a young man with access to these things I was naturally impressed.
When my first business grew to a size that we could design and build our own interior, madness convinced me to build my very own directors’ toilet! What did I learn? Well, there are many things that we all do the same! You should value an egalitarian structure if you can, and those values for me still hold true.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Don’t rely on the business plan! Instead, feel the heartbeat of your business. Of course you have to understand the key numbers, but you’ve got to go beyond that with a broad encapsulation of what people are thinking and feeling.
You’ll never get it totally right, but to the extent you can, you manage it instinctively and not through the business plan. It may go against conventional wisdom, but the best businesses are not built on numbers, they are built on people. As a business owner, you instinctively have to marry the two together.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Willingness to take a risk. Ability to pivot. Humility.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I don’t know, I’m burnt out! In all seriousness you’ve got to understand why you’re doing the job. It can’t just be the role, you must have another perspective; that drive has got to come from somewhere else. What you want to maintain is a sense of integrity in what you do.
A role model or mentor is helpful. To some extent I still go back, even though he’s passed on, to the characteristics that my father had in terms of fairness, presence, and empathy. You model yourself on something or someone. Saying that you want heaps of money is fine, but that’s a byproduct of success in other areas.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Following on from my previous answer, the biggest mistake is losing that integrity! When you become short term, losing sight of why you do whatever it is you do, just chasing the buck. That’s not a way to be fulfilled.
Sometimes a company or opportunity can be a slow burn, which goes back to my comment earlier; I believe Epro is the big opportunity and that our time is coming.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Loneliness, especially when you’re talking about owner-led businesses. Being the only person at the top who makes the big decisions, who is responsible, who sees the icebergs ahead and is at the helm…that burden is often underestimated.
One can easily underestimate the value of devolved accountability within the team; that means you have to find good people to treat the company as their own. From that there are two challenges; being prepared to give up ownership, to an extent, and the other is to find the people to take it up! That’s a continual balancing act.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Start with the exit plan. This informs the culture, and the people you build as a team. It impacts the relationships you establish with your clients, and really quantifies the return on investment for you personally.
- Judgement shouldn’t always be based on your bottom line. Don’t seek validation through reading or too much introspection. Don’t be so focused on the numbers that you lose sight of what you’re supposed to be doing. Just get on and do it! Don’t care too much what people think, because you will fail, and that’s okay.
- Find a pace that works for you, your colleagues, and the market. It’s a balancing act, so be prepared to adjust that pace. I always like using a variation of the standard 80/20 rule here: 80% of your time will be spent working on the business, and only 20% in it.
- You’ve got to be able to say ‘no’. To customers, to employees: the long-term journey is not determined by short term cash or short-sighted decisions.
- Identify the people you cannot do it without and treat them amazingly. These people are role models for the business, not just for you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
You go with what’s close to your heart. For me, that the discrimination and inequality faced by those with a disability.
In my own life, I see a 15-year-old girl growing up learning that society can sometimes be a cruel place. My experiences as her father bring me right back to Epro: the brilliance of the NHS and the people within it. That’s all great, but we need to extend outside that medical community. We’ve got to learn to celebrate people of all abilities. There is so much to learn.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!