E264 | Scaling Made Simple: Removing Barriers to Growth with Sherry Coutu
In a world where knowledge is power, one woman dared to question the effectiveness of traditional learning methods. Sherry Coutu’s unwavering curiosity led her on a journey of discovery from Cambridge University to the heart of entrepreneurial success. But her path took an unexpected turn when she realised that the resources meant to ignite growth were failing entrepreneurs like her. Now, she stands on the precipice of a groundbreaking solution that could revolutionise learning and unlock limitless potential.
This week on The Melting Pot, we learned from Sherry Coutu, a prolific British entrepreneur with an unyielding drive for catalysing progress in business growth. Her portfolio showcases a seamlessly fascinating journey through the tech industry, marked by her triumphant co-founding roles in companies like Interactive Investor International and LinkedIn, which continue to dominate their respective niches. Add her impactful stint as an angel investor, and it’s clear she can identify, back, and shepherd startups to exponential growth. Her firm belief in the power of learning has instigated her remarkable contributions towards bolstering educational endeavours, making her an advocate for skills development.
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On today’s podcast:
- Helping scale-ups solve the skills problem
- The outcomes from the UK scaleup report
- The value of choosing the right learning path
- The five barriers to growth
- How Superpower helps scale-ups with talent acquisition and development
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Removing barriers to success
Sherry is a business leader with extensive experience in the financial services, technology, and education sectors. In addition to having founded and helped build several unicorn businesses on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, she has held numerous NED positions, including Chairman, Senior Independent Director, and Remco Chair for private and public companies listed on the London and US stock markets.
As an investor, Sherry likes B2B2C, B2B, B2C & SaaS companies, has made direct angel investments in over 70 technology firms across several sectors, and is an LP in five global venture capital firms.
Outside of Pearson, she serves as the Chairman of Workfinder, a technology startup specialising in AI-based training and recruitment services. She is also a Non-exec Director of Raspberry Pi and a Trustee at the charities Founders4Schools, National Numeracy, and Digital Boost.
Sherry’s previous non-executive director experience encompasses serving on the London Stock Exchange Group boards, Cambridge University, Cambridge Assessment, Cambridge University Press, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Zoopla plc, and RM plc. She has also served on the Advisory Boards of LinkedIn, the National Gallery, the Royal Society, NESTA(National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and the Taskforce for Ethical AI in Education.
She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to entrepreneurship in the New Year’s Honours List 2013. The UK Government commissioned her in 2014 to author the Scaleup Report on UK Economic Growth.
Sherry has an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MSc (with distinction) from the London School of Economics, and a BA (Hons with distinction) from the University of British Columbia, Canada. She has been awarded Honourary PhD’s from The University of Bristol, Manchester University and the Open University for her work in Education and the Economy.
Helping scale-ups fix their skills problem
Sherry currently chairs Pearson, a big company that helps upskill people in many countries. She explains that she could do that because she joined Cambridge University about 20 years ago and worked with their Cambridge Assessment.
“I was fascinated with the acquisition of knowledge and then seeing if the people who were trying to sell stuff that allowed you to acquire knowledge worked. Hence the Cambridge assessment. So I’ve been fascinated by learning and upskilling for a long time, and that’s led me to big education-type companies.”
She also spends a lot of time with the London Stock Exchange as she loves the liquidity of markets and platforms, and “that’s a ginormous platform that facilitates entrepreneurial companies continuing to grow and access capital”, she says. That’s why she joined the large companies that she did. But, she wondered what she was doing as she usually likes starting businesses or investing and helping them grow. She kept asking herself, ‘What am I doing joining a big company that’s already big?’
“And I like the purpose. And I think sometimes you want to be able to pull levers to achieve outcomes that you want. And sometimes, large companies have assets and infrastructure that enable you to achieve your purpose. And my purpose was really about upskilling and using technology and platforms in order to do that.“
Sherry also chairs Superpower, a platform that makes it easy for scale-up leaders and people who lead large organisations to get the right people with the right skills at the right place. That either allows them to recruit from external or it enables them to reskill people who exist, who already work for them. All they need to do is become members. At Superpower, they would run skills diagnostics and provide personalised suggestions. For example, if you are a scaleup without an HR person and without an L&D platform, Superpower solves that problem.
Choosing the right way of learning
Sherry explains that Cambridge University has two subsidiaries. One is Cambridge University Press, which sells books created by the academics teaching at Cambridge. And the other is the Cambridge Assessment, which evaluates whether or not people are learning from those books. Sherry liked the linkage of the creation of material with the checking with the customer that it’s fit for purpose. That suited her entrepreneurial mind of ‘Does the product work?’
So, how much of what academics write is helpful to people? Sherry says, ‘Maybe 5%’. She argues that many things people try to upskill themselves with are ineffective. And so, if you’re the person producing it, you need to ensure the content is effective. And, if you’re a person consuming, you need to be obsessive about consuming the right thing.
“When you read a book, you are learning. And we do need to keep on learning. You need to learn while you’re on the job so you can actually do your job well, and that is good for your mental health if you think you’re doing your job well.”
Today, we have so many different ways in which we can learn and upskill ourselves. Be it podcasts, YouTube videos or online courses from platforms like Coursera. For Sherry, what’s important is which ones we choose because we have limited time, and many of our resources are inappropriate.
“If I’m at a small company and I want to learn about CRM, I shouldn’t use Salesforce because Salesforce is not for small companies that are scaling. But I might have heard of Salesforce, and so I’m probably going to start out there and I’m going to waste a whole bunch of my time because I’ll be unfamiliar with that. So it’s the matching of really in a personalised way that I’m advocating.”
Is there still value in university education?
If you look at the statistics of people coming out of university, less than 50% of them say that they’re leaving that university degree feeling like they’re fit for or equipped for the future of work. Sherry adds that the satisfaction ratings of those going through university degrees are decreasing.
Conversely, we have some alternatives to university that are increasingly available. An example of that is Coursera, which teaches 50 million people a week. These short courses enable people to learn what they need when they need it. It’s one of the reasons Sherry and the team at Superpower have integrated Coursera into their recommendations.
“I think what’s changed is massive, wholly effective material is available online, which is a place where people wish to consume it, and they don’t want to have to quit their job for a year or take a sabbatical in order to learn this thing because maybe their job won’t be there if they take that much time off. And maybe they can’t afford to take that much time off. And Coursera, it costs 30 or 40 pounds a month to have all you can eat.”
When someone has seen a promotion they’re interested in, they might see a mismatch between their current skills and those needed for that role. At Superpower, they analyse those skills and recommend the courses that will get them to cross that bridge.
“The idea is that we know what you’re interested in and your skill set so we can help you progress your skills in the way that you want. And what I love about humans is that our ability to learn is infinite. What we don’t know is what we should be learning. But our ability and capability are limitless if we have the motivation. And so our ability to reconfigure ourselves so that we can reach our goals is just awesome. So the product is our ability to learn. What a wonderful thing to be in service of.”
The UK scale-up report
Sherry shared the story of why she came to write a report on scale-ups for the Government a few years ago. There was a minister who stated that he felt there was a positive correlation between entrepreneurship and economic growth. There isn’t, says Sherry. In fact, there’s a negative correlation between entrepreneurs or startups and economic growth.
Sherry corrected the minister in a meeting, telling him that their policies were wrong if they wanted to stimulate growth because they focused on startups when they should be enabling companies to continue growing. That’s what boosts economic growth, she added. So, after this conversation, the minister asked her to commission a report that supported what she was saying.
In the report, Sherry explained why startups decrease economic growth, especially in a tight labour market.
“People are like, do you hate startups? No, I love startups. Startups are great. I want more of them to survive for longer. But our policies have nothing to do with helping startups that are effective continue to grow. All of the policies and the money at the time were focused on encouraging universities to have business plan competitions. And I have nothing, no problems with business plan competitions. But if we had 100 million to spend, I would probably want to spend 98% of it on removing barriers from existing businesses that were growing rapidly because their customers loved their stuff.”
One of the observations in the report was that in the US, people got excited once an organisation was scaling, and that’s when they leaned in. She adds that what a community does is remove the barriers that are preventing entrepreneurs and CEOs from growing their businesses. That doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious, but if you have less of a community focused on removing the barriers to companies trying to grow, you have a different outcome.
“It’s not that British entrepreneurs are less ambitious or less able. It’s that their environment is not enabling them to flourish. Because the things that occur in other economies that allow rapidly growing companies to flourish aren’t here. And it was like, well, why can’t we change the ecosystem here to lean in and to make sure that some of the resources are spent on helping people continue to grow?”
The five barriers to growth
We want more of this type of company to grow, says Sherry. But people didn’t know how to identify rapidly growing companies. Now the easiest way is to ask them how fast they’re growing. Sherry said that this could be done by verifying their tax records and claims, but that wasn’t done.
Sherry also learned the five most common barriers to growth from her report. The number one is talent acquisition, followed by leadership development. The third is new customer acquisition. She argues that some people don’t know how to make sales and go to market. Finance is the fourth barrier, followed by infrastructure.
“If you’re the Government or the media, you sometimes think it’s all about finance. We don’t have enough money to put into these startups. But actually, it’s more the case that the startups, if you put money into them and they can’t get the talent and they can’t develop the talent that’s at them, will just flush the money down the tube. So you need to make sure, if you’re an investor, that they can acquire the talent and have plans and processes to develop that talent.”
The response from the Government to the report has been extraordinary, says Sherry. Every recommendation has been accepted, and they now send all the civil servants on courses on recognising a scale-up and their needs. They’ve also assigned account managers.
“It has boosted the likelihood of being able to scale anywhere within the UK hugely. And there are a larger number of scale-ups. They have appointed people and made them responsible for scale-ups and are now monitoring their contracts with scale-ups. Previously, they weren’t even monitoring their procurement from scale-ups.”
Solving the skills development problem
Sherry recognises that there is still much to be done to remove barriers. However, those are also changing. After Brexit, for example, the barrier was international expansion because Britain’s ability to do business got harder than other geographies. Also, they produced evidence that showed how much money and time it takes to bring in top talent if you are in Canada and US. This time was tripled in the UK. Their survey to scale-up leaders asked how important talent acquisition was for them. 85% of CEOs were willing to redomicile their company to get access to talent.
“If you go to the access to talent and access to skills, leadership development is skills. Skills and experience. Well, how do you get those and how do you break them down and how do you identify them? There are also patterns in scale-ups which are entirely predictable. So at about 80 people, you’re going to need somebody who understands HR, and this is the attributes of somebody who understands HR, what they will have done before and how you can tell if they have these skills.”
Sherry argues that when a business reaches 60 people, they probably don’t need that. But she could start recommending ways to solve problems that they’re about to have before they happen. That helps move faster and get that momentum for the company.
“There’s incredible pressure on scale-ups in particular, who need to acquire a certain set of skills. Now, how can they get it if they can’t find that in their applicants or in the people that work for them? And that’s the problem that I wanted to solve. I wanted to get them the right people with the right skills actually working in their company at the right time. And the right time wasn’t after a three-month delay after finding that they had this skill shortage.”