Finding Your North Star: A Priority for Every Business


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 5, we had the opportunity to chat to Conrad Groenewald, the Chief Executive Officer of Detmold Group.

An innovative and progressive leader, Conrad has led complex teams to success through his energetic personality, perseverance and end-to-end business acumen. Highly qualified, Conrad achieved the Council Award for Best Student in South Africa in his undergraduate business degree, before gaining his MBA the year after.

Sharing his ideas about why small to medium-sized businesses need to identify a North Star, Conrad offers practical advice for empowering your business to achieve ambitious goals. Further in the chat, Conrad enlightens us about why you should be the leader you truly are and the importance of planning at every stage in the business journey.   

To learn more about Conrad’s leadership and business advice read on or listen on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout

Authored by Conrad Groenewald, CEO of Detmold Group

Failing to plan, is planning to fail. This is a statement I live by – and while Benjamin Franklin may have never been a small or medium-sized business owner, his idea is relevant to companies of every size. Creating a business plan is not about glossy documents, technical models, or cashflow projections, it’s about identifying your North Star, and using this to define your mission, purpose, and values. Understanding and remaining loyal to your business’s North Star enables you to make decisions that will lead to success, every day of the year. It enables you to be purposeful from the beginning, preventing you from wasting time and resources chasing after distractions that don’t get you to your overall ambition.

As the Chief Executive Officer at Detmold Group, I ensure that my values and leadership style align with that of the business. Without this, we simply wouldn’t be able to fulfil our aspirations and business objectives. Being a leader of a business is about setting the North Star, consistently striving to achieve it and promoting a workplace environment that celebrates the small wins – because no one can manage to achieve large-scale transformative goals every day of the week.

If you want to further your business’s success, look at your leadership style. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders may have been able to get away with being uncompassionate and dictatorial, but this style will not work in today’s uncertainty. People’s lives are being dramatically altered, and with a constant sense of anxiety plaguing everyone, to be a strong and successful leader, you need to have a true connection with your people and be empathetic – there’s no way around it.

Finding your North Star
Just 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs believe their company should solely focus on profit and not social goals. Businesses operating only on financial goals are lacking an important element to business success – purpose. Your company’s North Star defines your business and reflects your employees’ intrinsic values. Working in a business that is solely focused on profit-based objectives can leave the team feeling unappreciated and under-valued. The irony of this is that according to Gallup, businesses that are mission-based actually perform better than companies that are profit-based, reinforcing that profit margins are a by-product of purposeful missions.

But how can you find your North Star as an SME business owner?

Begin by asking yourself these simple questions:

  • What is our vision? Consider where you would like to be in five years’ time.
  • What is our purpose? Reflect on what you would like your business to be known for.
  • What is our strategy to achieve our vision and purpose? Map out a plan on how you would like to obtain your goals and ambitions.

These questions are all-encompassing, but your answers will be unique to your business. While macro-environments may change, obstacles will come up and resources are limited, your North Star should never change. It’s your guiding light that will help you make meaningful and purposeful decisions from the beginning.

With COVID-19 altering the way people and businesses operate, the power of a genuine and defined purpose has never been more important. While this pandemic may alter or even destroy your project plans, your vision and North Star remain intact.

Now, imagine for a second that your North Star is driving to Melbourne. Before you leave, you’ll begin planning how you get there, you will make sure your car is ready for the drive and that you’ve packed enough food, clothing, and essential items. You will plan your stops and consider where you might refuel. However, two hours into the drive you get a flat tyre. Just because you’ve experienced an obstacle or a set-back here, it doesn’t mean you suddenly stop your journey, or contemplate turning around. Your North Star hasn’t changed, instead, your way of getting there has. So, instead you stop, think, and readjust your plan to still achieve your objective.

It’s impossible to believe that any business will become successful without a few obstacles along the way. For many businesses today, COVID-19 has been their version of a flat tyre. By adjusting and adapting to the changing environment, many businesses of any size have continued to gain success. In business, it is important to differentiate between a setback, and a total showstopper. External events that destroy a business are fortunately quite rare, and while some obstacles may initially appear insurmountable, often they aren’t. By remaining true to your North Star, understanding there will be obstacles along the way, your business can keep moving and growing stronger. The real difference between success and failure is how you and your business respond to the obstacles that will be in the way.

Why you need to plan
Once you understand your North Star, it becomes simpler to formulate your plan for how your business will be successful. Planning is a critical process for individuals and businesses of every size, but it can seem more difficult for small to medium-sized business owners. Often this is purely based on perceptions that:

  • only big business needs to plan
  • planning is time consuming and difficult
  • planning is expensive and will slow you down.

These perceptions shouldn’t discourage you. While planning can be a confronting process, where we ask ourselves some challenging questions, it is the one thing that will ensure your business can thrive for a long time.

Sometimes it may feel that once you’ve identified your North Star, the job is done – but it isn’t. Your North Star is what leads and guides your business strategy, which in turn leads and guides the hundreds and thousands of deliberate actions that deliver success. Take Richie McCaw for example, one of the most famous New Zealand All Black rugby captains. When Richie was young, he and his uncle decided that his North Star was not only to become an All Black, but to become one of the best All Blacks ever. This guided and motivated him through many hours of training, injuries, losses, and hardships, until he eventually fulfilled that goal, leading New Zealand to win two world championships. But a critical aspect to him persevering through all of the difficult times and achieving his goal is the plan he made with his uncle, which he sketched out on a napkin while waiting for their take-away food to arrive. Your plan doesn’t have to be fancy, glossy or backed up by a fifteen-page Excel analysis, you just need to have one.

SME’s must believe
No business begins as a three-billion-dollar entity. In fact, every business began as a small company. One of the important considerations when starting your small business is to know what you are good at and play to your strengths. Be clear about what you’re going to do, and just as clear about what you’re not going to do. Even large companies remain true to their strengths, you don’t see Apple getting into the mining industry or Nike manufacturing smart phones, because they recognise their strengths, and continue to invest and build on these.

As an SME, once you’ve established your North Star and business plan, it’s particularly important to consult with others as widely as you can. If you’re a single business owner or one with a small team, ask your customers, employees, friends, and family members for their feedback. A diversity of viewpoints is a good way to ensure that your plan is robust and effective. When consulting the people that you know, and who know you, be aware of the biases they may bring to the conversation. I also recommend consulting the most pessimistic person you know; their strength is to identify potential obstacles that you may not have considered and identify areas that you could improve. Caution: Don’t allow yourself to be talked out of it!

Another way to cast the net wide for feedback is simply to ask for help. There are many businesses and people who are excited to offer their expertise and knowledge to help SMEs succeed. People are intrinsically motivated by helping others, and the moment you ask for help, people will respond.

Be the leader you are
Nowadays, there are so many management and leadership coaches out there that it’s made the business leadership landscape quite confusing. Should I lead this way? Should I lead that way? What type of leader should I be? How should I engage?

While I strongly recommend a deep level of internal reflection to identify your personal leadership values, I don’t believe that you should attempt to transform your entire style to fit a mould others are trying to set for you. Instead, be the leader that you are, be your natural self. Understand and identify your biases, what you’re good at, and especially what you’re not good at, and share this with your team. Otherwise, while you may be able to keep up a leadership charade for a little while, the moment things become tough, or you’re faced with a crisis, you’ll automatically default to your natural style which will breed distrust and lack of authenticity.

Today, employees want to see vulnerability, compassion, and empathy in their leaders. You need to build genuine connections with your teams, whether you have one employee or 100 employees. People are more motivated to work for a business if they feel they are aligned with its values and have an ability to achieve the purpose.

A big part of leadership is about learning from your successes and failures, and also being transparent enough to share learnings from one another. Leaders must create an environment where the entire team feels confident to share their ideas and opinions, encouraging a diversity of thought will ensure innovation flourishes and your business will continue to evolve. Having a vehicle where teams can share suggestions and ideas is also an important part of creating and sustaining a learning organisation framework. Making learning a part of your workplace culture is one way to ensure your SME succeeds.  

It is also important for leaders to try and break the cycle of work by having conversations about things other than work, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. These conversations will foster those connections with people and also contribute to helping deal with mental health.

Celebrate the small wins
While having an aspirational and long term North Star is a critical aspect for every business, you won’t achieve your North Star each week. Therefore, in order to keep your team motivated and enthusiastic, begin celebrating the small wins – achievement of key milestones, and also acknowledging people’s efforts even when the plan fails. This will help you create that motivation to keep aspiring and keep trying.

Business success isn’t only about celebrating the destination. In fact, it’s just as important to celebrate the journey, going through hardship together galvanises teams. It builds trust, loyalty, and a commitment to persevere until the goals are achieved. It’s paramount that you recognise your teams’ efforts in ensuring your business continues to operate successfully. Even when things go wrong, there are always key takeaways that should be acknowledged and learnt from. Adopting this strategy will ensure that your team feel appreciated and valued, creating a team environment that can only lead to greater success.

Start as you want to finish. Start your business and run your business with the end in mind. Consider your North Star in every decision you make – make it real, make it aspirational, and live by it! This is the way for business success in such a rapidly changing and evolving world. Even though your plans may be disrupted from time to time, find solace in the fact that you always have a guiding light that will shine bright, and guide your path.

Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail. What is your North Star?