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Reflecting on 15 Years of Success: Lessons Learned at Sharp & Carter

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As Sharp & Carter celebrates its 15-year anniversary this month, founder Stephen Carter shares 15 insights that have been instrumental in shaping the company's success. From the foundational importance of culture to the transformative power of trust, Stephen delves into the core principles that have guided Sharp & Carter's journey.

Through anecdotes, reflections, and wisdom gleaned from years of experience, he offers a compelling narrative on topics ranging from leadership and employee engagement to the deeper purpose of business in today's world.

Join Stephen as he explores 15 things he has learnt in 15 years that have contributed to Sharp & Carter’s success.


1. It all starts and ends with culture.

The success we have enjoyed at Sharp & Carter has been primarily due to our culture of: Trust; Care; Generosity; Humility and Excellence. We have all heard the expression “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and this has been very true for us. Over the past 15 years our culture has been a starting point in how we interact with our most important asset – our people, and it provides guidance when it comes to making decisions within the business.


2. What is and isn’t commercial?

One of my favourite interview questions for C-level staff is “Tell me what the word commercial means to you?”. 99% of people talk about profitability, most talk about cost management, the better ones talk about value, but it always surprises me how few of them talk about sustainability. Over the past 15 years, we have found that the more decisions you can make that benefit the long-term sustainability of the business even if there is a short-term cost or downside, the commercially better off you are.

3. How do you ensure that your customer experience is excellent?

Most senior executives are not front-line staff in dealing with customers. So how do you ensure that the people who are dealing with your customers are providing an outstanding experience? I like what Simon Senik and Richard Branson say on this and their approach has been the reason why we have won industry awards for our customer experience: “Customers do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers”. Like it or not, no matter how much training you do, your customer experience is directly linked to your employee experience.


4. The importance of trust.

In trying to run and control your business you will need to decide whether you prioritise policies and procedures or whether you prioritise trusting your people. At Sharp & Carter, we have policies and procedures, but we prioritise trust. We have found it a much more effective way to control the business and whilst it has similar downsides to policies and procedures it has delivered way more upside.


5. I am not the Oracle.

 "Psychological safety is the shared belief that it is safe to speak up in the workplace and take risks without fear of being blamed or criticised. Employees who feel psychologically safe are more likely to test the status quo, admit mistakes, view failure as a growth opportunity, and be their authentic selves". Your business will be so much more successful if you as a CEO or leader are not the sole source of ideas. More often than not the best ideas are going to come from your people and for them to share those ideas you need an environment where people feel valued, trusted, and secure.


6. Generosity.

Lots of owners, entrepreneurs and leaders often criticise staff for being takers. “They just come in, do as little as possible and take their paycheck – their attitude is unbelievable!!” In fact, in most cases these people are “matchers” – they just match the generosity that they have received from the employer. If you want your people to “give” – “give extra effort”, “give extra time”, “give extra care” then it starts with the leaders and the business to be generous and be “givers” first. Lots of companies proudly proclaim that they need their people to do more with less. It is hardly surprising when this proves to be either unsustainable or a mirage.


7. You are leadership.

As a leader, it is really helpful if you live your life in a way that other people are comfortable emulating. If you work 100 hours a week, and never see your children or your partner, then for lots of people that is not a price for leadership they will be willing to pay. Consequently, people will leave you because they don’t want that future. Additionally, if you are rude to the waiter, and talk about people behind their backs, then people won't respect what you do outside of work and will leave you because they don’t respect you. Who you are is a huge part of the effectiveness of your leadership.


8. Employee cost.

Almost every organisation in the world says a version of “Our people are our most important asset”. But 95% of these organisations will also analyse their employee costs. Which is it? A cost or an asset/investment? Many fail to understand that when they reduce their employee costs they are reducing the investment in the most important part of their business. Any reduction in investment should be done very very carefully.


9. Talent acquisition.

Your ability to attract quality people into your organisation will be the fuel for your future growth. Yet so many organisations do not spend nearly enough time on differentiating themselves as employers. When taking job briefs, we ask about the culture of the organisation and an unhealthy number of organisations say a version of “We have a supportive and caring culture where everyone

works as a team”. It might be true, but it does not differentiate that organisation when talent is deciding who they are going to join.


10. Strategy is not a growth plan.

Too often organisations confuse their growth plans as strategy. “We have a strategy to double our turnover to be $100 mill in the next 5 years”. This is not strategy. Strategy is better defined as “the continuous improvement of your competitive advantage”. The Sharp & Carter strategy is that we continually improve how we retain and support our people. From that strategy, we have grown at 40% p.a. for 10 years.


11. Feeling overwhelmed?

Calmness is a word we use a lot at Sharp & Carter when talking about leadership. But in order to be calm you need to know where you are, whilst you try to undertake the confusing task of setting the direction of where you want to go. Tell the truth, be yourself, and at least you will always know your starting point even if the future direction is uncertain.


12. Embrace ownership.

Stop blaming and deflecting. Everything that happens in your team or your business is your fault. The problem exists because you didn’t train correctly, you didn’t communicate clearly, you didn’t set the right culture etc. etc. If you take accountability for everything it empowers you to fix it. If it is someone else’s fault, then you are powerless.


13. Why does your business exist?

If your business exists to make returns for shareholders it is unlikely to be enough for Gen Y onwards who want to contribute more to the world than making rich shareholders richer. You need to exist for bigger things that your people can get behind. At Sharp & Carter, we exist “To be a catalyst for a new era of work – where organisations unlock potential through prioritising people above all else.”


14. Greed kills businesses.

Along with our culture, the other most significant factor in our success has been our Partnership structure. Essentially, we are an employee-owned business - there are 35 equity owners (all of whom work within the business) in Sharp & Carter. As an example of the power of not being greedy - in 2022 I owned 100% of a Supply Chain, Engineering and Operations recruitment business....... that didn't exist. I now own 17% of an incredibly successful one that does. 

Too often businesses try to take as much as possible in the deal and our experience underscores that having an ‘abundance mindset’ is incredibly powerful. 


15. Businesses' responsibility goes beyond work hours.

The predominant force of our time is business. It is no longer the church, the crown, or the government. Every business has a responsibility to their people, their customers, and their society. We have been able to drive a competitive advantage with our people by trying to help them navigate the inevitable challenges that happen outside of work. It has resulted in better engagement, lower turnover levels, and much higher productivity in our people. Our appointment of a qualified psychologist as our Head of Wellbeing and High Performance is tangible evidence of this approach.

If anyone is reading this and wants to discuss culture and leadership, please do not hesitate to give me a call on 0411 543 833.