My Biggest Mistake: I didn't know big business kills ideas

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The Independent Online
Dr Cliff Ferguson, 50, left college after O Levels and trained as a salesman. After a stint in Australia, he returned to the UK as sales director for multinationals, then became a business consultant. In 1992, he co-founded The PACE Partnership, with law, accountancy and engineering firms among its clients

MY BIGGEST mistake was to believe for too long that people might listen to me and act on an idea of mine.

I worked for a large organisation and decided to do a part-time MBA. This was based around action learning, where you look at a real problem from the workplace and apply development solutions. Then you take these back to the company and implement them.

The company I worked for was successful but it had a huge problem with churn: it used to lose a lot of staff, and thus a lot of clients. So I worked on how you could reduce that. It was a big piece of work, a dissertation, but I spent two years banging on a closed door trying to convince the people that ran the company about the conclusions I'd reached.

The company was trying to be all things to all men, but I knew this was the age of the expert. People were wanting us in our consultancy work to understand their business, so I suggested we split into target markets in which we would become knowledgeable.

The people who ran the company were based in Sweden. They said: "That's a great idea", but that's as far as it got. I went to meetings and presentations and kept saying: "This is where we should go."

In the end I gave up. I felt it was a war of attrition. I'm enthusiastic and energetic, but I began to realise that every time I did these meetings I just got depressed and annoyed with myself. I'm not good at politics, and couldn't see people won't accept even good ideas at face value.

In some ways, it was naivete; I didn't know my way round the organisation, and I suddenly thought: "I'm not going to make a difference here, but I can make a difference on my own."

I was in the pub with two colleagues and they agreed my idea was good. We realised we had to be experts in the client's market. These were the people with whom I founded PACE.

The isolation of working on my own would have been too much, but with my colleagues there was a camaraderie. Six months after we set up, we decided to develop three core markets: professional services, IT and telecoms, and financial services.

We've worked hard to develop expertise in understanding what the issues are in these markets, the pressures and the future issues.

It was the opposite of forcing principles on them: often we bring the issues to the client and say: "What are you going to do about this?" I've also learnt to make the most of my enthusiasm - that if you want to get something done, you get someone with passion to do it.