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My Biggest Mistake: Not sharing in success

Colette Dorward, 40, left St Andrews University to work in financial and corporate PR before joining John Smythe in his new consultancy, part of Wolff Olins, in 1984. The pair broke away five years later to found their own management consultancy, Smythe Dorward Lambert, dealing with the communication and behavioural aspects of organisational change. It has 90 employees and a turnover of pounds 8m.

THE BIGGEST mistake I made happened shortly after we set up this company. We created a stock of shares between the founders, the bulk being funded by myself, John Smythe and our third partner, Andrew Lambert.

When Andrew left very early on, we had to buy him out. At the time, I had no money and my thought was: "This is fiddling around with paper - what matters is the business." It all seemed academic and irrelevant. So I didn't bother.

But as time has gone on, I have very much regretted not having taken even more of a financial risk. Funnily enough, my feelings are completely divorced from any sums of money that might have been involved - it's more a sense of shame that I hadn't carried right through on my confidence in the vision of the business we were trying to build. Although I was very excited by the concept and worked like a maniac, the realisation of anything seemed a long way away.

My learning has been that time is very short, and things that seem like they are going to take a lifetime are over in a flash. You have to act now. Just go for it. Take the risk and don't belittle what you are doing; and don't get so close to it that you can't stand back and see the bigger picture.

I realise now that, even though getting a new style of consultancy off the ground seemed a big mountain to climb, just by making the decision to start on our own we were already halfway up. Most people are happy not to bother. It's difficult, of course it's difficult, but a lot of people don't express their good ideas and don't feel proud of them. Just having an idea is a good thing, but you need to push it out, then you can do something with it.

My consulting work is about encouraging people to do things and not procrastinate; to think things through and take the bigger view rather than the short- term one.

I also encourage them to think that it isn't always a case of looking for a solution outside their organisation, but that their own ideas are good - and they should build on that, not in a haphazard way, but with conviction.

Interview by

Rachelle Thackray