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How The Clean Space’s Charlie Mowat controlled his inner control freak

Philip Salter
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Charlie Mowat
Mowat realised he needed to let go of complete control and hire department heads

"I’m Charlie Mowat and I’m a control freak.” Those opening words launched a recent Leap 100 roundtable. But the founder of The Clean Space wasn’t alone. The room was full of entrepreneurs; each of whom struggle with the same problem. Success – while preferable to the alternative – brings its own challenges.

After Oxford University and a stint as a management consultant, Mowat started The Clean Space in 2003. The idea behind the business is a simple one: to challenge the negative behaviours prevalent in the cleaning industry, particularly the way some firms exploit and mistreat their cleaning staff. By 2013 his company was turning over £3.7m, was based in seven cities and had acquired six competitors. But he was stretched thin.

Starting and growing a company are very different undertakings. “I was exhausted dealing with people issues. I’m an entrepreneur – I just want to get on and do, do, do. I realised at that point that things needed to change; growth was starting to slow down and my stress levels were going through the roof,” explains Mowat.

“More or less everyone that’s an entrepreneur is a control freak,” says Mowat. “That means a fear of letting go; it means a fear of people making mistakes. For me it was about people’s speed of delivery and performance.”

“When getting the business off the ground it’s about doing… There’s a problem, boom, I’m going to fix it; I’m the hero; I’m the problem solver; I’m the guy that’s going to bring the big sale in.”

He changed his approach though. “I had always thought entrepreneurship was all about banging the drum, being energetic and fizzy – ‘come on let’s get on with this, let’s get on with this’. I realised that if you do that people get fed up because people don’t need that; they just need the right environment to flourish.”

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“The reality is that not everyone is as good as you are – there is no reason they would be,” say Mowat. “They haven’t been doing it 13 years. They will fail. And that failure will cost me money, growth and profit… I had to learn how to exert that control in a way that’s healthy for the business but satisfied my needs.”

So he attended workshops and conferences, read a lot of books and tried to figure out what to do. Eventually he realised that he needed to let go of complete control, hiring heads of department across the business.

Mowat prioritised what mattered. “I cared about how people behave – that people represent me in the way that I want. That’s really about culture. So I set about working on the culture and how to define that.”

But he needed control over key decisions. “So we established some governance structures – a list of rules of decisions that needed to be made further up the chain,” he explains. And he started to focus more on the strategic decisions rather than the day-to-day challenges, meeting staff on a quarterly basis and setting objectives with them that are in line with these three things.

However, it wasn’t easy. The balance between excessive control and neglect is a tricky one. “Finally, six months ago, I got to a situation where I feel I’ve got people in place, watching them without interfering. It’s been a personal journey and it’s been really, really hard.”

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Where in the past he would be driving people, he now tries to nurture them; where he would solve their problems, he now lets them get on with it; and where he used to watch employees, he now trusts them.

Mowat lives up to the stereotype of an entrepreneur: bursting with energy, driven and with a singular vision. That he was self-aware enough to know to change tack is a lesson many are blind to. People talk a lot about pivoting the business, but that’s not the only thing that needs to change when a business is scaling – as Mowat shows, sometimes entrepreneurs need to pivot too.

Charlie Mowat blogs his scale-up journey: http://thecleanspace.com/category/scale-up-journey/

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