Human on the Inside with Growth Strategist Sean Steele

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5 min read

We’re big believers in the power of human skills. But don’t just take our word for it – the evidence for excellence powered by human (‘soft’) skills is everywhere! In this engaging, ever-enlightening series, we speak with industry leaders, innovators and game-changers to learn a little about their personal career journeys, and how human-led strategies, philosophies and cultures are proving a force for good in their working worlds …

Welcome Sean, and thanks for stepping into the #SuccessIsHuman Spotlight! 

You’re the Founding Director of SeanSteele.com.au – a services business that provides support to Founders with $2m-$50m in turnover, scale their businesses. You establish and Chair Growth Boards, provide 1:1 Founder or Co-Founder mentoring, a bespoke customer research service to help inform strategy called Growth Insights, and host the ScaleUps podcast too!

In 1 sentence (ok, we’ll give you 3), what does your role entail?

I’m so, so fortunate. I get to spend 40% of my time working with a roster of select clients (very lucky to get to be picky about who I spend time with), who are all Founders of sub $20m turnover businesses (currently), helping them develop and execute a plan that will maximise scale and their future exit options. That’s a mix of Chairing Advisory Boards (I call them Growth Boards as they’re always about growth when I’m involved), 1:1 Founder (or Co-Founder) Mentoring and sometimes getting more hands-on in supporting one or two dial-changing initiatives where they need some extra skills, experience and support.  

I spend perhaps 20% of my time (so grateful to have a team who picks up all of the production and promotion load) on the ScaleUps Podcast where I interview Founders who’ve scaled, experts on scaling, experts on failing (SO much wisdom here on what NOT to do) and soon will be interviewing a cohort of Founders still striving to scale in a warts-and-all style revealing series of episodes where we follow their trajectory (be that up, sideways or down) over several years.  Can’t wait to kick that off!

I spend the balance of my time helping investors source, screen, purchase and grow education and training businesses.  Love the mergers and acquisitions work, really fun!

You’ve worn (& continue to wear) many and varied hats over the course of your career, like CEO and Director of EdventureCo, DDLS, Everthought and AIICT , Chair and/or Mentor for businesses like Horsell (Chair – Growth Board), Beautiful Minds (Growth Mentor), Advisory Board Centre (Chair of Global Scale Board), Nexacu (Growth Mentor), TechForce Services (Growth Mentor), C3Talent (Advisory Board Chair) and  Talisium (Growth Mentor) to name a few. 

How does all this work speak to your personal purpose and what drives you as an individual?

I do what I do for two reasons:

  1. I love helping Founders scale because I hate seeing businesses with great products and services that add real value in the world get out “business-ed” by competitors with inferior products and services. The market gets robbed of value because they end up buying the inferior option, the team in their business don’t fulfil their collective or individual potential and the Founder doesn’t fulfil their personal ambitions. Everyone loses when great businesses fail to scale.
  2. Helping people exceed their own expectations of themselves and seeing the positive impact of that new confidence filter through into every other area of their life drives me to lead, develop, coach, mentor and serve. Since I was 19 and had my very first team to lead, I got so much satisfaction from helping the individuals understand what they were settling for, and then lift and push themselves to do and be more. Knowing that I’ve helped someone improve every other area of their life because they’ve built greater confidence in what they’re capable of when they stretch out of their comfort zone (in a supported way) in the work environment, fills my bucket in a way I can’t describe. It’s what I’m best at and is what I was put on earth to do.

Tell us a little about your personal education pathway/s – what led you to where you are now? How closely do your formal qualifications match your current career?

Haha.. I talk about this with my kids regularly.  I got a woeful ATAR. 54 (wow.. I know). I had few university options so started in Bachelor of Arts (Musicology… yep… theory and history of classical music), before eventually finishing with BA Management/Political Science. I then just hustled. Hustled, set goals, hustled some more, took risks, backed myself. I climbed through the ranks into my first Executive Leadership Role around 30 and my first CEO role by my mid 30s.  Eventually I did (most of) an MBA at AGSM, and then did executive and professional education with Harvard, INSEAD, Australian Institute of Company Directors and so on.

What you can absolutely say about me is that my education background had absolutely no bearing on what I ended up doing (starting in sales and just hustling my way up the chain), but later on I had to fill in formal gaps in my knowledge (like accounting, corporate finance and so on).

If you could share one piece of career advice to your 21 year old self it would be …

Maximise options (you never know which door is on the other side of the door that you haven’t opened yet). Back and believe in yourself. Take risks. Be willing to out-work and out-learn everyone around you. Pick mentors and ask for help. Ultimately: 

Step 1 – decide on what you want

Step 2 – ask what the price is you’re going to have to pay to get it

Step 3 – resolve to pay that price, and do it.

That’s not a one-off process, it’s constant. Frustratingly too many people aren’t willing to do Step 3 – so they get what they settle for! Everything worth achieving has a price to pay to get it. And if you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets. You have to ask yourself if that’s what you really want for yourself. If not, harden up, be an adult and get on with it.

Maximising the potential of individuals, communities and businesses through the power of human skills is the reason Maxme exists. Can you tell us a little about the role and / or value of human skills in your workplace right now?

Founders are themselves generally the #1 constraint to scale – how they think, how aware they are of their motivations and what’s driving them, how open they are to seeking help when they need it, confidence and clarity in decision making and more. I spend lots of time helping them make bigger decisions with more confidence, and increasing the quality of those decisions, as part of what I do.

Self Awareness sets the critical foundation for all Maxme learning experiences. With that said … what’s your strongest trait / personal super power?

My personal super powers are creating perspective and execution. I’m very good at taking lots of varying and diverse inputs from a wide range of sources, then creating perspective and clarity in the direction to take forward. I’m able to rally people around that direction and plan and make them feel part of it.

Execution is in my DNA. I’m thoughtful about it but when I’ve made a decision on something I move forward with intensity, vigour and enthusiasm and get a lot of traction very quickly. I manage myself and others to outcomes closely and do whatever it takes to keep things on track and deliver an outcome, when it’s important.

And on the flip side, what’s one human / ‘soft’ skill you’ve had to really work on improving over the course of your career?

Earlier in my career I was so goal-oriented, motivated and focused on executing I could often forget I needed the support of peers around me to do so when working in larger organisations as part of an executive team. As a result I could find myself driving through obstacles rather than working collaboratively with peers to identify them, deal with conflict early and work to resolve them. I have addressed that over time but really had to work on it in my first executive roles.

If you could share one piece of career advice with recent Uni graduates or candidates keen to work at companies similar to those you work with (scale-ups in the 2m-10m turnover range striving to scale), what would it be?

Be ready to demonstrate that you think differently and that you go above and beyond to understand problems and provide solutions and recommendations. For example – if going to an interview for a marketing job, do your homework! Before you walk in you should have assessed their website, socials, promotions strategy, looked at a few competitors and walk in with a few slides or bullet points on what the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities are from your perspective. Founders want people who’ll add value beyond the role, so show them that you’re capable of that, don’t rock up like a passenger waiting to be told how much they want you. Show them why they need you.

You’ve been granted approval to add one University graduate to your team, but have 100 applicants, all with outstanding academic results. How do you find your perfect candidate – what are you looking for?

See the above. Academic results reflect a propensity (subject to the course) for learning and recall, and some critical thinking. What I want is proof. Show me you can add value, don’t tell me. Those that have invested time before the interview, gone above and beyond to show they really want to work there, those are the ones that rise to the top few % of options in an instant.

In the words of John Dewey, “education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”
What’s next on your #learning agenda?

Gees I hope I never feel like I know everything…that would be frightening! I’m always curious and always learning. In the last six months I was really trying to understand everything I needed to launch a successful podcast which I learned and did. In the next six months I’ve got a major project on (can’t share too much just yet sorry) but it will require that I learn more about raising early stage capital, whereas most of the capital work I’ve done has been on funding maturer businesses in M&A transactions. Quite different.

Always so much to learn and I always find experts in the industry that others respect to learn from.  It’s amazing what you can learn in 30-60 minutes at no cost if you’re prepared and have your questions ready to roll.