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Advisor Insights – Damien Ross Entrepreneur Strategic Advisor Director

As the Co-Founder and CEO of ITCOM, Damien led the organisation through phenomenal growth (97x growth in 7 years) making it a 3 time BRW Fast 100 private company member. In consecutive years of 2007 and 2008 ITCOM was the 2nd fastest growing private company in Australia, and made the list again in 2013.

Very early on, Damien and his Co-Founder recognised they needed support to navigate the rapid growth and support them as Executives. Implementing an Advisory Board was a critical decision and one that Damien credits for supporting the ongoing success of the business and his own development as an Executive.

In this Advisor Insights conversation with Louise Broekman, CEO of the Advisory Board Centre, Damien shares his story including his tips on how Advisory Boards can support business owners.

The Advisor Insights series are unfiltered conversations giving you a lens into real people and real businesses within the Advisor ecosystem.

 

 

One thing that certainly I reflect on now in terms of the success of the business was firmly down to the fact that very early on when we started to realise how big this thing was getting, the need to put some governance layer over it and really test out our strategy and gain alignment and that was by putting in an advisory board. – Damien Ross, Approved Advisor

 

Listen to the Podcast

Read the Transcript

Louise Broekman:
Damien Ross, welcome to Advisory Board Insights. It’s great to have you here.

Damien Ross:
Thanks Louise. Great to be here.

Louise Broekman:
I always feel so grateful for people who have got deep experience on both sides of the advisory board table to share their stories. Damien, if you can share a bit about your story, that would be great.

Damien Ross:
The most important part of our story, from my point of view at least, is having been a founder and owner of an organisation that’s gone right through from startup to exit. That was a sort of new journey for me, one that took me lots of places I’d never thought I’d go. I mean that from an emotional and personal journey point of view. It had all the ups and downs that I never anticipated, but certainly was … in some ways I wouldn’t change anything. The outcome was great. I had some personal difficulties along the way, had some serious highs. I guess that’s been really the making of me and it’s led to where I am today in terms of in an advisory capacity as well.

Louise Broekman:
You shared your story at the annual Thought Leadership Summit two weeks ago and it was one of the favourite sessions of the summit because having that real story and understanding of what it’s like to build a business and survive your own ambition, it’s not an easy journey, is it?

Damien Ross:
No, it’s not. Probably in some respects the ignorance of that going in was probably what led to starting in the first place. I think that’s something you often hear is that you don’t truly understand what you’re getting yourself into and perhaps if you do, if you did understand that from the outset, you might not do it. Ignorance is important, I suppose, in some respects.

Damien Ross:
To give you a bit of a summary of what we managed to achieve, it was a business partnership with a very good friend of mine. We decided that it’s just something that we wanted to do. We were in the technology staffing and consulting world. We had an ambition to not only grow a business to some significance, but also to do things better. I think that’s often a familiar sort of reason for doing anything like that.

Damien Ross:
We had phenomenal growth. In fact, in our first three years in two of those years the BRW Fast 100 list, listed us the second fastest growing company in Australia. So we, in fact it was a 97 times growth over the first seven years. It was beyond anything that we’d anticipated, but what happened through that was a series of roller coaster rides, learnings. We took ourselves to sort of near breaking points at times. One thing that certainly I reflect on now in terms of the success of that was firmly down to the fact that very early on when we started to realise how big this thing was getting, the need to put some governance layer over it and really test out our strategy and gain alignment and that was by putting in an advisory board very early. We were probably asked second if not third year, we formulated that and that was certainly a really critical move in hindsight.

Louise Broekman:
Okay. Can I just ask you more about that? What was the motivation originally to put advisory board in and what’s been your experience with advisory boards over the years?

Damien Ross:
It’s an interesting one. I think again, we’re learning, we’re young. We were young guys at the time, sort of early thirties, still working out exactly what it was to run a business. I think we looked at it and probably the wrong way in terms of why we formulated that advisory board. We felt that it made a bit of a statement. We felt that it might actually bring further networks that were going to be useful to the further growth of the business. Probably not looking at it the way that we should have in terms of we thought we kind of … the strategy was OK but it was good to have some more experience in the room when we were making those decisions. We tested our strategy against that. The most important thing without question was the accountability that it brought to us and it forced conversations between us that we perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise had that were important to gain alignment as well.

Louise Broekman:
That’s interesting. So your motivation and having the advisory board is actually different … the outcomes and the benefits were actually something quite different?

Damien Ross:
Yeah, they were. I think that was, again, probably just that we weren’t sure what it was that we were getting ourselves into. We were learning along the way. We brought some good experience in. We were very fortunate in who we brought into the organisation, really pivotal in my mind to the success of the business. It was down to us doing the doing, but it was doing the right things I think was was where that made it really important. It was a really important factor.

Louise Broekman:
Damien, why did you go with an advisory board and not bring on directors into the business with you?

Damien Ross:
In essence we we were probably at a stage of growth and maturity where we needed some governance. Absolutely. We did have risk registers, and we did consider a lot of governance elements. We were within a somewhat regulated environment, but certainly it was really to bring in a sort of fiscal governance layer and also consider what risks were ahead of us. We needed a greater degree of financial, I guess governance is the word, and planning. It’s something that kind of tended to evolve as opposed to a definite decision there, but that certainly worked particularly well for us.

Louise Broekman:
And I guess formalised advisory boards weren’t really around the way they are now. So it’s a bit of a different timing isn’t it?

Damien Ross:
Yeah, that’s right. I’d probably look at it now and go it’s a bit of a hybrid of a standard board. We really did run our board meetings quite formally as you’d expect to see. There was elements of our advisory board that we tried to keep it out of the executive layer, but sometimes you have to just be able to adjust your style depending on what the business needs. I think our chairman in particular is particularly good at doing that as required, and mentoring and just, as I said, the accountability bit was really particularly important.

Louise Broekman:
With advisory boards that relationship between the owners and the chair is a really important relationship. Do you want to maybe just just share a few thoughts on that, the role of the chair versus the other advisors?

Damien Ross:
We had to make some structural decisions around the maturity of the business. I was asked to take on the role of CEO, so that became a particularly important relationship with myself and the chair. It was a mentoring relationship as much as anything else. I think he was able to allow me to look forward and to have a better understanding of what to expect at each stage that we were going through, whether it was that scale up phase or just maturing the business when we needed to or getting ready for exit.

We had some challenges along the way with the extreme growth that we were going through and our balance sheet and we needed to really consider what options were available to us. He was able to help us see that and offer suggestions or solutions around what those options could be and then help navigate through some pretty important decisions that we had to make.

Louise Broekman:
Damien, just to close off, I’d love to get your top tip to business owners and founders and a tip for advisors.

Damien Ross:
For business owners, if I may, I can’t go past the importance of having an advisory board purely for the accountability that it brings. I talk about accountability in a sense that … accountability in terms of discussions that you need to have and having the conversations you need to have. Furthermore, if you’re going to set a plan on an annual program or a budget for the year, it’s about you need to go and then achieve that and remain accountable to that. I think as business owners, you can sort of let things slip even though you’re the most invested. You probably may not hold yourself as accountable as you need to. That was really critical for us. We would say at the start of every financial year, through our planning process, this is what we can think we can achieve but saying it and doing it are two quite different things.

Damien Ross:
There’s inputs and outputs that go with that, that you just constantly got to keep your focus on. From my point o view bringing some knowledge around financial management was particularly important. That was just complimentary to what we were all about and our skillset. That was the other thing that became really important. So my answer to your question probably is that as a founder or owner really consider an advisory board. It’s super important if you’ve got ambition to get from A to B and understanding that and then having someone along the journey with you is, from my experience, super important.

Louise Broekman:
Great, and a tip for advisors?

Damien Ross:
I think from an advisor point of view, I’m having exited my business only in the last 12 months … not quite, actually, but I have started to build a portfolio of advisory work. You’ve just got to do your best to try and walk in the shoes of the founder or business owner. It’s such an emotional journey for them. Often they’re totally invested in this, and I mean that from an all chips in on the table. Success of this business means so much in terms of their family, their personal situation.

There’s often deep emotional reasons around the purpose of their organisation that you need to try and get your head around and understand so that you can truly empathise with them and what they are going through. I think once you start at that point, then you can really help… because there’s times where you have to tell them stuff that they don’t necessarily want to hear and that’s absolutely a critical part of being an advisor. If you can position that and communicate that in a way that empathises with them, I think that’s really critical to the relationship.

Louise Broekman:
There’s a lot of trust that goes with that isn’t there? I found that with my advisory boards that I don’t want them to judge me because I judge myself enough as it is, but that for people to really understand me … that really helps you because get blindsided, don’t you, by yourself and what you’re trying to do?

Damien Ross:
Certainly. I mean, that’s why the relationship can be such a fruitful one because it makes you think in a different way. At times that’s really important because as a business owner/founder, you’re just so focused. You often have the blinkers on. You don’t even have time to look up and even having someone external to go, “Hey, did you hear about this happening out here?” Or, “There’s this opportunity that you might not be aware of,” or, “We really need to start planning for this.” It’s all those things that just create enormous value if those conversations are being had. I can’t speak highly enough of the importance of having that relationship.

Louise Broekman:
Fantastic Damien, thank you so much and your busy schedule and congratulations on surviving your business. I look forward to your continued contribution to the advisory board space as well. It’s terrific to share that experience.

Damien Ross:
My pleasure, Louise. Great to talk to you. Yeah, I really enjoy what you’re doing with the Advisory Board Centre.

Louise Broekman:
Thank you.

About Author:

Louise Broekman
Louise is an award winning Entrepreneur, researcher and business advisor. Louise has received recognition from Industry and Government at a local and national level for her contribution to the Australian business sector. She is an in-demand speaker and is regularly called upon as the leading voice for Advisory Boards in the Asia Pacific region.