Sean McGrath CA, FD of Entrepreneurial Scotland, on empowering tomorrow’s leaders
Sean McGrath CA is Finance Director at Entrepreneurial Scotland, where the path to business success is paved with confidence. He tells Kitty Finstad why being an entrepreneur is as much about attitude as management.
As ambitious mission statements go, “to build the most entrepreneurial society in the world” takes some beating. Entrepreneurial Scotland (ES) is the organisation behind the bold vision – a charity that helps entrepreneurs develop the skills and connections that foster business and leadership growth. And Finance Director Sean McGrath CA wants to forge a cultural shift towards this entrepreneurial mindset.
“As an organisation born of an entrepreneurial past, we know the potential is there,” McGrath asserts. “When we were established almost 25 years ago by some of the most successful businesspeople in Scotland, the idea was very simple: give people access to a role model and make it easier for them to see entrepreneurship in action. We like to say we’re in the people-changing business. If we can transform the way people think, they will transform the way other people think. That’s why we focus on people who have the potential to be leaders – because we want them to carry that mindset to the very top of their organisations and spread it around.”
This roots-up approach to entrepreneurialism is ES’s backbone, providing experience and inspiration to a community of around 5,000 spanning different sectors. Senior business leaders and mentors, mid-career managers and interns at the start of their careers all have access to its leadership and talent development programmes.
ES’s Saltire Leaders is a 12-month peer-to-peer cohort programme that has seen an impressive number of alumni go on to grow businesses or establish new ones, before in turn giving back to the ES community as a leadership contact. It’s a commitment that pays dividends. “The reason they’re 12 months,” McGrath says, “is because it takes time to build deep relationships. Most training courses teach you something on a Friday with the expectation you’ll use it on Monday. The world doesn’t work that way. It takes time. I can’t teach you in HR how to deal with a tough redundancy case and the next day you pick someone to make redundant.
“Within Saltire Leaders, our Catalyst and eVolve programmes focus on putting the right people together. We craft the cohort to make sure the right people are in the room from the start – the right diversity of industry and level, but not so broad the gap can’t be bridged. Learning works both ways – it goes up the career ladder as well as down. We want these people to relate to each other and carry on a relationship outside of the programme.”
Demand for our programmes has gone up. It’s a time of challenge and people recognise that they need to think and act differently
One particularly impressive feather in the ES cap is its relationship with Babson College, the private business school based in Wellesley, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. “Babson is frequently cited as the number-one entrepreneurial college in the world – that’s why we work with it. The professors are all former businesspeople – active or retired individuals who have had enough success to warrant people listening to them. Pre-Covid, we used to send people to Babson for in-person experience for a week. Obviously now it’s completely virtual.”
With so much of ES’s offering relying on relationship building, how have participants adapted to the online-only model of learning and networking? “It’s been brilliant!” McGrath enthuses. “To the point where it would be difficult to envisage going back. In fact, the situation, if there’s a silver lining, has opened up opportunities. We have Scottish people based in France on the programme, people in America on the programme. It’s created the opportunity for us to have a wider, more varied, more interactive group. And in some ways it’s easier. The people we work with are time constrained and it’s easier for them to make time in a virtual setting.
“We thought demand would go down while people focused on their current business priorities. In fact, demand for our programmes has gone up. It’s a time of challenge and people recognise that they need to think and act differently – and that’s something we can help with. And also, it can be a very lonely place being the captain of a ship. Business leaders in times of crisis like this, which no one knows how to navigate, are carrying a lot of weight and they need support from peers to validate their thinking. It’s that extra bit of confidence they get from someone they respect saying, ‘Yes, that sounds reasonable.’”
Paths less travelled
Having taken an unconventional path to his current position, McGrath can relate to the need to “pivot” – a term that’s taken on particular significance in 2020. He explains: “I worked in sales until I was about 30. What I realised was that the people I was selling to – the ones making the decisions – were usually the finance people. Or if they were the boss, they had usually been in a finance role beforehand. A lot of the people running organisations and making the types of decisions I wanted to make were CAs. It was clear to me this was the path I wanted to go down.
“In 2011, I took a 70% pay cut, handed back the company car, got on the bus and went to work at Deloitte with a bunch of people 10 years younger than me. I’ve never looked back – it was the best decision I’ve ever made. It helped me to understand that working for just money is a bit of a fool’s game. It doesn’t mean I undervalue myself; it just means that I don’t allow just money to guide my decisions.”
His clearly articulated worldview is expressed with conviction by the ebullient Glasgow-based Irishman. It fits comfortably with ES’s vision and output. McGrath’s role as FD means he has a high degree of influence within a fairly flat organisation – 16 salaried roles, three at director level, plus programme managers and executives. “We work more like a collective,” McGrath explains. “And I don’t say that because it’s a trendy thing to say. It’s just that we have good people, so it would be stupid not to involve everyone and listen to their ideas.”
McGrath’s love for his job is evident and his sales background makes him a compelling spokesperson for the organisation’s success stories, especially when talking about the Saltire Scholars Programme, which recruits from all universities in Scotland for fully funded internships – both at home and internationally. “We get over 5,000 involved and 1,300 make it through the application. Only around 200 ultimately get an internship,” he says. “It’s a really tough, robust process, and it leaves us with the top 5% or 10% of Scottish talent at that age and stage to be placed on an entrepreneurial, project-based internship. What I love about it is the transformation you see and the confidence that it gives them.”
One such alumnus of Saltire Scholars is Helena Murphy, whose internship took her to the US with John Wood Group, the multinational energy services company. Murphy now has her own company, Raising Partners, which helps businesses with crowdfunding and equity release. “Now she’s helping us at ES,” says McGrath. “She wanted to do that because her experience on Saltire Scholars was transformational for her – it gave her the confidence to start a business, and 10 years later she’s giving back to the programme.”
McGrath’s own confidence – in ES, its programmes, alumni and community – is enhanced by what he describes as the credibility he derived from gaining the CA qualification. “People listen to me a lot more because I’m a CA – that’s why I went back to train. Someone said to me, ‘There are two types of accountants: those that brew tea and those that read the tea leaves.’ And I could see that the ones reading the tea leaves are the ones running the organisation. I could see in them that it wasn’t just the CA skills that they’d learned, but that the CA qualification itself gave them credibility. It gives the confidence and the insight to go that step further.”
Join Sean McGrath CA for the webinar “ICAS Insights: Business of Entrepreneurs” on 12 January.