Define Your Purpose: Advice From GetSmarter’s CEO

CAREER ADVICE   |   4 minutes  |   November 20, 2017

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On 22 May 2017, GetSmarter CEO, Sam Paddock, and the executive committee gathered at NASDAQ stock exchange to ring the closing bell. While acknowledging the great sense of achievement that came with this moment – describing it as nothing short of surreal – Sam used this as an opportunity to reflect on the underlying developments that allowed this to happen.

To have a successful business, you need to start with why

Starting out in 2008, GetSmarter was born out of a family-based business. Brothers, Sam and Rob were keen to understand the experience of what it would be like to study online, embracing the future of educational technology. This led to a relationship with UCT and by 2012 the company of 70 plus people had created a portfolio of 40 fully-online and part time short courses. Growth was imminent and the organisation had already seen great success at its four-year mark, but in between the frenzy that comes with a start-up, Sam stopped in his tracks when arriving at a realisation.

“We had no idea who we were. We were doing things everyday without understanding why we were doing them, and we were completely falling over. Our strategy lived in the corridors, we didn’t write anything down, and we had no idea what had truly lead to the success we were experiencing.”

A great business leader knows when to ask for help

At the Heavy Chef event, with a collection of close-to 300 entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and working professionals gathered to hear how he was able to build a global success, Sam spoke of this key reflection point both in his life and the company, ultimately leading to the global seat GetSmarter currently occupies.

Now soon approaching their 10th year in business, Sam talks not of growth strategy or capital investment, but rather brings the entrepreneur’s attention back to reality by honing in on purpose.

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In the midst of their 2012 dilemma, Sam began to seek mentorship both locally and globally to discover the authentic purpose of GetSmarter and its people.

“One of these mentors suggested I read Verne Harnish’s Mastering the Rockefeller Habits and do 90% of what it said. It serves as a practical guide for doing your work based on solid theory, and in the centre of this book is a one-page strategic plan for understanding yourself.”



A successful business keeps change constant

Within three months, GetSmarter’s approach had turned on its head, and everything each employee did from that moment on was defined by the company’s one-page strategic plan.

“Without change, we would have never seen further success. We needed to establish purpose and our values and then align them to our priorities to collaborate collectively before upscaling. I was so excited, I practically ran home to my wife, Kerry and showed her this plan because I discovered it applies to different approaches in life. It’s just a format, there’s no magic in it, the magic is in getting people to understand who they are.”

It was then that Sam and his team could approach their big hairy audacious goal of improving one million lives through better education by 2030. Something they had hoped for previously but realised it could not be done on a local level.

“We had the wrong way of winning. We needed a collaboration of collective intelligence from everyone in the business, not just a few people at the top, to envision both their individual futures and the future of the company. This is where the firm’s rhythm came about. By getting every person in the company to get a clearer idea of who they are through daily, bi-weekly or weekly meetings and setting 90 day priorities, our values are aligned.”


Every organisation needs to establish their key values

Through that time of reflection, GetSmarter’s seven values came about, defined by the character of the company. These are:

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“Our rationale was finally clear to us, by combining technologies with incredible faculty and people, we have the opportunity to evolve pedagogy while encouraging every one of our group to continually add to our concept. We decided then in 2015 to extend our purpose to the rest of the world.”

Company culture should evolve as a business grows

During the last few minutes of the Heavy Chef evening, a member of the audience asked how Sam plans on retaining the intimate culture of the company as it grows.

“GetSmarter emerged out of a family business. They say you shouldn’t work with friends and family, but GetSmarter started out with myself, Rob and a group of close friends, and we’re still doing it altogether. What we do at GetSmarter in terms of reflection, I also do in my personal life. ‘Play to Win’ are not just some words in one of our boardrooms, we live that. We don’t retain our culture, we evolve it. Change can be hard yes but it leads to a beautiful blend of diverse people.

“At GetSmarter, we now understand human performance leads to operational performance which will then lead to financial performance. Business is essentially people doing things, that won’t work if you don’t understand the people around you and they don’t understand themselves. Understand yourself and others first.”

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