Learning from an Old Greek

Ah, politicians. Don’t you just love them? 

First they give us 3½ years of uncertainty and inactivity, then they force me to re-write the introduction to the blog. 

Whichever way you voted in the Referendum I doubt that any of us – reflecting on the morning of June 24th 2016 – could have imagined that the issue would still be unresolved nearly 3½ years later. And it looked set to continue…

So I wrote my introduction for this week along those lines. More uncertainty for business, nothing settled until January 31st at the earliest, no business could operate in such a way…

Damn it, I even used a couple of quotes from Shakespeare! 

‘Your own fault for writing early in the week, Ed,’ you’ll say – and you’re probably right. But at least now there is some certainty on the horizon. The General Election will be held on December 12th. Whatever anyone claims, the Election will be about Brexit, the battle lines are drawn and I suspect, and hope, that it will produce a clear result – and finally, some certainty for our businesses. 

And now let me – if only for the sake of my own sanity – turn to something much more uplifting. Sunday, in case you missed it, was National Mentoring Day. 

Mentor was originally the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. Today we all instinctively understand the term – someone who shares his knowledge and advice with a younger colleague. 

As well as mentoring each other at the monthly meetings, one of the things that gives me the most satisfaction in business is how often I see TAB members sharing their knowledge and experience. That doesn’t just happen in TAB UK – I see it wherever I go, in Europe and the US, and I’m absolutely certain it happens in every other country in the TAB family. 

Credit where credit is due. It was an article in City AM that brought National Mentoring Day to my attention. In the article the author shared his ‘top tips’ for mentoring. Let me highlight three that are always relevant. 

“Just do stuff. Sometimes, to get momentum into your business or your life you should stop thinking too deeply and just get on with it.” 

We all know the phrase ‘paralysis by analysis.’ We’ve all heard Tony Soprano say ‘the wrong decision is better than indecision.’ Your plans will never be perfect: it will never go exactly as you forecast. You need to make a start and adapt as you go along. As I’ve written many times on this blog, we’re living in the age of ‘Ready, fire, aim’ – not ‘Ready, aim, fire.’ 

As I have also written many times (‘countless’ is probably a more accurate word) never forget the KPIs. “Failing to focus on the numbers and key business metrics when times are good.” 

Business would be so easy without human nature. The orders are coming in, the bank balance is moving in the right direction. It is all too easy to think that the KPIs can be skipped this month, that they’re no longer as important as they once were. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Even in the good times the KPIs are crucial. Even if your bank balance is moving inexorably upwards, is that wholly down to one client or customer? Things can change very, very quickly.

Let me choose just one more. “Not unlocking the incredible potential in people. Not asking for help.” 

It’s cited in the article as a mistake that people keep repeating. And it’s right – we all go through stages in our business careers where, for whatever reason, we don’t simply say, ‘I could do with some help.’ But I think it goes further than that. As you build your business the team around you will be your most valuable asset. 

Set them free. And you will find that they are incredibly talented. So delegate, delegate, delegate and – as I wrote a few weeks ago – do everything you can to make sure they are working in the areas where they are the most productive. 

One final comment – possibly from my personal soapbox! Mentoring is absolutely about sharing experiences and advice. What it’s not about is being all-knowing and all-powerful. 

It’s tempting, when someone is hanging on your every word, to believe you know everything there is to know about everything. (As all parents realise, the only people who really do know everything about everything are teenagers…)

The best mentors – and I’m pleased to include my TAB colleagues in this – know  their limits. They’re not afraid to say, ‘This is my area of expertise. But if you want to know about X then I’m not the person to speak to. But I can introduce you to someone…’ 

If a mentor does stray outside his area of expertise, the person being mentored won’t know that. They’ll still rely on the mentor’s judgement: that’s why the best mentors are honest about the limits of their knowledge. 

That’s it for this week – and where did the year go? Here we are at November 1st which – as many of you will know – is All Saints’ Day. But just as Sunday was National Mentoring Day, November 1st has a few other ‘days’ going for it. 

November 1st is Cook for your Pets Day. It’s World Vegan Day. My 900 words may not be a major contribution to literature but it’s also Authors’ Day. And November 1st is Love your Lawyer Day – so I should have at least two or three happy readers…

Long White Beards are not Mandatory

Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.
I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…
Without wishing to sound old – but policeman definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.
That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.
Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?
Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.
Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.
This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.
I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.

Business Lessons from the Foxes

So, Leicester City have won the Premier League. And by a wide margin. Meanwhile my team are going down. Goodbye Arsenal and Chelsea: we can look forward to Burton, Brentford and Blackburn next season. Suddenly the 10:53 York to Newcastle seems rather less attractive…

But congratulations to the Foxes. It’s a fantastic result for the club – and for people who need to produce a business blog every week.

You can expect to see a plethora of Leicester-inspired articles. But let’s try and dig a little deeper. Yes, of course it’s a triumph for teamwork: yes, of course Leicester demonstrate that the whole can be far greater than the sum of the parts and yes, clearly, pizza works. But let me look at four factors that I think have really contributed to Leicester’s success – and which I hope (he said, looking wistful) we’ll see at Newcastle next season…

Newcastle United v Leicester City - Premier League

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 21: Leicester City’s manager Claudio Ranieri his team’s third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle and Leicester City at St James Park on November 21, 2015 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)

Take time off. This may seem a strange one to start with – but it’s a perennial theme running through this blog: you need to re-charge your batteries. On Valentine’s Day Leicester lost 2-1 at Arsenal. They’d already been knocked out of the Cup and weren’t due to play again for 13 days. Despite the defeat Ranieri didn’t order the players in for extra training. He did exactly the opposite – and gave them seven days off. As Jamie Vardy said:

The gaffer [gave us] a week off to completely forget about everything and re-charge our batteries. That moment showed what he’d thought of us as a team and how much work we’d put in. I went to Dubai and I remember sitting there on a sun lounger and Sunderland were there: running up and down the beach doing fitness.

Take time off yourself: make sure your team take time off – and trust them not to abuse it.

Get the right people around you. What do footballer managers traditionally do? Fire the backroom staff and bring their own people in. But Ranieri kept the backroom staff – and made just one addition. Claudio Ranieri’s not a footballing genius: Leicester are the 16th club he’s managed and he was previously sacked by Greece after steering them to defeat against the Faroe Islands. But he had enough experience to recognise that there was the basis of a great team in place – and not to make changes for the sake of making changes.

…And then he played people in their natural positions – a stark contrast to all too many managers. The parallel holds good in business: hire the right people and concentrate on what they’re good at. Put round pegs in round holes and play to their strengths: that’s when they’ll be happy, and that’s when they’ll succeed.

It’s not a disadvantage to be the underdog. Leicester were famously 5,000/1 to win the Premier League at the start of the season. Outside their diehard fans, no-one gave them a chance. But as the possibility of winning became a probability, they gathered a groundswell of support. By the end of the season they were everyone’s second team. We all love the underdog – and I think that’s an increasing trend in business.

My experience is that consumers and businesses are gradually moving away from the ‘big boys.’ They want to deal with the smaller suppliers, the local producers. They want to know the stories behind the business, and they want to speak to the boss. They’re ready to work with the company who – in the words of the old Avis ad – says ‘we try harder.’

So don’t ever be afraid to go after business you previously considered out of reach. The big boys don’t have a monopoly on ideas, innovation, quality and delivery – and more and more people are embracing that.

Make time for your family

Another core theme for the blog: no amount of success is worth it if it comes at the expense of the people you love. After 30 years in management – starting with Vigor Lamezia in the lower reaches of the Italian leagues – you might think that nothing could have moved Ranieri from the TV as Spurs played Chelsea, aiming to keep the title race alive. No – his priority was 1,300 miles away in Rome where his mother, Renata, was celebrating her 96th birthday.

There you have it: the four key lessons you can learn from Leicester’s success – both on and off the field. And yes, there’s an obvious post for next week: 7 Mistakes Newcastle Made that your Business can Avoid. But there’s only so much pain a man can take…

Don’t Make the Mistakes Moyesie Made

There is a story – and whether it was originally true or not doesn’t matter as it’s now accepted fact – that on the way back from the 2-0 mauling by Olympiakos David Moyes was spotted by the Manchester United players reading Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great.

Footballers being teenage boys much sarcastic comment was passed and the The Chosen One’s stock fell even further – and as we now know, it wasn’t long before Moyesie was clutching his P45.

The Daily Mail had plenty of fun with the story as well, pointing out that ‘achieve BHAGs – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals’ – didn’t mean signing Marouane Fellaini and that Moyes took ‘be a hedgehog, not a fox’ rather too far and had seriously prickly relationships with several players.

But hang on. Good to Great is a bestselling book. It’s stood the test of time. It can’t be all bad – and it isn’t. ‘Be a hedgehog, not a fox’ is just another way of saying keep it simple: focus on one thing at a time. And if there’s one characteristic that anyone who’s built a successful business has it’s exactly that. They identify the single most important thing they need to do and they focus on it until it’s done. And then they move on to number two.

No, David Moyes’ mistake wasn’t reading the book: it was letting his players – and a Daily Mail journalist – see him reading the book. In the laddish culture of a football club – especially one looking for a scapegoat – that was never going to be a good idea.

So what other mistakes did Moyes make? And what can we learn from the most spectacular management failure of the last nine months?

• If you’re a leader, you’ve got to be seen to lead and you have to display confidence. ‘Talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’ aren’t my favourite business phrases but that’s exactly what David Moyes failed to do. If you’re the leader of your team the first thing they want from you is confidence and belief

• …And the fact that you know where you’re going. David Moyes mumbled excuse after excuse and constantly gave the impression he was making it up as he went along. I’ll admit that he wasn’t helped in this by some ridiculous decisions from the Board but did he ever look and behave like someone with a long-term plan? No.

• Don’t sack the people who know what they’re doing. Almost Moyes’ first act was to replace all the Manchester United backroom staff with his own staff from Everton – a backroom team which had a proud record of winning nothing at all. If you’re going to bring in someone from outside, they have to be credible: your staff have to be able to look at the new person’s track record and say, “OK, I can see why he did that.”

• Finally, don’t have favourites. If you’ve read The Secret Footballer you’ll be aware of the phrase ‘the boss’s son’ – the player who never seems to be dropped, irrespective of how badly he plays. You will have to argue long and hard to convince me that Wayne Rooney’s five year, gazillion pound contract didn’t have a serious effect on the team’s morale. Even if a member of your team is completely and utterly out-of-this-world, business, like football, remains a team sport.

Next week I’ll be looking at promises – no, not promises like ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got a six year contract’ – and the part they have to play in business. In the meantime if you think there are any other lessons we can learn from the Moyes fiasco I’d be delighted to hear them…

The Big A4 Diary

I’m not quite as up to speed with electronics as some of the other guys are, so I still use a big A4 diary.

Who’s the quote from? Andy Flower, team director (that’s ‘coach’ in old money) of the England team trying to retain the Ashes in Australia this winter.

The quote is in an article on the BBC website: you can read it here. Flower – the former Zimbabwean batsman who led England to the top of the test rankings – makes some excellent points, particularly on getting the best out of a team of individuals. It’s one of those times when business can learn a lot from sport.

Cricket’s always struck me as fascinating: it’s a team game and it’s an individual game. In no other sport is it so plainly evident that the team succeeded but you failed. The team can win by an innings and plenty: you can be clean bowled first ball and lose your place.

So the coach’s job is hard. The only way for the team to win is for individuals to perform to their best. But how do you get 11 very different characters to do that?

Well, the answers are in Andy Flower’s ‘coffee-stained A4 diary.’ And here are five of them that I picked out. None of them will be new to you – and you’ll instantly see that they’re every bit as relevant in managing your company’s team as they are in managing the England cricket team.

Communication Part of the preparation involved a camp [before the team left]. We wanted to educate the players on effective communication, leadership and how to give and receive feedback in a healthy and constructive fashion. I don’t think I’ve much to add to that. Anyone who’s ever played a team sport will know that there’s plenty of ‘feedback’ – just as there is in business. But you have to make sure it’s constructive feedback that builds the team, not negative stuff that breaks it down.

Growth Flower places a real emphasis on helping his players grow – both as individuals and as cricketers. They’re all encouraged to work towards continuously improving: We’ve been winning quite a lot. But if we don’t keep improving we’ll slow down and the opposition will catch us up.

Planning The planning has been meticulous. We’ve requested that the wives with younger kids arrive a few days earlier than we do, so they and the children are over jetlag by the time we arrive – so the players’ sleep isn’t affected. As you can see, there’s more to a cricket match than inducing Michael Clarke to nick one of Jimmy Anderson’s outswingers. In exactly the same way that there’s more to getting the best out of your staff than making sure they’ve been trained on the latest software.

Trust I don’t want them constrained by curfews. I want them to make decisions like adults. This may not seem a great idea when Joe Root is getting punched by David Warner at 2:30 in the morning, but I think Andy Flower is absolutely right. Sooner or later you have to trust people: and in my experience the more trust you place in them, the better they respond.

Fun We want them to have fun too. We want them to finish the tour of Australia saying it’s been the best three months of their lives. And doesn’t that apply in business as well? If you don’t enjoy it, then the chances are that in the long run it won’t be profitable.

I think there’s a lot of common sense in those points and if you’ve five minutes I’d recommend reading the full article. But how does Andy Flower himself stay focused, and make sure he’s also constantly improving? I have used an executive coach for two or three years now, he says. He’s a great sounding board and also challenges me about my own personal growth.

And with that remarkably sensible comment I’ll leave you for this week. Have a great weekend…

You Don’t Have to be Stressed…

“I tried to open this website, Ed. It was all about keeping calm. It took so long to open that I got stressed.”

…And that just about sums up today’s business world. Not only do we have meetings to go to, deadlines to meet and targets to achieve, we also have to contend with an ever-increasing tide of interruptions.

Once upon a time it was all so simple. “Just hold the calls, Gloria and tell everyone I’m not to be disturbed. I need to finish this report.”

“Yes, Mr. Brown.”

And Mr. Brown could either finish his report, or close his eyes and work off his excellent lunch…

Not now. E-mails; mobile phone; tweets; LinkedIn updates; Google+; Facebook… These days, all holding the calls does is guarantee that you’ve more time for other distractions.

So a Canadian company has turned to Kickstarter for funding to develop the ‘one button to silence them all.’ But even if you turn the interruptions off on a temporary basis, they’re always lying in ambush. The question for me is more fundamental: how do we relax at the end of the day or week? How do we get rid of the stress that work causes us? Especially when there may be an entirely new set of tensions waiting for us at home.

Here are five ways that the TAB York team use: I’m sure there’ll be plenty more added to the list!

Go outside. It seems to me that stress is produced indoors and reduced outdoors. Jackie is a devoted – but fair-weather – cyclist and I’m always ready to climb on my mountain bike. Julia swims – outdoors in all weathers, obviously. Even sitting in the garden with a glass of red wine works for me. I might even lie back and do some creative thinking…

Teach – or coach. I coach rugby on a Tuesday and a Sunday and I have to say it’s one of my favourite times of the week. I get to shout a lot – in a constructive way, naturally – and it’s a great stress-buster. Quite a few Board members tell me how much they love teaching or coaching: somehow you always feel better when you’ve helped someone else to improve.

Learn. It might be something as simple as reading a novel (and I’ve just started The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, so watch out for Board meetings sprinkled with references to the Deep South); it might be finally learning a new language. Whatever it is, I find that learning something new makes me feel better about myself – and less stressed.

Get sporty. And I include in this something as simple as walking. The health and stress-reducing benefits of sending a few endorphins flowing round your body are well documented. Not quite so well documented are the benefits of standing on the touchline and cheering. As some of you know, Jackie’s son is a more-than-competent rugby player and I take huge pleasure from watching Dan and Rory. The ref blows his whistle, the game kicks-off and stress is banished…

Finally, have friends. This sounds obvious, but countless studies have shown that we’re happier and healthier with a well-developed social network. There are few things I like better than having friends round to dinner, but even a simple trip to the pub works for me. Again, it’s the change of scenery, and different company.

There is one more, but I hesitate to write it down. A good bottle of beer; a section of the Sunday Times, peace and quiet, solitude… Nope, I’m a husband and a father. Away with such selfish fantasies!

Have a great weekend and I’ll be back next week – unless my wife reads that last paragraph…

Extra Time from Sir Alex

Well, remind me to blog about how badly Newcastle are doing more often. Clearly last week’s mention worked and they’re now level on points with Manchester United – a team teetering on the edge of a crisis according to some pundits.

What’s caused the crisis? The departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably the greatest club manager football has seen.

But this is a business blog, not a football blog. What has Sir Alex got to do with us? Simply this. With plenty of ‘Fergie time’ suddenly on his hands Sir Alex has been outlining his management philosophy – the central beliefs that helped to create a series of title winning teams at Old Trafford. I first covered this in one of my posts in February but I think it’s a subject worth returning to, especially as Sir Alex has now spelled out his philosophy in greater detail. As before, here’s the link to the article I was reading in the Guardian.

In the article Sir Alex makes eight points. Let me pick up on three of them:

• Dare to rebuild your team
• Set high standards – and hold everyone to them
• Never stop adapting

What does he mean by ‘dare to rebuild your team?’ And am I suggesting that you wander into the main office and start handing out P45’s? Far from it. “I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualise the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly.”

I think that’s a great point – see your key members of staff not just as they are now, but as they will be in three to five years’ time. Are they developing in the right way? Will they have the skills to deal with the challenges the growth of your business will bring? Or in your heart of hearts do you know that the only way to move to the next level is to pay the big bucks and sign the equivalent of a star striker?

The standards Ferguson set for himself were exceptional – but he held everyone else to them as well, and demanded even more from the star names. Players like Ronaldo, Beckham, Scholes and Giggs had exceptional talent – but they had to marry that with exceptional hard work, and a refusal to give in. The number of late goals scored by Manchester United under Sir Alex has become part of football’s folk-lore. “I said to them all the time. If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.”

I firmly believe in ‘late goals’ in business: the £100 you make at 5:00 on Friday afternoon buys just as many tins of beans as the £100 you make at 9:30 on Monday morning. One of my very first bosses used to say, “Do a full day’s work every day,” and the saying has stayed with me. So keep going to the end – in my experience even if a day starts off with a disaster it will turn itself round if you simply keep working and don’t give in.

The final point that Sir Alex made has exact parallels with business – and I think it is one that is especially relevant for TAB members. It’s ‘never stop adapting.’ He makes the point that when he became the manager at Old Trafford there were no agents, no foreign owners, no millionaire left backs and pitches were a sea of mud from November to February.

It’s the same in business – the internet and mobile technology has revolutionised the way most of us do business and the pace of change shows no sign of slowing down. These days, if your business isn’t constantly adapting it’s almost certainly facing an uncertain future.

Those are just three points – but as I mentioned above, all the points Sir Alex makes directly translate into a business context, especially if you’re a member of TAB. Even a manager as individual as Sir Alex Ferguson freely admits that the team that surrounded him in the dugout was every bit as important as the team he sent onto the pitch. That’s exactly what TAB is: a team of highly experienced colleagues and friends that can help you organise your goals and your business tactics – and make sure you get the very best results from your own team.

Andy Murray? He’s Just Like You…

We all know the stat by now. The first British winner of the men’s singles since Fred Perry in 1936. (If you really want to impress them, the score was 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 and Perry defeated Gottfried von Cramm.)

Congratulations to Andy Murray and, according to all the papers, he can now go on and become undisputed World number one, before winning more and more grand slams and surpassing Djokovic, Becker and – yes, they can be serious – maybe even McEnroe.

So before long Andy Murray will stand supreme. Right at the top of his game. Out on his own. Alone at the pinnacle.

Apart from the dozen or so other people at the pinnacle with him…

One of the great clichés of sport – and business – is that ‘there’s no “I” in team.’ Very true. However, in both sport and business there is very definitely a team behind a successful “I.”

Consider Andy Murray’s supporting cast:

Judy Murray – Mum, mentor, first coach
Ivan Lendl – winner of eight grand slams and current coach
Jez Green & Matt Little – fitness trainers
Andy Ireland & Johan de Beer – physios
Daniel Vallveran – hitting partner & tactical analyst

Plus assorted nutritionists, dieticians, accountants, lawyers, PR people, the website manager and last but by no means least Kim Sears, Andy Murray’s girlfriend.

And for Andy Murray read Rory McIlroy, Sebastian Vettel and any other top sportsman you can think of in an ‘individual’ sport.

But as an entrepreneur in North Yorkshire you surely don’t need an entourage like that to be successful? Surely you just need to ‘suit up’ and go to work?

Not any more. The longer I’m in business, the more I think that a good support team is vital. I’m not talking here about your ability to network and your ability to make connections – we looked at that in a previous post – I’m talking about what’s necessary to get the most out of you as an individual. What’s needed for you to work at your optimum for as long as possible.

So yes, I do think entrepreneurs should eat sensibly. I do think they should exercise regularly – and getting your work/life balance right is vital for your optimum performance at work.

And a coach? Well, I would say that wouldn’t I?

People selling coaching services often parrot the line, ‘All the top sportsmen have a coach so you need one as well.’ That’s far too simplistic – it’s the nature of the coaching that’s important. So how does Ivan Lendl coach Andy Murray? Let me quote from Owen Gibson’s article in the Guardian.

Lendl has brought a shift in the mindset of the ‘Murray project…’ Lendl, by his very presence and a few well chosen words, has brought his experience to bear. When Lendl talks, Murray listens.

I couldn’t agree more – especially with the phrase, ‘a few well-chosen words.’ In business, it isn’t the job of a coach to be talking all the time. A good coach is a watcher and a listener as much as a talker. He doesn’t need to say much: what he does say needs to matter.

Very often the best coaches don’t give advice either: they ask questions. ‘Why don’t you…’ ‘What do you need to do…’ ‘What difference would it make if…’ No two ways about it: discovering something for yourself is always a far more powerful motivator than being spoon-fed the answer.

And I think that’s very much the strength of the Alternative Board. All your fellow Board members are watching and listening. But the key point is that they’re watching and listening from different viewpoints, different perspectives. They all run their own businesses, with different challenges: so they all see your business from a different angle – and they’ll ask slightly different questions.

My job is to pull all that input, advice and experience together: to make sure the Board gels and that everyone benefits. And occasionally to offer my own six penn’orth of course…

Asking Questions: Expecting Answers

Last week – which for some reason seems a remarkably long time ago – I was writing about the Awards which members of TAB York had won. I just want to repeat this quote from Rachel Goddard of Intandem Communications from last week’s post:

The other members of my board were great. That is, they asked me the questions I didn’t want asking but knew I had to answer. I remember one question in particular: it pinpointed the exact problem I had to solve.

I’ve been thinking about those three sentences a lot this week, and it seems to me that they go right to the heart of what a TAB Board is all about.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, successful people do what unsuccessful people don’t want to do. Part and parcel of that is asking questions when you know that you won’t like the answers.

We’re all guilty of avoiding things when they’re going to be difficult – even though we know that they’d benefit our business. Hands up everyone who’s had a job on the to-do list for three months or more? Six months, anyone…

Bringing a problem to your fellow Board members specifically eliminates that problem. Because once you’ve asked your fellow Board members the question you’ve been putting off asking yourself, there’s no going back. You’re committed.

Even after nearly four years of TAB that moment in a meeting still enthrals me. The dynamics around the table are something special.

“OK. Claire, it’s your turn.”

“Thanks, Ed. (Pause) Question for this month. (Pause) I should really have brought this one three months ago. (Pause) The thing is this. (Pause)”

Then finally the question. And the other Board members immediately know it’s important. So they don’t leap in with an answer: they pause as well. Then they’ll ask for some clarification. Finally someone says, “And if you did that, what difference would it make to your business?”

This time Claire doesn’t pause. This time the dam breaks and we realise just how important solving the problem is.

Then the members make their suggestions and – most importantly of all – Claire commits to action.

Fast forward a month. Claire is reporting back to her fellow board members. She hasn’t done as much as she committed to doing. Which is understandable: it’s hard to go from doing nothing about a problem – however pressing – to working on it flat out.

This is when TAB really shines. Because the other members ask a simple question. “Why? Why haven’t you done the things that you know would benefit your business?”

Being held accountable by your peers makes all the difference. There’s no hiding place and bluntly, the only option over the next three or four months is solving the problem. And you can guess the conversation when that happens.

That’s why I was so pleased for Rachel – she went through exactly the process I’ve outlined above and it was painful. But in the end she achieved what she wanted to achieve and her business took a significant step forward. Sooner or later everyone who’s a TAB member is going to find themselves in Rachel’s position – with a decision which is damn difficult but which just has to be made.

And these decisions are the pivotal moments on a TAB board. When I started the business those moments were theory – yes, I’d seen them replicated in business, but never with the personal nature of the TAB discussions. When I see a ‘Rachel moment’ – and even more when I see the successful outcome – I know that nothing in the corporate world could give me more satisfaction. Or produce better results for Rachel – and Claire.

The XYZ of Management

A few weeks ago I was writing about Bob Townsend of Avis, one of the first people to make the Theory Y style of management popular.

‘Hang on,’ some people said, ‘What’s all this Theory X and Theory Y stuff?’

Fair point. Here goes with a quick explanation – and with a nod to Theory Z as well.

X and Y were first described by Duncan McGregor, an American social psychologist writing in the early sixties. Theory X is the old-style, dictatorial manager who has three core beliefs:

1. Most people dislike work and they’ll avoid it if they can
2. Therefore it’s the stick, not the carrot, that makes them work toward the company’s targets
3. And the average person is relatively unambitious and doesn’t want responsibility – but does want security and direction

Along came bosses like Bob Townsend, and McGregor was able to describe Theory Y – as you might guess, the direct opposite of Theory X:

1. People are happy to work towards the company’s objectives, and they’ll use initiative and self-direction to do it
2. They like – and seek out – responsibility
3. The vast majority of people are capable of using imagination, ingenuity and creativity at work
4. And companies often fail to get the best out of people

Twenty years after McGregor, William Ouchi, a professor of management at UCLA, developed Theory Z, largely based on the success of Japanese companies. I won’t dwell too much on Mr Ouchi – Theory Z is essentially Theory Y but with more emphasis placed on workers’ loyalty to the company. The cynical side of me wonders if Mr Ouchi’s publishers had any influence on the title – but next time you need to sound impressive, drop Theory Z into the conversation…

So much for management theory – what does it mean for the day to day practicalities of running your business and improving your bottom line?

You’ll know by now that I’m a committed advocate of Theory Y. Here’s how I think the principles identified by McGregor apply today, bearing in mind what you’re trying to achieve as a TAB member:

1. I’ve always been passionate about communication. In the same way that you share your aims and objectives with fellow Board members, I think it’s crucial that they’re shared with the people who work for you. People want to reach a goal and they are happy to work hard to achieve it – if they believe in it and if it has been communicated effectively.

2. Similarly, people want responsibility – and this goes right to the heart of what TAB is all about. You’re trying to ‘enjoy your life and your job.’ You can’t do that if you’re worrying about the business 24 hours a day and trying to do everything yourself. You need to delegate and the good news is that the people who are working for you want you to delegate. They’re happy to accept responsibility: besides, you want to retire one day, don’t you? The more responsibility you delegate, the more likely selling to your employees becomes.

3. Finally, I’ve taken the third and fourth points together. Getting the best out of people, encouraging your employees to use initiative and imagination is what business is all about. Improving your bottom line is great – but nothing in business used to give me the same satisfaction as seeing someone in the organisation really develop and blossom, and knowing that I’d played a significant part in that. Without fail, making your employees better makes your business better.

That’s my simple take on a management theory that has now been around for over half a century. In the most basic terms:

• Know what you want to achieve
• Communicate it
• Give the people who work for you the power to help you reach your goals
• Help them improve as people
• And trust them

I know business is slightly more complex than that – but those five principles in 31 words are not a bad place to start.