The Murky World of the Dark Web


I’m starting this post on Tuesday 12th November. A month today, the UK will go to the polls in the first December General Election since 1923 – and the battle lines are being very firmly drawn. 

Depending on your point of view there is now a hard right axis of Trump/Johnson/Farage that – bolstered with a clear majority in the new parliament – will deliver the hardest of hard Brexits and sell the NHS to the American drug companies by Easter. 

Or you read John McDonnell’s plans for the economy in general and your business in particular and think that nothing is too high a price to pay to avoid Jeremy Corbyn walking through the door of 10 Downing Street. 

And this morning former First Lady and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has waded into the debate. She is demanding that the UK government immediately publish the report into alleged Russian involvement in British politics. 

I’ll leave you to argue the rights and wrongs of that – just as I’m sure you have your own opinions on alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential race. Conspiracy theories – tales of mysterious hackers, the folly of allowing Huawei to build your 5G network – are everywhere. 

Central to many of these conspiracy theories is the so called ‘Dark Web:’ the place you go to satisfy the demands that cannot be met on the normal web. Where you search for the services that are not covered by Amazon Prime…

The Dark Web is, of course, the preserve of criminals, their customers and the law enforcement agencies that chase them. Law abiding people like you and me have nothing to fear from it – and need never go near it. 

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. We may all need to add, ‘Learn more about the Dark Web and the threat it poses to my business’ to our to-do lists. So we’d better make a start…

What exactly is the Dark Web? 

Simply put, it’s an area of the internet only accessible with specific software, such as Tor and I2P, which are designed to conceal your identity. Tor was originally set up by the US Navy to protect military intelligence: now it is widely used to protect the identity and location of millions of users.  

So is the Dark Web just for criminals? 

Well if you’re a fan of the Trump/Johnson/Farage conspiracy theory you’ll certainly view the BBC as a criminal organisation… They recently launched on the Dark Web, in a bid to beat censorship in countries like China. Facebook – another company looking to expand its reach in countries where freedom of speech is restricted – is already there. 

Neither is it true that criminals only use the Dark Web. There is plenty of criminal activity on the normal web, especially in countries where law enforcement is lax. There are also – apparently – multiple criminal forums that exist on the everyday web, but which are heavily encrypted and password protected. 

This is known as the ‘deep web’ and it’s commonly suggested that the Dark Web and the deep web account for perhaps 95% of total online content. The internet is effectively like an iceberg: the bulk of it is hidden from normal users. 

I thought they were trying to take down the Dark Web? 

Yes: the most famous – or notorious – marketplace was Silk Road, and that was closed down by the FBI and Europol in 2014, with its founder sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. There have been other successful ‘take down’ operations since then and, on the face of it, the good guys are making progress. 

To be successful criminal marketplaces need the same as any other business: they need to gain trust, they need to build a reputation and they need to deliver what they promise to deliver. Very clearly, the more their activities are disrupted the more they will struggle to do this. 

So should we still worry? 

Sadly, the answer is ‘yes.’ Criminal activity is constantly evolving and anything that can be traded for profit is a target. That includes usernames, passwords, bank account and credit card details, intellectual property and employee information. And once data like intellectual property is gone it is gone for good. You find out someone in say, China, has stolen your intellectual property: let’s be blunt, there is virtually nothing you can do about it. 

Worryingly, it takes a business an average nine months to discover that a data breach has occurred. During that time everyone is at risk: the employer, the staff and the customers. And, of course, the cash. 

That’s why 2020 is going to be a year when taking your security seriously – checking your security as frequently as you check your KPIs – is going to be crucial. The name of your dog will no longer do as your password. And let’s stop something that is all too common in business: having company information sent to personal e-mail addresses ‘just because it’s a lot easier.’ 

If 95% of the internet is hidden from normal users, it is logical to assume that somewhere within that 95% are threats to your business. 

So you have not won the lottery you didn’t enter: there is not a parcel you didn’t order waiting for you at the airport and – hopefully – your business did not have an entry in that international trade directory you’ve never heard of. 

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is claiming it is the victim of a cyber attack from Russia and Brazil. Not so, replies the National Cyber Security Centre. As I said, mysterious hackers everywhere. Just do everything you can to make sure they don’t knock on your door…

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…

Is Compromise a Dirty Word?


With the resignation of Theresa May and the European elections, it’s impossible to start this week’s post anywhere other than in the corridors of power. 

Obviously I’m being sarcastic when I use the word ‘power.’ If anyone is in power in the UK – or has the slightest idea what’s going on, or what is likely to happen – then please let me know. 

Like everyone else in the business community I am tempted to have an 800 word rant about our politicians. The words ‘whelk’ and ‘stall’ would feature. As would a celebration in a brewery. But, I must remember I’m an adult. So what business insights can we rescue from the ashes? 

One comment – which I have edited slightly so as not to offend you, gentle reader – summed up the current malaise: 

Having got into this mess because of dithering, they are now dithering over who is going to oversee the next bout of dithering. 

In her farewell speech Theresa May clearly did not see it as dithering. She made much of the need to compromise and – apparently quoting a late constituent – said, “Compromise is not a dirty word.” 

Is that right? After all, our other female Prime Minister had a rather different view: “If you spend too long in the middle of the road you’ll be hit by traffic coming in both directions.”

So what’s the position in business? Is compromise the answer? Or is Theresa May wrong and ‘compromise’ really is a dirty word. 

In the early days of this blog I would occasionally write that ‘the job of a leader is to lead.’ Now – especially when I’m discussing politics – I seem to write it in every other post. 

But it is – and sometimes leadership makes compromise impossible. Stephen King may have been talking about his writing but the comment applies equally to a business leader: ‘You cannot please all the people all the time. You cannot even please all the people some of the time. The best you can hope for is to please some of the people, some of the time.’ 

So do real leaders ever compromise? 

Of course they do. Sometimes there’s a completely stalled situation which can only be solved by a compromise. Sometimes feelings are so entrenched that you need a compromise to allow both sides to save face and – at least in the short term – lower unrealistic expectations. And sometimes you just need a short-term win, something that will increase motivation and create some mutual trust. 

But in my experience, solutions that come through compromise are rarely long-term or lasting. By definition, a compromise is not a clear vision. It is rarely greeted with enthusiasm by either side. And the problems you solved with the compromise always seem to have a way of creeping back. 

If real leaders do compromise, they always do it from a position of strength. They do not walk into a negotiation and say, ‘We’re prepared to give in on this, this and this. Now can we compromise?’ 

So where does all this leave our politicians and – by extension – the country they are supposed to be governing? 

I don’t often read Conservative Home, but MEP Daniel Hannan summarises the current Catch-22 very neatly: ‘We (the Conservatives) cannot face the electorate before leaving the EU. But we might not be able to leave the EU without an election.’ 

What he doesn’t say, of course, is that if last Thursday’s results were repeated in a General Election, it would be Prime Minister Farage taking the UK out of the EU. 

When a business is in trouble – and the Conservative Party is a business, whose aim is to win elections – then it needs immediate action.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re not going to get. No new leader chosen until July, everyone on holiday in August, the party conference season… 

There will be barely five weeks to negotiate any deal, always assuming that the EU is prepared to move from its current, very entrenched, position of ‘no renegotiation.’ 

I wrote about Theresa May and her indecision on Friday 22ndMarch. At that time everything was going to be settled by June 30th. Now we’re looking at a date four months after that, with every possibility that the Hallowe’en deadline will be extended. 

That’s a dreadful failure of management and competence. But above all it is a stark illustration of what happens when a leader fails to lead and fails to communicate a vision. 

Somehow, from somewhere a leader has to emerge. He or she will have to take some very tough decisions. And compromise – the desire to please all the people – will need to be the first casualty. 

Welcome to the Fifth Generation


As most of you know, I’ve played the occasional round of golf over the years. So it is impossible for me to start anywhere other than the 18thgreen at Augusta as Tiger Woods rolled in the putt which gave him his 15thmajor, after a gap of 11 years. 

Tiger’s had his problems. We all know that. We all know that his behaviour has sometimes fallen short of certain standards. But leaving that aside, to come back from all the operations, the injuries and the headlines to win another major is an astonishing achievement. And he’s 43 – as many of us who are a similar age will testify, that’s the age at which your body doesn’t always want to co-operate…

So let me add my congratulations. What an example of dedication and a sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beaten. 

On to business, and the blog on a Wednesday morning – on the simple grounds that Friday may find you with better things to do than read my thoughts on 5G, the ‘fifth generation’ of mobiles. 

Two weeks ago both South Korea and the US launched commercial 5G services. This should bring a ‘new wave’ of capability and connectivity for smartphone users, with Samsung claiming that its Galaxy S10 5Gwill offer speeds that are up to 20x faster than current phones. 

What will 5G do? 

What will it do? 5G will simply be faster. Users should get more data, get it faster and enjoy better and more stable connections. 

Quoted in a BBC article, Ed Barton, chief entertainment analyst at Ovum, said the shift from 4G to 5G would be significant. 1G brought voice, 2G gave us text, 3G images and photos and 4G enabled video. “We’re expecting the leap from 4G to 5G to be a much greater leap than ever before,” said Barton. 

The current 4G offers download speeds of around 20Mbps. That is enough to download a movie in HD in 30 minutes. 5G will offer download speeds of 500 to 1,500Mbps – so you will be downloading your Saturday night movie in around 25-30 seconds. 

That’s incredibly quick – clearly you cannot make a cup of tea in 30 seconds or nip to the kitchen for another can of beer – so providing you have a good connection, 5G will see everything becoming more or less instant. Which is fine in theory: there is just the thorny question of coverage. Or the lack of it…  

Will 5G really improve coverage? 

Possibly… Which areas do and do not get coverage is still very much a business decision made by the phone companies. You may feel – as I do – that a good broadband signal is now an integral part of life. If, for example, I stay in a hotel I am far more concerned about the broadband signal than how many channels the TV has. 

You may therefore feel that our Government shouldn’t stand any nonsense from the phone companies. But they do – and the phone companies will continue to weigh the cost of new towers against the potential revenue from users in that area. 

Businesses continue to suffer

There is no question that UK businesses – especially in rural areas – are being held back by poor 4G connectivity. While 83% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, rural premises get less than half that, with no coverage at all in some remote parts of the country. As every member of TAB York knows as they drive around North Yorkshire…

For me, the roll-out of 5G across the wholecountry is essential. Nearly everyone I speak to sees it as far more important than HS2. It would be wonderful to see one of the phone companies really champion rural areas – and seaside towns, which are now also suffering because of poor connectivity. 

Sadly, if past performance is any guide that’s not going to happen. And that’s a real shame – the PR benefits for any company that made a genuine commitment to genuinely giving the UK 100% coverage would be enormous. 

But let’s at least try and have the glass half full for the Easter weekend…

What will 5G  bring us? 

The most exciting answer to that question is, ‘we don’t know.’ For example, once your smartphone could process payments and was aware of your location, it gave rise to companies like Uber and Lyft. 

But you are not reading this for a pathetic answer like ‘I don’t know’ so let’s look into the crystal ball and come up with some 5G predictions. Although if you are in the UK, it may be a good idea to move to London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham or Manchester. These are the citiesthat are supposed to have 5G capability by the middle of this year…

Mapping and shopping 

5G is going to allow your phone to know even more about you – and as the AI algorithms become ever-more powerful, expect your shopping to become more and more personalised. Just walking past Next? There’s a notification on your phone, with a special offer, just for you. And the female side of TAB will be pleased to know that stick-thin models could become a thing of the past. 5G and augmented reality could allow the catwalk models to look exactly like you…

Driverless cars and smart cities

5G will undoubtedly speed up the arrival of driverless cars – and with every other lamppost acting as a base station those driverless cars are going to take in all the information they need from the smart cities they are driving through. Quite how those driverless cars will fare when the passenger wants to go into the desolate British countryside is another matter…

The cloud and security

Very clearly, 5G will see everything heading up to the ‘cloud.’ And that’s fine – being able to access everything you need wherever you are – apart from the countryside and the seaside, of course – is vital for business. But so is security, and 5G has understandably given rise to plenty of security fears, especially where the Chinese company Huaweiis concerned.

Like 3G and 4G before it, 5G is unquestionably going to change lives, businesses and industries. Five or six years from now I will be writing about a $100bn company that hasn’t been founded yet. Like Uber, it will no doubt cause a ‘crisis’ in one sector of the economy. But we all know the old saying: the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters – danger and opportunity. 

Have a wonderful Easter. The blog will now revert to its traditional Friday, and will be back on May 3rd

Is it Time to Abandon the Office?


Last week found me in Berlin. I was meeting my TAB colleagues from Europe and the two top guys from TAB in the US.

As you can imagine, we occasionally strayed into politics – on both sides of the Atlantic – and it is fair to say there were interesting, and differing, views. But there was also a combined goodwill to make progress and to make things work – which absolutely transcended any differences. We may need to invite a few politicians to some TAB meetings…

We now meet twice a year: we’ve been doing this for three years and the more we get to know each other, the more the dynamic improves. As the group expands, so it takes in more backgrounds and cultures – but it’s fascinating to see how TAB, and the very simple concept of peer support, transcends those cultures.

But as I flew home my overwhelming impressions was of the progress we’d made at meetings that weren’t meetings. The amount of progress we’d made over drinks, dinner and simple conversations as we walked around Berlin was simply amazing. And it is a lesson that we can all use – and benefit from – in our businesses.

It has been a long-running theme of this blog that if you want to think differently you need to be somewhere different: that if you simply sit at your desk you will always think in the same way you’ve always thought. To use the well-worn cliché, thinking outside the box is impossible if you are sitting in the box.

Is that just my personal preference, or is there any evidence for it?

Before I answer that, let me take a step back. How much time do we spend in meetings? According to one article I read when I was researching this post, 11m (yes, million) meetings are held every day in the US. On average, people attend 62 meetings a month, with over 15% of a company’s collective time spent in organisational meetings.

There is no way to verify the accuracy of those figures – except that based on my experience in the corporate world, they feel right.

The figures are quite staggering. How much productive time, or how much of a country’s GDP, is lost to meetings doesn’t bear thinking about it.

But meetings are inevitable – and so we need to get the maximum from them. And that’s why I think you should meet ‘off-site’ as often as you can.

There are any number of tips for making sure that off-site meetings are successful. The key one for me is to be clear about what you are trying the achieve. Yes, obviously visit the venue beforehand (not always a given…) but more importantly than that, know why you are going there.

What is the purpose of our twice a year TAB meetings? To learn from each other, to share ideas that are working, to solve common problems and to look at the business from a different angle. And to ask the questions that we don’t have time to ask in the other 50 weeks of the year.

And as I’ve said above, the more time my colleagues and I spend out of the ‘office’ – or the hotel meeting room – the more productive we are. And that is true for every organisation I have ever worked in.

Why is that?

When people meet off-site – possibly because they have made an effort to get there, possibly because of a different setting – they are more focused. Remember to keep changing the venue though. ‘Off-site’ does not mean the same hotel on the fourth Friday of every month. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds the same way of thinking and expecting the same result from a meeting.

I’ve already touched on it with my outside/inside the box comment, but there is no question that people are more creative away from the office. The same room, the same chair – after all, we are creatures of habit – and the same view promotes the same way of thinking. A new venue changes all that.

There’s more camaraderie outside the office or a formal meeting venue. It’s not for nothing that team building exercises are held away from the office. By definition when I am meeting my TAB colleagues in Europe I am out of my own office, but the difference between having a meeting in a ‘hotel board room’ and a restaurant or bar – or simply when you are walking to a venue – is almost impossible to measure.

And there’s one final point, which struck me as I drove home from the airport. There’s an interesting parallel here with being a parent. If I want to have an in-depth conversation with Dan or Rory, the best solution is to go for a walk or for a drive. If we’re sitting facing each other, the barriers go up. I’m not saying there are barriers with my TAB colleagues – exactly the opposite – but it is still interesting how different thoughts, ideas and initiatives develop when you’re not face to face.

Which brings me full circle… There are a couple of people meeting in Brussels about now who don’t seem to see eye-to-eye. Perhaps they should go for a walk…

By Ed Reid, TAB UK

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Panto Season Comes Early


The scene: an Alternative Board meeting, anywhere in the UK. We’re going round the table, updating each other on progress. It’s Dave’s turn…

TAB franchisee          So, Dave, bring us up to date. How’s it going?

Dave                           Yeah, good. The MD’s coming over at the weekend and we should finally be able to sort it all out. Few wrinkles to iron out in Ireland but we’re getting there

TAB veteran               You said last time that your two divisions in Ireland couldn’t agree on anything…

Dave                           Well, technically, yes. But we’re getting there

TF                                So you’re all set to abandon your current deals and go it alone?

Dave                           Yep. That’s what the shareholders want

TabVet                        So what deals have you got lined up to replace them?

Dave                           Well, technically, none

2nd TabVet                 Sorry if I’m missing something here but isn’t that … well, just a touch risky?

Dave                           It’s what the shareholders want

TF                                OK, so what impact is this all going to have on the company?

Dave                           Huh?

TF                                About six months ago you said you were doing an impact analysis on the effect this would all have. On every division of the company

TabVet                        Yep, I remember that

2nd TabVet                  Me too. Remember asking if you thought you could get it done in time

TF                                So where is it?

Dave                           Well, technically…

TF                                It was so in depth that you haven’t finished it yet?

Dave                           Not quite

TabVet                        So when will it be ready?

Dave                           That’s a difficult one to answer

2nd TabVet                  Why

Dave                           We haven’t started it yet.

There is silence around the table. A pin drops…

TF                                So you’re telling us, with our experience in business, that you are planning a major, major overhaul of your business, abandoning trading relationships you’ve had for forty years, you have nothing ready to replace them – except hope – and you have done no analysis at all of the impact it might have on your company?

Dave                           Well, technically…

GD*26426046

The TAB blog is politically neutral. And whatever my personal views, I try to be strictly neutral on Brexit. The blog is not, however, common-sense neutral. And when I read the stories coming out of the Committee on Exiting the European Union (let’s just call it the Brexit Committee, shall we?) on Wednesday I was, bluntly, staggered.

Were the UK Government – in the shape of Dave – a member of any TAB board (and frankly, Mrs May, right now I think it would be money well spent) he would not have survived the meeting. I can think of no instance in my seven years with TAB UK in which a member has gone ahead with a radical overhaul of his business without doing some seriously in-depth analysis of the potential impact. If a member of TAB York had acted in that way I would have questioned whether I was any good at my job.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, David Davis sat down in front of the Brexit Select Committee and said that Her Majesty’s Government had done no significant work on the impact Brexit might have on major parts of the UK economy.

Translate that into business terms. If you had tasked your finance director with doing these impact assessments and six months later he came back and said he hadn’t started then there would only be one outcome. He’d be clearing his office the same day. Even if he hadn’t been tasked with doing the work – but hadn’t shown the initiative to do the assessments – the end result would be the same.

David Davis has argued that there is no point in preparing impact assessments because the scale of change will be so big. Again, if you translate that into business, it’s just nonsense. “We’re going to make major changes in the company – a complete change of direction. And because the changes are going to be so big we’ve decided not to bother making any plans.”

Yep, that would go down well with your TAB colleagues.

Enough lampooning politicians. Sadly, they’re an easy target. There must be a reason for the Government’s failure to carry out due diligence…

Theresa May – the MD in our example – famously campaigned for Remain in 2016. A few weeks later she was roundly declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ She had seen the shareholders get rid of the previous MD and give her the job – with a clear mandate to deliver something she’d very recently campaigned against.

This is the time of year when I traditionally write about planning for next year. And that’s where the lessons of Brexit apply. Because if you don’t absolutely believe in your plans, targets and goals – if they don’t reflect what you want both for the business and as an individual – then you’ll end up exactly where Theresa May and David Davis now find themselves. Trying to deliver a plan that you don’t believe in and, consequently, controlled by external events – when it should be the other way round.

That’s it for this week. Next week will be the last post of the year and I’ll be looking forward optimistically to 2018. And also announcing a change…

The Professionals


Professionalism. Noun. The competence or skill expected of a professional. The practising of an activity, especially a sport, by professional rather than amateur players.

Hang on, just let me read that again. I can’t see any mention of fighting outside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Or driving a lady home who’s not your wife and ending up accused of drink-driving. Or getting into a taxi which unfortunately whacks a lamppost, leaving you with a broken rib.

I refer, of course, to Messrs Stokes, Rooney and Aguero, all of whom might now be in a much happier – and potentially much less costly – place had they looked at their watches and said, “Goodness me, ten o’clock. I’ve an important game in two days; time I was tucked up in bed with a mug of cocoa.”

Ben Stokes and Wayne Rooney are leaders. Stokes is vice-captain of the England cricket team; Rooney, having re-joined Everton with the experience of captaining Manchester United behind him, must surely have been expected to show leadership; to set an example to the younger players in the dressing room.

What price that leadership now? What price their professionalism?

But this is a business blog – so how do I define professionalism in business?

First of all I think it’s about predictability: that’s not someone saying ‘Ed always says the same thing:’ it about people knowing that Ed will always deliver what he promised to deliver. No ifs, no buts, no excuses: professionalism is delivering what you promised to deliver, when you promised to deliver it.

It’s about preparation as well – and yes, I’m aware that I’m almost wandering down the army’s ‘Six P’s’ path here. Whether it is an interview, a client appointment or a speech, the preparation is as important as the performance: in fact the preparation determines the performance. I will tolerate many things, but one thing that used to really annoy me in my corporate days was the time wasted due to lack of proper preparation, even for supposedly ‘make or break’ meetings. For me it was just unforgivable.

And politeness, which includes punctuality. It may well be the courtesy of kings but it’s also fundamental to business: everyone’s time has value, not just yours.

Let me also define professionalism by what it isn’t. It’s not simply being serious: clearly there are professions where being serious is a requirement, but even then not at the expense of demonstrating empathy and personality.

It’s one of the great truisms of life that people buy from people they like. And that still holds good today, even in an age where we are increasingly dealing with people we may have never met. You can still get your personality across with your language and ‘tone of voice’ – even if that voice is only heard through an e-mail.

I remember an early sales manager telling me to watch Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan on TV. “They would have made great salesmen, Ed. A loss to the steel industry…”

But despite the instruction to watch Parky and Our Tel I probably didn’t smile enough in my early days. You might be doing a thoroughly professional job: but you’re still allowed to smile and laugh while you’re doing it. Let me hold my hand up and say I wasn’t brilliant at this. So thank you to Paul Dickinson, my predecessor as TAB MD, who gently pointed it out to me…

And yes, I’d like to think we’re seen as professional at TAB: not just in that we deliver results but that we’re fun to work with as well. As I’ve written many times, TAB is about enjoying the journey as well as reaching the destination, and I’m absolutely sure we help the members of the TAB family to do that.

LEWIS_COLLINS OBITUARY

One last question: this week’s title references a once-popular TV programme. Do any of you remember it? Just a quick test to see how old you are and if your fashion sense has moved on…

The Work/Life Support System


One of the facets of my new role within TAB is taking a wider view of the UK economy. That’s not to say I ignored it when I was owner of TAB York – but as MD of TAB UK I’m much more aware of the concerns and initiatives of organisations like the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses.

…And last week brought a worrying report from the FSB. Their latest Small Business Index – carried out in the summer and based on a survey of more than 1,200 members – found that optimism among entrepreneurs had fallen sharply. Most worryingly, 13% of those who responded to the survey were looking for a way out of their business, the highest figure since the FSB began measuring in 2012.

OK: let’s introduce an immediate word of caution. I suspect if I were a disgruntled entrepreneur, desperately looking to sell my business I’d be far more likely to complete a survey like this than if everything were going well and orders were flying out of the door.

But that said, these are the worst figures the FSB have seen for five years. Rents, regulations, taxation and what Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, described as “the ridiculous staircase tax” all contributed to the entrepreneurs’ dissatisfaction.

Inevitably rising costs and uncertainty surrounding Brexit also received honourable mentions and they all – with the notable exception of the UK’s very cheerful export sector – contributed to a sharp fall in the FSB’s ‘optimism index.’

I wonder though, if it doesn’t go deeper than that for many entrepreneurs.

I’ve written previously about the ever-increasing impact of flexible working. If you’re looking to build your team and attract – and retain – the very best talent then offering flexible working is a must. Flexible hours, the option of working from home and genuine regard for someone’s work/life balance are all key.

But flexible working cuts both ways. One company’s flexible day can very easily equate to someone else’s 16 hour day.

I am not saying that we should all go back to 9 to 5 – that’s never going to happen. You can’t turn the clock back and remove flexible working, any more than you can – let’s take a ridiculous example – turn the clock back and ban a safe, convenient, modern, technology-driven ride sharing app…

In the old days it was very simple: if you wanted to succeed in business, you had to meet people. Face-to-face contact was essential.

Not so today: there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there – especially in the creative sector – who have never met their clients. “They’ve become my biggest client, Ed,” someone said to me the other day. “I think I’ve spoken to the MD twice on the phone. Everything else has been e-mail and Facebook messenger. I’ve got an address for invoicing but I’m not even sure where the MD’s based.”

That’s not unusual: for an increasing number of people running a business – whether they employ staff or not – equals sitting in front of a screen all day. And that must lead to more and more ‘lonely entrepreneurs.’

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Costs, taxation and ever increasing legislation all play their part in making the life of an entrepreneur difficult: but I just wonder how often loneliness is the final straw…

That’s why I believe the ‘work/life support system’ offered by The Alternative Board is so important: it’s why I believe the potential for us to grow in the future is so exciting. Some of you may have seen my recent profile in the Yorkshire Post – and yes, I absolutely believe that we can move from working with 350 business owners to over 1,000. And if we can do that we will very definitely benefit the UK economy.

But as I said in the article, sometimes as a business owner it’s difficult to know where to turn. I also said that I now realise how much I didn’t know when I started TAB York. One of the things I unquestionably didn’t know was how lonely life can be as an entrepreneur and how much having a support network can help.

Five years from now let’s hope the FSB are reporting that virtually no entrepreneurs are desperate to sell their businesses – and if TAB UK can play a part in that I’ll be absolutely delighted. Everyone needs friends: as the old saying has it, ‘Even the sharpest knife can’t cut it alone…’

Time to go into Reverse


Mentor: noun – an experienced and trusted adviser. Someone who gives an inexperienced or younger person help and advice over a period of time.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with the most famous mentor of them all…

But now the phrase on everyone’s lips is ‘reverse mentoring’ – because it’s not just young people that need training in the office.

What is reverse mentoring? To turn the dictionary definition around it is when an inexperienced or younger person gives an older, more experienced colleague help and advice. Why? One word: Snapchat. Another word: Instagram.

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As social media – and other developments such as gamification and virtual reality – come to play an increasingly important part in both the workplace and the customer journey, so Mr Older-Experienced can be left feeling, well… helpless.

But why do you need training in the office? Why not just ask your teenage children? If you’re asking that question I can only assume you don’t have teenage children. You cannot ask your teenage children. Sadly, I’m becoming all too familiar with their response. The long, drawn-out sigh. The raised eyes, the pained expression. ‘Oh God, I’ve got to explain it to the old person again…’

Back in the office there are some very successful advocates for reverse mentoring. Former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts credits it with helping her turn the company around and grow the brand value from $3bn to $11bn. John Lydon, MD of McKinsey Australia said that his tech-capability had increased tenfold – and he was able to understand the minds of a younger generation, and the emerging trends that came with them.

Why does reverse mentoring work? Because human nature all too often dictates that we spend too much time talking to people like us. People who are roughly the same age, from the same background and have the same views. Speaking to someone who’s younger than you, from a different background and significantly lower down the organisation chart can help you see the business from a new angle. In large companies it’s also a good way to identify future leaders: not just how much does someone know, but how good are they at communicating, and making the complex easy to understand.

The other great plus of reverse mentoring is that it creates a culture where everyone in the company is constantly learning – something you emphatically need to do today.

Depending on which projection you read, by the middle of the next decade millennials (people who entered the workforce around the turn of the century) will comprise up to 75% of employees. And yet most MDs and CEOs will still be significantly older.

So we’ll be hearing a lot more about reverse mentoring. I think it’s a great idea: looking back over my days in the corporate world, I can remember plenty of times when it would have helped me, my boss and – in the long term – the company. But I worry that too many organisations will introduce a reverse mentoring programme and simply pay it lip service – ‘this is the latest big thing apparently. I suppose we’d better give it a go’ – while carrying on doing what they’ve always done. And as I have said many times, if you always do what you have always done, these days you will no longer get what you have always got.

In many ways reverse mentoring has been part and parcel of TAB since I joined – even if we didn’t use the exact term. When I was running TAB York I always wanted my Boards to have a mix of ages and backgrounds – and it’s something I now encourage the franchisees in the UK to do. When someone brings a problem, challenge or opportunity to a monthly meeting it is absolutely invaluable for them to see it from different angles and different perspectives. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as the old saying goes: a problem seen from seven different viewpoints is very often a problem solved.

With that, I’m going to leave you for a fortnight. Next week I’m on holiday and the week after I’m joining TAB colleagues from around the world in Denver. But first, a holiday with Dav and the boys: hopefully without the sighs and the pained expressions…

Eddie and Jacob: the Unlikely Lads


Every day 300,000 people use Southern Rail: every day, a good proportion of those people are subject to overcrowded trains, delays or cancellations – or all three. Management blames the unions: the unions blame the management and now the owners of Southern Rail have been fined £13.4m – which has only increased the bitterness between the two sides.

But it’s not all doom and gloom at head office: Southern Rail have unwittingly discovered a social media star.

Meet Eddie…

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Eddie – sadly we do not know his second name – is 15 and was at Southern Rail on work experience. The decision was taken to put Eddie in charge of Southern Rail’s Twitter feed, which (as you might guess) is usually a seething hotbed of complaints, abuse and sarcasm. Showing that all the world’s ‘social media consultants’ are grossly overpaid, Eddie wasted no time in introducing himself:

Hi! Eddie here! Here on work experience and ready to answer your questions

Sensing that Eddie may not have the answer to why the 08:32 was delayed, overcrowded or cancelled, Southern Rail’s followers tried a different tack:

Hi Eddie! Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

A tough one: you suspect the traditional occupants of the customer service desk would have struggled. But Eddie was unfazed:

100 duck sized horses. A horse-sized duck would be pretty scary. You? Eddie

That’s a perfect response. In less than 140 characters Eddie answered the question, empathised with the customer and clearly identified himself. And after that he went from strength to strength…

Eddie – would you rather have rollerblades for feet or chopsticks for hands for the rest of your life?

Rollerblades for feet. I feel like I could get used to them pretty quickly and get places quicker.

Unlike Southern Rail someone darkly responded. But Eddie was on a roll, and by the end of his stint was even dishing out dietary advice.

Chicken fajitas or Thai green curry tonight? @Adam_W48 needed to know.

It has to be chicken fajitas Eddie replied with a wink.

For one day at least Southern Rail had given their customers something to smile about. But Eddie is not alone in being an unlikely star of the new media…

Hon_Jacob_Rees-Mogg_MP

Let me introduce you to an ever more surprising social media star – Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the MP for the 17th Century as he is frequently known. More correctly, the Eton and Oxford educated Mogg – the Moggster to his fans – is the Conservative MP for North Somerset. Unlike many of today’s politicians, Mogg doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. To many, he is what the New Statesman described as ‘a cartoonish toff.’ To others, he is a future Prime Minister – William Hill will offer you 16/1.

But Mogg also has 35,000 followers on Instagram (twice the number Theresa May has). He is not afraid to speak Latin and holds the record for the longest word ever used in the House of Commons (floccloccinaucinihilipilification – it means the habit of estimating something as worthless.) His sixth child was named Sixtus – the Guardian labelled him a ‘Tory sex machine’ – and he campaigns with his eldest son, both of them dressed in identical double-breasted suits.

You suspect that Eddie and Rees-Mogg could not be more different. But what they share is authenticity, and a willingness to answer a question. As Southern Rail casts around for excuses, as United Airlines tries to justify assaulting one of its own passengers and sundry corporate and government ‘spokesmen’ tell us what we all know is patently untrue, maybe business can learn a lesson from Eddie and the Right Honourable Member for the 17th Century. Customers are fed up with spin: more than ever they value the truth, openness, honesty and a willingness to engage.

If you have a problem, admit it. If you’re going to miss the delivery date, tell them. As the old saying goes, ‘The truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. The lie pleases, but it doesn’t heal.’ I’d go further than that: all our businesses are about building long-term relationships. It is a central part of TAB’s message and beliefs.

The truth may hurt in the short-term, but in the long term it can strengthen a relationship. If you tell the truth when it clearly shows you in a bad light then you’re someone who can be trusted. Lies – or spin – may please in the short-term: you cannot build a long-term business on them.

…And I clearly cannot build a long term business as a sports psychologist. Time to eat humble pie: or humilem massae manducare as JRM would put it. You may have noticed a slightly triumphalist tone in the blog last week. A few words of advice for Joe Root, he scores 190 and England win the first test by 211 runs. Sadly, a week is a long time in the sports psychology business. The last time I checked (from behind the sofa) Joe Root’s off stump was lying flat on the ground and England were sliding to a massive 340 run defeat. No wonder the MCC didn’t pay my invoice…