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…

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Bad Customer Service always Hertz


It’s impossible to start anywhere other than the Ryanair check-in desk this week. The lonely and deserted Ryanair check-in desk after one of the more spectacular own goals in corporate history. What is it about the airline industry? Last year United, this year Ryanair.

Michael O’Leary was swift to go on TV and offer profuse apologies. Flights cancelled for up to six weeks: up to 400,000 passengers with their flights cancelled and/or their holiday plans in ruins. But how do Ryanair still manage to give off that air of ‘sorry-not-sorry?’ There’s just the distinct impression of the kid at school – the one who’s apologising with his fingers crossed behind his back.

So Ryanair have thrown a large rock into their corporate pool. I suspect that they have done lasting and public damage to their reputation. And they have done it spectacularly.

But this week I want to talk about what I think was equally bad customer service. It wasn’t spectacular, it certainly won’t be reported in the media and, if Ryanair threw a rock, this was barely a pebble.

But there’s a ripple. And I hope that when you’ve read the blog this week the ripple may be on its way to being a wave. Here’s an abridged version of the story: if you want the full version, just let me know.

In the summer we went to Portugal for a week with another family. The events I’ve related below happened to both Ben and myself: a double whammy.

I’m a Hertz Gold Club member and I booked a car with them in advance – something around the size of an Astra, at £400 for the week.

When I arrived there was no Astra and instead I was offered a Clio Grande. I wondered if that was big enough for two large suitcases. “No problem,” the very helpful guy on the desk said, “You can upgrade to a BMW X3. Normally that would be £150, but you’re a Gold Member so I can do it for £80.”

That seemed fair enough. And we were anxious to start our holiday: I fumbled for my card. “No problem,” he said. “We don’t need your card. Just initial here … and here.”

And I was done – and, at that point, quite happy with the service I’d received from Hertz.

Fast forward a week. Time to hand the car back.

…At which point I find out that the £80 extra was per day. Was that mentioned initially? Not in a thousand years. Hertz presented the extra £80 as a one-off increase on the £400 I’d already paid.

You can imagine the scene. You can imagine the arguments Ben and I had with Hertz. You can also imagine the time I have wasted on this.

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At the time of writing it is still ‘in dispute.’ Hertz have so far refused to take any action: that includes failing to reply to my e-mail of August 20th despite – see the image – telling me that I should ‘stand by’ for a response on four separate occasions. Yep, I’m ‘standing by’ waiting for a response in much the same way as 400,000 Ryanair passengers are ‘standing by’ waiting for a flight. So here we are, in the rather more transparent world of social media…

Will I ever rent a car from Hertz again? Right now I would rather cycle round Portugal with our suitcases on my back. Will you ever rent a car from Hertz again? You may well do: but you will pause before you sign anything.

This is – by some distance – the worst service I’ve ever received in my life. Hertz still have my £500 (and Ben’s) and the words ‘ripped-off’ and ‘mis-selling’ don’t even come close. Worst of all is that – in the best traditions of United and Ryanair – Hertz don’t seem to care.

They may have been around since 1918, they may be the biggest name in car rental, but nothing excuses their lamentable service and their inability to answer an e-mail. I’ll be sharing this post with them: let’s hope someone at Hertz finally wakes up and takes notice. I’ll let you know…

Having It All


I left you last week as I went off to have a word with my boys about good manners – and their continuing importance in the business world.

Should I, instead, have been warning Dan and Rory that they might one day face the male equivalent of being ‘mommy tracked?’ That their careers – whatever they may be – will suddenly stall because they’ve decided to take their full year’s entitlement of paternity leave?

After all, paid maternity leave in Sweden is 480 days – which can be shared between the parents. All the indications are that other countries will move to extend paternity leave – and surely modern, caring men will increasingly take up that new entitlement over the next 20 to 30 years?

So should I have accepted the new reality, and instead had a conversation about the possibility of the boys ‘having it all?’ A career, a family and a great personal relationship?

I didn’t.

It’s never even crossed my mind to have that conversation with my sons. I very strongly suspect that the same holds true for all my friends with boys the same age as Dan (13) and Rory (10).

But – on a day when the World Economic Forum has said that it will take another 118 years to close the gender pay gap – is that right?

Are we still sending our sons out into the world with the expectation that they’ll have a career stretching from graduation to retirement? And – consciously or unconsciously – sending our daughters into the workplace with a subtle suggestion of ‘not long now and you’ll be having a career break?’

The phrase ‘having it all’ is generally credited to Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan and the creator of the ‘Cosmo brand’ as we recognise it today. Her message – revolutionary at a time when a single woman couldn’t get a mortgage – was that women could ‘have it all:’ a family, a career – and a great sex life as well.

Helen Gurley Brown died in August 2012. It’s debatable whether women were ‘having it all’ by the time she died and very little has changed in the three years since. What I can say is that some of the best, brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs I work with are women: equally I can say that the anecdotal evidence very firmly points to ‘mommy tracking’ being alive and well in a company near you.

Is that why more and more women are starting their own companies?

My guess is that it’s a combination of that, and work/life balance. Some companies do a great job of offering flexible working: but far too many pay lip-service in theory and ignore it in practice.

So maybe the change needs to start not with the HR departments of large corporations but with our generation of parents. Maybe it’s up to me to let Dan and Rory see that one day they’re going to have to juggle work and family. Hopefully now they’re aware of what I do, but maybe I need to get across a very clear message. The main reason I left the corporate world and started TAB York was simple: “I wanted to spend more time with you guys. I didn’t want to miss you growing up.”

Over their working lives my sons are going to face some remarkable challenges. The pace of change is going to be astonishing: the idea that they’ll have a ‘job for life’ is fast disappearing. But they’re also going to face the challenge of bringing up children and maintaining a relationship: I’m acutely conscious that what I say and do now is going to have a big bearing on how successful they’ll be.

“He’s Lost the Dressing Room.” Or the Sales Team…


Three-nil and their heads have gone down. You know, Mark, you start to wonder if the stories are true – if he’s lost the dressing room…

Too true. And if that’s happened there’s no way he’ll survive.

And sure enough two days later he’s gone and the bookies are betting on the replacement. Another football manager handed his P45 for ‘losing the dressing room.’ Or – if you’re not a long-suffering football fan – losing the respect of his players to such an extent that they’re ignoring his instructions and quite possibly deliberately playing badly in an attempt to get the manager sacked.

The parallels with business are obvious. Anyone who’s worked in a large organisation has seen instances of managers ‘losing’ their teams. They fail to get the best out of them, they fail to develop their full potential – and when it all goes wrong they very quickly shift the blame on to the team.

I saw it any number of times in my business career: sometimes it was hard to pin down the cause. Was the manager making mistakes – or was the culture in the company such that all managers were fair game?

But whatever the cause of the disease, the first symptom was always the same.

Disrespect.

Which takes me neatly back to last week

I talked about three things the owner of an SME simply couldn’t accept – dishonesty, negativity and mediocrity. Disrespect is the fourth one – and not only can you not accept it, you need to take action at the first hint of it.

The workplace is far less formal than it used to be. And ‘banter’ – or ‘bantz’ as I believe we’re now supposed to call it – seems to be the only way a lot of people can communicate. The problem is that one person’s banter is someone else’s sexism, racism – or outright disrespect.

So what do you do if the problem rears its ugly head in your business? At first glance it’s easy to say the problem won’t apply to most members of TAB York: after all, they’re not huge companies with multiple teams and corresponding managers. But I think disrespect is even more worrying in smaller companies – especially as the business starts to grow.

Most of my members and potential members probably follow a similar business model: owner(s) – one or two trusted lieutenants – and then the team(s). So the problem of disrespect is easy to spot – but in a small company it can be remarkably hard to tackle.

Twenty or thirty years ago it would have been simple. Find the ringleaders and fire them. Not so today – not unless you want to spend your days with the HR lawyers and the employment tribunal. But if one of your trusted lieutenants is under fire from his team, you cannot allow it to continue. You have to find a solution – and you may have some tough questions to answer.

Do you trust your lieutenant? Is he a key part of your long term strategy? After all, if The Alternative Board is about anything, it’s about building a successful business and making sure you never miss the Nativity Play. The layer of management underneath the owners is absolutely crucial to that.

But if you’ve a seed of doubt, then the disrespect of the team is probably a sign of things to come. Don’t let the situation fester. As Macbeth reminds us, “If it were done … then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

There’s one last question to consider: how does the owner of a business command respect? It’s easy to say that the answer is to work harder/longer than anyone else: to be able to do everyone’s job. But in the long run that will damage your health, your family and almost certainly your business. As I said last week, you command respect by leading: by setting the direction, outlining the vision and ultimately, empowering your team to achieve their potential and get there themselves.

With that I’ll leave you to what I hope is a remarkably productive Friday – followed by a remarkably relaxing weekend…