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.


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…