My First 100 Days


It’s not often I compare myself to Donald Trump – well, not this side of the psychiatrist’s couch – but he’s famously completed 100 days in the White House and I’ve now completed 100 days in my new role as the MD of The Alternative Board in the UK.

I haven’t pulled out of any climate change agreements, sacked anyone or threatened wholesale renegotiation of every trade deal that’s ever been made. Instead I’ve worked with some brilliant people and generally had the privilege of running an organisation that changes people’s lives. So thank you once again to everyone who helped to make it happen, and to everyone who keeps making it happen on a daily basis.

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Quite obviously, I’ve had to get used to a few changes. I’m not driving round North Yorkshire anywhere near as much: I see a lot less of Costa Coffee at Clifton Moor…

I’m now in the office at Harrogate for 2½ days a week, working as part of a team of six. I didn’t realise I’d missed the office ‘buzz’ so much. That’s a bonus that I hadn’t anticipated.

…And I’ve discovered another, equally unexpected but far more important bonus. Every month Mags and I are in London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester.

We always go on the train – and it’s a brilliant place to work. (But why, he asked innocently, could I get a mobile signal under Hong Kong harbour ten years ago but still can’t get one on the train between Huddersfield and Stalybridge? I’ll vote for whoever has that in their manifesto…)

As I was saying, a brilliant place to work – and to pick up on a point from last week, it’s a great place to work on the business. By definition you can’t work in the business, so Mags and I have time to discuss strategy, make plans and generally do all the things phones, meetings and the need to pop out for a sandwich stop you doing.

I’ve always liked working on the train. I’ve written before that if you want to think differently you need to be in a different physical location and I get some of my best work done on trains and in cafés, ploughing through as much paperwork between York and King’s Cross as I would in a full day at my desk.

Why is that?

Why do so many of us enjoy working in locations like that, and why are we so productive? And yes, I have been known to play a ‘café soundtrack’ on YouTube when I’m working in the office.

Early studies suggested that it was what’s known as ‘the audience effect:’ that we work better when we have someone to work with and/or compete with – witness the peloton in the Tour de France.

But according to an article in New Scientist, what applies to Team Sky doesn’t – for once – apply to us. The answer, apparently, is that hard work is contagious.

A study was done which involved sitting people doing different tasks next to each other: neither could see what the other was working on. When A’s task was made more difficult B started to work harder as well, as he or she responded to subtle cues like body posture and breathing.

I’ve often talked to TAB members who say their number one criteria for hiring another member of their team is work ethic: now it looks like there’s real evidence to back up that good old gut feeling.

…Except, of course, the evidence also suggests that I shouldn’t be on the train or in the coffee shop. I should be where people are working really hard. So I may hold future meetings in the library at Leeds University – and if it’s still the same as in my undergraduate days, on the same floor as the law students…

The Skills we Can’t Measure


Before I plunge into this week’s post, let me just take a moment to say ‘thank you’ for all the e-mails, text messages and calls over the last fortnight. Taking over TAB UK is a huge honour, privilege and challenge – but I couldn’t be setting out on the journey with any greater goodwill. So thank you all.

Back to the blog: and who remembers Moneyball?

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The old ways of recruitment in baseball were jettisoned. In came Billy Beane, his stats guru and a transformation in the fortunes of the Oakland Athletics.

The central premise of ‘Moneyball’ was simple: that the collective wisdom of baseball insiders – managers, coaches and scouts – was almost always subjective and was frequently flawed. But the key statistics for baseball – stolen bases, runs, batting averages – could be measured, were accurate and – used properly – could go a very long way to building a winning team.

Well, it worked for the Oakland A’s. As Billy Beane memorably says at the beginning of the film, ‘There’s rich teams, there’s poor teams, there’s fifty feet of $%&! and then there’s us.’ The ‘Moneyball’ approach changed all that, with the film chronicling their hugely successful 2002 season.

Small wonder that business has followed the ‘Moneyball’ approach for generations. “What we can measure we can manage” as my first sales manager incessantly chanted, drumming into me that I needed to make “Specific, measurable” goals.

And he was right. Business has to measure results: goals must be specific and measurable and, as anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will know, I believe there’s only one long term result if you don’t keep a close watch on your Key Performance Indicators.

But does that tell the full story?

Of course we have to keep track of the numbers: of course salesmen must be able to sell, coders must be able to code and engineers must be able to do the basic maths that means the bridge doesn’t fall down.

But none of those things happen in isolation: all of us in business are part of a team. We have to work with other people and – if our job is to lead the team – we have to get the best out of the people we work with.

And for that we need a set of skills that can’t be measured. I’ve written before about the World Economic Forum and their document on the key workplace skills that we’ll all need by the year 2020. Their top ten list includes creativity, people management, co-ordinating with others, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Last time I checked, none of those could really be measured objectively.

So are we swinging back to the pre-Moneyball approach? To a time when ‘gut-feeling’ held sway.

No, we’re not. But I do believe we are in an era where what we’ve traditionally called ‘soft skills’ are at least as valuable as ‘hard,’ functional skills.

This has implications for those of us running businesses – and it especially has implications for the training programmes we introduce. In the years ahead, we’ll still need to train our salesmen and our coders, but we’ll need to give them skills that go well beyond selling and coding.

There are implications for hiring and firing as well: they can no longer be based purely on numbers. And yes, I appreciate that the second one is going to cause problems. As a TAB member said to me last month, “I can fire someone for under-performance, I can fire them for stealing from me. But try and fire them because they bring the whole team down with their negative attitude and I’m heading straight for an employment tribunal.”

We’ve all been there: been in a meeting where someone’s glass is determinedly half-empty and they’re equally determined that it will remain like that. There’s a collective sigh of relief when they go on holiday. You can’t let one person bring the team down: it’s up to us as leaders to use our soft skills to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It’s also up to us to make sure that everyone in the team has the chance to develop their own soft skills. Whether it’s negotiation, creativity, co-operation or flexibility – those are the skills our businesses are going to need over the coming years: those are the skills that will help us turn our visions into reality.

The Monday Morning Quarterback


It’s just about the perfect description. Instantly, we all know what it means…

So the wide receiver’s wide open. 20 yard throw straight into the end zone. Hell, even my six year old can do that. What’s he do? Tries to run it himself. Gets sacked. Turnover. And it’s game over. Season over. See you in September.

There isn’t an equivalent phrase in the UK, but no office is short of an expert round the watercooler on a Monday morning.

Seriously, he thinks X is a centre back? He needs to buy Y. And no wonder Z didn’t try an inch. My mate’s brother says he’s been tapped up by City.

Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, no sports fan gets a decision wrong on a Monday morning. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and it guarantees you a 100% success rate.

Sadly, the entrepreneur doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight: he has to make decisions every day – and he’ll get plenty of them wrong. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review put it, ‘The problems entrepreneurs confront every day would overwhelm most managers.’

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…And – just like the QB on a Sunday night – entrepreneurs get plenty of decisions wrong. Any entrepreneur who gets 50% of his decisions right first time is doing remarkably well. Fortunately, TAB members can improve on those numbers. They can bring their problems to the monthly board meetings – and rely on the collective wisdom, experience and insight of their colleagues: the Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday quarterbacks. Once a problem – or an idea – has been run past seven people instead of one, the chances of a correct decision increase exponentially.

But I’m aware that not everyone who reads this blog is a member of TAB York: plenty of readers are just starting their journey as an entrepreneur. So here are three of the most common problems, proposed solutions and – ultimately – mistakes that I’ve seen in my business life. I hope they help – and don’t worry if you tick all three boxes: every successful entrepreneur has done exactly the same.

  • No-one else cares like I care. The only answer is to do it myself

That’s true. It’s your business: no-one will ever care like you care. But you cannot do everything yourself. That way lies fatigue, burn-out and your wife telling you that she needs to talk… Embrace the division of labour: we live in an age where everything can be outsourced online. Your job is to manage the business: let someone else do the tedious stuff that takes away your creativity and your productivity.

  • There’s no more money in the budget. The only solution is to throw more hours at it

Let me refer you to one of my favourite books, Rework, and page 83: ‘throw less at the problem.’ As the authors say, the solution is not more hours, people or money. The solution is almost always to cut back. You cannot do everything and, as I wrote last week, success comes from a focus on your core business – not on trying to please all the people all the time. Besides, more hours simply means a second, more serious, talk with your wife…

  • Fire people: hire people

When you’re starting out you’ll be a small team: that breeds closeness – and loyalty. But not everyone who starts the journey with you is capable of finishing it. Sadly, at some stage you’ll learn just how lonely it can be as an entrepreneur: one day, you’ll accept that Bill’s just not up to it any more. You have to act: if you don’t, you’ll cause resentment among the rest of Bill’s team – and risk losing people who are up to it. And when you hire Bill’s replacement, don’t be afraid to hire someone smarter than you. See above, your job is to manage and lead the company, not to be the expert on every single aspect of it.

 

When I write this weekly post I sometimes ‘let it go cold’ for an hour and then give it a final read through. That’s what I did this week and I need to correct myself. The three mistakes above are mistakes we can make at every stage of our business journey – not just when we’re starting out.

It’s all too easy to slip back into bad habits, to think ‘it’s easier to do it myself’ or ‘If I work through the night I’ll have cracked it.’ We’ve all done it. But at least you won’t make the mistakes for long: those quarterbacks round the TAB table will be watching you…

The Road to 2017


Last week Keaton Jennings made his debut for England, playing against India in Mumbai.

He was dropped off the 21st ball of the day. At the time he’d made 0. Had the catch been taken, he couldn’t have made a worse start to his test career. But it wasn’t – and by the end of the day Jennings was the hero, scoring 112 – only the 19th England player to make a hundred on debut.

Listening to a recap of the first day’s play one of the summarisers made a really important point: even if Jennings had made 0, even if he’d failed in his first few innings, he still looked right. ‘We get too focused on outcomes in very small samples,’ he said.

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That’s something to keep in mind as you head into 2017. You’ve now made – or you’re close to finalising – your plans for the year ahead. You’re convinced they’re the right plans. You’ve run them past your colleagues and in January you’ll do the same with your fellow Board members. Come Tuesday January 3rd they’re the plans that will guide you through the year.

So don’t lose heart if you get a duck in January. If the plans don’t work immediately, don’t rip them up. Refine, tweak, adjust, get outside the line of off stump: but remember that the first month of the year – like the first steps in building a business or the first few innings in a test career – is a ‘very small sample.’

Anyway, the end of 2016 is approaching. You may now be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. You may carelessly think, ‘Phew, thank the Lord that’s over. Leicester City, Brexit, Trump… Surely we can’t have another year that’s so unpredictable?’

‘Yes we can,’ is the answer to that question: I suspect there may be quite a few twists, turns and bumps along the road in 2017. Domestically Brexit will be triggered: how it will end, no-one (least of all the Government) knows. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Theresa May call a General Election next year, Fixed Term Parliament Act or not…

But it’s my colleagues in TAB Europe who’ll see their countries become the focus of attention next year. March brings a General Election in Holland with the far-right Freedom Party currently on course to become the largest single party. The French Presidential election is in April/May – the signs are that it will be fought out between Marine le Pen of the Front National and the likely winner, the right’s self-confessed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Fillon.

And then in September there are elections in Germany: Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term, but she will surely come under plenty of pressure from the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

May you live in interesting times’ as the supposedly-Chinese curse has it. I suspect we’ll look back on 2017 and decide that ‘interesting’ was an understatement. So next year will not be a year to take your eye off the ball. No, don’t panic if your plans are not on track by January 31st. Even if the world changes so much next year that you need to completely re-write your original plans, remember the words of Dwight D Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What you will need to do next year is keep a close watch on your metrics: the two or three key statistics, ratios or measurements that absolutely determine the health of your business – the ‘pulse’ that I’ve talked about in previous posts.

Through December I’ve had the remarkably enjoyable job of listening to TAB members reflect on the past year: I’m delighted to say that far more has gone right than has gone wrong. Has there been a common thread running through the success stories – apart from measuring those key metrics?

Yes, I think there has. ‘Resilience’ and ‘consistency’ are the two words that come to mind: TAB members have consistently done the right thing and stayed true to their beliefs and their vision. And as a result, they’re reaping the rewards.

So 2017 will be challenging: I suspect the old PEST analysis will be wheeled out several times. But like all years, it will also be full of opportunities: and however challenging, the plans you’ve made, the metrics you measure and the support of your TAB colleagues will ensure that you couldn’t be in better shape to greet the coming year…

Why Being Ill is Good for You


I bumped into an old work colleague at the weekend.

I use the word ‘colleague’ in its loosest possible sense. Brian was a man whose success at office politics was exceeded only by his opinion of himself: whose survival skills were in directly inverse proportion to his business skills. And for whom the expression ‘pompous oaf’ (or stronger) might have been invented.

But Season of Goodwill and all that. I smiled my welcoming smile…

“Edward. How goes the world with you? Still doing just enough?”

My smile slipped a little. “I’m managing, Brian. And you…”

“Never better. Just been ill. Best thing that ever happened to me.”

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I made suitable sympathetic noises while wondering why your phone never rings when you need it to.

“Gastric flu. Wiped out. Five days. Never been so ill in my life. But now, marvellous. Cleared out my body and – ” Brian jabbed me to make sure I understood the next point was important – “Cleared out my life as well.”

I indicated that I was grateful to be drinking from the well of such wisdom. “Yes. Could have swanned off to Switzerland and paid thousands. Did it all myself. Even a man of my talents can take on too much. You won’t have heard the expression – some American or other – but they call it ‘the thick of thin things.’”

And mercifully, at that moment, my phone did ring. “Mis-sold PPI?” I said. “Thank you so much for calling…”

As most of you will know, if there are 30 people in a room there’s a better than even chance of two of them sharing a birthday. With the massed ranks of TAB York, there must be equally good odds that one of us will, like Brian, be ‘wiped out’ in the run up to Christmas.

And much as I disliked the man, I had to admit that he was right. Sometimes, being ill can be good for you.

If you’re running your own business – or you’re in any position of authority – switching off is one of the hardest things to do. At home with the children? Date night with the wife? Ordering lunch on the beach… Even then, there’s either a problem that won’t go away or – because you’ll always be an entrepreneur – an idea that pops into your head.

For me – with due apologies to my wife and hopes that she’s already bought my Christmas present – the most totally relaxing thing I do is play squash. I’m physically and mentally engaged. Work couldn’t enter my head if it tried.

But Brian – proving the ‘broken clock’ adage – was right for once. Being really ill for a few days is a superb way to detox your body and your life.

The last time it happened to me was six years ago. I couldn’t do anything. The ominous shivering: the slow crawl into bed. Extra blanket. Dressing gown on top of you. Nothing works. And you all know the rest…

When I emerged back into the world I was washed out. Body emptied: mind emptied. I’d drunk nothing but water for five days: I was totally detoxified. But I was also more focused: much more clear about what I needed to do – and completely astonished at the mental clutter I’d allowed to accumulate before I was ill.

The first thing I did was tidy my office: then I abandoned my notebook/planner/to-do list and started a new one. I was acutely conscious that I didn’t want to drift back, to let the same clutter build up again.

Ultimately those five days I spent shaking and sweating turned out to be five of the most productive days I had that year.

So if it’s your turn this year, see being ill as a positive experience – at least in the long term. It can refresh your brain, detox your body and help you break bad habits.

And as the font of all wisdom pointed out, look at the money you saved by not going to Switzerland

Five Key Questions you Need to Ask Yourself


“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.”

We’re all familiar with that saying. In fact, we’re so familiar with it that we don’t even register the words any more. ‘Oh yeah, it’s that fish one…’

But the saying is fundamentally true: whether you’re talking about food shortages in the third world or educating your own children, ‘teach a man to fish’ always applies.

It applies with my business as well – especially when I’m wearing my ‘business coach’ hat. I can dispense advice very easily: but it doesn’t always work in the long term.

Farmers, fishermen, children or entrepreneurs, people learn best when they discover things for themselves. So my job – either in a 1 to 1 or with the help of half a dozen successful people round a TAB boardroom table – is to help entrepreneurs ask themselves the right questions. Or to put it another way: “Give a man advice and he’ll follow it for a month. Help him discover the advice for himself and he’ll follow it for life.”

So what are the questions I want entrepreneurs to ask themselves?

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Obviously some vary with the entrepreneur and the nature of their business, but looking back over the last seven years of TAB York certain key questions crop up over and over again. They apply to every member of TAB York – and to every entrepreneur I’ve worked with:

What do I really want from my business?

“I want more time and more money, Ed.” That’s almost always the first thing someone says to me – but in itself it’s meaningless. It’s a lazy way of thinking. So I need to ask some direct questions. How much more time? What will you do it with? How much more money? Why? What difference will it make? No-one can motivate themselves with a mental image of an abstract ‘more time and more money.’ It’s much easier imagining your house in Portugal; Friday on the golf course or handing your daughter the keys to her first car.

Can I please everyone?

As I’ve written many times on the blog, human nature dictates that we like to say ‘yes’ – whether it’s to a new client or a new commitment outside the office. But all the successful people I know say ‘no’ on a regular basis. If you want to avoid what Stephen Covey famously termed being ‘in the thick of thin things;’ if you truly want more time, then you’ll need to ask yourself this question – and sooner rather than later.

Am I in my comfort zone?

Let’s trot out another old saying: ‘Ships are safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.’ And being safe in your comfort zone isn’t what an entrepreneur is built for. Staying in your comfort zone limits your growth; it gives you a false sense of security. Stay too long in your comfort zone and there’s a real danger that – when you finally pop your head above the parapet – you won’t recognise the new world.

Am I prepared for criticism?

As I wrote last week, we’re now living in an age where everyone has an opinion – and it’s easier than it’s ever been to voice that opinion. You can’t please all the people all the time and today those that aren’t pleased will reach for their keyboards. So be it. Criticism – and its attendant handmaiden, jealousy – is an integral part of a successful entrepreneur’s life. Focus on your long term goals and let it wash over you.

Do I know everything I need to know?

As Mario Andretti famously said, “If everything seems under control you’re not going fast enough.” And if you think you know everything you need to know, you don’t. In fact, with the world changing so quickly it’s safe to safe that the more you think you have to learn the better. Right now, all I know for certain is that on December 3rd 2017 there’ll be more items in my ‘need to learn/need to read’ file than there are now…

Five very simple questions: but they apply to virtually every entrepreneur I’ve ever worked with. And successful entrepreneurs don’t just ask those questions once: they keep asking them. So sometime between now and locking the office on December 23rd take ten minutes and a piece of paper and ask yourself these five questions. It’ll be some of the best preparation you do for 2017…

Why you Should Make Big Decisions in the Morning


“I’m a morning person.”

“I’m totally useless in the morning. Can’t do anything until I’ve had three coffees.”

We’ve all heard people make those claims: I’ve no doubt the vast majority of people reading the blog would file themselves in one of the two categories.

But there’s increasing evidence that what your Granny told you was right. The early bird does catch the worm. Early to bed, early to rise and there’s only one possible outcome…

In simple terms, we’re at our cognitive best in the morning. I can vouch for that: without question, I’m better in the morning. I’m sharper, more alert and I’m conscious that I’m making better decisions.

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But enough of the anecdotal: what about the analytical?

Researchers in Denmark studied the performance of two million 8 to 15 year olds in standard tests, taking the time of the test into account. The results showed that for every hour after 8am results declined by 1% – apparently equivalent to missing ten days of school.

As lead researcher Dr Hans Henrik Sievertsen said: “Our ability to focus, make decisions and react is affected by cognitive fatigue.”

So if your teenage son comes home clutching his exam timetable and beaming because his exams are all in the afternoon, he might be paying a high price for sleeping in.

It’s not just students. An article in the Scientific American cited the fact that doctors are more likely to default to simply prescribing antibiotics and prescription drugs as the day wears on.

And judges become less lenient…

In one study, 1,112 bench rulings in a parole court were studied. The data showed that as judges advanced through a day’s cases they became more likely to deny a prisoner’s request and accept the status quo. The proportion of favourable rulings started out high early in the day, at about 65 per cent. By the time the court broke for lunch, favourable rulings were close to zero.

Scientific American draws the same conclusions as Dr. Sievertsen: “the demands of multiple decisions throughout the day erodes their mental resources and leads to inappropriate and all-round bad decisions.”

I think this is fascinating – and it’s got real implications for business. Clearly, we need to be making our big decisions in the morning. Granny was right again: ‘sleep on it’ – because you’re going to make the best decisions when you’re fresh.

It also looks like we’re more creative in the morning. As the day wears on – as cognitive fatigue sets in – both the judges and the doctors were more likely to revert to the status quo, the easy option. If you want to think ‘outside the box,’ you need to be doing it over breakfast. After all, we know what you get if you ‘do what you’ve always done…’

It’s not just making decisions and being creative: there’s the experience of the prisoners and their parole – or lack of it. Clearly, you need to ask for things in the morning as well: if you have to negotiate, then negotiate at nine in the morning. (Preferably not with a judge though!)

So with the analytical and the anecdotal in full agreement, one of my commitments to myself for next year is to be even more of a morning person. Dan and Rory are getting older: we don’t need to be quite so ‘hands-on’ as they get ready for school – so there’s more time for tea, toast, planning the day and feeling in control. I know that benefits my business and my TAB York members.

And there’s a work/life balance bonus as well: with work planned and organised and the big decisions made, evenings are there for my family – not for my laptop.

Nine Pregnant Women


One of the things I do every other Wednesday is read Suzanne Burnett’s blog.

Many people reading this will know Suzanne – a mixture of successful businesswoman and farmer’s wife with a healthy dollop of insight and common sense. And this week, with a quote in her blog that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s from legendary American investor Warren Buffet:

No matter how great the talents or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t make a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant.

The year is ticking by. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, now is the time to start making plans for next year. But plans – not ‘wish list’ – is the key word.

Remember that it’s ‘SMART:’ specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. And the most important word in there is ‘realistic.’

Over the years – both in the corporate world and as owner of TAB York – I’ve seen thousands of business plans produced at this time of year. By March of the following year a significant number of those plans lay abandoned, hastily pushed to the back of the filing cabinet, their creators denying all responsibility for them.

And the main reason for that was simple: the goals and targets weren’t realistic – and it had quickly become apparent that they weren’t realistic.

But faced with that blank piece of paper the temptation to be too ambitious – or to please the boss peering over your shoulder – is almost overwhelming.

Yes, yes, I know. ‘Better to shoot at the moon and hit an eagle.’ But sometimes we need to put Norman Vincent Peale on hold and listen to Thoreau as well: ‘If you build your castles in the air that’s where they should be: now put the foundations under them.’

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Or as Warren Buffet said, ‘some things take time.’

Many TAB members have made tremendous strides this year: may will do the same in 2017. But there’s no disgrace in saying, ‘No. Next year’s a year when we need to put the foundations in place for 2018.’

One of the key factors in building a successful team – both inside and outside your business – is finding people who’ll tell you the truth. I love my job: the opportunity it gives me to say “this is how it could be” – to see someone recognise the possibilities in their life and their work – is immensely fulfilling. But I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t unfailingly honest with people. And sometimes that means urging caution: if the immediate job is to fix the cash-flow, nothing matters until that’s done.

So as well as holding up a mirror saying ‘this is how it could be,’ sometimes I have to say, ‘this is how it really is. Let’s fix it.’

As you may have noticed, the debate about Brexit rumbles on. As I write, the legality of invoking Article 50 is being tested in the courts. Clinton and Trump are having a mild-mannered disagreement. Russia, China… the world is going to be a challenging place in 2017 and if that coincides with a year of consolidation for your business, that’s fine. I’ll support you 100% of the way.

No business is on a constantly upward path. At some time we all need to pause and consolidate before we jump to the next level. Almost always, business growth is a series of steps – in turnover, staffing levels and the quality of your team.

It’s my job – helped by your colleagues round the TAB table – to help you make those steps, and to help you recognise the right time to take the steps. So don’t worry if it isn’t next year: setting unrealistic and over-ambitious goals might satisfy your ego in October, but it could cost you a whole year when you quietly shelve the plans in March.

No, you can’t make a baby in a month. And you can’t build a business in one unrealistic year: everything worthwhile takes time.

I’m Lazy, I’m Fat and I’m off to Play Golf


The UK trade deficit shrank in July, down to £4.5bn from £5.6bn the previous month. The services sector rebounded sharply as the Purchasing Managers’ Index jumped to 52.9 from a seven year low of 47.4 in July. The construction sector is showing signs of recovery – but the British Chambers of Commerce has cut its forecast for UK growth this year, reducing it from 2.2% in March to 1.8%, citing uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations.

In short there’s been the usual mixture of good and bad economic news over the past couple of weeks. There hasn’t been the immediate post-Brexit apocalypse some commentators had predicted, but the negotiations to leave the EU have barely begun. None of us – including the negotiators – have much idea what the talks over the next two years will bring.

But none of this has stopped Liam Fox, the MP for North Somerset, current Secretary of State for International Trade and quite recently, possible successor to David Cameron.

Last week Liam Fox made his feelings known on British businessmen. The country, he declared, was “too lazy and too fat” with businessmen preferring golf on a Friday afternoon to trying to boost the country’s prosperity.

This country is not the free-trading nation it once was. We have become too lazy and too fat on our successes in previous generations. Companies who could contribute to our national prosperity – but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon – we’ve got to say to them that if you want to share in the prosperity of our country you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country.

Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, said that Mr Fox had “never done a day’s business in his life.” I suspect that several members of TAB York would respond in significantly stronger terms…

Of course the comments are nonsense. Of course they’re insulting to the overwhelming majority of people running SMEs – and worryingly they show an International Trade Minister alarmingly out of touch with… well, trade. But there are possibly even more important considerations than that.

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I’m not fat (said he, squeezing into the suit he got married in 18 years ago) and I hope no-one considers me lazy. I did, however, play golf on Thursday and I make no apology for that.

Since this blog started – more than six years ago now – I’ve repeatedly stressed the need for time away from work. ‘Work hard, play hard’ might be a cliché, but it stops burnout, keeps you fresh and, importantly, gives you a broader perspective on life.

I remember reading about Denis Healey criticising Margaret Thatcher for having no ‘hinterland:’ no breadth of knowledge of art, culture, literature or science.

You might argue that ‘hinterland’ isn’t important for business success: that a laser-like focus on your goal will get you there.

I wonder… As the worlds of technology and business continue to change ever more rapidly, then knowing about – and learning from – seemingly unconnected disciplines will, I think, become increasingly important.

Just as importantly, hinterland – and the associated work/life balance – is a lot of fun. Which brings me back to Master Fox and our politicians: when was the last time you saw one on a golf course? Too many of our politicians – other than the obligatory August photo op in Cornwall – don’t seem to have any concept of work/life balance: and our political life is poorer for it.

Rather than criticising people running businesses, perhaps our politicians could learn from them – not least in being able to take planned, productive time off. If I see someone who never takes time off then I see someone who’s heading for trouble. You only have to look across to the US to see the latest example of a seemingly ‘indestructible’ politician showing herself to be all too vulnerable.

So I’ll continue to encourage the members of TAB York to work hard and play harder. The idea that any of them opt to do less than their best is simply wrong: the moral obligation they feel to their businesses, their staff, their customers – and the work ethic that flows from that – is something I’m honoured to see on a daily basis.

The Next Level


I was watching the test match at the weekend. Specifically, I was watching Joe Root as – for the second time in the match – he got out playing a shot he emphatically shouldn’t have played.

Joe Root is one of the most naturally talented batsmen I’ve seen – probably the most talented if you only consider England players. And in his short career, he’s not been short of accolades. ‘Could be the best we’ve ever seen.’ ‘He’ll break every record there is.’

But I wonder…

Because as I watched Root casually swat a long hop from Rahat Ali into the grateful hands of Yasir Shah, I wondered if he really wanted to be one of the game’s greats. Or merely very, very good.

Whatever sport you watch, there are people with incredible natural talent. But talent doesn’t always translate into the record books. And everyone reading this blog has watched a sporting event and thought, ‘Why is this person not playing/competing at a higher level?’

Not for the first time, I was struck by the ever-present parallels between sport and business. There are some incredibly talented entrepreneurs out there: some of them right at the top of the tree – but some of them working ‘a long way below their pay grade.’

There are others who may not have been the sharpest tool in the box. But they’ve kept pushing themselves, kept learning, kept setting new targets.

I’ve written many times that the progression of a business is never a straight line. It’s never a graph going inexorably upwards. More often than not it’s a series of plateaus. Reach a level, consolidate, take the next step, reach a new level, consolidate…

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The more time I spend working with entrepreneurs, the more I think it’s the same for them. Reach a certain level – quite possibly the level that was the original goal – there’s a period of consolidation, and then one morning the light bulb goes on again: ‘I’m capable of more than this. I can go to the next level.’

Not for one minute am I saying that you must move to the next level. Goodness knows, no-one has written the phrase work/life balance more than me. But equally, you don’t want to watch the sun go down one day thinking, “If only…”

And my experience of working with entrepreneurs tells me that once the light bulb has gone on, you have to act. Otherwise frustration and boredom set in – and as I’ve written previously, they are few more dangerous forces than a bored entrepreneur…

Moving to the next level is one of the key areas where TAB can help. Yes, we’ll always make sure that your work/life balance stays well and truly balanced. But once you’ve decided to make that move, the support of your peers becomes invaluable – both consciously and subconsciously.

Clearly your fellow board members can help: there’s almost certain to be someone around the table who’s made the same decision: who’s asked themselves the same questions you’re now asking.

And rest assured I’ll do everything in my power to help. There’ll come a day when I’m watching the sun go down: rest assured that I have no intention of letting my mind drift back to any TAB York members and thinking ‘if only…’

But it’s the subconscious side that fascinates me…

I’ve seen this happen several times.

Someone around the TAB table makes a major announcement. They’ve clearly moved to a different level.

Across the table an expression changes. There’s a momentary raising of the eyebrows. Then the eyes narrow. The focus intensifies. The lightbulb goes on. ‘Good’ is no longer good enough. An entrepreneur has made the decision to move to the next level.

Let’s see if an England batsman makes the same decision over the next five days…