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.

What can we Learn from Loyalty Cards?


Open your wallet.

Go ahead. Open your wallet. Or your purse. I’m conducting an experiment.

I am prepared to wager that in there – along with the photograph of your children and the credit cards – are two or three loyalty cards. I don’t mean your Tesco Clubcard – I mean the ones that are stamped. The loyalty cards from coffee shops, bakeries and your enterprising local burger restaurant.

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…And I’m prepared to make a second wager: that all those loyalty cards – that need eight or ten stamps before you get your free bagel or burger – have just one or two stamps on them. That you thought, ‘hey, that’s a good idea, I’ll do that’ and then quickly lost interest.

You’re not alone: that’s archetypal human behaviour – but according to an article in the Harvard Business Review it’s behaviour that may offer business owners and managers an insight into how to improve results from their teams.

Interestingly, it flies in the face of most current business thinking, especially when it comes to setting and achieving goals.

The modern trend is towards flexible working. As I wrote recently, the evidence suggests that teams allowed to work flexibly are both happier and more productive. And unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people have a preference for flexibility when it comes to goals. As the HBR puts it, ‘Adopting a somewhat elastic approach to setting goals allows us some future wiggle room.’

But it you want to achieve a major goal, then the article suggests you’re much more likely to do so with a rigid and restrictive structure for the necessary steps.

And this is where loyalty cards – and yoghurt – come in.

Professor Szu-chi Huang and her colleagues in the marketing department at Stanford University conducted research on the effectiveness of loyalty cards at a local yoghurt shop. It was the standard offer: a free yoghurt after six purchases.

There were two separate offers – the ‘flexible’ one, where customers were free to buy any yoghurts they liked, and a far more restrictive one, where customers had to purchase specific yoghurts in a specific order.

Unsurprisingly, there was far more take-up of the ‘flexible’ offer. Rather more surprisingly, those customers opting for the restrictive offer were nearly twice as likely to complete six purchases and get the free yoghurt. (And before you think it’s just one yoghurt shop near Stanford University, YesMyWine, the largest imported wine platform in the world, has reported similar results with special offers.)

The academics at Stanford suggested that the result was because customers responded to not having to make a decision: that in our ‘information-overload, decision-fatigued’ society people will appreciate something that gives them the chance to make fewer decisions. They go on from that to draw a conclusion for business: that once a goal has been decided on, managers should be rigid in the steps needed to accomplish it – in effect, take any decisions away from the team.

I’m not so sure. First of all I’d argue that people who sign up for a ‘restrictive’ offer are more committed in the first place and therefore more likely to ‘see it through.’ Secondly, my experience of managing large teams suggests that the real answer is “it depends.”

Specifically, it depends on the experience and capabilities of your senior team. If you’re looking to achieve significant change and/or achieve a major goal then, yes, there needs to be a detailed, step-by-step approach with a list of actions and a series of deadlines.

But if you have a ‘details guy’ in the team, my advice is delegate it to the details guy: it’s almost always better to ‘trust and delegate.’ But if you don’t have a details guy, then the actions and deadlines become your job: what’s absolutely certain is that they cannot be left to chance.

So there I am, disagreeing with learned academics at the world’s third-ranked university. I’d be fascinated to hear your views on this: and yes, let’s discuss it over a coffee. I can’t miss a chance to double my number of stamps…

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…

A Glimpse of the Future


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.

That’s a quote from last week’s post – and the inspiration for those two lines came from the second episode of Westworld.

One scene really struck a chord with me: it went to the heart of everything I do, and I’d like to expand on it this week.

I’m aware some of you may not have seen Westworld, so I’ll tread carefully. In the scene the increasingly desperate writer, Sizemore, presents a scheme for Westworld’s ‘greatest narrative yet.’ There’ll be maidens to seduce, Indians to kill and unnamed horrors that I’m not going to mention in a Friday morning blog post.

“Above all,” claims Sizemore, “It’ll show the guests who they really are.”

He’s shot down by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the owner of Westworld.

The guests aren’t looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.

Sometimes you’re watching a film, reading a book or listening to a song and there’s a line that absolutely hits home. That’s how it was for me last Tuesday. Hopkins captured not only the essence of Westworld, but also the essence of what I do for a living.

The entrepreneurs I speak to aren’t looking to be told who they are, or where their business is now. They already know that. They want a glimpse of who they could be: of how far they could take their business – and how far the business could take them.

The first time I meet someone, that’s all I can offer – a glimpse.

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What do I want in return? First and foremost, I want an entrepreneur with courage. Someone who – to quote Bobby Kennedy – is willing “not to see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ But to see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’”

So it’s not someone who wants to gamble on the future, or even someone who’s endlessly positive and always sees the glass as half-full. What I’m looking for is an open mind: a willingness to step outside their comfort zone and the realisation (even though they might not be acting on it then) that you cannot become the person you want to be by continuing to be the person you are.

My job is to say, ‘”This is how it could be, for you and the company.”

I’m giving the entrepreneur permission to think about the future: I’m saying, “There’s the door, it’s OK to walk through it.”

In one of his TED talks Simon Sinek makes a significant point: Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a plan’ – much less, ‘I have a business plan’ – he said “I have a dream.”

Giving people permission to dream – and a setting in which they can dream – is what a great TAB board does. Make no mistake, sitting there at your desk, being the person you’ve always been, isn’t conducive to dreaming. In order to think differently – to see things as they could be – you need to move out of your everyday environment.

Good leaders spend their time encouraging others: giving them the means and the encouragement to grow. But someone needs to tell the leaders they can grow as well: that it’s OK for them to dream, that they don’t always need to be the detached pragmatist running the company. That they can be who they could be.

So when I say, “This is how it could be” I’m opening the door and offering a glimpse of what’s on the other side. Hopefully the entrepreneur will walk through the door, where she’ll find half a dozen like-minded people waiting for her.

But going through that door can be painful. Because you’ll need to have a couple of conversations: one with your team, admitting that maybe you don’t have all the answers. And one – which I’ll tackle next week – with your spouse or partner, saying that you have room to grow: that you’ve had a dream, and you’re going to pursue it…

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.

Why You Need a Longer To-Do List


We’re into April – and the Blog is approaching its sixth birthday. That’s something close to 300 posts and nearly 200,000 words.

Which three word combination has appeared most frequently? I’ve no way of telling, but I sincerely hope it’s ‘work/life balance.’ But there are three more little words that won’t be far behind: the ones that haunt all of us. Yep, I’m talking about the ‘to-do list.’

However you keep it – on your phone, in Evernote or on a pleasantly retro piece of paper – the to-do list dominates our lives.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the trap we all occasionally fall into – scoring a few quick wins at the bottom while the most important thing on it remains ominously un-ticked. Let’s also ignore the need to prioritise the damn thing and to make sure that ‘life’ is every bit as well represented as ‘work.’

Let’s just look at one thing: the sheer length of your to-do list. And let me now make the vast majority of you splutter on your cornflakes or hurl your coffee at the screen in annoyance.

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Because I’m going to suggest that your to-do list should be longer.

And that if it was, you’d be even more productive…

Let me use a simple example: ‘plan next year.’ Another three little words that will have appeared on all our to-do lists at some point in the not-too-distant past.

But what does ‘plan next year’ really mean…

Once you go to work you realise that ‘plan next year’ contains a series of questions:

  • What do we want to achieve next year?
  • So what are the quarterly targets we need to reach to do this?
  • What does this mean for staffing levels?
  • Do we need to cut costs? Or raise more investment?
  • What advertising and marketing do we need to do?
  • And how are all these plans going to impact on the cash flow?

All these points clearly impact on your to-do list: but suddenly one big task – made even more difficult because it is so vague – can be broken down into a series of small, precise, achievable steps:

  • Decide key targets/goals for next year
  • Determine necessary quarterly targets
  • Review staffing levels in light of targets
  • Plan advertising & marketing strategy for next year
  • Prepare business plan and cash flow forecast
  • Make appointment with bank

There are days when the to-do list fills everyone with dread: but the dread comes not from the length of the list, but from filling it with things we have no chance of achieving. If ‘plan next year’ is on the list with a host of client work and ‘Nativity Play at 2:30’ then you haven’t a hope of doing it. You won’t even start it.

You do have a hope of determining your key goals for next year. Or working backwards to your quarterly targets. What you’ll do by breaking your to-do list down into smaller segments is achieve something – instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s in front of you.

There are two other reasons for breaking the list down. If you go home at the end of the day and ‘plan next year’ is still on your list it’s going to cause you pain. And it’s going to cause you more pain when you see it again the next morning. But if you go home with your key targets identified and crossed off the list… That’s an entirely different feeling.

Secondly, your to-do list isn’t a wish list: it is – or should be – something that reflects your overall plan for the year or the quarter. And that plan requires specific actions – ‘decide key targets’ – not vague pipedreams like ‘plan next year.’

None of this advice is revolutionary. You’ve almost certainly heard or read it before. After all, it’s only eating the elephant one bite at a time. But we all slip back into bad habits and trust me, this works. It may be counter-intuitive but making your to-do list longer means you’ll ultimately get big things done faster and achieve more. And that’s what we all want…

Looking into Your Future


Here’s a question I sometimes ask myself: am I helping? Or am I changing someone’s life?

Make no mistake, I love helping. I love using my experience and solving problems. I love being able to say, “OK. I understand. Another client had a really similar problem and this worked for her.”

And I love it when someone comes to me and says, “Thanks, Ed. That worked. Problem solved.”

But it goes a long way beyond ‘loving it’ when someone says: “Thank you, Ed. Working with you has made a fundamental difference to my business and my life.”

That doesn’t happen often, but when it does it makes me sing and dance. I’m a little too old to skip down the street, but it conveys the emotion. Outside my wife and my children, it’s the best feeling there is.

And when it happens, I realise something important: solving problems is work that’s rooted in the present. Transforming someone’s life or business is very firmly rooted in the future. It doesn’t come from answering the question: ‘what’s the problem?’ It comes from much deeper questions: ‘What sort of person do you want to be?’ ‘What direction do you want to take your business in?’

As I read recently, it’s the difference between running on a treadmill and running to a destination.

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We all have things that we want to be – or that we want to achieve – in the future. Achieving those goals is going to make a fundamental difference to how we see ourselves five, ten, twenty years down the line.

These goals may or may not be business related: that doesn’t matter to me, because TAB is about getting what you want from your business and your life. What does matter to me is that you make a start on achieving those goals. Right now.

Yes, I know that your to-do list is thirty items long and getting longer. I know you have immediate problems that you need to solve.

But the simple fact is that your to-do list will always have thirty jobs on it. There’ll always be things you need to do right now.

I also know that it’s ridiculous to spend time on something that’s five years away – something on which there’s no immediate return – when you could be working productively on something that’s important today. But if you don’t make a start on those things now, you’ll never make a start.

We all know how fast time goes – and that it goes faster as you get older. My eldest son is nearly 14. It’s around three weeks since I held his hand and took him to nursery. In another couple of weeks he’ll be graduating from university.

So if you don’t make a start on what you want to achieve in 2021 it will be here. And ‘significantly improve my photography,’ ‘write a novel,’ or ‘get myself seriously fit again’ will still be nothing more than entries on your mental bucket list.

That’s my key point: if you want to be truly productive in the long term, you need to spend some time being unproductive in the short term.

Your future self needs to be selfish.

You need to sign up to that photography course, start writing, or take advantage of the light nights and get on your bike. And yes, doing those things may feel totally unproductive now – but in five years’ time they’ll be among the best decisions you ever made.

Football, Philosophy and Fulfilling your Potential


No-one who’s ever read a motivational quote can be unaware of Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. But now we have someone new jogging onto the field: Bill Walsh, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

The similarities between sport and business are legion – whether it’s building a winning team or dealing with your own emotions as owner, coach and head cheerleader.

Those similarities seem to be much more readily translated into books in the US (as a Newcastle fan, I await Steve McClaren’s book with interest…) and in The Score Takes Care of Itself, Walsh sets out his philosophy of leadership.

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If you’d like to read a shortened summary of his views, there’s a precis here on www.thought-management.com

There were two points in particular that struck me:

  • Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation. You can’t get crazy with victory: a loss cannot make you dysfunctional. That is, of course, an echo of Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines in If – and it applies to business every bit as much as it applies to sport. As Walsh says, “victory is not always within your control.” Business or sport, sometimes you’ll fail. But how you win or lose is within your control.
  • Secondly “promote internal communication that is both open and substantive.” In more simple terms, be open and talk to people: business, sport, or dealing with your children, that is a cardinal rule. It’s especially important when things aren’t going well: tough times are exactly the wrong time to pull the drawbridge up and retreat into yourself.

So much for Bill Walsh. But what the article really made me ask was, ‘What’s my philosophy?’

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this as I’ve driven round North Yorkshire over the last few days. I finally boiled it down to three key points:

  1. I want to set out a clear vision, and ensure that people buy into it. A key part of that is the ‘Why?’ In Simon Sinek’s words, “what’s the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do?” (If you haven’t seen Sinek’s Ted talk on this, it’s excellent. Here’s the link.)

In turn, my vision – my ‘purpose, cause or belief’ – breaks down into three:

  • I want every business owner I work with to build a business that delivers what they want from life – for themselves, and for the people they care about
  • I want the business owners to reach their full potential – in business and in life. Marlon Brando once said: “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody.” Whatever the business equivalent is, I don’t ever intend to hear it from one of my clients
  • Lastly, I want to be a force for good in the local business community and, more simply, in the local community itself

If I can deliver on those three then I know I’m going to be valued by clients and colleagues as someone who delivers real results and – just as importantly – as someone who’s enjoyable to work with.

Back to my wider philosophy…

  1. Surround yourself with great people. If I look around the TAB boardroom tables, the members who’ve been really successful over the past 12 months are the ones who’ve hired 9/10 talent, not 7/10 talent. That’s the one key reason I’d identify for their success. As one of my members said to me: “She’s changed my life, Ed. I worried about whether I could afford her salary. Now I see it as the best investment I ever made. She’s not only improved my business, she’s given me so much more free time. She’s improved my life.”
  2. Lastly – have fun. Yes, we all deliver serious benefits to our clients – but that doesn’t mean we can’t smile. Interestingly, I never believed the ‘have fun’ advice back in my corporate days – maybe I was having doubts about ‘corporate’ long before I admitted it to myself. But I absolutely do believe it now. As Robert Townsend so famously said: “If you’re not in business for profit or fun why are you here?”

That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll be publishing the blog by Wednesday: I know ‘read Ed’s blog’ has no hope of competing with ‘buy Easter eggs’ and ‘visit garden centre…’

 

 

 

 

The Back of a Boarding Pass


I don’t often read the Guardian – but on Tuesday I saw this headline.

Rory McIlroy reveals that he writes his yearly goals on the back of a boarding pass.

If you haven’t time to read the story, let me summarise it for you. Just as he’s about to fly out to Abu Dhabi to begin his season Rory McIlroy – the best golfer in the world – writes down his goals for the year. By hand, on the back of his boarding pass. Not in a note book he’s bought especially for the job, or on his phone or in Evernote or One Note. Then he commits the goals to memory, puts the boarding pass in his wallet and doesn’t look at it again until the end of the year.

This article worked for me on several levels – not least because one of my goals for 2015 is to reduce my handicap from 18.5 to 15. Like Rory, I’ve written it down – and sadly, there the similarity in our golf ends.

The first thing that really struck me about McIlroy’s action was the habit and the symbolism. “Every year,” he said, “Just as I’m about to get on the plane.” There’s a real sense of purpose in that statement: every year, just as he’s about to ‘suit up and go to work.’ I like the fact that he writes his goals down by hand, and that it’s become a habit. I’m sure the research would prove that goals written down by hand are more likely to be achieved than goals typed into Evernote.

And then something else struck me. We all know that goals are meant to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. I’ve always believed they should be short as well. Goals, New Year’s resolutions, company mission statements – the shorter the better. ‘Delenda est Carthago’ as I’m sure your history teacher told you.

Writing them on the back of a boarding pass pretty much guarantees they’ll be short. OK, a boarding pass is a reasonable size, but isn’t the back covered in all sorts of terms and conditions? (I’ll look more closely next time I’m in the departure lounge…)

And then McIlroy commits the goals to memory – and doesn’t look at the boarding pass again until the end of the year. I’m fascinated by that: it certainly isn’t the conventional way to do things. Then again, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the ‘oh, well, this happened so I had to change my goal/lower my expectations’ excuse.

You might think that McIlroy’s goals would be easy to guess. ‘Win the Masters’ for example. But in a real echo of the marginal gains I’ve written about so many times, the goals – or the ones he’s prepared to make public – are about what it takes to win the Masters, not simply slipping into the green jacket on an April Sunday evening.

There are a lot of parallels between being a successful golfer and building a successful business. Everything in top level golf is measured: average driving distance, greens in regulation, average number of putts, getting ‘up and down’ from bunkers. It’s exactly the same as your Key Performance Indicators in business.

So when McIlroy says he wants to be in the top 40 at strokes gained from putting all he’s doing is looking for a small gain in one of his KPIs. I suspect the other goals are similar: a slight increase in fairways hit, a marginal improvement in greens-in-regulation… If McIlroy can do that and add the improvements to what he already has in the locker, then he will win majors. The stats guarantee it, in exactly the same way that a small improvement in all your KPIs will make a huge difference to your bottom line over the year.

I’m sure everyone reading this has already recorded their goals for the year. But take a leaf out of Rory’s book. Write them down by hand. On the assumption that you’re not flying out to the Gulf to earn $1m, pull over as you’re driving to your first appointment next week. Take a 5×3 index card and commit your goals to paper. I’ll be fascinated to hear what effect that physical action has.

I’ve already written my goals down in a splendidly old-fashioned way, as a few of you know. But I’ll do the same on Monday morning. And maybe I’d better spend an hour at the driving range in the evening: don’t want Rory getting away from me…