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…

If it Ain’t Broke…


You’re the one who had the idea.

You’re the one who persuaded the bank. Convinced your wife to put your house on the line.

You’re the one who went in early. Stayed late. Made sacrifices.

You’re the one who took the difficult decisions. Sat down with Bill and explained – as gently as you could – that his future wasn’t with the business.

You’re the one whose energy, drive, commitment – and sometimes your sheer force of will – has taken the company to where it is now.

And now, Sir or Madam, I am telling you to do nothing. Play golf. Have another day at York races. Walk the Pilgrim Way.

“What?” you splutter. “That’s ridiculous advice. I need to be there. Hands-on, constantly fine-tuning the business, ever-present.”

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No, you don’t. Let me explain…

Several times over the last few years I’ve had conversations with entrepreneurs along these lines: “I’ve got nothing to do, Ed. Everything’s under control. I could walk out for a day. For a week, a month even. Things would still run smoothly.”

Are the entrepreneurs happy about that? No, they see it as a sign of failure.

But it’s not failure. It’s exactly the opposite: a sign of success.

I’ve written about this before, but if you haven’t built a business you can walk away from then you haven’t built a business. Because one day you’re going to sell the business and if it is entirely dependent on you – if you are the business – then you have nothing to sell.

Entrepreneurs are driven, passionate, committed people. They love working and they love working hard. Secretly, they’re never happier than when they have to set the alarm for 4:30.

But businesses are constantly evolving. No business goes upwards in a straight line. There are always steps and plateaus. And one of those plateaus might suddenly see you with nothing to do. Trust me, it won’t last. Every time an entrepreneur has said, “Ed, I’ve nothing to do,” it’s been followed one, three or six months later by, “Ed, I’ve never been busier.”

In the short term, though, the hiatus can be a real problem for the entrepreneur. They’re conditioned to see doing nothing – not constantly running at 100mph, not being there all the time – as a sign of failure.

They start to feel guilty, start to think they’ve missed something. And sooner or later they start to make changes for the sake of making changes.

Tap ‘entrepreneur doing nothing’ into Google and the search engine doesn’t believe you. By the third listing it has defaulted to the norm: ‘Why nothing less than 100% can ever be enough.’

Once you’ve built your business to a certain size, your job changes. It’s another topic I’ve covered previously – and I’ll be writing about it again next week – but your job is no longer to work in your business, it is to work on your business. Clients and customers still need to see you, but they do not need to see you behind the counter – or whatever you equivalent of a counter is.

Working on your business means a lot more thinking time and a lot less ‘doing’ time. Initially, it can be a difficult transition – but let me repeat: resist the urge to meddle, to look for problems where none exist.

And if you do find yourself with nothing to do, remember it’s not a sign that your business is broken. It is not a reason for you to feel guilty. It’s a sign of success. So enjoy it. Take time off and re-charge your batteries. Spend time with your family. Give something back to your local community. You deserve the break – and don’t worry: you’ll soon be smiling quietly to yourself and re-setting the alarm clock…

What can we learn from Emmanuel Macron?


Meet the new boss. Definitely not the same as the old boss…

After a year of campaigning we have a new man in the Elysee Palace: Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France with 66% of the votes cast and the youngest leader of the country since Napoleon.

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Judging by some of the paeans of praise for the new President, all of France’s problems – indeed, all of Europe’s – have been solved. In reality, Macron faces huge problems with French unemployment, domestic security, the creaking French pension system and – not least – Brexit.

There’s also the small matter of his En Marche movement not having any MPs. Macron is due to appoint a Prime Minister next week but it may be a short-lived appointment. If he doesn’t win a majority in next month’s parliamentary elections then he could well be forced to appoint a new PM from the largest – possibly opposition – party.

And then there’s the votes: or lack of them. Yes, he won 66% of the votes cast, but on the lowest turnout since 1969. What’s more, between 10% and 11% of those that did go to the polls spoiled their ballot paper. That’s not someone sitting up in bed, reaching for their smartphone and clicking ‘none of the above.’ That’s someone getting up, getting dressed and making a conscious effort to reject both the candidates.

Many of those people will have been supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose high-spending, anti-EU platform had many similarities with Marine Le Pen’s message. Many voters do not see Macron as a ‘brave new dawn.’ To them, he was simply the least-bad of the two candidates on offer, with one poll suggesting 43% of voters supported him purely to thwart Le Pen.

But despite all that, what Macron achieved was remarkable. He launched En Marche (On the move) in his home town of Amiens on 6th April 2016, little more than a year ago. He didn’t announce his bid for the Presidency until November. The rest, as they say, is history…

So are there any lessons we can take from the success of the former Minister for the Economy and Finance and one-time Rothschilds banker? The English speaking, German loving politician that “Europe has been waiting for…”

First and foremost, Macron represents change. Conspiracy theorists may criticise him as a creation of pro-banking, pro-globalisation elites, but the French election was notable for its rejection of the established parties. I think that’s reflective of an attitude to change that’s all around us: look at the way traditional industries and professions – banking, the law, accountancy – are now being shaken up by new technology. If your pitch to your customers is ‘we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way’ you’re going to find people responding with, ‘I’m sorry, I’m bored.’ The old way may still work, but there is an entirely different class of consumer out there, who wants to interact with you in an entirely new way.

Macron, apparently, has always been different. At school, according to one of his former classmates, while other boys watched TV and played football, Macron read classic French literature and wrote a novel about Spanish conquistadors. He had, said the classmate, “Olympic intelligence.”

I’m not sure I know what ‘Olympic intelligence’ means, but I do know that some of the very best operators I have ever worked with were multi-dimensional. They had deep and genuine interests outside work: what Denis Healey famously referred to as ‘hinterland.’ This not only made them fascinating people to work with, it also gave them a sense of perspective, and a different way of looking at business problems.

…And, of course, Macron represents a fresh start: someone without baggage. As a general rule I’m an advocate of promotion from within. Occasionally though, you need to go outside and bring someone in who represents a break with the past, an entirely different way of looking at the problems and the opportunities. Whether Emmanuel Macron can do that remains to be seen: I, for one, will be hoping that his En Marche movement gains enough seats on 11th and 18th June to at least give him a real chance.

In many ways I can see similarities between En Marche and TAB. You can’t call TAB a movement, but can most definitely term it a community. Yes, of course there’s a bottom line to take care of and a cheque to send to HMRC. But we’re driven by ideals, not by profit. It’s about changing lives, not about dividends to shareholders.

Let me finish by returning to those murky conspiracy theories. All conspiracy theorists will have heard of Bilderberg – along with the Illuminati and the Freemasons one of three secret, shadowy organisations that rule the world. Emmanuel Macron was a Bilderberg attendee in 2014, along with one Edward M. Balls.

Unlike the Masons, members of Bilderberg do not have a secret handshake: instead, they reveal themselves to each other with a series of very slight, very subtle ‘moves.’ How unfortunate that these ‘moves’ were leaked so publicly

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…

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.

It’ll Never be Time for the Pipe and Slippers…


Friday September 23rd. And after today, only 11 weeks of the year left. So yes, any minute now I’m going to start looking round the TAB boardroom table and suggest you start making plans for next year.

The time of year for looking ahead is approaching – but for some TAB members, ‘looking ahead’ is starting to take on a slightly different meaning. And it’s no surprise…

It’s more than six years since I started TAB York. As I check the boardroom tables, I see plenty of people who’ve become lifelong friends – but I also see rather more grey hair: or – in some cases – significantly less hair…

Yes, the thoughts of some members are turning towards exit strategies, what they’ll do when they’re not building a business and – ultimately – their legacy.

Well, maybe we should take a leaf out of Charles Eugster’s book…

Charles is 97, and holds the indoor and outdoor 200m and 400m world records for men over 95. He worked as a dentist until he was 75 and – despite a small pause in his 80s – has never stopped working. He still goes to the office in Zurich every day, before training in the afternoon. And Charles comfortably wins my ‘Positive Thinker of the Year’ award:

Even at 87 I wanted an Adonis body, in order to turn the heads of the sexy, young 70-year-old girls on the beach.

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Dr Charles Eugster (87) who has become one of the worlds oldest wakeboarders today when he was given his first lesson at the Ten-80 Wakeboarding School in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Credit: Shaun Fellows / newsteam.co.uk 25/5/2007

More seriously Charles Eugster says that he is “not chasing youthfulness. I’m chasing health.” Retirement, he says, “is a financial disaster and a health catastrophe.”

In many ways this was one of the most interesting articles I’d read all year – and I’d add ‘psychological’ to ‘financial’ and ‘health.’

The sentiments chime with what so many of my friends and clients are saying, and echo an underlying theme from the TAB Conference in Denver.

“I’m not intending to retire any time soon, Ed, if at all,” is a phrase I hear over and over again. No-one, it seems, is thinking of their pipe, slippers and Bake Off.

“I’m going to do a lot less in the business and a lot of other things,” is the consensus – with ‘other things’ covering charitable work, non-executive directorships, and mentoring students and start-ups.

I’ve just finished reading Finish Big by Bo Burlingham: ‘how great entrepreneurs exit their companies on top.’

Burlingham talks about entrepreneurs being defined by their place in the world: specifically by how they see themselves in the community. Unsurprisingly, 66% of entrepreneurs who exit their business “experience profound regret afterwards” – and a large part of that is the feeling that they’re no longer making a contribution.

Back to Charles Eugster and his Adonis body. He’s not ashamed to admit that he’s using his vanity as a motivating factor. And why not? Feeling that you’re valued and appreciated is an integral part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It’s no wonder that 66% of entrepreneurs experience profound regret. They’ve built a business, they’ve a wealth of wisdom, experience and knowledge and now suddenly – unless they plan for it – nobody wants to talk to them. Despite all they’ve achieved, they’re no longer defined by their business, they no longer feel valued.

So TAB York is not only about you and your business, or your work/life balance as you’re building the business. It’s not just about immediate problems and next year’s plans – it’s about what comes afterwards as well. It’s about leaving a legacy – for yourself and for the community.

PS I’m sorry, I had to check. Charles Eugster’s time for the 200m is 55.48 seconds. That’s three times longer than Usain Bolt’s time – but it’s roughly 8 minute mile pace. Well, well, there’s a challenge and an interesting ice-breaker for a few TAB meetings. Bring your shorts, ladies and gentlemen; let’s see who’s slower than a 97 year old…

Looser Structures at Work – and what they mean for you


“Back to School.” For the last four weeks you haven’t been able to go shopping without seeing that dread phrase. And if you’re a parent, you’ll currently be wondering a) how come your children need an entirely new set of school clothes when they only broke up six weeks ago and b) what on earth happened to all those geometry sets, pencil cases and rulers you so carefully stored away in July? Who broke into your house in August and stole them?

Anyway, Dan and Rory are back and from now until Christmas it’s smart blue blazers and blue stripy ties.

Strange, isn’t it? We send our children off to school in ties when – outside of weddings and funerals – the majority of them are unlikely to wear a tie in their working lives…

But school uniform serves a purpose. It masks (apparently) disparities in parents’ incomes and – however cynical teenage pupils may be – it says, ‘we’re part of the school: we share its aims, ideas and values.’

Time was when this carried over into the workplace: when blue blazers and blue stripy ties gave way to dark suit, white shirt, sober tie, black shoes. When an accepted dress code was a way of saying ‘we all work for the same company’ and yes, ‘we’ve bought into its aims, ideas and values.’

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Except that the dress code at work is breaking down. There are exceptions – see this depressing article on investment banking – but work is becoming far less formal, and not just in dress code. Businesses are moving to looser structures – we’re working in smaller teams, working remotely, working flexi-time, working with freelancers in different countries…

Ten years from now, our earnest young man in his dark suit, white shirt etc. is going to be exactly what the majority of businesses don’t want…

But as the old structures become looser and break down, the need for an overview, for someone to pull all the strings together, for – in simple terms – leadership, is greater than it’s ever been.

Who’s going to do that?

You know the answer: once again the buck has landed on your desk.

When I started working in the corporate world we were all – in theory at least – ‘singing from the same hymn sheet.’ Yes, there were problems – this team wasn’t pulling its weight, that line manager was incompetent – but by and large we all knew what we were trying to achieve: more sales, better margins, beat last year…

Today it’s entirely possible that Team A has not the remotest idea what Team B is doing. That freelance guy you’ve just brought in is working on a project and when it’s done he’s off. The line managers? There aren’t any line managers any more…

So the need for the owner/entrepreneur to have a constant overview of the whole business is crucial.

A recurring theme of this blog has been that the leader’s job is to lead. But an increasingly important part of leading is making sure your followers are walking in your footsteps: making sure that everything the employees, teams and freelancers do is pointing in the same direction.

Of course you should delegate: of course you should empower your people – but always within the framework of your overall goals for the business.

That’s a difficult job – and as workplace structures become looser, it’s only going to get more difficult. So it’s absolutely invaluable that your colleagues round the TAB boardroom table have an overview of your business. In fact, because they can’t be involved in the day to day minutiae of your business, an overview – and a knowledge of your goals – is all they have. As far as your business is concerned, they’ll never be wrapped up “in the thick of thin things” as Stephen Covey put it. They’re worth their weight in gold…

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…

The Knowledge Economy


“What do you do?” I asked someone I’d just met.

“We’re in the knowledge business,” she said. “My company adds knowledge to knowledge.”

We’ve all asked the ‘what do you do’ question a thousand times. And we’ve heard every reply imaginable. But I’d never heard one as intriguing as ‘adding knowledge to knowledge.’ I couldn’t help but ask her to explain.

…And I couldn’t help thinking about it afterwards either. Because we’re all in the knowledge business now.

When I started in business – not that many years ago despite what my sons think – people had stock: they had inventories. The auditors would turn up and spend a week stocktaking. Now, I look round the offices of so many of the TAB York members and all I see are the serried ranks of Apple Macs. Yes, there are honourable exceptions, but they’re becoming increasingly rare: those of us writing blogs may soon need to find a replacement for the apocryphal widget maker.

So everything’s fine: we’re all knowledge workers and whether we vote to Remain or to Leave (see next week…) then the future for our businesses is rosy.

Perhaps. I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review recently: it certainly bears out what I see – and what various TAB York members tell me. A bank of Macs is not necessarily the answer to all your problems: in fact the modern office throws up almost as many challenges as its Rolodex and Kalamazoo counterpart…

Interruptions

There’s a great line in the HBR article: I think it’s safe to say that at least some of the work of your company requires sustained focus of longer than two minutes.

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Absolutely: and yet we seem to go out of our way to encourage interruptions to our work. An e-mail flashes up: there’s an alert on your phone: your computer starts cheering – someone’s scored a goal in the Euros. (Yes, yes, I plead guilty to the last one.)

But if the knowledge economy demands anything, it demands concentration. All the studies show that your work takes longer if you’re constantly interrupted, and that you produce lower quality work. There are plenty of techniques for keeping you focused – from the Pomodoro upwards – but they all depend on you turning off interruptions. (And recognising that it really doesn’t matter if Croatia take the lead against the Czech Republic…)

The Design of the Office

Hand in hand with the banks of Macs have come open plan offices. As Maura Thomas describes in the HBR, they’re a double-edged sword. Yes, open plan offices bring increased collaboration, sharing of ideas and a more social working environment. But they also bring distractions, noise and a loss of privacy.

I’m in two minds on this one: I can see the economic argument in favour of open plan offices – but sometimes adding knowledge to knowledge needs silence, focus and being unsocial. In my experience those offices that work best are the ones combining the best of both: where there’s a shared purpose, where you can collaborate – but where can also disappear when that report simply has to be finished by 5pm.

Absent Friends

As I wrote last week, my eldest son has just turned 14. With 8 or 9 years to go until Dan enters the workplace, I wonder if he’ll ever work in a traditional office? It’s much more likely that he’ll spend a large amount of his time working remotely – keeping in touch with colleagues via whatever’s replaced e-mail, WhatsApp and Basecamp by 2025.

But we don’t have to wait until 2025: remote working is a trend that’s already well established. I do wonder, though, if the vast majority of businesses are getting the most out of the team members that aren’t in the office. If it’s not ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ all too often it’s ‘out of sight, out of the loop.’ Success comes from keeping everyone involved and taking all your team on the journey – wherever they are.

…And with that, my thoughts turn back to the Brexit debate. By the time you read next week’s post we’ll have voted. The polls will be closed and if we don’t know the result, we’ll have a very good idea. But next week I’m going to ask a simple question. Leave or Remain: will it make any difference to your business?

It’s the Hard Days…


I’ve been writing this blog for six years now, and we’re coming up to post no. 300.

Inevitably I have my favourites.

No. 99 – Make Good Art – is probably the one that I re-read most often. Written in May 2012 the post took its inspiration from a commencement address writer Neil Gaiman gave to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Here’s how post no. 99 finished:

You should enjoy it – because the journey is what makes it worthwhile. Ricky Gervais was on TV the other night. He was asked about the large pile of folding stuff now nestling snugly in his bank account. I forget his exact words … but his point was simple. The journey – the hardships, the disappointments, the knock-backs – had made it worthwhile. If he’d won the lottery, it couldn’t have compared.

So the message from me is as simple as it ever was. Whatever you do, ‘make good art.’ And above all, enjoy the journey.

And now I’m going to take inspiration from another commencement address. This one – delivered a few weeks ago – was Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, speaking to Berkeley’s Class of 2016. In the speech she makes a point about the crucial days on your journey – and it’s a point which is remarkably relevant to every entrepreneur I know.

Sandberg spoke of the death of her husband – Dave Goldberg, the former CEO of Survey Monkey. Goldberg had died “one year and 13 days ago:” her speech covered not what Sandberg had learned in life, but “what I learned in death.”

She described her grief and how she’d learned to cope. The lessons for the Class of 2016 and – by extension – for those of us running a business, were invaluable.

You will almost certainly face deep adversity. There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or accident that changes everything in an instant. There’s loss of dignity, there’s loss of love and sometimes there’s loss of life itself. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. Today I want to talk to you about what happens next.

And then she makes a point that probably ought to be chiselled on the desk of everyone running a business:

The easy days will be easy. It is the hard days – the days that challenge you to your very core – that will determine who you are.

mlm-tips-when-life-is-tough

As we’ve discussed many times, being an entrepreneur is a lonely place. You can have all the coaching there is, any amount of peer support. But there are days when you’re on your own. There will be days when the cash flow isn’t flowing, when suppliers aren’t delivering and when that big client – the one where you’ve invested all the time and the money – turns round and says, “Look, I’ve been thinking about this…”

So how did Sheryl Sandberg cope? How did she go back to Facebook ten days after the sudden death of her husband and sit in a meeting when – by her own admission – all she could think was “What is everyone talking about and why does any of this matter?”

She quoted psychologist Martin Seligman and the ‘three P’s’ that determine how we bounce back from hardships.

Personalisation – when bad things happen it’s human nature to blame ourselves. But sometimes, bad things just happen. Sometimes you’re just unlucky. Don’t personalise it.

Pervasiveness – the belief that something will affect every single area of your life. Let me quote Sheryl Sandberg again: For a second [in the meeting at Facebook] I forgot about death. And that brief second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful. My children and I were healthy. My friends and family were loving…

Permanence – bad things do not last forever. As the old saying has it, ‘this too shall pass.’ By all means recognise your feelings when things go wrong: but recognise too that those feelings will not last forever.

Sheryl Sandberg’s address is one of the most inspiring I’ve ever listened to. It lasts for 25 minutes and it’s one of the best investments of 25 minutes you’ll ever make. And her message is true for every one of us.

It’s the hard days that determine who we are: and it’s the hard days that will determine the success of our businesses.