Time for your Annual Service


Well, after last week’s slice of humble pie I’m not even going to mention the cricket this week. I don’t even have it on as I’m writing. Oh, for goodness sake. Pushing forward to one he should have left. That’s a fine start…

Remote found, TV turned off and focused on my Mac, let me turn my attention to something I briefly touched on two weeks ago when I was discussing productivity. According to this story in City AM: ‘Half of the UK’s small business leaders are taking fewer than six days off work each year.’

The research quoted suggested that 52% of entrepreneurs took five or fewer days off last year, with one-in-five taking no time off at all. Of those that do make it to the departure lounge, 1 in 4 admit to answering e-mails and taking calls while they’re away, and more than a third take outstanding work with them to finish.

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Interestingly, the research also showed that the vast majority of the bosses wanted their staff to take their full allocation of time off – recognising the value of time away from the office and paying real attention to your work/life balance.

So why don’t they practice what they preach?

Let’s exercise a little caution before I move into ‘full rant’ mode. It was a survey and I think we can safely assume that there was some ‘no-one works harder than me’ posturing going on. How many hours day do you work? Pah! Never less than 16. How many days a week are you in the office? Easily eight: nine some weeks… Where are the Four Yorkshiremen when you need them?

But even allowing for that natural exaggeration the results are worrying – and it appears from another study that entrepreneurs are now working longer hours than in previous years. So much for the work/life balance message…

Anyone who has read this blog on even an occasional basis will know that I think working longer and longer hours and not taking holidays is madness. Never mind your business, you’re cheating your family. Hopefully we’ll all be at the top of the mountain one day – but you need someone with you to share the view.

More than anyone, entrepreneurs need to take breaks. I have written many times that to think differently you need to be somewhere different. There’s nothing more dangerous these days than ‘doing what we’ve always done’ but if you sit at your desk every day you’ll do exactly that.

Get away, do something different, and you’ll find you’re thinking differently as well. I’ve lost count of the number of problems I’ve solved/insights I’ve had on holiday, simply because I’ve been thinking in a different way.

And as we’ve always said, if the business doesn’t function without you, you don’t have a business. The only way you’ll find that out is to leave them to it. And if you insist on staying in the office every day then all you’ll ultimately do is bring forward the day when they have to function without you – while you’re stressing about the mobile signal in the cardiac unit…

Holidays also give you a chance to let go of your ego for a while – especially if you take your children. And if they’re the age Dan and Rory are then I’ve no choice other than to let go of my ego. Whenever we try anything new I simply have to accept that they’re going to pick it up more quickly/be better than me/not have the aches and pains the day after. Or all three…

I suspect that a large proportion of those entrepreneurs who never go on holiday would all give the same reason: ‘I don’t have the time.’ No, you don’t. There’s never a good time for a holiday. There’ll always be a new idea, a new client – or a crisis. But if you’re not at your peak – and without a break you won’t be – then you can’t be at your best for the client or able to deal with the crisis.

After all, you service your plant and machinery every year: you do the same with your car. Isn’t it time the company’s most important asset received the same care and attention…

The Workplace Taboo


It’s been a busy week for me: Tuesday brought our annual event for TAB members – always a highlight for me – and on Wednesday I was at York races. Just remind me again: when it rains at York it’s low numbers in the draw isn’t it? Or is it high?

By the time I’d worked it out the damage had been done…

But I was in great company and – despite the rain – it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. So having been outside in the rain yesterday this morning I’m obviously at my desk as the May sun shines steadily in through the window.

…Which seems entirely inappropriate as this week I’m going to write about mental health and depression, something which a significant number of people are understandably – but regrettably – unwilling to talk about at work.

First, some stats:

  • In 2015/16 30.4m working days were lost due to self-reported work related injury or illness: only 4.5m of these were due to a workplace injury
  • On average injuries saw people take 7.2 days of work: ill health meant 20 days off work
  • Stress, depression and anxiety – plus musculoskeletal disorders – accounted for the majority of the days lost: 11.7m and 8.8m days respectively
  • The average number of days off for stress, depression or anxiety was 24: for musculoskeletal problems it was 16 days

I think those numbers are significant: 24 days for stress, depression and anxiety – that’s effectively five weeks off. To a small business a key employee having five weeks off can have a catastrophic effect. You can’t recruit someone: if you get someone on a short term contract it’s five weeks before they’re fully up to speed. It is simply a hole punched below the waterline for five weeks.

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. 49% of those surveyed said they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues.

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As someone running a business you want to hire and retain the best people – but you need those people to be working efficiently and effectively. You also want them to be happy and healthy: as I’ve written before, health, fitness and performing well at work go hand in hand. More and more businesses will introduce ‘wellness’ programmes for their employees, covering everything from flexible working to help with emotional and psychological problems: if you’re not looking at it already, now would be a good time to start.

So much for the team: what about you?

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely business: it is also stressful and the feeling that the buck – and everyone’s livelihood – stops at your desk can be all too real.

It can also be a macho business: many people – men and women – constantly feel the need to act the part. In some ways I can understand that: confidence can be a currency, especially if you have outside investors to deal with. No round of financing is going to be helped by, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m having doubts.’

But we’re not always ‘crushing it’ – as my Fitbit constantly demands. Statistically the odds are stacked against any new business and virtually every entrepreneur will have occasional moments of doubt. There’s a theory that entrepreneurs are more prone to depression: a personality that will accept extreme risk and reward at one end of the scale also has its darker moment at the other end of the scale.

That, I am absolutely certain, is one of the very best parts of TAB. To paraphrase the old saying, when the going gets tough, the tough need someone to talk to. As I have written many times, no-one understands like your colleagues round the TAB table: not your wife, not your partner, not your parents, not your friends. The only people who truly understand the pressures are other entrepreneurs.

…And in The Alternative Board they don’t judge, they don’t compare, they don’t score points. In every instance they simply say, “Yep, I’ve been there. What can I do to help?”

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

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…

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.

What we can Learn from Baboons…


We’ve all been on holiday. We’ve all experienced it.

For me, it comes around lunchtime on the third day…

You’ve finally hauled yourself off the sun lounger and wandered down to the beach restaurant. There’s a plate of calamari in front of you. A glass of cold beer at your elbow, the condensation running down the glass. The sun’s on your back. And suddenly you feel it.

You feel the muscles in your back relax. You feel the tension go out of your shoulders. At last, you’re relaxed. Stress? What stress?

But holidays end. You come home. Go back to work. Delete 300 e-mails. Drift back into the old routine. And before you know it, the muscles in your back are as knotted as they ever were…

So let me break off here, and consider two species which are closely connected: the baboon, and the British civil servant.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University is a primatologist. And every year, he forsakes the charms of California for the African jungle, where he studies baboons. Specifically, he studies their social structure and stress levels.

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Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Public Health at University College London. He’s stayed rather closer to home, and conducted a 40 year study into the British civil servant, looking at 18,000 members of the service from the lowest new entrant right up to Sir Humphrey level.

Both studies come to the same conclusion: the higher up the social order you are, the less stress you suffer. Lower ranking baboons had higher heart rates and higher blood pressure than their leaders: their arteries contained more plaque, significantly increasing their risk of a heart attack.

Marmot’s findings mirrored those of Sapolsky. Men in lower employment grades were more likely to die prematurely: there was a ‘social gradient’ for mortality. Subsequent studies involving women revealed a similar pattern.

Why? Surely those at top of the tree – literally and figuratively – have bigger decisions to make? Protecting the troop, pleasing the new PM…

Apparently not: Sapolsky identified five factors that are responsible for the more stress/lower down the pecking order correlation:

  • You feel like you have no control
  • You’re not getting any predictive information – how bad is this going to be? How long will it last, and so on
  • You feel trapped
  • You interpret things as getting worse
  • And you’ve no support system or ‘shoulder to cry on’

And now we’re coming closer to home. Most people reading this blog will be the top baboon, the alpha male or female in their organisation. But every single one of us has known that feeling of not being in control of our business, of feeling trapped, of not knowing how things will turn out – and of not having anyone who truly understands what the problem is. And therein lies the stress – and the inherent dangers that come with it.

I think I’ve done a reasonable job of eliminating stress in my life, but on the third day of the holiday I can still feel the muscles in my back loosening. Much as I like that moment, I’d prefer it didn’t happen. So one of my key goals for the rest of this year is to remove even more stress from my life: given the responsibilities I’m taking on, that’s not going to be easy – but I’m determined to do it.

As a starting point, I’ve just written down all the factors that cause me stress: there are six of them. So here’s a firm commitment: by the end of this year I’ll have the list down to three. And I challenge you to do the same. Make your list, and commit to reducing it by 50% over the next 4½ months.

…And by all means share it with your fellow Board members, the ultimate ‘shoulder to cry on.’ Whatever you’ve written down, it’ll be mirrored around the table. Much more importantly, though, the solutions will also be around the TAB table –in the knowledge, insight and experience of your fellow baboons…

Taking Control and Staying in Control


I occasionally introduce this weekly post with a reference to Google. This week, I’ve broken all records. ‘Take Control’ were the words I tapped in. Google’s response was instant: take control of your life it said, and offered me 755m hits in 0.54 seconds.

Clearly Thoreau wasn’t wrong when he talked about the ‘mass of men’ leading their ‘lives of quiet desperation…’

Last week I mentioned the three themes that have always run through this blog: work/life balance, going as far as you want to go on your journey, and adapting to change.

In many ways taking control – or being in control – spans all three. It’s easy to come up with a kneejerk response to the idea of control: ‘it’s nonsense. I’m running my own business. Obviously I’m in control of my life.’

But that may not be the case – as much as we’d like it to be. All too often things gradually slide. It’s so gradual that we don’t notice it happening, but suddenly we’re not in control of the meetings: the meetings (or staff problems or customer demands) are controlling us.

If you’re running a business there’s one central point to keep in mind: you’re not there to serve the business, the business is there to serve you – and what you want from life.

So here are five simple strategies that will help you take control and stay in control. They’re based on experience, books I’ve read and yes, my own life: things gradually slide for all of us at some point.

First and foremost, get fit and stay fit. I’ve always played a lot of sport, but like everyone there have been times – having a new baby is a good example – when keeping fit hasn’t been at the top of my priority list. This has almost always coincided with times when I felt I wasn’t in control at work. When I’m feeling at my best I’m more focused, I’ve more energy and I make better decisions – so rule number one for me, if I want to feel in control I make sure that I’m keeping fit and eating healthily.

I’ve written about this on previous occasions, but an essential part of being in control is saying ‘no.’ Two days ago a ‘job’ floated across my timeline on Facebook: a local charity wanted a Chairman. For about ten minutes I was really tempted – it’s an area where I’d love to help. But do I have the time to do it properly and do it without damaging my existing commitments? No. There’ll still be charities needing chairmen when I’m retired. Right now – for me and for everyone round a TAB table – saying ‘no’ is an integral part of staying in control.

Linked to saying ‘no’ is time for yourself. Whether you walk the dog or get out on your bike or simply sit quietly with a coffee, having time to yourself – time to get your thoughts in order – is essential. At least once a month take yourself off, order a flat white, and go through everything: goals, priorities, pipeline, problems, the team… Simply give yourself the chance to reflect and think it all through.

And finally, another nod to Stephen Covey. It’s over three years since he died, but The 7 Habits will still be read – and will still be as relevant – in 50 years. In terms of staying in control, two of the habits are paramount. Begin with the end in mind: if you don’t know where you’re going you haven’t a hope of getting there or feeling in control on the journey.

…And keep the main thing the main thing – which reinforces the point about saying ‘no.’ There are only so many hours in the day and if you spread yourself too thinly you’re back at the beginning – waking up one morning and realising that the meetings and commitments are dictating to you.

With that I have no option other than to climb onto my bike and pedal off into the wilderness with a flask of coffee, a notebook and a pen. Have a great weekend while I’m away…

The Disaster Recovery Plan


Let me introduce you to George. Good friend, building a successful business, and keen sportsman – but like many of us, not quite as young, fit and active as he once was. Or would like to believe he is.

Three weeks ago George was playing five-a-side. As he does every Friday afternoon. Then a pint of Theakstons and straight home for the weekend.

Or on that particular Friday, straight up to A&E. “I’ve still no idea how it happened, Ed. One minute I’m stretching for the ball. The next I’m in agony. And my world is turned upside down.”

Tib and fib as the medics say – both broken about six inches above the ankle.

George needed an operation. His scrap metal value has increased considerably. Sadly his business has gone in the opposite direction.

“A week in bed, a week on the settee. Serious levels of painkillers. And I’m exhausted. But worst of all, the business is suffering.”

George employs two staff: he’s at that key point where his business is just about to take off – where 2015 was going to be a year of serious growth. But one mis-timed tackle and the business has stalled. George can’t drive. He lives in a small village. Getting into the office is impractical: seeing clients is next to impossible.

His business will ultimately survive – but as George says, “it’ll be feeling the effects of the broken leg long after I’ve had the screws out.”

The conversation made me think. After all, it isn’t that long ago that I cheerfully cycled into a tree. At the time I didn’t have Julia and Jackie: a few inches to the side and I’d have put myself – and TAB York – out of action for a long time.

We have a disaster recovery plan for virtually everything. All our data is backed up in the cloud. The only thing that’s not backed up in the cloud is our bodies. As I surveyed the wreckage of my face and realised how lucky I’d been a sobering thought struck me. I wasn’t really building a business. If your ‘business’ can be derailed by a tree root or a bad tackle, it’s a lifestyle, not a business.

To build a business you need to build a team – and you need to delegate to your team. That way your business gets continuity – even if yours is temporarily interrupted

As I said in the Four Week Test at the beginning of the year: one day your business is going to be sold. Building a team goes a long way to guaranteeing that you sell when you want to – not when you’re forced to.

Back to George – and thankfully to a silver lining. “My concentration levels have dropped off a cliff. Even daytime TV seems a bit complicated. But I’ve learned one really important lesson. I can manage maybe two to three hours work during the day. And I still make a To Do list every day because, well, that’s just what I do.

“But because I’m only able to work for a short time, I have to do what’s most important. No more patting myself on the back for ‘quick wins.’ No more crossing six unimportant things off and thinking I’ve had a productive morning.”

Amen to that. In many ways that’s exactly the same point as my blog on recording your time. Just as Toggl has forced me to acknowledge the fact that I used to ‘faff’ and fritter time away, so George’s broken leg has brought him face-to-face with the irrelevance of most quick wins.

With that I’ll wish you an extremely safe weekend. As for George, he’ll return to work wiser and more focused, some time around January. Just in time for the ice and snow…

The Black Dog


First of all thank you for all the comments on the blog last week. Of all the posts I’ve written ‘Risk’ probably attracted the most – and the most detailed – feedback, by the usual mix of direct comment, e-mails and Facebook. I really appreciate them all and if I haven’t replied yet – I’m getting round to it!

But now to matters darker.

The comparisons between being successful in sport and running your own business are often drawn. Will to win. Drive. Competitive instinct. Refusal to be beaten. Absolute focus on achieving your goals. And no self-respecting motivational speaker would even dream of getting to his feet without a word or ten from Vince Lombardi.

Recently though, we’ve seen the other side of sport. For the first time, very successful sportspeople have been prepared to talk about depression – how for some of them the pressure to succeed has just been too much and it’s spilled over into mental illness.

One of the most high profile examples was the footballer-turned-Talksport-pundit Stan Collymore, and the reaction he initially received was not untypical. ‘My manager said I was too successful to get depression and only women living on the 15th floor in Peckham got depressed.’

Since Collymore there have been other high profile cases, most noticeably in cricket (the sport that unfortunately has the highest suicide rate among ex-players).

The question for this blog is an obvious one: if success in sport and success in business are so often linked, is there also a business parallel with a case like Stan Collymore? Can you be successful in business and suffer from depression? Could someone turn round to you and say, ‘You can’t possibly be depressed, you’re too successful. It’s only people who’ve failed who are depressed.’

But that’s far from the truth. ‘The better the company did the more depressed I became’ isn’t as uncommon as you’d think. Despite it at first seeming like a ridiculous contradiction, the simple fact is that success can make you feel trapped, lonely and – ultimately – depressed.

As we’ve discussed many times, running your own business is a lonely place – and the trouble is that it’s only other business owners who understand how you feel. You can have the best husband/wife/partner in the world but if they’ve never had to sack someone, never worried about how they’re going to pay the wages and never seen the order they’ve been counting on suddenly evaporate, they simply cannot empathise with you.

For me, that’s where the TAB boardroom table comes in: seven or eight people who absolutely understand how you’re feeling and who absolutely understand your problems, frustrations and worries. In some ways it’s a sanctuary: somewhere you don’t need your body armour and protective persona – and somewhere you won’t be judged.

I’ve seen some raw emotion round a TAB table. An entrepreneur who doesn’t know which way to turn? Many times. Tears? Yes, several times. But I’ve also seen the other type of tears: when the advice of the other Board members has worked and when the weight has finally been lifted off someone’s shoulders.

Stan Collymore set up a charity – Friends in Need – to help people with depression. If you think you need help, get help now. But if you think you need the help of other entrepreneurs – the only people who can really share your feelings – then think about The Alternative Board.

One last point on depression: it can hit anyone. The list of famous people who have battled the illness is long and impressive – Winston Churchill referred to the ‘black dog’ that haunted him in even his most successful moments. If it’s haunting you, just remember – you don’t have to face it alone.

Lunch is NOT for Wimps


We all know the quotation. It’s from Wall Street. Gordon Gekko is on the phone: Bud Fox stands nervously waiting to meet him. “Lunch?” Gekko is saying. “Aw, you gotta be kidding me. Lunch is for wimps.”

Later in the same film Gekko says, ‘The most valuable commodity I know of … is information.’ Not in my business. The most valuable commodity I know of is other people. To paraphrase Tony Blair my top priority in building my business was, is and always will be, other people, other people, other people.

And that’s why lunch is important.

When I left university in 1995 and realised I now had to work for a living the traditional business lunch was still very much on the agenda – not quite on the scale of The Wolf of Wall Street – but liquid certainly played its part. Nearly twenty years on I am now utterly baffled as to how anyone can drink two pints of beer and then do any remotely useful work in the afternoon.

Those twenty years have seen the increasing – and seemingly unstoppable – movement towards eating at your desk. As innumerable surveys confirm, the lunch hour is now a lunch half-hour, if you’re lucky. What we all do is sit at our desks, eat a healthy mixed leaf salad and read something useful, informative and life-enhancing on the internet.

In theory.

What we all actually do is eat the same damn sandwich we ate yesterday, wonder how there can be a gazillion new pages of web copy since the last time we opened Google and every single one of them boring – and think, ‘I’ve really got to stop this and get some exercise.’

So in the interests of your health, your sanity and the success of your business, may I now paraphrase Gordon Gekko as well as Tony Blair?

‘Lunch? Great idea. Let me check my diary – and I’ve got some really interesting things to talk to you about…’

I have lunch with friends, clients or potential clients maybe two or three times a week. I see it as an integral part of my working week. It breaks up the day and makes me more – not less – productive in the afternoon. And if I don’t come away from the lunch with one new idea or piece of information I’m surprised and disappointed.

Having lunch builds and strengthens my relationships with the raw material of my business – other people. But it only does that because I make having lunch work for me. I was surprised when I wrote these down, but I seem to have ‘rules’ for a successful lunchtime meeting:

  1. I walk there. Wherever I’m having lunch, I try and leave my car somewhere else. If sitting is the new smoking, then I want to give myself chance to walk during the day
  2. I have an ‘agenda’ – but only in inverted commas. I’m not going to have lunch with you and work my way steadily down a sheet of A4 – but I have spent five minutes thinking about the subjects I’d like to cover and what we can both gain from our meeting
  3. Lunch is great for getting people to think differently. If I meet someone across their desk I know they’re going to think about a problem or an opportunity in the same way they’ve always thought about it. If I take them to lunch – and make it special – then I’m almost guaranteed that they’ll be open to new ideas and a fresh way of looking at things
  4. I want to finish lunch with some progress – we’ve agreed to meet again, we’ve decided how we’re going to move forward, you’ve (incredibly wisely) agreed to join The Alternative Board.
  5. Finally, the meeting has to finish at a defined time. Yes, having lunch with you is enjoyable, but it’s part of the working day for both of us – and because it’s part of the working day the meeting needs to finish at an agreed time.

So lunch really works for me: it’s another key part of developing my relationships with existing and potential Board members. Next week I’ve a couple of meetings with Board members at the David Lloyd club in York – I recommend it to you: although maybe not the Quinoa Salad, which was a veggie step too far for me…