Trouble Down Under – and what it can teach us


Monday March 26th

I’ve been writing the blog for nearly eight years now, and for the first time ever I’m going to split it into two halves: a game of two halves you might say as, not for the first time, I’m using sport as an analogy for business.

Almost no-one reading the blog – at least in the UK – can fail to be aware of the current controversy surrounding the Australian cricket team. But for those of you in Europe and the US, let me briefly summarise.

Australia are currently playing a test series in South Africa: to describe it as acrimonious is an understatement. At the weekend the series stood at 1-1, with the third test being played in Cape Town. South Africa were ahead in the game and batting in their second innings – at which point Cameron Bancroft, the newest member of the Australian team, reached into the pocket of his cricket flannels. TV cameras around the ground filmed him looking remarkably guilty as he paid the ball some extravagant attention (with sandpaper, as it later turned out).

I won’t go into the intricacies of swing bowling. Bancroft was tampering with the ball to give his team an unfair advantage. But this wasn’t the action of a lone player: this was a plot hatched by the senior members of the team: “the leadership group” as they were described.

Australian captain Steve Smith and Bancroft quickly admitted their cheating – and confessed that at the very least, the captain and David Warner, the vice-captain, had encouraged Bancroft to tamper with the ball.

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…And that’s why I’m splitting the blog in two. The Australian Cricket Board are to hold an immediate enquiry. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has expressed his outrage. Perhaps most tellingly, veteran Aussie cricket commentator Jim Maxwell has been virtually reduced to tears on air.

At this point, what would a business do? Two of your senior executives have admitted cheating. They have damaged your worldwide reputation. They’ve brought into question your previous successes which – quite naturally – people are saying were gained through cheating. And to cap it all, they got a junior member of the company to do their dirty work.

But hang on. Both the executives have a worldwide reputation. One of them is perhaps your best performer for 50 years. Dismissing them will seriously weaken your company: there are simply no ready-made replacements.

No business that wanted – or deserved – to be taken seriously would hesitate. Smith and Warner would be instantly dismissed. Bancroft would be given a savage reprimand but he’d keep his job. And then the questions would start. If the two execs were conspiring, was the director they report to aware of it? Given their close working relationship he must have been aware of what they were planning. So how high up the organisation does the rot go?

That is exactly where Cricket Australia now find themselves. Many of us have been in the close atmosphere of a dressing room at some stage in our lives: if a plot was being hatched, everyone in the team would have been aware of it. I find it inconceivable that the coach, Darren Lehmann, didn’t know. So how does the Board react to the cheating? And make no mistake, it is cheating every bit as much as an athlete taking steroids is cheating.

Thursday April 5th

So now we know: all three players were sent home from South Africa. Smith and Warner have been banned for a year, Bancroft for nine months. Coach Darren Lehmann was found not to have known anything – but has resigned anyway.

Both Smith and Warner have now performed the modern act of contrition – the tearful press conference – and have accepted their bans. Warner accepts that he is unlikely to ever play for Australia again. I’m not so sure – he’s only 31 and 12 months from now will still be one of the best opening batsmen in the world. Steve Smith is only 28 and will unquestionably be back in the team. Will he be captain again? I wouldn’t bet against it.

We can all argue about the length of the ban. As Michael Vaughan posted on Twitter, you suspect that Mr Lawyer and Mr QC were involved, and it is telling that neither player has sought to challenge their ban. And the dust seems to have settled remarkably quickly…

Are there any business lessons we can learn from Sandpapergate? I think there are two – and one lesson we can learn from Cricket Australia (not a sentence I thought I’d ever write) is the importance of acting decisively.

I’ve written previously about corporate cock-ups – United Airlines and Ryanair spring to mind – and one thing that unquestionably made the situation worse for the companies was that they firstly tried to defend that they’d done, and then they dithered. Even when they clearly didn’t have a leg to stand on, neither company would apologise with good grace. So Cricket Australia have acted swiftly, the players have accepted the bans and the focus of attention turns elsewhere.

The second lesson is that pressure makes you do stupid things. What on earth were Smith and Warner thinking? A disgraced businessman can disappear into the wilderness for a while and come back with a different company. Steve Smith cannot disappear and come back playing for Pakistan.

There is pressure in business every bit as much as there is pressure in sport – and just as in sport, it can lead to stupid decisions. For the entrepreneur, that pressure very often comes from loneliness – from having no-one to speak to about the stresses of running your own business. That is one of TAB’s great strengths: you are never alone. There is always someone there to speak to, always a friend who will allow you to release the pressure – and who will occasionally say, “Hang on, sport. That may not be the best decision you’ve ever made…”

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Strange Habits…


You know how it is… You go online to look at one thing, you see a link, click another link and before you know it you’re reading about men in ice-baths…

I’ve written previously about business pitches delivered from freezing water and how it concentrates the mind. Here’s someone else who says freezing water helps him focus – albeit from the far more gentle climes of Silicon Valley.

Every morning Tim Kendall, President of Pinterest (current valuation £9bn), wanders on to his back deck and climbs into a freezer full of water. “A bath with ice wasn’t quite cold enough,” he says. Famous for wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘focus’ on it – “if you do fewer things you can do those things much better” – Kendall claims that his daily dip in the freezer, “Gives me a lot of energy, wakes me up, and resets my mind and body.”

Having read that – and being in research-useless-things-online mode – I wondered if other successful entrepreneurs had equally strange habits. Was there anything we could usefully import to the UK? (Although anyone who’s been to Wetherby races in January will regard an ice bath as positively tropical…)

We may as well start at the top with the richest man in the world. When Bill Gates started Microsoft he liked to keep a check of who was in the office – so he memorised everyone’s number plate. As Microsoft now employs around 120,000 people we may safely assume he’s abandoned that habit… but apparently Gates still takes to his rocking chair when he needs to focus or when he needs to disconnect – a habit which apparently goes back to his days at Harvard, when he’d do long stretches of coding in a rocking chair.

‘The richest man in the world…’ Unless Amazon’s shares have shot up this morning. Jeff Bezos writes a six page memo before every management meeting: everyone then has to sit in silence for 30 minutes and read the memo. Presumably allowing them to say, “Yup, all good with me, boss,” after 30 minutes and 10 seconds…

Bezos also instigated the two-pizza rule. When he started Amazon he wanted a decentralised company with small teams making the decisions: so the rule was simple – any meeting had to be small enough so that everyone there could be fed with two pizzas. (As you might guess there are now any number of scholarly articles on the ‘two pizza rule…’)

Food takes us very neatly to Steve Jobs. Not only was the former boss of Apple famous for wearing the same clothes – black jeans, black jumper – every day, he also went through obsessive periods with his food, eating nothing but apples or carrots for weeks at a time. Apparently Jobs once ate so many carrots that he turned a vibrant shade of orange.

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And there’s a link we can’t ignore. Speaking of bright orange people Donald Trump has a hatred of shaking hands – he calls it “a barbaric ritual” – and always carries a hand sanitizer with him. You just pressed the nuclear button, Mr President. No £$%*! I thought that was the hand gel dispenser…

Back to eating habits: Henry Ford ate the weeds from his garden, while Mark Zuckerberg had a year when he would only eat meat that he had killed himself. Charles Darwin tried to eat every animal he discovered and the only-just-late Hugh Hefner would only eat food prepared at the Playboy Mansion – even in a restaurant. And Stephen King always eats a slice of cheesecake before he sits down to write, which may explain why the film rights to this blog remain mysteriously unsold…

Meanwhile Novak Djokovic follows a strict gluten-free, vegan diet and has been known to eat grass. After beating Rafa Nadal in 2011 he celebrated by snacking on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Finally, proving the old adage that ‘what you can measure you can control’ former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wanted to create the perfect cupcake: she bought scores of cookbooks and created a spreadsheet – then did the same with the icing. And just in case you’re ever on bake-off, here’s the link you’ll need…

That’s enough from me for this week: I’m off to buy a car number plate – ED 1 should let them know I’m in the office – and go shopping for black jeans and carrots. Oh, and could I apologise in advance to my golfing partners? If I hack out of the long grass to within six inches of the pin next week I may choose to celebrate in an unusual way…

Bad Customer Service always Hertz


It’s impossible to start anywhere other than the Ryanair check-in desk this week. The lonely and deserted Ryanair check-in desk after one of the more spectacular own goals in corporate history. What is it about the airline industry? Last year United, this year Ryanair.

Michael O’Leary was swift to go on TV and offer profuse apologies. Flights cancelled for up to six weeks: up to 400,000 passengers with their flights cancelled and/or their holiday plans in ruins. But how do Ryanair still manage to give off that air of ‘sorry-not-sorry?’ There’s just the distinct impression of the kid at school – the one who’s apologising with his fingers crossed behind his back.

So Ryanair have thrown a large rock into their corporate pool. I suspect that they have done lasting and public damage to their reputation. And they have done it spectacularly.

But this week I want to talk about what I think was equally bad customer service. It wasn’t spectacular, it certainly won’t be reported in the media and, if Ryanair threw a rock, this was barely a pebble.

But there’s a ripple. And I hope that when you’ve read the blog this week the ripple may be on its way to being a wave. Here’s an abridged version of the story: if you want the full version, just let me know.

In the summer we went to Portugal for a week with another family. The events I’ve related below happened to both Ben and myself: a double whammy.

I’m a Hertz Gold Club member and I booked a car with them in advance – something around the size of an Astra, at £400 for the week.

When I arrived there was no Astra and instead I was offered a Clio Grande. I wondered if that was big enough for two large suitcases. “No problem,” the very helpful guy on the desk said, “You can upgrade to a BMW X3. Normally that would be £150, but you’re a Gold Member so I can do it for £80.”

That seemed fair enough. And we were anxious to start our holiday: I fumbled for my card. “No problem,” he said. “We don’t need your card. Just initial here … and here.”

And I was done – and, at that point, quite happy with the service I’d received from Hertz.

Fast forward a week. Time to hand the car back.

…At which point I find out that the £80 extra was per day. Was that mentioned initially? Not in a thousand years. Hertz presented the extra £80 as a one-off increase on the £400 I’d already paid.

You can imagine the scene. You can imagine the arguments Ben and I had with Hertz. You can also imagine the time I have wasted on this.

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At the time of writing it is still ‘in dispute.’ Hertz have so far refused to take any action: that includes failing to reply to my e-mail of August 20th despite – see the image – telling me that I should ‘stand by’ for a response on four separate occasions. Yep, I’m ‘standing by’ waiting for a response in much the same way as 400,000 Ryanair passengers are ‘standing by’ waiting for a flight. So here we are, in the rather more transparent world of social media…

Will I ever rent a car from Hertz again? Right now I would rather cycle round Portugal with our suitcases on my back. Will you ever rent a car from Hertz again? You may well do: but you will pause before you sign anything.

This is – by some distance – the worst service I’ve ever received in my life. Hertz still have my £500 (and Ben’s) and the words ‘ripped-off’ and ‘mis-selling’ don’t even come close. Worst of all is that – in the best traditions of United and Ryanair – Hertz don’t seem to care.

They may have been around since 1918, they may be the biggest name in car rental, but nothing excuses their lamentable service and their inability to answer an e-mail. I’ll be sharing this post with them: let’s hope someone at Hertz finally wakes up and takes notice. I’ll let you know…

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?”

United we Fall


Even if you’ve been living in the proverbial cave at the bottom of the proverbial salt mine the news of United Airlines PR disaster-to-end-all-PR-disasters must have reached you by now.

I’ve covered disaster, catastrophe and the required corporate apology before. But that was something minor – just an oil spill and devastation of a coastline. In PR terms, hauling Dr David Dao up the aisle of the United flight to Kentucky was in an altogether different league.

Why? It’s simple. Devastating a coastline is tragic: of course it’s a disaster. But it’s a news item.

What United did to Dr Dao was personal. There isn’t one of us who – next time he flies – won’t sit in his seat, fasten his safety belt and then glance at the aisle of the aeroplane and think, ‘It could have been me…’

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Was United’s action legal? Sadly, yes. It’s right there in the terms and conditions, in 8pt print at the bottom of page 23. Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than a plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough ‘no-shows’ – that is, when passengers are so inconsiderate that they turn up for the flight they booked – then the airlines first try to persuade, reward or bribe passengers to change their flight. Then…

And the figures are small – almost insignificant. In 2016, United Airlines denied boarding to 3,765 of its 86 million passengers: an additional 62,895 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. In very round figures, that gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being ‘bumped,’ voluntarily or involuntarily.

But none of this matters: because we’ll all look at the aisle of the plane and wonder…

Not surprisingly, United took a savage beating on social media: ‘New United Airlines Mottos’ rapidly became one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags…

We put the hospital in hospitality!

Fight or flight

If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em

…And several others which have no place in a family blog on a Friday morning.

The stock market was equally quick to react with more than $1 billion wiped off United’s stock market valuation.

United’s response to all this was ‘apology by committee.’ You could see the eventual statement had gone round the company several times, with every department head making sure his own base was covered. CEO Oscar Munoz even tried to deflect the blame on to David Dao, saying that he had been “disruptive and belligerent.”

What would I have done? Four things:

  • Have one person immediately issue a genuine and sincere apology to Dr Dao and the other passengers on the flight, without worrying about any hurt feelings at United HQ
  • Settle Dr Dao’s lawsuit immediately, whatever the cost. United cannot have people constantly reminded of this incident
  • Sack the security team, sack the CEO and sack anyone else who didn’t have the courage and the common sense to say, “Stop. This is wrong.”
  • Announce an immediate end to the overbooking of flights. United – and all other airlines come to that – need to give an absolute guarantee that you cannot pay for a flight and then be ‘bounced.’

But all those moves are simply locking the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. What they needed – what every company needs – is a culture where incidents like that simply cannot occur in the first place. No-one can legislate for one individual’s erratic behaviour, but in United’s debacle everyone screwed up – and it was indicative of a deeper malaise at the company.

Thankfully as I meet more and more Alternative Board members up and down the UK I see the same commitment to clients and customers, and the same determination to build and empower great teams, that was so evident in York. Dr Dao would be safe with any member of the Alternative Board. (United’s HQ is in Chicago: maybe it’s not too late for Oscar Munoz to sign up…)

That’s it for this week – and yes, before you ask, I have noticed that there’s going to be a General Election. I’ll tackle it next week…

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 Great Communicator


You may have noticed a little excitement on the other side of the pond, specifically in Iowa. The starting gun’s been fired and the 2016 Presidential race is officially under way.

So a quick quiz question. Name the three Republican front runners and the two leading Democrats. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That’s easy. That old guy – Bernie something? The young one from Florida. And Ted something? Didn’t he win in Iowa?

Yes he did. Ted Cruz is the one you’re trying to think of. He beat The Donald and Marco Rubio. And Hillary beat Bernie Sanders. Just. 701 precincts to 697.

You’ll soon know everything there is to know about them – because on November 8th, one of them will become arguably the most powerful person in the world (subject to a small discussion with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping). Barack Obama will voluntarily give up power and one of the five mentioned will find him or herself sitting behind the desk where the buck most emphatically stops. POTUS 45 will be in office.

I’m fascinated by American politics for two reasons. First of all I now go to Denver every year – and thanks to The Alternative Board I think of a great many Americans as friends. The second reason is simple: how can such an energetic, vibrant, enterprising country produce such consistently underwhelming candidates?

I was born in 1973 – more or less a year before Woodward, Bernstein and Deep Throat finally put paid to Tricky Dicky. He was followed by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Then came ‘the Great Communicator’ – to be followed by the Bush/Clinton years and the current incumbent.

How many of them have impressed me? Probably only one: Ronald Reagan.

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Was he the brightest President of my lifetime? Absolutely not.

Did he have the best grasp of policy and foreign affairs? No way.

But was Reagan the best leader? Without question.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, leadership isn’t being the best, the smartest or the one with the most knowledge. Leadership is about leading. It’s about saying ‘that’s where we’re going’ and getting your team – or the American people – to follow you.

I’m always struck by the sharp Democrat/Republican divide when I visit the States. Changing allegiance seems a much more difficult step to take than in this country. And yet Reagan’s folksy style – and his ability to capture the spirit of the US – easily bridged the divide.

Reagan gave the impression that he wanted to be President because he believed; because – like Margaret Thatcher – he’d had a moment when he’d realised, ‘No-one else is going to do this: it has to be me.’

Too many politicians since – on both sides of the Atlantic – have sought to lead for all the wrong reasons. To mis-quote JFK, for what leadership will bring to them, not what they can bring to the people they seek to lead.

The parallels with business are obvious. Everyone running their own business has had their own ‘it has to be me’ moment: the moment when they knew they had to act. And as we all know – and as Reagan said after the Challenger disaster: “the future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted: it belongs to the brave.”

As this week’s title suggests, Reagan’s effectiveness as a speaker lead to him being known as ‘The Great Communicator.’ As Ken Khachigian, one of his former speechwriters says, what brought him the name was “his ability to educate his audience, to bring his ideas to life, by using illustrations and word pictures to make his arguments vivid.”

And that’s an exact parallel with business leadership. The title doesn’t make you a leader: neither does the biggest office or the reserved parking space. What makes a leader is the ability to bring your ideas to life – to paint a picture of the future your team can see and believe. And then they’ll follow you anywhere…

Manners Maketh Men. But Does It Matter Any More?


I suppose I was 13 or 14. That age when you walk five yards behind your parents. When you’d die of embarrassment if anyone saw you with such ridiculously old people.

Mum and Dad were in front of me, Dad walking on Mum’s right. We crossed the road. Suddenly, Dad was on Mum’s left. What was he doing? Couldn’t he decide which side he liked best?

“Why did you do that?” I demanded when we got home.

“Because, Edward, a gentleman walks on a lady’s outside.”

“Why?”

My Dad sighed at what would be my predictable reaction. “So I can keep my sword arm free if someone rushes across the street and attacks your Mother. So she doesn’t get splashed if a horse and cart goes past.”

I delivered my all-too-predictable reaction and disappeared to my bedroom.

But nearly thirty years later, that incident is imprinted on me. I do try and walk on my wife’s outside. I do hold doors open for her. I hope – to use a remarkably out-of-date term – that I act like a gentleman.

The question is, should I do that in business?

No, of course not.

Who’s the most successful, far-sighted, innovative entrepreneur of our age? Steve Jobs, obviously. Well, according to Danny Boyle’s new (and apparently very accurate) biopic of Jobs, he was a man who shouted at other people in meetings, was visibly impatient and who dismissed other people’s contributions. So that’s that. You can shout your way to success.

Except I don’t think you can.

I may be wrong but the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk probably isn’t reading this blog. That’s not to imply that those gentlemen shout (and so on). It is to imply that the vast majority of us have rather different – but no less worthy – ambitions.

We’re building a business: but we know that business isn’t everything. We know, for example, that the Nativity Play isn’t far away: that we have one unbreakable appointment in early December. No business meeting can ever be as important as watching the little boy you held in your arms hammer on the door of the inn and announce, ‘We are very tired. My wife is heavy with child…’

And we work in a relatively small business community. North Yorkshire is not Southern California (something you may notice now it’s November…) As LinkedIn would put it, you’re never more than a ‘connection’ away from knowing nearly everyone. A reputation for being ‘difficult’ is not ideal – and once earned, it’s a hard tag to lose.

That great quote from Maya Angelou is directly relevant here:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.

Part of building your business is building trust: and an integral part of building trust is doing the right things for the right reasons – and doing it consistently. Good manners are part of that. Whether it’s punctuality, keeping promises, prompt replies or – from a wider perspective – seeing the other person’s point of view. As Stephen Covey put it, ‘thinking win-win.’

All of this impacts on how people feel about you: it’s your personal capital, your reputation – and it’s an essential part of your business.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do two things. First of all I’m going to dig out a couple of photos of previous nativity plays. I may shed a small tear. But then I’m going to have a conversation with the young men in those photos – about horses and carts and keeping their sword arm free…

 

 

 

 

 

What the Pope can Teach you About Business


Well, I’ve managed the blog on my own for nearly five years – but this week I had to seek inspiration from a higher authority: very nearly the Highest…

Mind you, I only found it through one of the more prominent supporters of Mammon – the Harvard Business Review.

I came across The 15 Diseases of Leadership, originally written by Pope Francis and translated into business-speak for us by one of HBR’s columnists.

A lot of the Pope’s ‘diseases’ – presumably aimed at what must be a vast bureaucracy in the Vatican – were vague to say the least. I’m still trying to work out no. 8 on his list – ‘the disease of existential schizophrenia.’ If any members of TAB York are suffering from it, maybe you could let me know at the next Board meeting?

But interestingly there are three points in the Pontiff’s list which really struck a chord with me: the dangers of excessive planning; the positive attitude of a leader and something that’s always irked me in my business career – extravagance.

I’ve spoken several times in blog posts of Rework – the irreverent business book written by the founders of 37 Signals, or Basecamp as the company’s now called.

One of the first – and most striking chapters – in Rework is ‘Planning is Guessing.’ As a business coach you might expect me to disagree violently with that statement. But the authors are right:

Unless you’re a fortune-teller, long term business planning is a fantasy. There are too many factors that are out of your hands: market conditions, competitors, customers, the economy…

Let me explain: I’m absolutely in favour of planning. I’m absolutely in favour of spending a serious amount of time in October or November making plans and setting targets for the coming year. But too many people do that and then think making the plans has put the business on auto-pilot – that success is guaranteed.

It hasn’t and it isn’t. Plans need to be kept under review. KPIs need to be constantly monitored. And you need to be prepared to change your plans if circumstances dictate. What’s more, the Pope agrees with me:

Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to eliminate spontaneity and serendipity, which is always more flexible than any human planning.

Put more simply, we live in a rapidly changing world. Your plans need to be flexible enough to change with it.

The second point is one Pope Francis describes as, ‘the disease of a downcast face.’ Couldn’t have put it better myself – and I think it’s one of the hardest things about being a leader. Whatever’s happened; whatever problems you have – either at home or in the office – you have to be positive. If you’re not optimistic and positive, then there’s no chance of your team being optimistic and positive. As the Chinese say, ‘A man without a smiling face should not open a shop.’ He probably shouldn’t try and motivate his staff either…

Lastly, the Pope and I turn to ‘the disease of extravagance and self-exhibition.’ My colleague in the Vatican sees this in leaders who seek “material gain [and] the front pages.” I see it in champagne…

Maybe there are some Puritans somewhere in the Reid family tree. I don’t like to see conspicuous consumption – especially when it’s the business that’s paying. You don’t need to spend that much money on Cristal champagne at York races.

p_diddy_cristal_champagne

Sometimes you see signs that the business is being run for the wrong reasons: as an old school bank manager once said to me, “If I see a new Merc and the business is less than five years old, I’m looking to cancel the overdraft facility.”

With that – and a word of thanks to my assistant for this week – I’ll leave you to enjoy the weekend. Next week I’ll be looking at an increasingly important question: do people still buy from people? Or as more and more business goes online, is it becoming impossible to offer a truly personal service?

Always Deliver what your Brand Promises


Richard Branson may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but you can’t deny that he’s been successful. Employing 60,000 people doesn’t happen by accident.

Neither does building one of the most recognisable brands on the planet. From a record business started in the crypt of a church Virgin now ranks right up there with Coca Cola, Red Bull and McDonald’s

Whatever the size of your business – one man band or multi-national – we’ve all got a brand. And it very quickly will become one of your most important business assets. (If you’d like a short, almost ‘Dummies,’ guide to branding this article is useful.)

So what is your brand? Based on all the companies I’ve worked with and for I’d define it this way:

Your brand is a consistent set of values, standards, qualities and experiences that you deliver every time you’re in contact with a client or customer.

The key word I’d pick out is ‘consistent.’ A brand isn’t something you turn on and off: the customer needs to know what to expect and have it consistently delivered every time they interact with your business. You may not like McDonald’s – but you have to agree they deliver a consistent product and experience.

Back to Sir Richard, and I was reading an article in the Guardian that inspired this post. ‘Never do anything that discredits your brand’ was the headline.

I couldn’t agree more. Your brand is exactly like trust: it takes a lifetime to build and you can destroy it – or do it serious damage – in a few seconds. Want evidence? The absolute avalanche of negative publicity DHL have managed to accrue with their ridiculous ‘like our Facebook page so you can send a get well message to Jules Bianchi.’

One of my favourite quotes about branding is from Jeff Bezos of Amazon: Your brand is formed primarily, not by what your company says about itself, but by what your company does. Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

DHL made a serious, tasteless mistake. A quick visit to Twitter will be telling their senior executives exactly what people are saying about them when they’re not in the room. FedEx must be rubbing their hands together. But as Richard Branson points out in the article, having a brand doesn’t mean you can’t take risks and make mistakes.

People in the UK love a trier – we’ve a long tradition of supporting the underdog and so much of the Virgin story is based around that: the small company trying to give the better service the big boys are denying you.

So yes, you can take a risk with your brand. But it’s like life: it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it. If you do make a mistake – if you’re trying to cross the Atlantic and you sink 100 miles offshore – be open about it. Pick yourself up and go again. As Branson says, “If we’d succeeded the first time, people might have said ‘so what?’”

In many ways a bigger challenge for the owner of an SME is getting your team to buy into your brand. How do you get them – as we said at Guinness – to ‘bleed black?’ You won’t be surprised to hear that communication is the key, and I’ll look at that in a future post. Just as everyone is part of the marketing department, so everyone is part of the brand.

I’ll finish with the one more key message on branding: as Jeff Bezos put it, on your brand being what your company does.

Amazon has had its fair share of negative publicity lately, but I continue to buy books and a lot of other things from them. Why? Because they always deliver. It’s why my wife buys clothes from Next. Because if you order on Tuesday, they’re there on Wednesday. Consistently and remorselessly – and when a company delivers like that, it’s almost impossible to go somewhere else.