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.

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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.

The Courtesy of Kings


Let’s start with my entry for the 2014 Least Surprising Statement of the Year Award…

I had a meeting last week.

Costa, York, 2pm. I arrive – with my apologies ready – at two minutes past. The person I’m meeting isn’t there. No matter, the ring road’s busy today (and there’s another entry for the LSSY Award…)

Ten past. He still hasn’t come. I check my phone for messages. Nothing. Quarter past, twenty past…

And I know at this point some of you are thinking, ‘What’s the problem, you’ve got your iPad. You could still do some work.’ Well, yes… In my view you can ‘work’ in Costa – in the same way that you can play a round of golf in your wellingtons.

I gave up at half past two: at least I’d be early for my next meeting. He phoned just as I got in the car. “Sorry, Ed. Held up. You still OK to wait? I can be there in twenty minutes…”

…Making him nearly an hour late. ‘Punctuality,’ I could hear my Dad saying. ‘Remember, Ed, it’s the courtesy of kings.’

No, I politely explained, I wasn’t OK to wait. I had another meeting. “No worries,” he said. “We’ll catch up later.”

Except we wouldn’t catch up later. This was the second time he’d kept me waiting. Neither time had he phoned to say he’d be late or apologised for wasting my time. I crossed him off my list of potential TAB members.

Everyone can be late for a meeting. We’ve all been held up by a sudden emergency or caught in traffic. But what everyone should do is ring and say, “I’m sorry: I’m going to be late…”

It’s difficult to write this post without it turning into a rant, but I find as I get older there are certain things that just irritate me (you know what I really want to say, don’t you?) And they irritate me to such a degree that they’re a real barrier to working with certain people.

Ah, damn it… I knew I shouldn’t have started down this road. Stand back. My other pet hates:

People who can only see the short term gain for themselves when they’d actually make far more money in the long run by building a mutually beneficial business relationship

People who talk about themselves incessantly and never express any interest in the person they’re talking to (and I’m sorry to say this is nearly always men…)

…And it’s compounded if they go on to try and sell me something without finding out or being interested in whether I might actually need it. We’ve all been there and we’ve all walked away thinking, ‘No. If you were the last widget salesman on the planet and my life depended on a widget the answer would still be ‘no.’’

I took a break there because – to be honest – I was worried it was just me. Had I developed early-onset Victor Meldrew Syndrome? I asked a couple of Board members. And I needn’t have worried. In fact I should have taken protective clothing…

“Liars,” one of my more gentle and rational Board members exploded. “Don’t tell me you’re going to do something when you know you’ve no chance and no intention of doing it. Tell me the truth. Not what you think I want to hear.”

I nodded my head. “Thanks for that. Hadn’t thought – ”

“And people that think they’re some sort of super-negotiator,” she carried on. “You agree a price, everyone’s happy, then they come back and start arguing about coppers. Or they ‘lose’ the cheque book. Or Doris in accounts is off sick and they can’t pay.”

I eventually calmed her down. Only to take both barrels from another Board member. “Mean people,” he said. “Not realising that if I bought the coffee and sandwiches this time, next time it’s their turn. If someone does that then I won’t deal with them.”

So let me throw it open to you: because there’s a serious business point in this. All of us might just recognise ourselves in some of the replies – and we might well be losing business. What are the character traits that really irritate you – to the extent that they’ll stop you working with someone?

I await your replies with interest. I’ll read them after I’ve bought a flak jacket…

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.

Promises, Promises…


…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

I’ll pick you up from school. We’ll get something to eat then we’ll go swimming.

We’ll have it done by Friday. I’ll e-mail you the link then I’ll give you a ring and we can chat through it.

A promise to your spouse: a promise to your child and a promise to a client. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t see any difference between the three of them.

I’ve often quoted from the late Stephen Covey in this blog. Here’s one that I keep coming back to time after time: ‘Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.’

In the old days a man’s word was his bond. John D Rockefeller gave us the archetypal quotation: ‘I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond, that character – not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.’

Well goodness me, didn’t that become an unfashionable notion? ‘Greed is good’ as Gordon Gekko cheerfully reminded us, and if breaking your promise was what you do had to do, well… it was the other guy’s stupid fault for thinking he could rely on a handshake. No contract? No non-disclosure agreement? Whadda they teach ’em in business school these days?

As I say, call me old-fashioned…

Two weeks ago I was at a networking lunch – which was fine, except that I felt dreadful. A summer cold, add in a liberal sprinkling of hay fever and Ed wasn’t a happy boy. Should I go to the lunch? I really did feel awful; I didn’t want to pass my germs on to other people and I didn’t want other people there studiously avoiding me and muttering ‘why doesn’t he stay at home instead of infecting everyone else?’

Except that I had been specifically invited by a good friend of mine. She’d absolutely have understood if I’d phoned and said I was ill, but I couldn’t do that. No, I hadn’t said, ‘I promise to be there.’ But I had said, ‘Thanks, that would be great. I’ll look forward to it.’

So I had a moral obligation to a friend and I wasn’t going to break it.

One of the first – and most important – business lessons I learned was from Frank, my manager at Diageo. “It’s simple, Ed,” he said. “Do what you say you’re going to do. That’s how you build trust.”

It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me. Doing what you say you’re going to do differentiates the people that are in it for the long haul. So I’ll regularly start e-mails with ‘as promised’ or ‘as we discussed’ because I committed to doing something (however small) at a 1-2-1 meeting or when I met someone. I want to make the point that I’m delivering on my promise – that if I say I’ll do something then it will get done.

A key part of this is saying ‘no’ – something we’ve covered in previous editions of the blog. You simply cannot do everything people ask you to do. Over the past couple of years I’ve turned down some really attractive opportunities. Why? Because I couldn’t do them and keep all my existing commitments and promises – not least to my wife and children.

Keeping your word and delivering what you say you’ll deliver costs you nothing. If you want to look at it in purely business terms keeping promises is one of the best investments you can ever make. For me it runs deeper than that – doing what I say I’ll do is just part of who I am, whether I’m with my wife, my children or the members of a Board.

…And I’m certain that every Board member reading this blog would say the same: working with people like that on a daily basis is a large part of what makes my job so rewarding.

But I must end with an apology. If you were at a networking lunch a couple of weeks ago and now have an evil summer cold, yes, you probably did catch it from me. I’m sorry – but as you’ve seen, I simply had to be there…