Dear Prime Minister…


Last week I looked at the lessons we can learn from the General Election campaign.

This week I wanted to start with, ‘The dust has settled and we can get back to normal…’ But, apparently not: still no deal with the DUP and a Queen’s Speech which roughly translated as, ‘Sort it yourselves, I’m off to Ascot.’

Apparently many Conservative MPs are privately admitting to disappointment at the way the Prime Minister has handled the talks with the DUP. Ah well, it’s not as though she has any major negotiations coming up…

But sooner or later the dust will settle: sooner or later we will have a government that won’t be in permanent crisis. Perhaps then the politicians could turn their attention to business: to the tens of thousands of small business owners up and down the land that are building a future for themselves and their families.

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So here’s my open letter to whoever is PM when the music stops. I’m sure TAB members and franchisees will have their own ‘wish lists.’ Here’s mine…

First and foremost, Prime Minister, perhaps you and our other elected representatives could put your big boy pants on? Raise your eyes from the Westminster village and your plots and counter-plots and realise that there is a country to govern. More importantly a country which faces serious challenges – whether it is the ageing population, the ridiculous amount of money wasted on treating the all-too-preventable obesity crisis or the impact AI and robotics are going to have on our jobs. It is time to stop kicking every potential crisis into the long grass and hoping it doesn’t need addressing again until you are writing your memoirs.

And then there’s Brexit – in particular, defining the shape you want it to take. Call me old fashioned but – like most business owners – I prefer to go into negotiations knowing what I want to achieve. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

As a business owner and a father, I want to see continued investment in our world class universities. We cannot turn the clock back: we live in a global society and we’re not just competing locally for the best talent, we’re competing internationally. So let’s do everything we can to attract that talent to the UK. And while I’m on education, could we just have a radical overhaul of the school curriculum? As Dan and Rory get older I look at some of the work they bring home and I think, ‘that’s the same essay I did thirty years ago.’ If they ever need to know about an ox-bow lake they’ll ask Wiki: teach them to be creative, to solve problems.

Increasingly work is about successful collaboration: and yet we continue to examine ever more irrelevant subjects on an individual basis. Would it be so hard to examine a project that four students had worked on together?

What’s next? A comprehensive review of the tax system. Seriously, what is National Insurance? Would anyone invent it now? In much the same way as we have 20th century town centres trying to cope with 21st Century shopping habits, so we have a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working patterns. People have more than one job, they’re employed, they’re self-employed, they’re contracting, they’re working overseas. Goods are designed in one country, refined in another, manufactured in a third, shipped across continents and sold across the world. And all the time, the poor old tax system is puffing and panting as it runs after the money.

Simplify the system and embrace the Laffer Curve. Give business an incentive to invest and to make profits and it will generate the revenues the country needs. Treat it as a cash cow to provide for everything and everybody and it will rapidly move to a more hospitable tax regime.

It may also move to somewhere you can get a phone signal. I know this is looking dangerously to the future, but could we please have a full and speedy roll out of 5G? Yes, yes, I know your Chancellor has said that he is committed to it but so far that commitment doesn’t extend to a starting date. Right now the UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G LTE connections and bluntly, it is not good enough. We are behind Morocco and Greece. Even 4G only works intermittently – unless you’re driving through parts of North Yorkshire, when ‘intermittent’ would be a remarkable improvement.

5G is expected to start rolling out worldwide in 2020: according to this article in Wired, South Korea has been preparing for it since 2008. That’s very nearly ten years. In the Spring Budget we committed the mighty sum of £16m for ‘further research.’ If we are going to leave the EU and become a ‘global hub’ then we are going to have to do a lot better than £16m.

Lastly, could we please make long term investments in a coherent, joined-up, 21st Century transport system? Other countries in Europe have taken the long term view, invested in their rail networks and now have modern, connected, effective services. Meanwhile there is a credible argument that the Conservatives lost their majority thanks to congestion on Southern Rail. £90bn on HS2? I can think of other priorities. HS2 will save minutes: business owners waste hours sitting in contraflows on our ‘smart motorways.’ No matter, I’ll just save up and buy one of these little beauties

That’s it. Except that if you’re still struggling to cobble a government together give me a ring. I know plenty of owners of SME’s who are first-rate negotiators. 10 members of the DUP to sort out? They’d do it before breakfast…

Best regards

Ed

Lessons from the Maybot


Consider these two newspaper headlines:

South Milford FC win Champions League

Labour win Kensington & Chelsea

Well, you think. A Chinese conglomerate. Don’t see the value in spending £3bn on Manchester United. Decided to do it the romantic way. Small local team – but a million people within 30 minutes. 20 year plan, work their way up the football pyramid. Suppose it could happen…

What was the other one? Labour win Kensington & Chelsea? Have a word with yourself. And don’t forget your medication…

Except last Friday afternoon it did happen. With a majority of just 20, Emma Dent Coad captured Kensington and Chelsea for Labour. And if you want a measure of how completely inept the Conservative election campaign was, there you have it.

‘I didn’t fail. I learned,’ is one the great aphorisms of the positive-thinking industry. Well, Theresa May certainly learned how to take a working majority and turn it into – dare I use the phrase – a coalition of chaos. As everyone knows, she is now dependent on the DUP, whose ten MPs shuffled into the limelight last Friday afternoon like a factory syndicate who had won the lottery.

But this is a business blog, not a politics one. Are there any lessons we as business owners can learn from the election, the Conservative ‘strategy’ and the Maybot? Oh yes…

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First and foremost, don’t ever take success for granted. I hope Ian Hislop doesn’t mind: I photographed the Private Eye cover from May 18th as my illustration this week. At the time it exactly summed up the mood in Conservative Central Office: it wasn’t a General Election, it was a coronation.

…Did the Conservatives underestimate Corbyn? Only by a factor of 300 – in much the same way that the Clinton camp underestimated Trump. In both cases the overwhelming favourite said, ‘You can’t possibly vote for my opponent:’ to which the electorate replied, ‘Watch us.’

Whatever you’re doing – whether you’re pitching for a contract, tendering for some work, making a presentation to potential clients – you must show up, give your best every single time and never, ever underestimate your opponents. No-one – clients, customers or the electorate – likes to be taken for granted.

Yes, show up. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? You need to show up, even if it’s going to be tough. Say what you like about Corbyn – he turned up, he was prepared to speak, his events were free and he connected with people. Theresa May hunkered in her bunker muttering “strong and stable.” I am sorry, Prime Minister, when the going gets tough, the tough do not send Amber Rudd.

What’s next? Ah yes, the personality cult. They weren’t Conservative candidates were they? They were ‘Theresa May’s local candidate.’ The cabinet? Never heard of them: are you talking about ‘Theresa May’s team?’ If you want to make it all about your personality – whether it’s your business or the General Election – just make sure you have one.

Have a vision. How many times have we said that the leader’s job is to lead? To have a vision and communicate that vision. End tuition fees, raise in the minimum wage, a hand-up for the many… Whether you agree with it or not, that was a vision.

Trust your team. When she became PM Theresa May shuffled her team. Whatever your view of Messrs Hammond, Johnson and Davis – and Ms Rudd – they are experienced politicians. They’re used to campaigning. If you’ve handpicked your team, you have to trust them. No business grows or succeeds by the boss micro-managing every single decision himself.

Lastly, don’t always rely on the same people for advice. The apocryphal story is that the only person Mrs May would take a phone call from during the campaign was the Queen (yep, probably asking for her coach back…) Clearly the PM’s advice came from her two, now-departed, special advisers and her husband, all of whom were telling her what she wanted to hear. Maybe she should have joined a TAB Board for the duration of the campaign: she’d certainly have received advice at odds with her thinking but – as it so often does for so many business owners – it would have saved her from some disastrous mistakes.

So did Theresa May get anything right? Well, certainly not the Mexican wave on Tuesday night but – as one of my team in Harrogate pointed out – she always wore nice shoes…

I could go on and on – but enough’s enough. The Conservative campaign was easily the most inept in my lifetime. And yes, I know she is still Prime Minster but go back to the end of April. Record approval ratings and a 20 point lead in the polls. It’s the equivalent of a team leading 6-0 at half-time, scoring six own goals and scraping home 7-6. A win is a win, but at what price in the long term? What will it cost the country, the economy and our businesses?

The Entrepreneur’s Manifesto


First things first. This post was written on Thursday: by the time you read it you’ll have sat up all night watching the results come in or – early on Friday morning – you’ll have smiled with satisfaction. Or wondered if you could relocate to Mexico…

Either way, we’ll have a new government: new policies, new priorities and – as usual – those of us running a business will need to adapt. There are some very definite things that I’d like to see over the next five years and I’ll be writing about them next week. For now, let me reflect on the campaign that has just ended.

…And go back to some words I wrote in July 2014, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, Jeremy Corbyn was a maverick backbencher and the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition could look forward to another 10 months in power.

Seven o’clock the next morning. He’s in his office. A bank of computer screens. Stock market prices, foreign currency exchange – and the production figures from his factories; the sales figures from his shops. He finishes his black coffee, takes his tablets and settles into another high-risk, high-pressure day. Another typical day for an entrepreneur…

That’s the popular perception of the entrepreneur – someone who loves risk, who needs the adrenalin rush from risk, who even goes out of his way to create risk when none exists.

We could well take the stereotype even further. Focused, ruthless, determined to get what he (yes, the “typical” entrepreneur is always a he) wants. Doesn’t care who gets trampled in the process…

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One of the things that has most disappointed me about this election campaign has been that both sides have failed to understand the role of the entrepreneur in our society – that the picture of ‘the typical entrepreneur’ has been allowed to hold sway.

To Labour supporters “the rich” (let’s not use some of the other epithets) have been nothing more than a vehicle to be taxed: an inexhaustible supply of cash for the state. But neither have the Conservatives supported our cause: the entrepreneur has taken a back seat as they increasingly see ‘big government’ as the engine of growth.

I know virtually no-one in TAB who fits that outdated picture of the stereotypical entrepreneur. Yes, of course many TAB members and franchisees want to build successful businesses for themselves and their families – but almost none of them have the creation of personal wealth as their sole motivation.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think entrepreneurs are some of the most important members of our society. They create jobs: in the UK, more than 15m people are employed by SMEs.

They innovate – the iPhone, the Dyson, your computer’s operating system. So much of what we take for granted now was born out of an entrepreneur’s spirit, determination and willingness to make sacrifices.

Entrepreneurs drive economic growth – and they accept risk. Ultimately, nothing is created without someone, somewhere taking a risk. And that person is almost always an entrepreneur.

And entrepreneurs give back. Yes, initiatives such as The Giving Pledge will always attract the major headlines, but I constantly see entrepreneurs working in their local areas without any expectation of reward or recognition, giving back to communities that have given so much to them.

Let me leave you with the story of one entrepreneur. He was born in Hackney: his father was a tailor in the garment industry and they lived in a council flat. He earned extra money for the family by working in a greengrocer’s and then – after a brief spell at the Ministry of Education – he began selling car aerials out of a van he’d bought for £50 and insured for £8.

And in January of this year he paid £58,646,028.44 in tax.

You will have your own views on Lord Sugar. Whatever they are, you cannot deny that he is an entrepreneur who has innovated, created jobs and – ultimately – given back to society.

In the election campaign he was roundly vilified by left wing Labour supporters for suggesting (tactfully, as he always does) that their leader may not be up to the job.

In response to the criticism, he revealed the amount of tax he paid in January of this year. Yes, 58 million quid.

Alan Sugar could undoubtedly have spent his working life at the Ministry of Education: he’d now be quietly retired on an index-linked pension. Instead, he started selling car aerials in Hackney market – and he has just paid the salary of 2,320 nurses…

My First 100 Days


It’s not often I compare myself to Donald Trump – well, not this side of the psychiatrist’s couch – but he’s famously completed 100 days in the White House and I’ve now completed 100 days in my new role as the MD of The Alternative Board in the UK.

I haven’t pulled out of any climate change agreements, sacked anyone or threatened wholesale renegotiation of every trade deal that’s ever been made. Instead I’ve worked with some brilliant people and generally had the privilege of running an organisation that changes people’s lives. So thank you once again to everyone who helped to make it happen, and to everyone who keeps making it happen on a daily basis.

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Quite obviously, I’ve had to get used to a few changes. I’m not driving round North Yorkshire anywhere near as much: I see a lot less of Costa Coffee at Clifton Moor…

I’m now in the office at Harrogate for 2½ days a week, working as part of a team of six. I didn’t realise I’d missed the office ‘buzz’ so much. That’s a bonus that I hadn’t anticipated.

…And I’ve discovered another, equally unexpected but far more important bonus. Every month Mags and I are in London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester.

We always go on the train – and it’s a brilliant place to work. (But why, he asked innocently, could I get a mobile signal under Hong Kong harbour ten years ago but still can’t get one on the train between Huddersfield and Stalybridge? I’ll vote for whoever has that in their manifesto…)

As I was saying, a brilliant place to work – and to pick up on a point from last week, it’s a great place to work on the business. By definition you can’t work in the business, so Mags and I have time to discuss strategy, make plans and generally do all the things phones, meetings and the need to pop out for a sandwich stop you doing.

I’ve always liked working on the train. I’ve written before that if you want to think differently you need to be in a different physical location and I get some of my best work done on trains and in cafés, ploughing through as much paperwork between York and King’s Cross as I would in a full day at my desk.

Why is that?

Why do so many of us enjoy working in locations like that, and why are we so productive? And yes, I have been known to play a ‘café soundtrack’ on YouTube when I’m working in the office.

Early studies suggested that it was what’s known as ‘the audience effect:’ that we work better when we have someone to work with and/or compete with – witness the peloton in the Tour de France.

But according to an article in New Scientist, what applies to Team Sky doesn’t – for once – apply to us. The answer, apparently, is that hard work is contagious.

A study was done which involved sitting people doing different tasks next to each other: neither could see what the other was working on. When A’s task was made more difficult B started to work harder as well, as he or she responded to subtle cues like body posture and breathing.

I’ve often talked to TAB members who say their number one criteria for hiring another member of their team is work ethic: now it looks like there’s real evidence to back up that good old gut feeling.

…Except, of course, the evidence also suggests that I shouldn’t be on the train or in the coffee shop. I should be where people are working really hard. So I may hold future meetings in the library at Leeds University – and if it’s still the same as in my undergraduate days, on the same floor as the law students…

If it Ain’t Broke…


You’re the one who had the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, you don’t. Let me explain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we learn from Emmanuel Macron?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Praise


I’ve written previously about Millennials, Baby Boomers and all the other generational labels that we pretend we know. So far, though, I’ve neglected the ‘Snowflake Generation.’

‘Snowflake,’ for those of you that don’t know, is a less-than-complimentary term applied to the young adults of the 2010s: it probably comes from the 1999 film Fight Club and its famous line: ‘We are not special. We are not beautiful and unique snowflakes.’

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It’s now come to be applied to a generation that supposedly were told they were special; children that were given an over-inflated sense of their own worth and – as a consequence – are now far too easily offended.

But now these easily-offended snowflakes are entering the workplace. So what are we as employers and business owners going to do when these ‘snowflakes’ increasingly make up the workforce? Are we going to have to constantly shower them with praise, irrespective of how well they’re performing?

Maybe the question is academic though – because far too many bosses and managers seem to have a problem with giving their teams any praise.

Why is that? Any number of research studies show that praise and positive recognition in the workplace can be hugely motivating – and not just for the person on the receiving end of it. Employee of the Month is too easily dismissed as a cliché: that’s wrong, it works.

We don’t really need a research study, do we? Our own commons sense tells us that praise works. Your wife only has to say, “Oh, darling, that was wonderful…” And you’ll be far more likely to make her another slice of toast.

One of the worst things a manager can do is reward hard work and achievement with silence. Yet only one in four American workers are confident that if they do good work they’ll be praised for it. Far too often the culture seems to be, “No news is good news” or – as they say in Germany – “Nicht gescholten ist lob genug.” (No scolding is praise enough.)

But we all know that’s nonsense. So why do people struggle to give praise? Maybe it starts with a false belief that really good managers are the tough ones who don’t hold back when it comes to telling people what’s wrong. Maybe some managers believe that giving praise will encourage staff to take it easy and rest on their laurels. Some might be consciously or unconsciously copying their own previous bosses: some managers might even see giving praise as a sign of weakness.

Whatever the reason the number of managers who don’t give any positive feedback is frighteningly high – 37% according to a recent survey in the Harvard Business Review. And you can probably add a few percentage points more: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that what a manager sees as ‘straightforward, honest feedback’ is all too often perceived as criticism.

I think that’s a tragedy. There’s no better way to motivate people than by giving praise and it always works. There cannot be a more effective phrase in a manager’s vocabulary than, “You did a great job. Thank you.”

Not for the first time, I’m struck by the parallel between managing a team and being a parent. I’ve always tried to be honest with my boys: if they’ve done brilliantly, I’ll shower them with praise. If they could have done better, I’ll try to tactfully point it out – and suggest a way they could improve. I’ve never been a believer in praising everything they do – otherwise praise becomes meaningless – and the same is true in the workplace. But if someone has done a great job, tell them.

It will be the best investment of time and no money you ever make.

And now I must turn my attention to my own beautiful, unique snowflakes. If you can call someone who thinks his bedroom floor should be covered in underpants and needs a three course meal two hours before a three course meal a ‘snowflake…’

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…

Agile Leadership? Or Fundamental Truth?


Agileadjective: able to move quickly and easily. Or, increasingly, relating to software development: relating to or denoting a method of project management characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans

And – even more increasingly – the new buzzword in management thinking. We’re now supposed to be agile leaders and agile managers. Our companies need to have an agile culture and, of course, the work is done by our agile teams.

But is ‘agile’ really a new way of thinking? Or is it simply the latest spin on what have always been the best business practices? The Emperor’s latest new clothes – and maybe I’ve seen them all before…

The more time I spend working with business owners and entrepreneurs, the more I’m convinced that – to borrow a line from a classic – the fundamental things will always apply. Hire good people: don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Give them responsibility and remember that your job is to lead. As Stephen Covey said, “keep the main thing the main thing” and – as this blog constantly repeats – never stop learning. If you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Unquestionably business is moving at an ever faster pace. It used to be only companies like Dropbox that boasted of employing staff all over the world: I forget the exact quote but it was something like ‘thirty staff in ten different countries in 12 different time zones.’ But now I notice an increasing number of local entrepreneurs working with suppliers and contractors in different countries, knowing exactly what time it is in the Philippines and as happy to price in dollars as in pounds.

Agile-leader

Is this ‘agile?’ No, it’s change. As an entrepreneur said during one of this week’s inevitable discussions on Brexit, “We’ll do what business has always done: we’ll adapt.”

What about the ‘agile culture’ we’re all supposed to use in our offices as we build our ‘agile teams?’ I saw it suggested recently that we should use an agile culture ‘to foster a healthy and positive working environment that takes advantage of the talent within.’

“No surprise there, Sherlock” as the PG version of Dr. Watson would have said. No entrepreneur succeeds alone – and if you don’t foster a positive working environment and take advantage of everyone’s talents, you’ve no chance. In the seven years since this blog started I have lost count of the number of times I’ve preached the benefits of trusting people and giving them responsibility. You should never be the only person in your company with the ability to say ‘yes’ to a new idea. That’s not ‘agile,’ it’s simply the best way to build a business.

…As is constantly being aware of the way your market – and new markets – are developing. “Agile leaders constantly see their business as a start-up” was another quote I read. If you started in a railway arch and you’re now employing 100 people and turning over £25m I suspect it’s quite hard to still see yourself as a start-up. But every entrepreneur I know who has built to that level is as open-minded and outward looking as any fresh-faced start-up.

My big fear with ‘agile’ is that we’ll all feel we should work at a faster and faster pace: that if we’re not Skyping Chicago at 9pm or instant messaging Manila at 5am we’re failing as entrepreneurs. I remember, nearly 20 years ago, reading an article about Gerry Robinson when he was building Granada – and famously, going home to his wife and children at 5pm. His philosophy was simple: if he couldn’t achieve it between 9am and 5pm, he was unlikely to achieve it between 6am and 8pm.

Trends, theories, buzzwords – and lucrative book deals – will continue to come and go in the realms of management and business but, whatever they’re called, the basics will never change.

…And a little over a month into my new role with The Alternative Board, I’m delighted to see those basic beliefs, practices and values running through every TAB franchisee and every TAB member that I’ve met. Yes, of course the next two years are going to throw up difficulties – some that none of us have yet contemplated – but there will be opportunities as well. And I know every TAB franchisee and member will do what businesses have always done – adapt, and meet the challenge.

The Skills we Can’t Measure


Before I plunge into this week’s post, let me just take a moment to say ‘thank you’ for all the e-mails, text messages and calls over the last fortnight. Taking over TAB UK is a huge honour, privilege and challenge – but I couldn’t be setting out on the journey with any greater goodwill. So thank you all.

Back to the blog: and who remembers Moneyball?

moneyball-brad-pitt

The old ways of recruitment in baseball were jettisoned. In came Billy Beane, his stats guru and a transformation in the fortunes of the Oakland Athletics.

The central premise of ‘Moneyball’ was simple: that the collective wisdom of baseball insiders – managers, coaches and scouts – was almost always subjective and was frequently flawed. But the key statistics for baseball – stolen bases, runs, batting averages – could be measured, were accurate and – used properly – could go a very long way to building a winning team.

Well, it worked for the Oakland A’s. As Billy Beane memorably says at the beginning of the film, ‘There’s rich teams, there’s poor teams, there’s fifty feet of $%&! and then there’s us.’ The ‘Moneyball’ approach changed all that, with the film chronicling their hugely successful 2002 season.

Small wonder that business has followed the ‘Moneyball’ approach for generations. “What we can measure we can manage” as my first sales manager incessantly chanted, drumming into me that I needed to make “Specific, measurable” goals.

And he was right. Business has to measure results: goals must be specific and measurable and, as anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will know, I believe there’s only one long term result if you don’t keep a close watch on your Key Performance Indicators.

But does that tell the full story?

Of course we have to keep track of the numbers: of course salesmen must be able to sell, coders must be able to code and engineers must be able to do the basic maths that means the bridge doesn’t fall down.

But none of those things happen in isolation: all of us in business are part of a team. We have to work with other people and – if our job is to lead the team – we have to get the best out of the people we work with.

And for that we need a set of skills that can’t be measured. I’ve written before about the World Economic Forum and their document on the key workplace skills that we’ll all need by the year 2020. Their top ten list includes creativity, people management, co-ordinating with others, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Last time I checked, none of those could really be measured objectively.

So are we swinging back to the pre-Moneyball approach? To a time when ‘gut-feeling’ held sway.

No, we’re not. But I do believe we are in an era where what we’ve traditionally called ‘soft skills’ are at least as valuable as ‘hard,’ functional skills.

This has implications for those of us running businesses – and it especially has implications for the training programmes we introduce. In the years ahead, we’ll still need to train our salesmen and our coders, but we’ll need to give them skills that go well beyond selling and coding.

There are implications for hiring and firing as well: they can no longer be based purely on numbers. And yes, I appreciate that the second one is going to cause problems. As a TAB member said to me last month, “I can fire someone for under-performance, I can fire them for stealing from me. But try and fire them because they bring the whole team down with their negative attitude and I’m heading straight for an employment tribunal.”

We’ve all been there: been in a meeting where someone’s glass is determinedly half-empty and they’re equally determined that it will remain like that. There’s a collective sigh of relief when they go on holiday. You can’t let one person bring the team down: it’s up to us as leaders to use our soft skills to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It’s also up to us to make sure that everyone in the team has the chance to develop their own soft skills. Whether it’s negotiation, creativity, co-operation or flexibility – those are the skills our businesses are going to need over the coming years: those are the skills that will help us turn our visions into reality.