The Work/Life Support System


One of the facets of my new role within TAB is taking a wider view of the UK economy. That’s not to say I ignored it when I was owner of TAB York – but as MD of TAB UK I’m much more aware of the concerns and initiatives of organisations like the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses.

…And last week brought a worrying report from the FSB. Their latest Small Business Index – carried out in the summer and based on a survey of more than 1,200 members – found that optimism among entrepreneurs had fallen sharply. Most worryingly, 13% of those who responded to the survey were looking for a way out of their business, the highest figure since the FSB began measuring in 2012.

OK: let’s introduce an immediate word of caution. I suspect if I were a disgruntled entrepreneur, desperately looking to sell my business I’d be far more likely to complete a survey like this than if everything were going well and orders were flying out of the door.

But that said, these are the worst figures the FSB have seen for five years. Rents, regulations, taxation and what Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, described as “the ridiculous staircase tax” all contributed to the entrepreneurs’ dissatisfaction.

Inevitably rising costs and uncertainty surrounding Brexit also received honourable mentions and they all – with the notable exception of the UK’s very cheerful export sector – contributed to a sharp fall in the FSB’s ‘optimism index.’

I wonder though, if it doesn’t go deeper than that for many entrepreneurs.

I’ve written previously about the ever-increasing impact of flexible working. If you’re looking to build your team and attract – and retain – the very best talent then offering flexible working is a must. Flexible hours, the option of working from home and genuine regard for someone’s work/life balance are all key.

But flexible working cuts both ways. One company’s flexible day can very easily equate to someone else’s 16 hour day.

I am not saying that we should all go back to 9 to 5 – that’s never going to happen. You can’t turn the clock back and remove flexible working, any more than you can – let’s take a ridiculous example – turn the clock back and ban a safe, convenient, modern, technology-driven ride sharing app…

In the old days it was very simple: if you wanted to succeed in business, you had to meet people. Face-to-face contact was essential.

Not so today: there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there – especially in the creative sector – who have never met their clients. “They’ve become my biggest client, Ed,” someone said to me the other day. “I think I’ve spoken to the MD twice on the phone. Everything else has been e-mail and Facebook messenger. I’ve got an address for invoicing but I’m not even sure where the MD’s based.”

That’s not unusual: for an increasing number of people running a business – whether they employ staff or not – equals sitting in front of a screen all day. And that must lead to more and more ‘lonely entrepreneurs.’

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Costs, taxation and ever increasing legislation all play their part in making the life of an entrepreneur difficult: but I just wonder how often loneliness is the final straw…

That’s why I believe the ‘work/life support system’ offered by The Alternative Board is so important: it’s why I believe the potential for us to grow in the future is so exciting. Some of you may have seen my recent profile in the Yorkshire Post – and yes, I absolutely believe that we can move from working with 350 business owners to over 1,000. And if we can do that we will very definitely benefit the UK economy.

But as I said in the article, sometimes as a business owner it’s difficult to know where to turn. I also said that I now realise how much I didn’t know when I started TAB York. One of the things I unquestionably didn’t know was how lonely life can be as an entrepreneur and how much having a support network can help.

Five years from now let’s hope the FSB are reporting that virtually no entrepreneurs are desperate to sell their businesses – and if TAB UK can play a part in that I’ll be absolutely delighted. Everyone needs friends: as the old saying has it, ‘Even the sharpest knife can’t cut it alone…’

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Business Advice from Dr. Who


You know how I like to keep up to date with cutting edge modern business management theory, so let’s start this week by hopping in the Tardis and travelling back to the 14th Century. Then we’ll fast forward to the early 20th and consider one of the fundamental building blocks of any business – garden peas.

William of Ockham (or Occam) was a Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian who died at age of 60 in 1347 – having first come up with a key business principle that still applies 670 years later. Occam’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the one with fewest assumptions should be selected. Or more succinctly, the simplest explanation is nearly always right. Or in business terms, KISS.

And now to the University of Lausanne in 1906 where the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto made the famous observation that 80% of the property in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. As you do, he then went home and confirmed the hypotheses: 20% of the pea pods in his garden held 80% of the peas. Later generalised as the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule was born.

We have all known about KISS and the 80/20 rule pretty much from 9:30 on day one of our business careers. We also know that they are as relevant – and as useful – today as they have ever been. So why don’t we give them the respect they deserve? And how can we use them to help build our businesses?

In many ways this is part of the ‘back to basics’ feeling that I’ve returned from Denver with. As technology gets ever more sophisticated, as a new app appears on our phone every week, as there seem to be 101 ways to solve every problem, it’s easy to forget the basics. It’s easy to forget that the simplest solution nearly always is the best solution, and that whatever we do, 20% of our customers give us 80% of our sales and 20% of our time produces 80% of our results.

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So how can we use these old rules to build our businesses?

Let me take the last point first. It’s four or five years now since I first started using Toggl to track how I was using my time – and I still remember the shock when I looked at my first report. How much time had I lost/wasted/frittered away in the week? I’ll keep that one to myself, thanks.

I’ve written many times that you owe it to yourself and your family not to work 60-80 hours a week. 40-45 is fine, providing you are working productively for all those hours. The reason that 20% of our time produces 80% of our results can sometimes be that we’re only working productively for 20% of our time.

Now let’s turn to our customers or clients. For the majority of businesses, 80% of the customers do account for 20% of the sales. So if you want to grow your business, ask yourself two simple questions: where did those customers come from? And what need do we meet for those clients? Answer those questions, and then go out and find some clients that match the same profile.

But this is where Occam’s Razor comes in: this is where we need to resist the urge to over-complicate.

I’ve seen a couple of articles suggesting that the 80/20 rule is scalable. If my top 20% of customers produce 80% of my sales, why don’t I repeat the exercise with just those customers? Wow! My top 4% give me 64% of my sales. (Trust me on the maths!)

No. The simplest solution is the best solution. Once is enough. 4% of your customers is too small a sample: you run the risk of including the one outlier that skews the statistics.

Let me finish with another instance of the 80/20 rule. We’re all familiar with the old saying: ‘I know that half my advertising budget is wasted. I just don’t know which half.’ Today, that no longer applies. Google analytics, ads on Facebook – today you can measure the return on your marketing budget very accurately. And again, you’re going to find that one or two channels account for the vast majority of your leads or sales. Don’t be afraid to concentrate on those channels: you no longer have a moral obligation to keep the local newspaper afloat.

That’s it for this week. After the summer holiday and the trip to Denver I’m looking forward to a weekend at home doing not very much. Then again I have teenage boys: time to reach for my taxi driver’s hat…

Time to go into Reverse


Mentor: noun – an experienced and trusted adviser. Someone who gives an inexperienced or younger person help and advice over a period of time.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with the most famous mentor of them all…

But now the phrase on everyone’s lips is ‘reverse mentoring’ – because it’s not just young people that need training in the office.

What is reverse mentoring? To turn the dictionary definition around it is when an inexperienced or younger person gives an older, more experienced colleague help and advice. Why? One word: Snapchat. Another word: Instagram.

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As social media – and other developments such as gamification and virtual reality – come to play an increasingly important part in both the workplace and the customer journey, so Mr Older-Experienced can be left feeling, well… helpless.

But why do you need training in the office? Why not just ask your teenage children? If you’re asking that question I can only assume you don’t have teenage children. You cannot ask your teenage children. Sadly, I’m becoming all too familiar with their response. The long, drawn-out sigh. The raised eyes, the pained expression. ‘Oh God, I’ve got to explain it to the old person again…’

Back in the office there are some very successful advocates for reverse mentoring. Former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts credits it with helping her turn the company around and grow the brand value from $3bn to $11bn. John Lydon, MD of McKinsey Australia said that his tech-capability had increased tenfold – and he was able to understand the minds of a younger generation, and the emerging trends that came with them.

Why does reverse mentoring work? Because human nature all too often dictates that we spend too much time talking to people like us. People who are roughly the same age, from the same background and have the same views. Speaking to someone who’s younger than you, from a different background and significantly lower down the organisation chart can help you see the business from a new angle. In large companies it’s also a good way to identify future leaders: not just how much does someone know, but how good are they at communicating, and making the complex easy to understand.

The other great plus of reverse mentoring is that it creates a culture where everyone in the company is constantly learning – something you emphatically need to do today.

Depending on which projection you read, by the middle of the next decade millennials (people who entered the workforce around the turn of the century) will comprise up to 75% of employees. And yet most MDs and CEOs will still be significantly older.

So we’ll be hearing a lot more about reverse mentoring. I think it’s a great idea: looking back over my days in the corporate world, I can remember plenty of times when it would have helped me, my boss and – in the long term – the company. But I worry that too many organisations will introduce a reverse mentoring programme and simply pay it lip service – ‘this is the latest big thing apparently. I suppose we’d better give it a go’ – while carrying on doing what they’ve always done. And as I have said many times, if you always do what you have always done, these days you will no longer get what you have always got.

In many ways reverse mentoring has been part and parcel of TAB since I joined – even if we didn’t use the exact term. When I was running TAB York I always wanted my Boards to have a mix of ages and backgrounds – and it’s something I now encourage the franchisees in the UK to do. When someone brings a problem, challenge or opportunity to a monthly meeting it is absolutely invaluable for them to see it from different angles and different perspectives. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as the old saying goes: a problem seen from seven different viewpoints is very often a problem solved.

With that, I’m going to leave you for a fortnight. Next week I’m on holiday and the week after I’m joining TAB colleagues from around the world in Denver. But first, a holiday with Dav and the boys: hopefully without the sighs and the pained expressions…

New Year: New Quotes


Good evening/morning – and a very, very happy new year. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that you’re now ready to enjoy a truly stellar year.

…And if I sound enthusiastic and positive, it’s because I am. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to any year as much as I’m looking forward to 2017. (Ah – damn it. Apart from the year I got married, of course. Only four lines into a new year and I put my foot in it…)

For me – and I hope for all of us – 2017 is going to be full of challenges and opportunities. And isn’t that what life and business is all about?

So let’s start the year with some inspirational words. Anyone who’s been in business for a while will have read all the standard Steve Jobs/Henry Ford quotes: so I’ve done a little digging to see if I can find some you might not have come across before. Hopefully one or two of them will kick-start a very successful year for you.

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The first one is from Jake Nickell, the CEO of Threadless. I try not to make any decision I’m not excited about.

I couldn’t agree more. If I turn to someone in a TAB meeting and they say, “I’ve had this idea. I think it’s OK and it might make some money,” then I guarantee that in six months it will have been quietly shelved or – much more likely – it will have turned into a problem and be losing money.

If, on the other hand, my Board member is so excited she needs to stand up when she starts talking about her new idea; if she’s waking up to make notes on it at three in the morning – then we might just have something that changes a business and/or a life. You’re an entrepreneur: having ideas is what you do. You only need to act on the ones you’re passionate about.

The vast majority of us will have seen ads for Under Armour when we’ve been watching sport. Here’s what founder and CEO Kevin Plank has to say: There’s an entrepreneur right now, scared to death, making excuses, saying, “It’s not the right time yet.” There’s no such thing as a good time. Get out of your garage and go take a chance and start your business.

Or as Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, put it, If you wait until there’s another case study in your industry you’ll be too late.

There are 101 reasons not to do anything new in 2017. Worries about Brexit. What will Trump do? Elections in Europe. The possible collapse of the Chinese credit boom…

But there are 101 reasons not to do anything in every year. If you’ve had a great idea; if it keeps you awake at night; if you have the support of your peers round the TAB table… Then, as the iconic Nike ad said, Just do it.

Who’s up next? Indra Nooyi, Chair and CEO of PepsiCo. I cannot just expect the organisation to improve if I don’t improve myself and lift the organisation. That [is] a constant.

I’m not sure there’s much I can add to that. Today – more than ever – you simply have to go on learning and improving. If you stand still your business will stand still – and as I’ve written many times, once a business stands still and starts to stagnate, it’s the beginning of the end.

Fiddlesticks. I’m going to have to admit defeat: I can’t get away without a Steve Jobs quote after all. But here’s one you might not have come across.

Jobs was giving a small, private presentation about the iTunes music store to some independent record label people. At the end of the presentation they were all bursting with ideas and features that could be added. “Wait,” Jobs said. “I know you have a thousand ideas. So do we. But innovation isn’t about saying ‘yes’ to everything. It’s about saying ‘no’ to all but the most crucial features.”

Why do I like that story so much? Simply because you can take ‘innovation’ out and replace it with ‘success.’ And if you want a recipe for success in 2017, that’s it. Make decisions that excite you, don’t wait to put them into action, constantly improve yourself – and above all, say ‘no’ to everything that’s not crucial to your own success and the success of your business.

Christmas, a Speech and a Chocolate Teacake


Well, here we are at post no. 49 of 2017. 12 months and around 35,000 words after I started the year by considering some of your worst clients – Messrs Sceptic, Indecisive and Over-Thinker – we come to the end of the year.

But not to the end of my wife’s shopping list. I’m certain that you’ve also got plenty to do – that business fripperies like ‘cash flow,’ ‘finalise plans’ and ‘chase debtors’ have rightly been pushed to one side – so I’ll crack on…

Let me start the final post of the year with some thanks, beginning with the members of TAB York. As always they’ve been committed, focused, ambitious, challenging – and at the right moments, irreverent. Thank you also to the stellar TAB team at the Harrogate head office and my equally Stella colleagues around the country…

…And my thanks to everyone who has read, commented on, and hopefully enjoyed the blog. The post that brought the most reaction – by some distance – was A Conversation with my Wife: thank you for some of the very personal, reflective and supportive comments. Post that generated the most vitriol? Oh, easy. I’m Fat, I’m Lazy and I’m off to Play Golf, as International Trade Minister Liam Fox revealed he knew nothing at all about the people who run small businesses.

My biggest thanks, of course, go to my wife, Dav, who has been endlessly supportive. It’s now 23 years, 10 months and 29 days since I tiptoed into a phone box in Wingrove Road, Fenham NE4, screwed my courage to the sticking place and nervously asked her if she’d like to see Sneakers. I could live to 1,000 and never do a better day’s work. And to my boys, Dan and Rory who never fail to remind me what’s really important.

It’s normal at this time of year to hand out awards. Given the amount I’ve drunk, ‘Takeaway Coffee of the Year’ is a possibility, but let me go with just one: ‘Moment of the Year.’ It came at a Board meeting not much more than a month ago: as many of you know, there’s plenty of hard-headed business analysis at a TAB meeting: there’s a healthy dusting of good-natured banter as well. And just occasionally, there’s a moment like this: I’ve tried to convey the sentiment, whilst protecting the identity of the individual member:

Hang on, he said. Just let me say something. This – TAB – the seven of you round the table, you’ve changed my life. When I joined – not that long ago – I had no direction: bluntly, I’d fallen out of love my business. Something I’d never have thought possible. It was impacting me, my health and my family. And now it’s totally changed. I know what I’m doing, I know where I’m going, I’m in love with the business again and that’s benefitting the business in spades. I couldn’t be happier, my wife couldn’t be happier. And I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks, guys.

That single moment made the year for me. Two or three of us round the table suddenly seemed to have something in our eye. The individual member will almost certainly recognise himself, and I simply want to say thank you. A hundred words: a 50 second speech and that’s The Alternative Board – and why I do what I do – in a nutshell.

With that memory still warming my heart, I’m off now to spend some serious time with the family: so let me formally wish you all a very happy Christmas and the absolute best for the coming year.

Christmas for us will start with the now vaguely-famous Reid Xmas Eve party for friends and their families.

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Five years ago the average age of the children was about six: I wandered into the room where they’d all been watching TV, gasped in horror at the mess and watched a chocolate teacake slide gracefully down our wall. Not long now and the average age will be approaching sixteen: I suspect I may have rather more than chocolate teacakes to worry about…

Why Being Ill is Good for You


I bumped into an old work colleague at the weekend.

I use the word ‘colleague’ in its loosest possible sense. Brian was a man whose success at office politics was exceeded only by his opinion of himself: whose survival skills were in directly inverse proportion to his business skills. And for whom the expression ‘pompous oaf’ (or stronger) might have been invented.

But Season of Goodwill and all that. I smiled my welcoming smile…

“Edward. How goes the world with you? Still doing just enough?”

My smile slipped a little. “I’m managing, Brian. And you…”

“Never better. Just been ill. Best thing that ever happened to me.”

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I made suitable sympathetic noises while wondering why your phone never rings when you need it to.

“Gastric flu. Wiped out. Five days. Never been so ill in my life. But now, marvellous. Cleared out my body and – ” Brian jabbed me to make sure I understood the next point was important – “Cleared out my life as well.”

I indicated that I was grateful to be drinking from the well of such wisdom. “Yes. Could have swanned off to Switzerland and paid thousands. Did it all myself. Even a man of my talents can take on too much. You won’t have heard the expression – some American or other – but they call it ‘the thick of thin things.’”

And mercifully, at that moment, my phone did ring. “Mis-sold PPI?” I said. “Thank you so much for calling…”

As most of you will know, if there are 30 people in a room there’s a better than even chance of two of them sharing a birthday. With the massed ranks of TAB York, there must be equally good odds that one of us will, like Brian, be ‘wiped out’ in the run up to Christmas.

And much as I disliked the man, I had to admit that he was right. Sometimes, being ill can be good for you.

If you’re running your own business – or you’re in any position of authority – switching off is one of the hardest things to do. At home with the children? Date night with the wife? Ordering lunch on the beach… Even then, there’s either a problem that won’t go away or – because you’ll always be an entrepreneur – an idea that pops into your head.

For me – with due apologies to my wife and hopes that she’s already bought my Christmas present – the most totally relaxing thing I do is play squash. I’m physically and mentally engaged. Work couldn’t enter my head if it tried.

But Brian – proving the ‘broken clock’ adage – was right for once. Being really ill for a few days is a superb way to detox your body and your life.

The last time it happened to me was six years ago. I couldn’t do anything. The ominous shivering: the slow crawl into bed. Extra blanket. Dressing gown on top of you. Nothing works. And you all know the rest…

When I emerged back into the world I was washed out. Body emptied: mind emptied. I’d drunk nothing but water for five days: I was totally detoxified. But I was also more focused: much more clear about what I needed to do – and completely astonished at the mental clutter I’d allowed to accumulate before I was ill.

The first thing I did was tidy my office: then I abandoned my notebook/planner/to-do list and started a new one. I was acutely conscious that I didn’t want to drift back, to let the same clutter build up again.

Ultimately those five days I spent shaking and sweating turned out to be five of the most productive days I had that year.

So if it’s your turn this year, see being ill as a positive experience – at least in the long term. It can refresh your brain, detox your body and help you break bad habits.

And as the font of all wisdom pointed out, look at the money you saved by not going to Switzerland

Lessons I Learned from my First Job


That’s that then. Whit’s over, the kids are safely back at school.

For a few weeks. And then the long summer holiday stretches in front of us.

Maybe it’s time to send your offspring out to work…

Dan, my eldest son, has just turned 14: I’ve been thinking about his first job for a while – ever since I was at York races in May.

I always like going to the races – especially in May. And yes, I know real men go to Wetherby in February, but May meetings hold a special place in my heart.

They remind me of my first job. That was at Chester races – and the Roodee is synonymous with May.

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Aged 18 I was a bar porter. Nattily dressed in a green boiler suit my job description was simple: skivvy for anyone and everyone. The general perception was that I wouldn’t be up to it – “talks too posh” was one of the politer comments – but I must have shown some promise as I was ‘promoted’ to the Grand National meeting the following year. And it was a great first job: it taught me about real life, it taught me that you’ll sometimes need to prove people wrong – and gave an early boost to my cash flow. Being there first thing in the morning and hearing all the gossip from the stable lads was invaluable!

So what, I wondered, did other members of TAB York learn from their first job?

Here’s Suzanne Burnett of Castle Employment, someone else who learned valuable lessons in the catering industry:

My first job – aged 15 – was at the Tramway Café in Scarborough. I helped to make the food and clear the tables. It was my first time working with older people who weren’t teachers, relatives or friends of my parents. And it taught me I could make friends with people outside my own age bracket and from different backgrounds. I also learned that not everyone has the same work – or life – ethic. I learned that customers aren’t always right but they’re still customers – and I learned that money gives you independence and freedom. I also learned that I was strong-willed and didn’t necessarily like to conform: I wonder if that was the start of my entrepreneurial spirit…

But not everyone had their first taste of the workplace serving up a full English…

Richard Shaw of Ellis Patents had just turned down a place at Nottingham University:

I had no idea what to do. Eventually my father insisted I did something productive and I went to work in the flattening press department of our family business. It was a dirty, noisy and dangerous place to work – and I remember buying a new pair of overalls every fortnight! I was there for a year and it changed my life. The works manager saw my aptitude for engineering and – despite my initial protests – I ended up on an engineering course at Leeds Poly. The main thing I learned about was stress. At the beginning of each month I was given a ‘panic list:’ orders that simply had to be out by the last Friday. And in the last week of the month I was given the ‘panic, panic list.’ I learned – and I’ve never forgotten – that controlling the workflow is crucial to the success of any business.

Finally, we’re ‘back of house’ again. Chris Wilson of Tailor Made Sales started his working life in a Beefeater Steak House.

It gave me a ‘taste’ for the hospitality industry, seeing the stresses of a busy Saturday night service. I was washing up: being prepared for the onslaught of dirty crockery was an important lesson. Above all, it taught me how quickly your own service can impact on how others will treat you. Make a cracking cup of tea for the chef and you got pans that weren’t burned and even the odd well-cooked sirloin. Include the waitresses in your brew-up and they’d scrape the plates clean before they got to me – and maybe even give me a share of their tips.

Three different people, three different jobs – but in many ways, very similar lessons. Being prepared, seeing things from other people’s perspective, working with a team and – as Suzanne suggests – the beginning of that feeling we all know. I want to be the one in control…

Don’t discourage your children when they come to you and say they want a part-time job. Don’t worry that it’ll impact adversely on their school work. It’s part of them growing up and it’s part of you letting go. And it may just be a key part of their eventual success…

Tim Ferris and Tony Soprano


Most people reading this blog will have heard of Tim Ferris. Best-selling author of the 4 Hour Work Week, The 4 Hour Chef and The 4 Hour Body. Angel investor in and/or adviser to a host of companies including Facebook, Uber, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Evernote and others…

Ferris has been described by New Yorker Magazine as ‘this generation’s self-help guru’ and as ‘today’s equivalent of Napoleon Hill.’ (Remember him? The author of the first self-help book any of us ever read.)

But Ferris is also accused of manipulating his 5* reviews on Amazon, he’s Wired Magazine’s ‘Greatest Self-Promoter of All Time’ and The 4 Hour Work Week has been described by one reviewer as “A disquieting insight into the world of the 21st Century snake-oil salesman.”

But whatever your view on Tim Ferris, one thing is undeniable. He is hugely quotable. Like anyone who’s quoted extensively, there are plenty of clichés in the collection – but there are also some seriously valid points.

I’ve picked out four (an appropriate number!) which both underline the perennial themes running through this blog, and which are highly relevant as we finally get Christmas out of our systems and focus on our goals for 2016.

Here’s the first one:

For all the most important things, the timing always sucks. The stars will never align and the traffic lights will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.

How many times have I written that – or words to that effect? There’s never a perfect time to get married, have children, quit your job or start your own business. Neither is there a perfect time to expand your business or – ultimately – sell your business. As Ferris says, ‘Just do it and correct course along the way.’

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He’s backed up by that other great business guru of our age – Tony Soprano. “A wrong decision is better than indecision.” Spot on, boss. A wrong decision can be acted upon and corrected. But as Ferris says, indecision takes you and your dreams to your grave.

What we fear most is usually what we most need to do.

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he’s willing to have.

OK, I’ve cheated slightly by treating these two as one quote: I’ve allowed myself some leeway as they’re so similar.

How many times have you come into the office, looked at your to-do list and seen one job screaming at you? One job that’s metaphorically in 72pt font bold? That’s the job you absolutely need to do – and yes, it may very well involve an uncomfortable conversation.

What’s your to-do list look like two hours later? Fantastic. Loads of jobs crossed out. Except for the one in 72pt bold – the one that would really make a difference to your day/week/month/year. And what was Mr Soprano reading last time I re-watched an old episode? Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.

I often think back to my ‘first big sale.’ “Yes you can, Ed,” my sales manager said to me. ‘No, I can’t,’ I thought. This was a serious client: I’d only been in the job six months. It would be a two hour grilling. Complex, technical questions that I’d struggle to answer.

You know what happened. My competitors were no better than I was. He asked less difficult questions than almost any other client I’d met. I was in and out in no time. “Will you deliver?” “Yes.” “Will you look after me?” “Yes.” We shook hands.

‘Bigger’ never means more difficult or more complex or ‘you’re not worthy.’ It just means ‘bigger.’

Remember – boredom is the enemy, not some abstract ‘failure.’

Over the years I’ve seen so many people running businesses make mistakes because they were bored. Tim Ferris is absolutely right: boredom is the enemy. Now, more than ever, you can’t stand still in business. As the world swirls around you your business has to change and move forward – and you need to be constantly challenged. Beware the temptation to stand still; to think, ‘we’re in a good place, let’s consolidate.’ Boredom will inevitably follow – as will mistakes, both personal and professional.

Fortunately, there’s an antidote. I refer, of course, to your colleagues round the TAB boardroom table. A group of people that will most certainly challenge you, and who’ll give you courage – to do what you fear most, and to go through a few lights that may not be green.

The Long and Winding Road


Monday night, and I’m watching the Channel 4 news. There’s a story about small music venues closing all over the UK. But I’m only half paying attention, if that.

The reporter mentions the Cockpit in Leeds, a venue that’s hosted any number of famous bands and artists – White Stripes, Kaiser Chiefs, Amy Winehouse among many. We’re closer to home: I pay slightly more attention.

And then along comes James Bay, bemoaning the fact that artists today simply aren’t playing enough hours of live music. “After all,” he says, “The Beatles played 10,000 hours in Hamburg.”

10000-hours

At which point my ears really prick up.

Did the Beatles really play 10,000 hours in Hamburg? If you’re on stage for 50 hours a week, that would take four years – and according to Wiki, they were only in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962.

But it doesn’t matter – because the 10,000 hours myth has received another boost. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell put forward the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Matthew Syed gave it extra weight in Bounce.

And now, 10,000 hours is accepted corporate wisdom.

Exactly as the Mehrabian Myth once was. Do you remember that? Sitting in a room while some genius at the front told you that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Thirty seconds of thought by an intelligent eight year old would tell you that it can’t possibly be true, but millions of men in suits have lapped it up, very often paying good money to do so. Anyway, here’s 3:30 of YouTube which busts the Mehrabian Myth once and for all and let’s never hear from it again…

…Because now we have the perceived wisdom of 10,000 hours.

Yes, if you do something for 10,000 hours you’ll obviously become very competent. Will you master it, become world class? Almost certainly not.

Consider golf. I remember reading a story about Greg Norman. I’ll paraphrase the quote, but it went along these lines: I’d practice every day. Six or seven hundred balls a day. I’d practice until my hands were bleeding and I couldn’t hold the club any more.

Now I occasionally go to the driving range – and about 100 balls is my limit. But even if I did hit ‘six or seven hundred balls,’ even if I did put it in 10,000 hours, would I master golf? Could I turn pro or – sadly in not that many years – play on the Seniors’ Tour? No, because I don’t have the X-Factor. The show may be going downhill but the name is exactly right: it’s the X-Factor, not 10,000 hours of practice, which sets a world-class performer apart.

The X-Factor is the dedication, the drive, and the sheer bloody-minded will to win. That’s what makes someone practice for 10,000 hours. It isn’t the practice that sets Greg Norman and me apart, it’s the will to win – and a fair sprinkling of natural talent.

I haven’t played golf for 10,000 hours – not yet, anyway – so let’s turn to three things I most certainly have done for 10,000 hours: been a husband, been a parent and been the owner of TAB York.

Have I mastered any of them? No. I’m competent, sometimes I think I might even be quite good, but have I mastered them? No, absolutely not.

A family and a relationship are constantly evolving and changing. You master one level as a parent, your children immediately move on to the next level.

Business is just the same. New clients bring new challenges. Existing clients – and their businesses – develop and change. Different goals emerge, plans and personal circumstances change, different challenges come to the fore.

And yes, the will to win is important in business, but so is the will to go on learning. As Stephen Covey put it, to constantly Sharpen the Saw. That, of course, is where TAB comes in: where the experience and wisdom of your fellow Board members can make such a big difference. After all, there are far, far more than 10,000 hours round that boardroom table

Bad Habits, Bad Decisions


I read a great article in the Harvard Business Review recently: 9 Habits that Lead to Terrible Business Decisions. If you haven’t time to read the article in full, here we go with a whistle stop tour of nine deadly sins that I’m absolutely certain no member of TAB York ever makes…

  1. Laziness – a failure to check facts and gather new information: relying on past experience and – as the financial services industry might say – expecting past performance to be a guarantee of the future
  2. Failing to anticipate the unexpected – as I wrote last week, ‘don’t think it can’t happen because it can.’ And these days it increasingly is happening. You may have had a great idea, it may excite you beyond measure – but you still need to ask yourself, ‘what if…’
  3. Indecisiveness – with your colleagues round the TAB table behind you I hope this never happens, but sometimes the best decision is simply to make a decision
  4. Staying locked in the past – “we’ve always done it this way.” “Better the devil you know.” As you know I’m very fond of [slightly] misquoting Robert Kennedy: “see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’’’
  5. No strategic alignment – no decision can be taken in isolation: it has to fit in with your long term goals. I’ll come back to this one, as it is so important.
  6. Over-dependence – no decision can be taken because X is waiting for Y who’s not sure because he’s waiting for Z. Just remember, the leader’s job is to lead, and sometimes that means not waiting for everyone
  7. Failure to communicate – entire forests have been wiped out by the amount of books, papers and essays written about the importance of communication. And yet still people don’t do it.
  8. Isolation – this may seem like it’s the opposite of over-dependence, but sometimes you do need to consult. You just need to get on and do it quickly.
  9. Finally, lack of technical knowledge. I couldn’t agree more: today the person with the right technical knowledge may be a 23 year old coder who’s been with you for six months. Knowledge is no longer the preserve of the boardroom and good leaders know there are times when they simply have to get out there and learn.

Let me go back to a couple of those points – no strategic alignment and failure to communicate. No major business decision should stand alone: every decision has to be part of your long term strategy – and move you towards accomplishing your long term goals. Everything should flow backwards: this is where we want to be in five years’ time. Fine, these are the decisions we need to take now to help us get there. And if the decision you’ve just taken isn’t helping you get there, you almost certainly need to re-consider it.

And as we’ve discussed many times on this blog, communication is the key to all things – not least because that 23 year old coding genius may well spot a flaw in your decision. You’ve got to take the team with you and, increasingly, you need feedback and expertise from the whole of your team – but they can’t do that if they don’t know what you’re doing or what you’ve decided.

I was talking to one of my Board members yesterday. He made the point very forcefully that some of the best ideas in his company come from the youngest and newest members of the team. Sadly, many businesses still have a ‘serve your time and then we’ll listen to you’ culture. Make sure yours isn’t one of them, because ‘years spent’ no longer equals the ideas, knowledge and insight you need in a changing world.

As the old saying goes, ‘the best meetings are held at round tables.’ Everyone’s opinion matters; everyone’s ideas are worth listening to.