Basic Business Advice: Don’t Buy a Turtle

Footballers, eh? What a load of simpletons. Put their left boot on first. Left shin pad. One of them is always pulling his shirt over his head as they come out of the tunnel. Was it Paolo di Canio who insisted on wearing his underpants inside out? And Raymond Domenech, the former manager of France, who reputedly refused to select players if their stars weren’t aligned correctly…

Superstitious nonsense. Forget it. Roll your sleeves up, give Hazard a kicking early doors and get stuck in.

Not that cricketers are any better. Left pad, left glove, lucky numbers on their shirts, kiss the badge, lift one foot off the ground when the score is 111… And then there’s Neil McKenzie of Hampshire. He once scored a century after a teammate taped his bat to the ceiling. Guess what he does now before every innings? Oh, and he won’t go out to bat until he’s put down all the toilet seats in the dressing room.

Well thank goodness we’re businessmen. Thank goodness we’re logical, in control, focused on our KPIs, ROI and P&L. What you can measure you can manage. And you certainly can’t manage if some damn fool has stuck a cricket bat to the ceiling.

No sir. Superstition has no place in business.

Or does it?

After all, today is Friday 13th. That must have given all you paraskevidekatriaphobics pause for thought. Careful you didn’t spill the salt. No black cats in front of the car. And don’t forget to salute that magpie.

Can’t do any harm.

Besides, who are the most superstitious people on earth? The Chinese.

And whose economy has marched resolutely ahead for the last twenty years and will soon be the biggest in the world? Precisely.

So lesson number one – remember your feng shui: even Disney used it when they opened Disneyland Hong Kong in 2005. After consulting a feng shui expert, the angle of the front gate was altered by 12 degree – and a bend went into the walkway from the station to the front gate, so the positive chi didn’t shoot straight past the entrance and into the China Sea.

So that’s settled – your desk should be facing as much of the room as possible, with your back against a wall. Number two – plants in the office, to make sure there is positive energy to improve both personal and business growth. And above all, water: I’m away on holiday next week – I’m expecting a shortage of goldfish in North Yorkshire when I get back.

Not that it stops there. In China the number 4 is unlucky; the number 8 is considered very lucky – and no-one who’s serious about their business keeps a turtle as a pet. Obviously it slows you down, and it slows your business down.

Why are we superstitious? Especially in business, where logic, analysis and good management should hold sway. Psychologists will tell us that any form of superstition – or habitual behaviour – gives us a feeling of control and/or confidence. Which of us hasn’t got up in the morning and thought, ‘Important meeting today. Time for my lucky tie.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that: anything that makes you feel more confident has to be good: after all, if you think you can, you very probably will.

And maybe you can turn superstition to your advantage: maybe Friday 13th gives us the chance to think about our marketing in a different way. A few years ago Icelandair ran a promotion allowing customers to add an excursion for $7 – providing the whole trip was booked by 7/7/07. Back in China, packs of 8 tennis balls sell for more than the same tennis balls in packs of ten. And there’s always reverse psychology: five of the eleven Friday the 13th movies – a seriously successful franchise – have been released on that supposedly-unlucky date.

Anyway, enough for this week. Time to go and see a potential client. Just as soon as I’ve put the toilet seat down, pulled my iPad off the ceiling and made sure neither of the boys has bought a pet turtle…

I’m away on holiday next week. Enjoy half term week if you’re taking the time off, and the blog will be back – tanned, full of après-ski and probably with a calf strain – on Friday 27th.

Should you worry about Paraskevidekatriaphobia?

Obviously you’d expect nothing less from footballers. Last one out of the dressing room. Don’t put my shirt on until I’m in the tunnel. Kiss Wazza on the head before kick-off…

And cricketers are pretty much the same. Left pad first when I’m going out to bat. Two black wristbands – and if you’re the Indian seamer Zaheer Khan, never, ever take the field without your lucky yellow handkerchief.

Sportsmen are a pathetically superstitious bunch. Showbiz is riddled with superstition as well. Find a piece of cotton on another actor and wind it round your finger. Perform Cinderella. But don’t ever quote from the Scottish play and don’t even think about having Friday as the opening night…

But what about business? What about the hard-headed, logical world of business? Surely superstition has no part to play in business? Then again, today is Friday 13th – some of you might be reading this blog in bed as it’s the only safe place to spend the day…

I’d better begin with a frankly disappointing confession. As far as superstition goes, I’m whatever comes before vanilla. I’ve don’t have a lucky shirt or lucky socks and you’ll wait a very long time to see me kiss anyone’s head before a TAB meeting.

Fortunately, the other members of my team are more exciting. Jackie freely confesses that Friday 13th is not good for her – especially today as it’s in 2013. Having avoided holding meetings on Friday 13th in her previous life she promises that will change with TAB: unless she has to walk under a ladder to get there. Meanwhile Julia will be busy saluting a single magpie and instantly searching for its mate – as well as hunting out four leaf clovers and stray pennies to pick up.

What about the wider business world? For a start, what do we make of Feng Shui? Largely dismissed in the West; an essential part of any new enterprise in the East. How can a goldfish bowl in the corner of your office make a difference to the bottom line? But how can anyone build a new factory without making sure it’s on an auspicious site and properly aligned?

In Japan they take it one stage further. While they’ve replaced the English ‘good luck’ with ‘ganbatte!’ (meaning ‘work hard’ or ‘do your best’) what do we make of a nation that frequently avoids the numbers 4 and 9 as their pronunciation is similar to ‘death’ and ‘suffering?’ Then again, there are 80 flavours of Kit Kat in Japan: ‘kitto kattsu’ means ‘you will definitely succeed’ – guaranteeing that students devour Nestle’s finest before every exam…

But superstition can have serious implications for business – apart from the alignment of your factory. In the US it’s reckoned that ‘paraskevidekatriaphobia’ (the fear of Friday 13th) pulls down sales by a billion dollars because people don’t like to buy new consumer items on that day. In India it’s considered inauspicious to make new purchases during the Shradh period (roughly two weeks at the end of September): companies are forced to offer big discounts on products like televisions, refrigerators and cars to maintain sales.

Maybe it’s not surprising that people do whatever they can to assert some notion of control – after all, business is difficult and unpredictable. We know in our heart of hearts that wearing our lucky socks can’t affect the outcome of a meeting: but if it puts someone in a better frame of mind going into the meeting that can only be a good thing.

I’m absolutely certain though that all the members of the TAB York Boards know that what really counts is hard work, not luck. ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’ as the old saying goes.

Have a good weekend – and a rest from all your hard work. I’ll be cheering on Newcastle as they play Villa. The lads have only scored one goal all season: maybe I do need lucky underpants after all…

Who Needs a Coach Anyway?

There’s an old Japanese proverb: ‘If you sit by the river long enough you will see the body of your enemy float past.’

Or to make it a little more topical, ‘If you’re the fourth-best tennis player in the world and you keep entering grand slams, sooner or later you’ll win one of them.’

Yep, two cheers for Andy Murray. What was it – attempt no. 28? Cynics would point out that if the Derby was run 28 times the fourth best horse would win at least once. If the FA Cup was played 28 times the fourth best team would do likewise. So no big deal, and the cheering crowds in Scotland should find something better to do.

But hang on a minute. Andy Murray is still relatively young – he has at least five years left at the top. He’s worked hard, constantly improved and deserves his reward. And he’ll go on to plenty more grand slam victories.

After all, you only have to look at Andy Murray’s coach to see the logic in that. Ivan Lendl, like Murray, lost four grand slam finals before he won one – and went on to win seven more.

Obviously as a business coach I’m fascinated by the role Lendl played in Murray’s success. He became coach on December 31st, 2011: nine months later, Murray won the US Open. So has Lendl made a difference – or was it coming anyway?

In many ways it’s impossible to say. Virtually all the world’s top sports men and women have coaches. But it’s not just sports stars: Barack Obama takes advice on how to speak; Leanne Benjamin (look her up, you philistine) takes advice on how to dance.

How many people in the business world have coaches? Ten percent? I suspect the figure is closer to 1%. So are the majority right? Clearly I’m biased – but there are two areas where I think a coach can make a crucial difference.

Sometimes you need a coach to protect you from yourself. Does anyone remember this speech, from 20 years ago? There was an own goal if ever there was one. Maybe a coach could have taken him to one side and said, ‘Maybe a little less of the middle-aged rock star…’

And maybe that’s one of the key points about the Alternative Board. I said last week that the phrases I most heard around the various Board tables were ‘Why?’ and ‘Why not?’ But there’s another one – less heard but just as valuable. And that’s the simple word, ‘no.’

I’ve lost count of the number of times a Board member has taken me quietly to one side and said, “Blimey, that was a narrow escape, Ed. I was all set to go ahead with that new shop/advertising campaign/member of staff until X told me I was being stupid. I would have wasted a fortune…”

Back to Andy Murray – and let me make a prediction. Murray will go on to win at least three more grand slams. Will that all be down to Ivan Lendl? No: far from it. But if Ivan Lendl gave Murray the self-belief to make that first crucial breakthrough, then he’s more than played his part.

As it is in sport, so it is in business. Your success is down to your vision, your enterprise and your hard work. But yes, you need a bit of luck along the way and sometimes we all need a helping hand. And that’s where I think a coach – and the Alternative Board – can make their second contribution. If we can give you that final push and help you turn good to great, better to best and potential to reality, then hopefully we’ll have played our part as well.

As always, I’d be fascinated to hear your views on this subject. Who’s the best coach you’ve ever seen or worked with? And what’s the one quality you value above all others in a coach? Thanks as always for your input…

Do I feel lucky?

“Well, do ya, punk?” No prizes for identifying the quote – but let me quickly turn from Clint Eastwood to Warren Buffet.

Regular readers of this blog will know of my admiration for ‘The Sage of Omaha’ – and not simply because his wealth is measured in billions. Sound business principles, consistently applied over the long term – and a distinct tendency to invest in real businesses that make things. What’s not to admire?

And yet Warren Buffet attributes most of his success to luck. Anthony Tjan, in a really interesting article in the Harvard Business Review explains:

[Warren Buffet] claims he won the “ovarian lottery” by being born at the right time in a country where his skill set allowed him to amass great wealth. Buffet asks people to imagine there is a ball representing each person on the earth. If he had been one of those balls pulled out in a different era – say millions of years ago – he’d have been pretty useless and most likely would have been eaten by a dinosaur. And if he were on a desert island the value of his skill [investing and allocating capital] goes nearly to zero.

I was having more or less the same discussion with my eldest son the other day.

“What would we have been in the middle ages, Dad? Would you have been the Lord or would you have been the serf?”

The answer is, I don’t know. The qualities you needed to be a Lord of the Manor (apart from being the previous Lord of the Manor’s son) seem to me the qualities that would best fit you for a life of crime these days. The term ‘robber baron’ all too often appears to have been exactly right.

So no. Sorry to disappoint my son but I don’t think I’d have been Lord of the Manor. Hopefully I wouldn’t have been a serf, but I’m not sure my skill set would have been right for Medieval England.

I know that’s a very simplistic argument and I’m ignoring lots of factors such as education and environment – but you get my point. I happen to think my skill set is exactly right for what I do now.

So in that sense, I might not be Warren Buffet – but do I feel lucky? Yes I do. I’m in the right place at the right time. I’ve ‘lucked out’ as they say in the States.

And I’m not alone. Because when you ask a cross section of entrepreneurs what’s been the biggest factor in their success a surprisingly high proportion attribute it to one factor above all others: luck.

But clearly, luck on its own isn’t enough. The simple truth is that all of us are in the right place at the right time at some stage in our lives. In fact, I’d say we’re in the right place at the right time two or three times. The trick is to recognise it – and above all, to take action when you do recognise it.

Tjan and his team identified three key characteristic in successful entrepreneurs who admitted to being lucky:

• They were curious about new trends and developments
• They were naturally optimistic
• And they were open to new ideas

From my experience with the Alternative Board I’d absolutely endorse those three. But nothing happens without action. You can be in the right place at the right time and recognise the trend or the opportunity. But like last week’s post said, you have to press the start button. You have to take action.

So let me ask you a question. Do you feel lucky? Has luck played a significant part in your success – and how important is ‘plain, dumb luck’ in business? Or can you now look back with 20/20 hindsight and realise that you missed a golden opportunity? You were in the right place at the right time: you just didn’t recognise it.

As always I’ll be fascinated to hear your answers…