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…

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…’

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.

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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?

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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.

What can we Learn from Loyalty Cards?


Open your wallet.

Go ahead. Open your wallet. Or your purse. I’m conducting an experiment.

I am prepared to wager that in there – along with the photograph of your children and the credit cards – are two or three loyalty cards. I don’t mean your Tesco Clubcard – I mean the ones that are stamped. The loyalty cards from coffee shops, bakeries and your enterprising local burger restaurant.

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…And I’m prepared to make a second wager: that all those loyalty cards – that need eight or ten stamps before you get your free bagel or burger – have just one or two stamps on them. That you thought, ‘hey, that’s a good idea, I’ll do that’ and then quickly lost interest.

You’re not alone: that’s archetypal human behaviour – but according to an article in the Harvard Business Review it’s behaviour that may offer business owners and managers an insight into how to improve results from their teams.

Interestingly, it flies in the face of most current business thinking, especially when it comes to setting and achieving goals.

The modern trend is towards flexible working. As I wrote recently, the evidence suggests that teams allowed to work flexibly are both happier and more productive. And unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people have a preference for flexibility when it comes to goals. As the HBR puts it, ‘Adopting a somewhat elastic approach to setting goals allows us some future wiggle room.’

But it you want to achieve a major goal, then the article suggests you’re much more likely to do so with a rigid and restrictive structure for the necessary steps.

And this is where loyalty cards – and yoghurt – come in.

Professor Szu-chi Huang and her colleagues in the marketing department at Stanford University conducted research on the effectiveness of loyalty cards at a local yoghurt shop. It was the standard offer: a free yoghurt after six purchases.

There were two separate offers – the ‘flexible’ one, where customers were free to buy any yoghurts they liked, and a far more restrictive one, where customers had to purchase specific yoghurts in a specific order.

Unsurprisingly, there was far more take-up of the ‘flexible’ offer. Rather more surprisingly, those customers opting for the restrictive offer were nearly twice as likely to complete six purchases and get the free yoghurt. (And before you think it’s just one yoghurt shop near Stanford University, YesMyWine, the largest imported wine platform in the world, has reported similar results with special offers.)

The academics at Stanford suggested that the result was because customers responded to not having to make a decision: that in our ‘information-overload, decision-fatigued’ society people will appreciate something that gives them the chance to make fewer decisions. They go on from that to draw a conclusion for business: that once a goal has been decided on, managers should be rigid in the steps needed to accomplish it – in effect, take any decisions away from the team.

I’m not so sure. First of all I’d argue that people who sign up for a ‘restrictive’ offer are more committed in the first place and therefore more likely to ‘see it through.’ Secondly, my experience of managing large teams suggests that the real answer is “it depends.”

Specifically, it depends on the experience and capabilities of your senior team. If you’re looking to achieve significant change and/or achieve a major goal then, yes, there needs to be a detailed, step-by-step approach with a list of actions and a series of deadlines.

But if you have a ‘details guy’ in the team, my advice is delegate it to the details guy: it’s almost always better to ‘trust and delegate.’ But if you don’t have a details guy, then the actions and deadlines become your job: what’s absolutely certain is that they cannot be left to chance.

So there I am, disagreeing with learned academics at the world’s third-ranked university. I’d be fascinated to hear your views on this: and yes, let’s discuss it over a coffee. I can’t miss a chance to double my number of stamps…

Work/Life Balance: It’s Not Just You…


Let me introduce Helena Morrissey, non-executive chair of Newton Investment Managers and campaigner for greater gender diversity in the boardroom. Oh, and mother of nine children…

Someone sent me the link. ‘What does this say about work/life balance, Ed?’ she wittily added.

I won’t tell you what I thought. Nine children and a city career? Despite the fact that husband Richard is a full-time, stay-at-home Dad, Helena Morrissey still describes herself as “chief laundry lady, story-reader, times-table-tester, cake-maker, present-buyer, holiday and party organiser.”

That’s an impressive list by anyone’s standards – although I’m obviously disappointed to see she’s not coaching rugby as well…

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Work/life balance – the underlying and perennial theme of this blog – was much in the news over the festive period and, with due deference to Ms Morrissey, the stories largely focused on men. In particular the BBC featured this article – with nearly half of working fathers saying they’d like a less stressful job if it meant more time caring for their children. Even more significantly, a third of working fathers would be prepared to take a pay cut in return for more time with their children.

We’re entrepreneurs: we choose to do what we do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful and – as I wrote last week – the problems and uncertainties the entrepreneur faces every day would overwhelm the vast majority of managers.

Why do we do what we do? I’d say that for most of us there are two principal reasons:

  • Providing the very best we can for our families
  • And providing for our own drive and ego: we have to do what we know we’re capable of doing: we don’t ever want to look back and think ‘if only’

But balancing those two aims is one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever do. ‘Providing the very best’ doesn’t just mean material things, it also means time. Quality time doesn’t have to mean the zoo, the swimming pool or a football match: one of the most important lessons I ever learned was that to a small child quality time with Dad is just time with Dad.

“I missed my children growing up” is one of the saddest sentences in the English language and it’s one that too many men are still saying. It’s emphatically not something I ever want to hear around a TAB table.

But as employers, ‘work/life balance’ runs deeper for us. Because we have a duty not only to ourselves, but to members of our team as well. Running your own business brings tremendous pressures – but it also brings control over your own diary. When you’re employed and your boss says, “You need to be in Aberdeen next Thursday,” then you’ll be in Aberdeen, whether it’s sports day or the nativity play. If you run the company, you do at least have the option of thinking, ‘When do I want to be in Aberdeen?’

Not everyone wants to start their own business: but everyone wants to spend time with the children. Entrepreneurs need to be aware of that – and realise that their businesses will benefit as result.

There are now any number of studies showing the benefits of flexible working, for both the employer and the employee: put simply, people who work flexibly are happier and more productive. As technology advances – ‘Alexa, run through the cash flow figures will you?’ – flexible and remote working is going to be on a par with working in the office. Embrace it. Recent results from a Vodafone survey – with 8,000 global employers – saw 83% of respondents say that flexible working had boosted productivity, with SMEs the main beneficiaries.

As businesses fight to recruit and retain key staff, flexible working is going to become as important as someone’s pay packet – and it offers everyone running a business a tremendous opportunity. You can help your team with their work/life balance, improve the quality of their life – and boost your bottom line at the same time.

The Monday Morning Quarterback


It’s just about the perfect description. Instantly, we all know what it means…

So the wide receiver’s wide open. 20 yard throw straight into the end zone. Hell, even my six year old can do that. What’s he do? Tries to run it himself. Gets sacked. Turnover. And it’s game over. Season over. See you in September.

There isn’t an equivalent phrase in the UK, but no office is short of an expert round the watercooler on a Monday morning.

Seriously, he thinks X is a centre back? He needs to buy Y. And no wonder Z didn’t try an inch. My mate’s brother says he’s been tapped up by City.

Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, no sports fan gets a decision wrong on a Monday morning. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and it guarantees you a 100% success rate.

Sadly, the entrepreneur doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight: he has to make decisions every day – and he’ll get plenty of them wrong. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review put it, ‘The problems entrepreneurs confront every day would overwhelm most managers.’

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…And – just like the QB on a Sunday night – entrepreneurs get plenty of decisions wrong. Any entrepreneur who gets 50% of his decisions right first time is doing remarkably well. Fortunately, TAB members can improve on those numbers. They can bring their problems to the monthly board meetings – and rely on the collective wisdom, experience and insight of their colleagues: the Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday quarterbacks. Once a problem – or an idea – has been run past seven people instead of one, the chances of a correct decision increase exponentially.

But I’m aware that not everyone who reads this blog is a member of TAB York: plenty of readers are just starting their journey as an entrepreneur. So here are three of the most common problems, proposed solutions and – ultimately – mistakes that I’ve seen in my business life. I hope they help – and don’t worry if you tick all three boxes: every successful entrepreneur has done exactly the same.

  • No-one else cares like I care. The only answer is to do it myself

That’s true. It’s your business: no-one will ever care like you care. But you cannot do everything yourself. That way lies fatigue, burn-out and your wife telling you that she needs to talk… Embrace the division of labour: we live in an age where everything can be outsourced online. Your job is to manage the business: let someone else do the tedious stuff that takes away your creativity and your productivity.

  • There’s no more money in the budget. The only solution is to throw more hours at it

Let me refer you to one of my favourite books, Rework, and page 83: ‘throw less at the problem.’ As the authors say, the solution is not more hours, people or money. The solution is almost always to cut back. You cannot do everything and, as I wrote last week, success comes from a focus on your core business – not on trying to please all the people all the time. Besides, more hours simply means a second, more serious, talk with your wife…

  • Fire people: hire people

When you’re starting out you’ll be a small team: that breeds closeness – and loyalty. But not everyone who starts the journey with you is capable of finishing it. Sadly, at some stage you’ll learn just how lonely it can be as an entrepreneur: one day, you’ll accept that Bill’s just not up to it any more. You have to act: if you don’t, you’ll cause resentment among the rest of Bill’s team – and risk losing people who are up to it. And when you hire Bill’s replacement, don’t be afraid to hire someone smarter than you. See above, your job is to manage and lead the company, not to be the expert on every single aspect of it.

 

When I write this weekly post I sometimes ‘let it go cold’ for an hour and then give it a final read through. That’s what I did this week and I need to correct myself. The three mistakes above are mistakes we can make at every stage of our business journey – not just when we’re starting out.

It’s all too easy to slip back into bad habits, to think ‘it’s easier to do it myself’ or ‘If I work through the night I’ll have cracked it.’ We’ve all done it. But at least you won’t make the mistakes for long: those quarterbacks round the TAB table will be watching you…

Time to Dump the Hairdryer?


Anyone who’s ever watched a game of football will have heard of ‘the hairdryer’ – the phrase coined by Mark Hughes to describe the dressing room rages of former Manchester United manger, Sir Alex Ferguson.

As Wayne Rooney said in his book, ‘My Decade,’ There’s nothing worse than getting the hairdryer. The manager stands in the middle of the room and loses it at me. He gets right up in my face and shouts. It feels like I’ve put my head in front of a BaByliss Turbo Power 2200 … It’s hard for me to take and sometime I shout back. I tell him he’s wrong and I’m right.

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Well, let me have a pound on who won that particular argument – but top marks to Wazza for getting the product endorsement in there…

So why am I writing about football in England when I’m still out here in Denver? Especially when the Broncos have started their pre-season games and anyone with any sense is at Sports Authority Field

Simply because a day old copy of the Times reached me, that’s why. And once I’d read about Newcastle’s latest victory and inevitable return to the top flight (being in the USA breeds confidence…) I turned my attention to an article by Matthew Syed.

I’ve written previously about Syed’s book Bounce – the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. I didn’t agree with the central thesis of that book, so as I started to read his article in the Times I was getting ready to take the opposite view again.

But I think he was spot-on: and I think there are valuable business lessons in what he had to say.

The title of Syed’s article was, ‘Why a manager’s touchline rantings could be doing more harm than good.’ He’s writing about conventional wisdom and yes, the accepted wisdom is that football managers have to rant – and get the hairdryer out. ‘What’s he doing? We’re two down and he’s just sitting in his seat!’ ‘Well, whatever he said at half-time has certainly worked. They’re a different team in this half…’

But all the evidence shows that ranting from the sidelines doesn’t work. Syed cites children’s sport – where the coach often barks a stream of instructions, ‘despite the empirical finding that this undermines the ability of [the] children to think for themselves and slows learning.’

According to Syed, the conventional wisdom in football is almost all wrong – and he contrasts it with Formula One, a sport which – in the words of Paddy Lowe, Mercedes technical director – there is no conventional wisdom and “standing still is tantamount to extinction.”

Like football, business is riddled with conventional thinking and accepted practices. Why are we doing it this way? Because we’ve always done it this way.

I’ve been so busy in Denver that I’ve had to push my ‘key things I’ve learned’ post back to next week. But there’s been one theme running through every conversation I’ve had and every presentation I’ve attended: with the business world constantly changing, ‘because we’ve always done it this way’ is just about the most dangerous belief there is.

Out here in Denver you can almost feel the ‘wind of change’ blowing from Silicon Valley. The Denver/Boulder region has even been talked of as the next Silicon Valley. There’s a palpable start-up buzz in the air and no business will be able to rely on ‘we’ve always done it this way.’

Matthew Syed ends his article with a compelling phrase; ‘It is innovation, not convention, that holds the key to success.’

He’s absolutely right. ‘If you always do what you’ve always done…’ is more true than it’s ever been. And now it appears that the result will be the same if you always do what everyone else has done as well.

Two words are on everyone’s lips in Denver: ‘Why not?’

Why can’t it be done a different way, a better way?

Whether it’s sport or business the old beliefs and the accepted wisdom are being challenged and rejected. So don’t be afraid to ask yourself ‘why not’ over the coming months – and expect the phrase to echo round the TAB York boardroom tables.

Why is Starbucks so Successful?


Last week the blog made a simple claim – you don’t need to be outstanding to be successful – and I used the Howard Schultz/Starbucks story for much of the background.

So is Starbucks outstanding? If you use coffee as your yardstick, then the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ I doubt that more than five people reading this blog would name Starbucks as their favourite place to grab a coffee. Give me thirty seconds and I can list half a dozen places where the coffee/cake/ambience/service – or all four – are better.

But those half dozen places are all one-offs. They’re successful – but on a small scale. There are not 23,043 of them around the world, up from 21,366 last year and 19,767 in 2014. In 2015 842 of those Starbucks outlets were in the UK, split more or less evenly between company-operated and licenced stores. Revenue and profits continue to grow strongly.

By any standards, that’s a success story. If ever there was a company that knew where it was going and paid attention to its KPIs, it’s Starbucks. Remember, we’re not taking about apps, iPhones or technology here: we’re talking about cups of coffee.

But why is Starbucks so successful? Ask Google and the search engine returns 12.4m results, so I’m not the first person to wonder.

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…And there are plenty of articles as well, many of them extolling exemplary qualities. Start small, expand carefully. Leadership, be efficient, training… But those are simply good management in any business. Based on my own career – hundreds of meetings in hundreds of coffee shops – here are three Starbucks qualities that really stand out for me.

Remorseless attention to detail. Howard Schultz is famous for this – and if you want to read a case-study in getting the little things right, read this book by journalist Taylor Clark. Let me pick up on just one example: the tables are round. Why?

So that if you’re on your own, you don’t feel awkward. Someone has to arrive first for the meeting – and even a 1:1 needs a table for four. But sitting at a rectangular table with three empty chairs feels downright awkward. You can’t put your finger on why you didn’t have the meeting in the other coffee shop; Starbucks just felt more comfortable.

This attention to detail extends to the pictures, the length of the counter, the height of the window seats. If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then there’s a lot of genius in the layout of a Starbucks.

Secondly, consider the cups: short, tall, grande, venti and trenta. Starbucks doesn’t do regular, it doesn’t do medium. Supposedly three out of the five cup sizes are in a foreign language to cater to the ‘collegiate’ needs of Starbucks’ clientele. Howard Shultz wanted to foster a feeling of belonging, of exclusivity. He wanted Starbucks to be an experience, in the same way that Disney was an experience.

Lastly, Starbucks innovates. Use of first names when you’re ordering your coffee; among the first to adopt mobile payments and Starbucks has worked with PayPal to create its own mobile payment app.

So small wonder that there are more than 23,000 outlets around the world: the coffee may not be better in Starbucks, but the relentless attention to detail, appreciation of their customers and willingness to innovate has produced one of the world’s best known and most valuable brands, with a market capitalisation of $85bn.

If it works for Starbucks, it can work for you: damn it, all they do is sell coffee and cake…

Does Brexit Really Matter?


Friday June 24th – and today is potentially the most important day in the six years I’ve been writing this blog.

As you read this, you’ll know whether we’ve voted to remain in the EU, or whether ‘Leave’ has won the day.

I’m writing these notes on Wednesday: I hope – and I have to believe – that common sense and a vision of the UK really playing its part in the wider world will have prevailed. I hope we’ve voted Remain by a significant margin – enough to settle the issue not just for a generation, but for several generations to come.

So now let’s talk about Chinese Corporate Debt…

If you’ve given up on your football team and started supporting the International Monetary Fund instead, you’ll know that its First XI were recently playing away in China. And after a fortnight of meetings with Chinese bankers and high-ranking Communist Party officials they came away issuing stark warnings.

The source of their displeasure was Chinese debt.

You may at this point say ‘what debt?’ And on the face of it, you’d have a point. After all, China regularly generates a trade surplus of $40-50bn every month. The economy may be slowing down – but growth of 6.7% in the last quarter is something George Osborne can only fantasise about.

But the IMF believe much of this growth has been built on unsustainable levels of corporate debt – especially among State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s). These organisations produce only 22% of China’s output but account for 55% of its corporate debt – which in total, is equal to one and a half times GDP.

Why am I making this point on the morning of the Referendum result?

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For this reason. The IMF believe that the current level of Chinese corporate debt is unsustainable. If they’re right – and if the chicken comes home to roost – then there’ll be significant sectors of the Chinese economy unable to fulfil orders, unable to pay their suppliers and unable to service their loans.

Cue problems for the banks, cue problems for the rest of the Chinese economy – and therefore, cue problems for the wider world economy. And possibly, for your business as well…

So you may or may not be celebrating this morning. The question I’m asking is, ‘Will the victory for Leave or Remain be a key factor in the success of your business?’

I’d suggest the answer will be ‘no.’ I’d suggest that over the next five years other events in the political and economic arena will be at least as influential as what happens today.

Political and economic events may shape the landscape – but it’s how you react to them, how you navigate the landscape that makes the difference. As business owners we’re the masters of our destiny. The four horsemen of the PEST analysis – Politics, Economics, Social and Technological change – may make the waters choppy, but the most important factor will always be how we sail the ship.

I appreciate that the last few weeks have been difficult for many TAB York members: like stock markets, businesses need certainty and “I’m sorry about your cash flow but I can’t make a decision at the moment” has been heard all too often in the past few weeks and months.

This morning – for good or ill – we know where we stand. From now on it’s the quality of the decisions we make about our lives and our businesses that will determine our success – however we choose to define that success. But – and as always, this is a big ‘but’ – the one thing we can be sure of in the future is change. If the champagne corks are popping at Leave HQ, the British political landscape won’t be quite the same again. Then there’s Trump vs. Clinton, the continuing threat of terrorism – and the Chinese corporate debt…

What can we be certain of? That whatever difficult decisions you have to make in business, TAB York will be there to help. That seven brains are better than one: that the collective wisdom of your colleagues will help you make better decisions – and, when it’s needed, keep a sense of perspective.

So if you’re depressed by the result of the Referendum, take heart. If you’ve backed the winning side, remember it doesn’t automatically guarantee the success of your business. That will always be down to you, to the decisions you make, and the support team you build around you.