How do you Manage a Millennial?


Two weeks ago I read a blog written by former TAB member Suzanne Burnett.

Suzanne was one of the members of TAB York, so I’ve known her a long time now, and her blog is invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

In her most recent post she’d been to the Aviva offices in York – and she’d been struck by their commitment to ‘corporate wellness.’

As Suzanne said, plenty of companies and organisations pay lip service to ‘wellness’ but Aviva had embraced it wholeheartedly, from a dedicated ‘hygge room’ to mindfulness and meditation sessions for the staff, corporate wellness champions and plentiful supplies of fresh fruit.

The question – as Suzanne rightly pointed out – is how do smaller businesses compete with that? We all want to employ the best people – but what chance do we have if they’re tempted away by Aviva’s bean bags and bananas, or the recent ‘work when you feel like working’ introduced by accountants PwC?

What’s the answer? Let me quote directly from Suzanne’s blog:

You can spend as much as you like on corporate wellness but, ultimatelyit is the culture within your company that counts. If someone feels under-appreciated, under pressure or feels that their career isn’t developing as it should – then 20 minutes in a sleep pod isn’t going to fix that.

That’s why having a clear vision for the company is so important. That’s why regular review meetings with your team really matter. That’s why agreeing targets, not imposing them, is crucial.

Those are key elements of a corporate wellness programme and they are key elements that don’t cost anything at all.

So problem solved. Or is it? Because I think the initiatives of companies like Aviva and PwC, and the absolutely spot-on response from someone who’s built a very successful business, poses an additional question for all of us.

How do you manage a millennial? Or, more to the point, a team of millennials?

Because who are those bean bags and platters of fresh fruit for? And who is going to make up 75% of the global workforce by the middle of the next decade?

The millennial generation: those people who came of age around the turn of the century.

As we all know by now, millennials want different things to their parents’ 9-to-5, don’t-change-jobs-too-often generation. They want flexibility, they want to feel that they are making a difference, they want to work for a company that ‘shares their values.’

But is that possible? Especially for a small business? How long can the owner of an SME go on supplying the latest ‘wellness’ initiative and giving yet more time off for mindfulness and meditation (to say nothing of the nativity play) before he asks a simple question. What is more important: the bean bag or the bottom line?

The ‘Millennial Question’

If you have 20 minutes, watch this excellent video featuring management thinker Simon Sinek, in which he discusses what he terms “the millennial question.”

Teenage Girl using a phone

If you haven’t, let me summarise the argument for you.

Millennials are tough to manage. They’re said to be lazy, unfocused, self-centred and only care about themselves. Yes, they want the company they work for to ‘make a difference’ but they have no idea what ‘make a difference’ actually means. They want free food and bean bags – but even when all that is provided they’re still not happy.

Sinek blames a combination of factors – including the parenting and education of a generation brought up to believe that they were ‘unique’ and ‘special’ and deserved a medal for simply taking part.

Well, if there is one thing the corporate world teaches you – quickly and sometimes harshly – is that you are not unique and there are absolutely no prizes for simply taking part or turning up.

Unsurprisingly, there is something of a backlash against millennials in some quarters. Managers don’t want to be surrogate parents, they’re fed up with an ‘anti-work’ attitude and they don’t see their employees’ happiness as their responsibility.

Which would be fine, were it not for the demographics.

Millennials are going to make up 75% of the workforce: there is nothing we can do to alter that fact. No-one reading this blog runs Google or Apple. But we are competing with them for talent and – if you’re in it for the long term – you’ll be competing with them for talented millennials in eight or ten years from now. So anyone looking to build a successful business in that time will have to recruit, manage and motivate his millennial workforce.

How are you going to do this?

First and foremost I’d endorse the points Suzanne made. I’ve said it many times before but you need a clear, concise vision for your company and you need to communicate that vision effectively. And you need to show how you are making a difference – plenty of companies will address this by choosing a charity to work with in 2019. That’s one simple step you can take: the owner of the business does not need to choose the charity.

Let me make three more suggestions:

Millennials – as Sinek suggests – want approval. Right now that appears to come from social media, but it is going to be crucial at work as well. Team meetings and collective decision making will become increasingly important in building your business.

Training is important, both for the millennials and their managers. Millennials expect to ‘make a difference’ within months: they may not see the long term strategy. Managers will need to learn to deliver feedback in different ways: millennials will need to learn some long-term thinking.

And hand in hand with this goes the inevitable business focus on short term results. This is going to be incredibly difficult for managers and owners. You’ve built your business on KPIs and short term results: on identifying problems quickly and fixing them equally quickly. Ten years from now a significant proportion of your workforce will see ‘percentage of office power from renewables’ as your most important KPI.

So just go into your office, lock the door, put your password in and have a look at that ridiculously old-fashioned – but strangely, still important – cash flow forecast…

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It’s Time to take Two Steps Back…


This is the last blog post I’ll write before the Chancellor of the Exchequer – Spreadsheet Phil – stands up to deliver his Budget speech on Monday October 29th

As always there will be plenty of warm words: ‘fairness,’ ‘opportunity,’ ‘safety net’ and – if the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Conference was any indication – the beginning of the ‘end of austerity.’ No matter that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says it will cost £19bn– inevitably meaning higher taxes and higher spending.

I am a little frustrated (my entry for the Understatement of the Year Award) when it comes to the incompetence and lack of business acumen of our elected politicians. Virgin were allowed to walk away from the East Coast franchise but have just shared a £52m dividend from the West Coast franchise. Tell me, please, which ‘high flyer’ negotiated that particular arrangement. 

As the saying goes, ‘give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ But goodness me, it is difficult at the moment. 

Back to the Budget, and another word you will need on your Philip Hammond bingo card is ‘productivity.’ It was a favourite of George Osborne’s as he regularly bemoaned the UK’s poor productivity and his successor will no doubt make the same point. UK productivity – essentially, a country’s GDP divided by the total productive hours – has not improved for ten years. It is still at the levels it was before the financial crisis. 

How can that be? Compared to other countries in the G7, the UK’s productivity is poor. The ‘productivity gap’ – the amount we lag behind the other major industrialised countries – is consistently around 16% in ‘output per hour worked.’ If you measure productivity in ‘output per worker’ terms then the gap is even higher – rising to 16.6%. And where the productivity on other G7 countries has improved since the economic downturn, the UK’s has not.

That is hard to understand. The UK is home to some of the most innovative companies not just in Europe, but in the world. And virtually every business in the TAB UK family – even if they are not at the leading edge of innovation – is simply too busy to worry about any productivity gap. 

So why the problem? 

Writing in City AM, Tej Parikh, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, suggests that we should all ‘think like a small businessto solve the productivity puzzle.’ That rather than looking to do ‘the same with less’ businesses should instead look to do ‘more with the same.’ 

In many ways that goes right to the heart of what we’re trying to do with TAB UK. I have been writing this blog for a long time but one of the earliest – and now one of the most perennial – themes has been the need for business owners to work ‘on’ their business as much as they work ‘in’ their business. 

It is by no means a new idea – Michael Gerber first wrote about the e-myth in the mid-80s and my battered copy of The E-Myth Revisitedwas published in 1995 – but the principle of working on your business is as important today as it has ever been. Perhaps more important. 

Despite the fact that the world is demonstrably changing at an ever-faster pace, people remain resistant to change. It’s human nature (especially as you get older, according to my sons…) 

Right now people are also taking the labour market into account. UK unemployment has just come down by another 47,000 in the three months to August and there is a real shortage of talented people. So if a small business has some of those talented people, it is understandable that business owners are reluctant to disturb the status quo. 

But as the last post on Uber showed, sooner or later all our status quos will be disturbed. We either manage change ourselves or some outside agent takes it out of our control. 

There is, of course, a second part to the quote I used above. ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – and the courage to change the things I can.’

Change takes time and it takes work. Initially it will almost certainly feel like two steps back – and the three steps forward may seem a long way off. But now, more than ever, we need the courage to change those things we can change. Let’s see if the Chancellor has that courage a week on Monday…

Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale


Well, I’ve been through the post three times – yes, home and work. Checked my e-mails. Facebook, obviously… And it’s not arrived. Clearly an administrative oversight. Can’t get the staff I expect. So for yet another year I won’t be going to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and good in the Swiss resort of Davos.

But tempting as it is to write about it instead – to spend the next 800 words with Theresa May, Donald Trump and Elton John’s speech on ‘5 Leadership Lessons from my Darkest Hours’ the real story right now is the collapse of Carillion.

Carillion

Like all big companies, Carillion had a strap line: ‘Making tomorrow a better place.’ As everyone now knows, the company went into liquidation last Monday with debts of £1.5bn and a pension shortfall of at least £600m – so for Carillion, there is no tomorrow. For the handful of hedge fund managers who made millions out of betting against the company tomorrow may not be a better place but it will certainly be a richer place.

But for the thousands of Carillion staff, and many, many small businesses, tomorrow looks anything but a better place. I have absolute sympathy for every single member of Carillion’s staff – with the exception of the directors – but in this article I want to concentrate on the 30,000 small businesses that will be impacted by Carillion’s collapse.

Carillion was created in July 1999 by a demerger from Tarmac (which was originally founded in 1903). With the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May continuing the Blair/Brown practice of using the private sector as the supplier of services to the public sector, Carillion was effectively the Government’s ‘go-to’ contractor.

And yet there was plenty of hard – and anecdotal – evidence that the company was in deep trouble. In 2017 it issued three profit warnings: there was also plenty of gossip.

I have not previously used the comments column of the Daily Mail as a source, but two replies to a recent piece on Carillion are worth repeating:

Carillion have been shaky for ages. We were asked if we would undertake a multimillion pound project [for them] as a sub-contractor. Based on some reliable info we said no – thankfully, or their crash and non-payment would have taken us down too.

[They] have been using ‘dodgy’ business practices for years. Undercutting on quotes to the point where competitors know the figure is unsustainable. Writing that piece Mail City Editor Alex Brummer called Carillion a ‘giant Ponzi scheme…’

Effectively Carillion was using the cash flow from their latest contract to paper over the cracks – or fill the black hole, choose your metaphor – from the previous contract. Ultimately – like Mr Ponzi’s investment scheme – that was unsustainable.

Did anyone pay attention to the profit warnings and the dark mutterings? Yes, the hedge funds did. Carillion was ‘the most heavily bet-against company on the stock market’ and the hedge funds will apparently profit to the tune of £300m from the company’s collapse.

Sadly, Her Majesty’s Government did not pay any attention. Despite the profit warnings and the gossip the Government continued to award contracts to Carillion. For example, a week after the first profits warning the Department of Transport announced that Carillion would partner another construction company on a £1.4bn contract as part of HS2.

There was another profits warning in September of last year – swiftly followed by another key infrastructure contract, awarded at a time when Carillion’s CEO and finance director were both leaving. The Government may not be to blame for Carillion’s collapse but it has left senior ministers looking at best naïve and at worst incompetent.

It has also left them with the lot of explaining to do to the owners of small businesses. ‘It’s got 450 Government contracts, the company must be alright’ is a not unreasonable deduction to make.

But now one industry group estimates that up to 30,000 firms are owed money by Carillion, with the firm having spent £952m with local suppliers in 2016. Clearly many small companies will face uncertain futures and/or will need to consider laying off staff to reduce costs. Carillion may have employed 20,000 people in the UK but the 30,000 firms owed money will have employed considerably more. There are real fears of a ‘domino effect’ among smaller companies, with liquidators PricewaterhouseCoopers saying they will not pay any bills for goods or services supplied before the liquidation date of Monday January 15th. Carillion’s creditors have already been warned in court documents that they are likely to receive less than 1p for every pound owed to them.

Bluntly, that is a disgraceful state of affairs. I am trying to keep calm about this but Carillion captures so much of what is wrong with British business – and which the Government could so easily put right. It’s not just the continuing award of contracts, there is also the small matter of Carillion’s terms of business – 120 days.

I’ve used this line before but it bears repeating. When the boys were little they’d occasionally do something and we’d say, “No, you can’t do that. It is just plain wrong.”

That’s how I feel about 120 day payment terms. It is just plain wrong. At best it is asking small business to finance big business and at worst it is pure and simple exploitation. ‘Do the work in January, send the invoice at the end of that month and we’ll pay you at the end of May.’

Back in September 2016 I took Liam Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – to task for his description of small business owners: ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ No, Mr Fox, they are anything but ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ They are trying to plug a hole in their cash flow that your Government could fix with one simple piece of legislation. And some of them are wondering how they’re going to save the business they’ve built from the effects of a corporate crash: one that could have been avoided by a Government with an ounce of business acumen.

Some of the smaller companies affected by the debacle will be TAB members. Carillion will unquestionably be one of the problems brought to future Board meetings.

But amid the rubble there is a silver lining – and that silver lining is the meetings of The Alternative Board, and the accumulated wisdom of your colleagues round the table. ‘We’re thinking of signing a contract with X’ is a phrase I’ve heard any number of times. And on a few occasions I’ve also heard that intake of breath and seen the slow shake of the head – the one the garage mechanic used when you asked if your first car could be fixed – and every time it has proved invaluable.

You’ll never be able to take out insurance against the greed of big business and the incompetence of the Government, but your colleagues around the TAB table are the next best thing.

The Professionals


Professionalism. Noun. The competence or skill expected of a professional. The practising of an activity, especially a sport, by professional rather than amateur players.

Hang on, just let me read that again. I can’t see any mention of fighting outside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Or driving a lady home who’s not your wife and ending up accused of drink-driving. Or getting into a taxi which unfortunately whacks a lamppost, leaving you with a broken rib.

I refer, of course, to Messrs Stokes, Rooney and Aguero, all of whom might now be in a much happier – and potentially much less costly – place had they looked at their watches and said, “Goodness me, ten o’clock. I’ve an important game in two days; time I was tucked up in bed with a mug of cocoa.”

Ben Stokes and Wayne Rooney are leaders. Stokes is vice-captain of the England cricket team; Rooney, having re-joined Everton with the experience of captaining Manchester United behind him, must surely have been expected to show leadership; to set an example to the younger players in the dressing room.

What price that leadership now? What price their professionalism?

But this is a business blog – so how do I define professionalism in business?

First of all I think it’s about predictability: that’s not someone saying ‘Ed always says the same thing:’ it about people knowing that Ed will always deliver what he promised to deliver. No ifs, no buts, no excuses: professionalism is delivering what you promised to deliver, when you promised to deliver it.

It’s about preparation as well – and yes, I’m aware that I’m almost wandering down the army’s ‘Six P’s’ path here. Whether it is an interview, a client appointment or a speech, the preparation is as important as the performance: in fact the preparation determines the performance. I will tolerate many things, but one thing that used to really annoy me in my corporate days was the time wasted due to lack of proper preparation, even for supposedly ‘make or break’ meetings. For me it was just unforgivable.

And politeness, which includes punctuality. It may well be the courtesy of kings but it’s also fundamental to business: everyone’s time has value, not just yours.

Let me also define professionalism by what it isn’t. It’s not simply being serious: clearly there are professions where being serious is a requirement, but even then not at the expense of demonstrating empathy and personality.

It’s one of the great truisms of life that people buy from people they like. And that still holds good today, even in an age where we are increasingly dealing with people we may have never met. You can still get your personality across with your language and ‘tone of voice’ – even if that voice is only heard through an e-mail.

I remember an early sales manager telling me to watch Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan on TV. “They would have made great salesmen, Ed. A loss to the steel industry…”

But despite the instruction to watch Parky and Our Tel I probably didn’t smile enough in my early days. You might be doing a thoroughly professional job: but you’re still allowed to smile and laugh while you’re doing it. Let me hold my hand up and say I wasn’t brilliant at this. So thank you to Paul Dickinson, my predecessor as TAB MD, who gently pointed it out to me…

And yes, I’d like to think we’re seen as professional at TAB: not just in that we deliver results but that we’re fun to work with as well. As I’ve written many times, TAB is about enjoying the journey as well as reaching the destination, and I’m absolutely sure we help the members of the TAB family to do that.

LEWIS_COLLINS OBITUARY

One last question: this week’s title references a once-popular TV programme. Do any of you remember it? Just a quick test to see how old you are and if your fashion sense has moved on…

More advice for Joe Root


On July 22nd last year I posed a simple question: did Joe Root want to be just a very, very good cricketer – or did he want to become one of the game’s greats?

I received my answer the same day. Root scored 254 against Pakistan and England won the game by 330 runs.

A year on and – by the time you read this – Joe Root will have completed his first day as England captain. I’m tempted to question whether he’s the right the man for the job, just to make sure we win the game…

But at 26 Joe Root steps into a new role. No longer the cheeky young upstart in the dressing room, no longer ‘one of the lads:’ he’s the captain, the public face of English cricket.

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As so often, there are parallels between sport and business. In taking over the captaincy, Joe Root is simply mirroring what so many of us have done in our careers: been promoted, moved to a new company, even acquired a business. And we’ve had to a walk into a new office and simply say, “Good morning, I’m the boss.”

So in my unheralded – and sadly unpaid – role as The Secret Coach to the new skipper, let me pass on some advice, which applies in business just as much as it applies in sport.

You still have to justify your place in the side. As the owner of TAB York I had the pleasure of working with Suzanne Burnett, then MD of Castle Employment in Scarborough. Suzanne’s now handed over the reins to Kerry Hope, and last week in her ever-excellent blog Suzanne introduced Kerry as the new MD. This Q&A is relevant to all of us:

Q: Let’s just talk about those people [the team at Castle who didn’t know her] for a minute. How did you establish your credibility with them?

A: That’s a good point – and it’s something any manager going into a new company has to do: ‘show us your medals’ as they say in football. Maybe in recruitment that should be ‘show us your fees.’ I made absolutely certain that first and foremost I performed as a fee earner, so everyone could see that what I was saying – and the changes I was recommending – absolutely worked.

It’s the same for any new manager, for anyone taking over a company and it will be the same for Joe Root. If your performance can be measured, then you need to perform.

But you will have bad days. It’ll happen. Rooty will get a jaffa first nut and be back in the hutch for a duck.

What do you mean ‘you don’t understand?’ Sigh… The England captain will receive an unplayable delivery first ball and be back in the pavilion without scoring.

Sport and sales are equally unforgiving. The numbers are there for everyone to see. We all go through bad spells but the answer is simple. Keep believing in yourself, keep doing what you know is right and trust that the results will come – which they will. But you’re the leader now – everyone will be watching to see how you respond to a bad day: and how you respond determines how everyone else will respond.

Find a way to manage your stress. Well, no worries for Joe there. His son was born about six months ago. There are those of us, however, to whom a new baby would come as something of a surprise. That’s why I’m such an advocate of keeping fit, of spending time with friends and family and making sure you have interests outside work. All work and no play not only make Joe a dull boy, it makes him an inefficient, unproductive one as well.

Prepare to be lonely. Sad but true. We’ve said it many times on this blog but being an entrepreneur – or the captain – can be a lonely business. You get the accolades and you get to lift the trophy. But you also have to deal with the lows: as Joe Root will find, you’re not only managing yourself, you’re manging other people – and part of that will be delivering bad news. Saying to someone who’s been with you a long time, ‘I’m sorry, we’re going to make a change.’

There are a hundred and one other pieces of advice I could pass on – be there first in the morning, demand high standards of yourself and your team will automatically raise their standards – but lastly, and most importantly, lead. The job of a leader is to lead: to have conviction. To have the sheer bloody-minded conviction that his team will win, that his business will succeed.  After all, Joe, if you don’t believe, no-one else will…

Are you Still the Best Person?


There’s no better story of the new, disruptive economy than Uber. What could be more set in stone than your local taxi company? But along comes Uber, along comes an iPhone app and everything is different.

Equally there could be no more archetypal disruptive entrepreneur than Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Travis Cordell Kalanick is 40. He dropped out of UCLA (obviously: dropping out is mandatory for the disruptive entrepreneur).

His first business venture – with partners – was a multimedia search engine and file sharing company called Scour, which ultimately filed for bankruptcy.

Next came Red Swoosh, another peer-to-peer file sharing company. Red Swoosh struggled: Kalanick went three years without a salary, had to move back into his parents’ home and at one point owed the IRS $110,000. All the company’s engineers left and our hero was forced to move to Thailand as a cost saving measure. But in 2007 Akamai Technologies bought the company for $19m.

In 2009 Kalanick joined forces with Garrett Camp, co-founder of Stumble Upon, to develop a ride sharing app called Uber. And the rest as they say…

Uber now operates in 66 countries and more than 500 cities around the world. Wiki lists Kalanick’s net worth at $6.3bn. Presumably he’s not living at home any more.

But neither is Kalanick still at Uber. On June 20th he resigned as CEO after multiple shareholders demanded his resignation. We’ve all read the stories: let’s just file them under ‘abrasive personality.’

Looking at Kalanick’s early struggles he ticks every box for an entrepreneur. Dropped out of college, saw the future, first venture failed, money problems, do whatever it takes, absolute persistence, never lost faith in himself and – eventually – jackpot!

We can all imagine some of the scenes: we may not have ticked all the same boxes in our own entrepreneurial careers, but we’ve ticked enough to imagine Kalanick’s journey. And to empathise with it…

But now he’s gone. And his departure from Uber prompts an interesting question.

Are you still the best person to run your company?

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When I pushed my breakfast round my plate in Newport Pagnell services and decided to work for myself there were two main motivations. They were frustration: “There has to be something better than this,” and family: “Someone else is dictating how much time I spend with my wife and children.”

In some ways I was luckier than most embryonic entrepreneurs: my experience told me I could manage and motivate a team. But I wasn’t thinking about that in Newport Pagnell: what – after proposing to my wife – has turned out to be the best decision of my life was motivated purely by frustration at what I was then going through, and a determination to be there as my boys were growing up.

I suspect the vast, overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs are the same. We all started by saying, ‘I want to create something, I want to be in control of my own life, I want to build a future for my family.’ We didn’t say, ‘Oh yes, I have the skills necessary to lead a team of 30.’ Famously, even Mark Zuckerberg had to learn how to manage Facebook.

So the skills you had then – vision, a willingness to take risks (with both your career and your family), persistence and that sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed – may not be the skills you need now. In fact, there’s no ‘may’ about it. Maverick entrepreneurs don’t always make great managers: you may have been the only person who could have started your business, but are you the best person to keep it going? Is it time for the visionary to make way for the general manager?

I’m not going to answer the question: I’m simply going to state that it is one of the most interesting and fundamental questions we’ll all face as our businesses grow, and one we’ll all need to ask ourselves. As I talk to the other TAB franchisees and to more and more business owners who are nearing the end of their entrepreneurial careers, it’s a question which increasingly fascinates me. We can never stand still: we’re always growing, developing and learning. Whether it is internal change or external change, the challenges we face this year are never the same as the challenges we faced last year.

That’s why you need friends. Whether it is your colleagues round a TAB boardroom table, your other franchisees or my team here at head office, they’ll always be there with advice, insight – and the occasional reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously…

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.’

Special-Snowflake

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.

Agile-leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Skills we Can’t Measure


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

Back to the blog: and who remembers Moneyball?

moneyball-brad-pitt

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

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

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

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

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

But does that tell the full story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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