Dear Prime Minister…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards

Ed

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…

365 Wasted Days


Hesitantly, the young graduate trainee approached the seen-it-all sales manager to proffer his excuse…

“I just don’t think it was the right time for them. Maybe next month…”

The sales manager sighed. The lad showed promise, but he needed to learn a basic truth. “You know what, Ed?” he said. “There’s never a right time.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well quite clearly no-one’s ever going to buy anything in January. Just recovering from Christmas and hiding from their credit card bills. February it’s too damn cold. March and April it’s Easter and they’re all doing DIY or out in the garden. May they’re thinking about summer holidays. June there’s always the World Cup or the Olympics. July and August they’ve gone on holiday; September they’re recovering from the holiday. October it gets dark. Everyone’s always depressed in November and December’s written off because of Christmas.”

“So…”

“So there’s never a right time. Go back and see them, Ed. Explain that there is a right time and the right time is now.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation and over the last 20 years I’ve quoted it word for word to several potential customers. I was reminded of it last week when the news broke that Theresa May would be demanding our attendance at the polling stations on June 8th.

Yes, the election – and Brexit – is going to happen. Clearly Theresa May wants her own mandate and equally clearly she doesn’t want to be bound by David Cameron’s election pledges.

Sir Martin Sorrell was being interviewed on TV and failing to hide his irritation. The election, he said, was “another excuse” for people in business to stop making decisions. The run-up to the election would see an inevitable slowdown in the economy: “another 50 wasted days” as Sorrell termed it.

Well, by the time you read this there’ll only be 41 more days to waste – but he may have underestimated the problem. My old sales manager would have understand it perfectly…

‘You’re right, Ed. First and foremost no-one can possibly take a decision before Macron is confirmed as the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. Then there’s our election. But by then we’re into the summer holidays. And as soon we’re back from summer there’s the German election to worry about: if Angela Merkel is defeated it’ll be chaos. Then there’s Philip Hammond’s first Autumn Budget (assuming he’s still Chancellor). I mean seriously, given the hints there have been about tax rises it’s safer to wait and see. Then it’s Christmas and staggering back to work in January. And by February/March we’ll have had six months of serious Brexit negotiations with the new German government. It makes sense to wait and see how those are playing out. And then it’s Easter again on April 1st 2018. You’ve nailed it: no-one can possibly make any decisions for at least a year…’

50 wasted days? More like 365.

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As we all know, there are always reasons not to take decisions. They might be macro – political, economic – or micro, such as staff problems and cash flow, but they’ll always be there.

But making decisions is our job. It’s what we signed up for when we sat in the motorway services, pushed our breakfast round the plate and decided there had to be a better way. Business is about making decisions – and as that as that well-known pioneer of the waste management industry, Anthony Soprano Snr., put it, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

He’s right: you can correct a wrong decision. Indecision eats away at you and your business until it does far more damage than a wrong decision.

But making decisions isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Tony Soprano again: “Every decision you make affects every facet of every other thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”

Unless, of course, you’re a member of the Alternative Board, and have seven other people to offer their input and their experience and – nine times out of ten – help you make the right decision.

But having last week recommended that the boss of United Airlines joins TAB, perhaps I’ll just stop short of suggesting a new member for TAB New Jersey…

The Budget: the Shape of Things to Come?


But there’s also a problem: namely, where is the value you’re taxing actually created? If Apple builds an iPhone in Taiwan, using raw materials from Australia and advanced components from Brazil, to a design thought up in California (but partially in Oregon), then markets it in the UK, via a company based in Ireland, where is the value created?

(This is without even getting into the licensing and buying-back of intellectual property rights, or any number of other accounting dodges.)

That very pertinent question is from an article in Cap X that I read last week. More of it later: first, last week’s Budget.

Philip Hammond bounced confidently to his feet and delivered his first (and last – it’s moving to the autumn) Spring Budget speech. There was good news on the economy: growth forecasts were up, borrowing was down and the Government’s “plan was working.” He delivered some far better jokes than George Osborne and sat down to a loud chorus of approval from the Conservative backbenches. He may even have glanced sideways at Theresa May and concluded that in the event of the mythical fall-under-the-bus, Mrs Hammond would be odds-on to be measuring up for new curtains in 10 Downing Street.

He could look forward to a nightcap, a good night’s sleep and plenty of plaudits in the following day’s papers…

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Sadly not. Thursday morning’s newspapers were united in their condemnation.

‘Hammond breaks election pledges,’ said the Telegraph. ‘Hammond raids the self-employed to fund care,’ declared the i newspaper. The tabloids were significantly more direct: ‘Spite van man’ screamed the Sun. ‘Rob the Builder’ was the headline splashed across the Star.

Hammond’s crime? He had allocated money to fund social care – £2bn over the next three years – and one of the ways he planned to fund it was by raising the Class 4 National Insurance contributions paid by the 15% of the UK workforce who are self-employed.

By Friday morning more than 100 Conservative MPs were supposedly voicing their discontent, with Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, saying “it goes against every principle of Conservative understanding of business.” The Chancellor was roundly criticised for riding roughshod over David Cameron’s ‘5 year tax lock’ and the Conservative manifesto.

There’s no doubt that, politically, Hammond made a mistake. Wittingly or unwittingly he’s given the impression that the Government doesn’t like or trust the self-employed and those running small businesses. As the Spectator said, it seems ‘that he suspects them of being tax-dodgers, of using the NHS without paying for it.’

He may even have given an unintended boost to the black economy. If the legendary ‘white van man’ suspects he’s being taxed unfairly he might decide to do even more work for cash – and the Chancellor might end up with lower tax receipts, and very expensive egg on his face.

But let me say a word in defence of the Chancellor – and here we return to the quote from the Cap X article. In his speech Philip Hammond talked about “the challenges in globalisation, shifts in demographics and the emergence of new technologies.”

He’s right – the economic landscape is changing rapidly. More and more people are becoming self-employed or trading through limited companies: people are changing jobs far more frequently, and all too often they need to have two jobs, often combining employment and self-employment. As Cap X put it, a 20th Century tax system is failing to cope with a 21st Century labour market.

And it’s not just the labour market: look at retailing, where online, out-of-town, low tax distribution centres are wiping out the bricks-and-mortar, high street, highly taxed shops.

Right now the tax system is divorced from the way business operates. There will have to be changes over the coming years and it is simply another illustration of the point I’ve made continuously in this blog: business is changing, and the pace of change is accelerating.

In a future post I’m going to look at the growing trend towards ‘agile’ leadership and management. What the Budget – and its fall out – illustrates is that in the future we will all need to be increasingly agile as we face ever-faster change.

But for next week we might just be due something a little lighter: why Ikea bookcases are a vital economic indicator…

…And there, gentle reader, are the perils of including current events in your blog. I wrote this post on Tuesday evening and, as you’ll all know by now, The Chancellor performed a humiliating U-turn on Wednesday and the NIC increases have now been scrapped. (You can forget measuring up for curtains, Mrs H…) I was initially tempted to re-write this post but, on reflection, I think the U-turn illustrates my point even more forcibly: today’s tax system simply has to change to cope with today’s economy. Maybe Wednesday’s climb-down will bring those changes closer – but let’s hope that whichever Chancellor finally has the courage to undertake a wide-ranging review pays more attention to detail than the Rt. Hon member for Runnymede and Weybridge did last week…

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…

The Road to 2017


Last week Keaton Jennings made his debut for England, playing against India in Mumbai.

He was dropped off the 21st ball of the day. At the time he’d made 0. Had the catch been taken, he couldn’t have made a worse start to his test career. But it wasn’t – and by the end of the day Jennings was the hero, scoring 112 – only the 19th England player to make a hundred on debut.

Listening to a recap of the first day’s play one of the summarisers made a really important point: even if Jennings had made 0, even if he’d failed in his first few innings, he still looked right. ‘We get too focused on outcomes in very small samples,’ he said.

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That’s something to keep in mind as you head into 2017. You’ve now made – or you’re close to finalising – your plans for the year ahead. You’re convinced they’re the right plans. You’ve run them past your colleagues and in January you’ll do the same with your fellow Board members. Come Tuesday January 3rd they’re the plans that will guide you through the year.

So don’t lose heart if you get a duck in January. If the plans don’t work immediately, don’t rip them up. Refine, tweak, adjust, get outside the line of off stump: but remember that the first month of the year – like the first steps in building a business or the first few innings in a test career – is a ‘very small sample.’

Anyway, the end of 2016 is approaching. You may now be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. You may carelessly think, ‘Phew, thank the Lord that’s over. Leicester City, Brexit, Trump… Surely we can’t have another year that’s so unpredictable?’

‘Yes we can,’ is the answer to that question: I suspect there may be quite a few twists, turns and bumps along the road in 2017. Domestically Brexit will be triggered: how it will end, no-one (least of all the Government) knows. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Theresa May call a General Election next year, Fixed Term Parliament Act or not…

But it’s my colleagues in TAB Europe who’ll see their countries become the focus of attention next year. March brings a General Election in Holland with the far-right Freedom Party currently on course to become the largest single party. The French Presidential election is in April/May – the signs are that it will be fought out between Marine le Pen of the Front National and the likely winner, the right’s self-confessed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Fillon.

And then in September there are elections in Germany: Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term, but she will surely come under plenty of pressure from the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

May you live in interesting times’ as the supposedly-Chinese curse has it. I suspect we’ll look back on 2017 and decide that ‘interesting’ was an understatement. So next year will not be a year to take your eye off the ball. No, don’t panic if your plans are not on track by January 31st. Even if the world changes so much next year that you need to completely re-write your original plans, remember the words of Dwight D Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What you will need to do next year is keep a close watch on your metrics: the two or three key statistics, ratios or measurements that absolutely determine the health of your business – the ‘pulse’ that I’ve talked about in previous posts.

Through December I’ve had the remarkably enjoyable job of listening to TAB members reflect on the past year: I’m delighted to say that far more has gone right than has gone wrong. Has there been a common thread running through the success stories – apart from measuring those key metrics?

Yes, I think there has. ‘Resilience’ and ‘consistency’ are the two words that come to mind: TAB members have consistently done the right thing and stayed true to their beliefs and their vision. And as a result, they’re reaping the rewards.

So 2017 will be challenging: I suspect the old PEST analysis will be wheeled out several times. But like all years, it will also be full of opportunities: and however challenging, the plans you’ve made, the metrics you measure and the support of your TAB colleagues will ensure that you couldn’t be in better shape to greet the coming year…

Nine Pregnant Women


One of the things I do every other Wednesday is read Suzanne Burnett’s blog.

Many people reading this will know Suzanne – a mixture of successful businesswoman and farmer’s wife with a healthy dollop of insight and common sense. And this week, with a quote in her blog that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s from legendary American investor Warren Buffet:

No matter how great the talents or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t make a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant.

The year is ticking by. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, now is the time to start making plans for next year. But plans – not ‘wish list’ – is the key word.

Remember that it’s ‘SMART:’ specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. And the most important word in there is ‘realistic.’

Over the years – both in the corporate world and as owner of TAB York – I’ve seen thousands of business plans produced at this time of year. By March of the following year a significant number of those plans lay abandoned, hastily pushed to the back of the filing cabinet, their creators denying all responsibility for them.

And the main reason for that was simple: the goals and targets weren’t realistic – and it had quickly become apparent that they weren’t realistic.

But faced with that blank piece of paper the temptation to be too ambitious – or to please the boss peering over your shoulder – is almost overwhelming.

Yes, yes, I know. ‘Better to shoot at the moon and hit an eagle.’ But sometimes we need to put Norman Vincent Peale on hold and listen to Thoreau as well: ‘If you build your castles in the air that’s where they should be: now put the foundations under them.’

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Or as Warren Buffet said, ‘some things take time.’

Many TAB members have made tremendous strides this year: may will do the same in 2017. But there’s no disgrace in saying, ‘No. Next year’s a year when we need to put the foundations in place for 2018.’

One of the key factors in building a successful team – both inside and outside your business – is finding people who’ll tell you the truth. I love my job: the opportunity it gives me to say “this is how it could be” – to see someone recognise the possibilities in their life and their work – is immensely fulfilling. But I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t unfailingly honest with people. And sometimes that means urging caution: if the immediate job is to fix the cash-flow, nothing matters until that’s done.

So as well as holding up a mirror saying ‘this is how it could be,’ sometimes I have to say, ‘this is how it really is. Let’s fix it.’

As you may have noticed, the debate about Brexit rumbles on. As I write, the legality of invoking Article 50 is being tested in the courts. Clinton and Trump are having a mild-mannered disagreement. Russia, China… the world is going to be a challenging place in 2017 and if that coincides with a year of consolidation for your business, that’s fine. I’ll support you 100% of the way.

No business is on a constantly upward path. At some time we all need to pause and consolidate before we jump to the next level. Almost always, business growth is a series of steps – in turnover, staffing levels and the quality of your team.

It’s my job – helped by your colleagues round the TAB table – to help you make those steps, and to help you recognise the right time to take the steps. So don’t worry if it isn’t next year: setting unrealistic and over-ambitious goals might satisfy your ego in October, but it could cost you a whole year when you quietly shelve the plans in March.

No, you can’t make a baby in a month. And you can’t build a business in one unrealistic year: everything worthwhile takes time.

The Only Certainty is Uncertainty


From the Daily Mail: 24th June 2017

“What on earth were we worried about?” That was the triumphant cry from Prime Minister Michael Gove yesterday as he celebrated ‘Independence Day’ – the first anniversary of the UK’s historic decision to leave the European Union. “What do we see now?” he asked to loud cheers on the Conservative benches. “The pound riding high, the stock market at a record level, small firms liberated from the shackles of Brussels’ red tape and free to recruit. Foreign firms rushing to invest in ‘the Switzerland of Northern Europe.’ The motion to make June 23rd a national holiday was passed by a majority of 378, with only the SNP and the handful of Labour MPs remaining after last month’s general election voting against. Celebrating with a pint of Late Knights’ Worm Catcher, Lord Farage said it was “a wonderful day for ordinary British people.”

From the Guardian: 24th June 2017

“I propose these measures to the House with a heavy heart,” said Chancellor of the Exchequer Nicola Sturgeon as she announced more tax rises and further austerity measures in her second emergency Budget of the year. “Exactly twelve months has passed, Mr Speaker, since we took the ridiculous and xenophobic decision to leave the EU. We now see the pound approaching parity with the dollar, the stock market plunging and unemployment rocketing.” Prime Minster Dan Jarvis – who seems to have aged ten years in the six months since the SNP/Labour coalition came to power – looked on with a pained expression. He is back in Brussels tomorrow as he tries to negotiate Britain’s re-entry to the EU, but must know that Angela Merkel and the German bankers will make the UK pay a heavy price.

Two scenarios, each equally unlikely.

But this time last week anyone predicting a lame-duck Prime Minister, an even lamer Leader of the Opposition and thirty shadow cabinet resignations in one day would have been advised to increase their medication.

Given the outcome of the Referendum – and the consequent fall-out – we can say goodbye to any hint of certainty for the next few weeks, and possibly for a good deal longer.

…Which is going to make running your SME extremely difficult. Big companies will be reluctant to commit to orders, fuel costs will increase as the pound falls against the dollar and – I suspect – some banks are going to be unwilling to lend as they watch their own share prices drift south.

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My question last week was, ‘Does Brexit Really Matter?’ I stand by my thesis that five or ten years from now it will not be the most significant factor in the success of your business or your personal life. But in the short term there will be some very difficult questions for owners of SMEs to deal with.

Confidence, costs and the availability of capital will certainly be three of them – but there’s a fourth, highlighted by this article on the BBC website. Will the pool of talent dry up? When you need to hire someone outstanding to drive your business forward, will there be anyone left in the UK? And if there is, will a small business in North Yorkshire be able to compete?

I was talking to a friend of mine on Monday. “My son’s graduated on Friday,” he said. “Stellar degree from a top university. And now he tells me that he’s far more likely to work abroad.”

I suspect that conversation is being repeated up and down the country. And for the owner of a SME it’s a double whammy. Not only might your top talent move abroad, there might not be anyone around to replace them.

Hopefully you’ve now received (and read, obviously!) TAB’s ‘top tips in the light of the Brexit vote.’ One of those tips is simple: reassure your team, especially if you have EU nationals among them. Over the next 12 months the people you work with are going to be more valuable than ever – and more coveted by your competitors.

As everyone knows, I voted Remain. But living and voting in a democracy means you don’t always get the result you want. Now we have to get on with it. I hope – and believe – that there’ll be goodwill on both sides and that the sensible politicians in the UK and the EU will hold sway. But in the short term, the waters will be choppy. One captain may have resigned: those of us running SMEs don’t have that option. We’ll get through it – but a key part of that will be protecting, nurturing and retaining our teams.

Good Decision, Bad Decision, No Decision


Over the very-nearly six years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve quoted some of the best business thinkers of our age. I’ve drawn on their wisdom, their experience and their recipes for success. And without exception, there’s been one thing they’ve all agreed on.

Action.

Especially in your decision making.

As that deep-thinking business guru Tony Soprano put it, A wrong decision is better than indecision.

You can correct a wrong decision. You can put it right and move on. Indecision? You haven’t a hope. Paralysis by analysis as the old saying goes.

The late (we think) and much missed Tony is supported by any number of real life businessmen. Here’s Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems:

The best decision is the right decision. The next best decision is the wrong decision. The worst decision is no decision.

…And Anthony Robbins, Awakening the Giant Within:

At any moment the decision you make can change the course of your life forever.

Obviously, I agree with them. It’s what I’ve preached for years. Nothing happens without action. Soprano, McNealy, Robbins, Reid – united as one.

…And apparently, completely wrong.

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Along comes business psychologist, Professor Adam Grant. He sets out his thesis in Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World.

Grant says that procrastinating – putting off difficult decisions or delaying starting a project – can actually open an entrepreneur’s mind to more creative thinking and “lead to a more opportune time to launch a new product. Procrastination lets you have time for ideas to percolate … and new technologies to emerge.”

I’ll absolutely concede that non-conformists see the world differently. Yes, I agree that giving yourself time to think, keeping an open mind and asking the right questions are all important. But you cannot wait for ever. As Norman Schwarzkopf says in his autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, “when you’re placed in command, take charge.”

Ask most of my generation who’s ‘changed the world’ the most and I’d guess that a good percentage would say Steve Jobs. Now no-one would call Jobs a conformist (especially if you’ve seen the biopic…) but he emphatically didn’t change the world by not making decisions.

And, clearly, he didn’t wait for new technologies to emerge. You simply cannot do that today. We’re now living in an age where a ‘new technology’ emerges every week. If you put off making decisions because you’re waiting to see what happens with technology you’ll sit at your desk until it’s time to retire, watching an endless stream of new apps whizz past you.

There are almost as many different ways of being successful as there are successful entrepreneurs. That’s one of the great beauties of business. But I simply don’t believe that avoiding decisions is one of them. It may be superficially attractive – and it’s certainly easy. But it’s also potentially fatal for your business.

Fortunately, there’s an antidote – to both the wrong decision and no decision.

I refer to your colleagues round the TAB boardroom table. They’ll do two things: firstly their collective wisdom and experience will go a long way towards helping you make the right decision. Secondly they have this really irritating habit of holding you to account – of saying, ‘So what’s happened in the last month?’

‘Nothing’ isn’t really the answer they’re looking for. But to date no-one has tried, ‘I’ve been sitting at my desk waiting for new technology to emerge.’ I’ll look forward to that one. The replies should be spectacular…

Cufflinks, Bedtime Reading and the Off Switch


It was the annual TAB member conference on Tuesday. I had the honour (or drew the short straw, depending on your perspective) of being a headline speaker. “We knew you’d be willing to volunteer, Ed…”

Part of the presentation I gave concerned habits – a fine example of synchronicity, as the day before I’d read this article in Inc.

Several of the habits highlighted in the article meshed with points I made in my speech – so I thought it was worth sharing four of them that particularly struck a chord with the audience.

Dress for Success

In the article Chris Dessi recommends having your ‘dress shirts and suits’ custom made. I’m not sure I’m at that stage, but in this increasingly casual age I absolutely recommend dressing well. Why? Because it gives you confidence and confidence translates into success.

The TAB conference saw the debut of my new pink shirt from Charles Tyrwhitt. I like their shirts: they always fit me perfectly, and they’re suitable for business without being only suitable for business. So I was wearing my new shirt, and I felt confident. Was it a coincidence that so many people told me I was ‘looking well’ that day? I don’t think so.

…And cufflinks work for me. Somehow my cufflinks are almost like an NLP trigger. I can feel my performance go up a notch as I fasten them. If there’s a similar ‘trigger’ for you, use it.

Turn off the Electronics

Something that I’ve just started to do, but it seems to be working. If I’m playing golf or coaching rugby then by definition the electronics are off. Increasingly, though, I’m trying to have moments in the day when the tech is turned off – like now, for example. It’s human nature to feel wanted and nothing reminds you that you’re wanted (or needed) like that little ping when the phone announces yet another e-mail. But analysing your KPIs, working on a presentation or even writing your blog demand your full attention. The e-mail will wait.

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I do know a few people who’ve gone one stage further. They’ve taken work e-mails off their phones. “It was the only way to stop checking them last thing at night and first thing in the morning,” one client said to me. I wouldn’t disagree…

Read more

That last point takes me neatly on to reading. In the old days we used to climb into bed and read a few pages before we fell asleep. How many of us now reach our phones or iPads where we once reached for a book? Reading seems to be under threat in our time-pressured lives, but for anyone running a business there’s never been more plentiful and helpful material out there.

If you haven’t time to read some of the great business books around, try a 30 day free subscription to Audible. And don’t forget podcasts either – an increasingly useful source of information and/or inspiration while you’re in that contraflow…

Stop worrying about ‘How’

I’ve written many times on the blog about the ‘how and why’ of business – and if you want to refresh yourself on the ‘why’ here’s the link to Simon Sinek’s compelling TED talk.

But it’s ‘how’ that I want to consider this morning – and why you should stop obsessing about it. As the old Nike ad said, ‘Just do it.’ And as Chris Dessi says in his article: Obsessing over ‘how’ will only lead you into full-on panic. Define your ‘why’ for sure, but let go of the ‘how.’

This echoes one of my favourite lines from Rework. ‘Planning is guessing.’ Increasingly business is intuitive and reactive. ‘Ready, aim, fire’ has given way to ‘Ready, fire, refine, fire again, refine again, aim.’ So get into the habit of pressing the ‘go’ button – and learn as you go along.

With that, have a great weekend. I’ll leave you to go through your wardrobe, turn your phone off, read a good book and stop worrying about how the grass is going to get cut…