Be Brave


Last week I wrote a Tale of Four Leaders, contrasting Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd with two leaders who I consider to be far less successful – the Donald and the Maybot.

I’m still coming to terms with Paul’s passing, but gradually the sadness is giving way to what I’ll think of as his personal legacy to me.

Many of you will know the words of the poem by Henry Scott Holland, so often read at funerals. It’s called Death is Nothing at All, and there is a line that is particularly apt: ‘Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?’

Paul will never be out of mind for me and – two weeks on from the funeral – I feel a duty to his memory to make TAB UK the best it can possibly be. That means for everyone in the TAB family: our members, our franchisees, our team at head office – and the colleagues we work with overseas.

How are we going to do that? We are going to be brave. What was it Thoreau said? ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with the song still in them.”

No-one in the TAB UK family should do that and so – and I know Paul would have approved – the message this week is simple: Be Brave!

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This, more than ever, is a time for brave decisions, on both the micro and macro level. The world is changing at an ever faster pace: AI and machine learning, advanced search and the personalised internet are knocking on the door of virtually any business you can name. Businesses that were once cornerstones of the national and local economy are crumbling away. Brave decisions have become essential.

So let me turn to two decisions – sadly both from our government – which illustrate exactly the type of decisions we should not be making.

A couple of weeks ago Theresa May announced an extra £20bn – from your taxes – for the NHS. That’s a worthy decision: with four out of five people apparently in favour of tax rises to fund the NHS I’m sure the focus groups will approve.

It’s worthy, but in the long run I think it is wrong. And it’s the easy decision, not the brave decision.

Anyone who walks through any town centre will notice that the UK has an obesity epidemic which is getting worse every year. That in turn is leading to an explosion in Type 2 diabetes which is currently costing the NHS £25,000 a minute. Diabetes UK put the cost of treating Type 2 diabetes and its complications at £14bn a year.

Those are staggering figures for what is – in the main – a preventable disease. And quite clearly there isn’t much of the PM’s £20bn left when you’ve paid the diabetes bill: if we carry on getting fatter there very soon won’t be anything left.

The PM’s £20bn is, in essence, a very expensive bucket. There’s a hole in the roof of your factory, the water is coming in ever more quickly, so clearly what you need to fix the problem is a bigger, more expensive bucket…

Yes, that might be the answer while the guys go up on the roof to fix the hole. But as far as the diabetes epidemic is concerned, we’re not sending anyone up on the roof: we’re relying on an ever more expensive bucket instead of making difficult decisions and telling people the unpalatable truth.

Secondly, pot. Or weed, or whatever you might want to call it. Last week the case of Billy Caldwell and an article by William Hague brought cannabis front and centre in the news.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Hague argued that the war on cannabis has been “irretrievably lost” and called for it to be fully legalised. He argued that cannabis is freely available in the UK, but available in unregulated forms, with a thriving black market bringing huge profits to criminal gangs and putting an unnecessary strain on the police and our criminal justice system.

Some time ago I wrote about the legalisation of cannabis in the US state of Colorado. The state – which I visit every year for TAB’s global conference – legalised  cannabis in 2012. Teenage use of the drug in the state is now at its lowest level for a decade, opioid deaths are down, crime has not risen – but tax revenues have, by an estimated $230m over two years. The population of Colorado is around 5.6m – that is around one-tenth of the UK, so it is easy to project the tax revenues that might result from legalisation here.

Sam Dumitriu, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute says, “We estimate that legalisation would raise at least £1bn a year for the Treasury.” He added, “Just as the prohibition of alcohol failed in the US, so the prohibition of cannabis has failed here.”

What is the UK government’s position? A flat refusal to even discuss the subject – a refusal, not to make a brave decision, but to even have a brave discussion.

In business, you cannot do that. It bears repeating: we are living in the age of brave decisions. The problem is, there’s no pain in buying the NHS a bigger bucket or refusing to discuss cannabis. The government – like so many businesses – is in a comfort zone.

But you know and I know that it cannot last. We cannot go on getting fatter, we cannot go on seeing young people murdered on the streets of London and we cannot ignore Google, Amazon and Uber when they tap on our door.

Throughout his life – and never more than towards the end of it – Paul Dickinson took brave decisions. That’s the legacy he left me: that’s the legacy that we all – in government or in business – need to follow.

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Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend


I bumped into an old friend in York last week. He was wearing a suit. And a tie. This was the man who became bored with dress-down Friday – and dress-down every other day of the week – when the rest of us were still learning not to wear a striped tie with a check shirt…

There was only one possible explanation.

“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ve finally made an honest woman of Claire. Where is she?”

He didn’t laugh. “Other end of the scale I’m afraid, Ed. Funeral. My second in two weeks. And both of them not much older than us.”

We’ve all been there: mentioned someone in conversation only to hear, ‘Hasn’t anyone told you? Last Thursday. No warning, nothing.” And inevitably the person being discussed was ‘not much older than us.’

That meeting with my friend played on my mind for the next few days. One thing I am sure of is that there is an ever-increasing level of stress in the average entrepreneur’s life. A few years ago people e-mailed or phoned. Now there is myriad of different ways of contacting someone: whatever you turn off, something else will bleep just as you sit down to dinner.

And we all know the dangers of stress.

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So that chance meeting with my friend stayed with me – not just because we’d been talking about someone close to our own age, but because the conversation posed a question that’s absolutely central to The Alternative Board.

You’ve started a business. You know what you want to achieve: you know what you’re capable of achieving. And you’re determined to get there.

So what do you do? How do you react when someone says, ‘haven’t you heard?’

Do you take it as a signal to run at 100mph in case the same thing happens to you and you never realise your potential?

Or do you stop and smell the roses? Pay attention to your work/life balance? Remind yourself that no-one’s last words have ever been, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

The more I thought about it the more I realised I’d seen business owners – perhaps without even recognising it – struggling with the same dilemma. And not just as a one-off.

It’s a problem that raises it head, in different forms, at different stages of your entrepreneur’s journey.

What should I do? Put in the time? Re-invest the cash? And build a company that will really be worth something in 10 or 20 years’ time?

Or realise that I might not get there – and milk the business for all its worth and take my rewards in the here and now.

The answer, of course, is that there is no right answer. The right answer depends on your own individual personality and how you want to live your life. As everyone who knows me will recognise, I’m in the ‘building a business’ camp – and I’m determined to enjoy the journey along the way, sharing that journey with my family and my friends.

Yes, I could be in the office every minute of every day – but I remember waking up one Tuesday morning early in my TAB York days. It was a morning like today: early May and the sun was shining in through the window. I looked at the pile of paperwork on my desk and went off to play 9 holes of golf.

It was a moment when I suddenly appreciated the freedom the decision to start my own business had given me – and when I knew I’d made the right decision in Newport Pagnell service station.

Not every entrepreneur would have taken that decision: some would have ploughed through the paperwork. The important thing, I think, is to recognise what works for you – and what you want from your business.

Whatever choice you make – whether you take your rewards now or later – remember that the business is working for you. It is emphatically not the other way around.

Panto Season Comes Early


The scene: an Alternative Board meeting, anywhere in the UK. We’re going round the table, updating each other on progress. It’s Dave’s turn…

TAB franchisee          So, Dave, bring us up to date. How’s it going?

Dave                           Yeah, good. The MD’s coming over at the weekend and we should finally be able to sort it all out. Few wrinkles to iron out in Ireland but we’re getting there

TAB veteran               You said last time that your two divisions in Ireland couldn’t agree on anything…

Dave                           Well, technically, yes. But we’re getting there

TF                                So you’re all set to abandon your current deals and go it alone?

Dave                           Yep. That’s what the shareholders want

TabVet                        So what deals have you got lined up to replace them?

Dave                           Well, technically, none

2nd TabVet                 Sorry if I’m missing something here but isn’t that … well, just a touch risky?

Dave                           It’s what the shareholders want

TF                                OK, so what impact is this all going to have on the company?

Dave                           Huh?

TF                                About six months ago you said you were doing an impact analysis on the effect this would all have. On every division of the company

TabVet                        Yep, I remember that

2nd TabVet                  Me too. Remember asking if you thought you could get it done in time

TF                                So where is it?

Dave                           Well, technically…

TF                                It was so in depth that you haven’t finished it yet?

Dave                           Not quite

TabVet                        So when will it be ready?

Dave                           That’s a difficult one to answer

2nd TabVet                  Why

Dave                           We haven’t started it yet.

There is silence around the table. A pin drops…

TF                                So you’re telling us, with our experience in business, that you are planning a major, major overhaul of your business, abandoning trading relationships you’ve had for forty years, you have nothing ready to replace them – except hope – and you have done no analysis at all of the impact it might have on your company?

Dave                           Well, technically…

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The TAB blog is politically neutral. And whatever my personal views, I try to be strictly neutral on Brexit. The blog is not, however, common-sense neutral. And when I read the stories coming out of the Committee on Exiting the European Union (let’s just call it the Brexit Committee, shall we?) on Wednesday I was, bluntly, staggered.

Were the UK Government – in the shape of Dave – a member of any TAB board (and frankly, Mrs May, right now I think it would be money well spent) he would not have survived the meeting. I can think of no instance in my seven years with TAB UK in which a member has gone ahead with a radical overhaul of his business without doing some seriously in-depth analysis of the potential impact. If a member of TAB York had acted in that way I would have questioned whether I was any good at my job.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, David Davis sat down in front of the Brexit Select Committee and said that Her Majesty’s Government had done no significant work on the impact Brexit might have on major parts of the UK economy.

Translate that into business terms. If you had tasked your finance director with doing these impact assessments and six months later he came back and said he hadn’t started then there would only be one outcome. He’d be clearing his office the same day. Even if he hadn’t been tasked with doing the work – but hadn’t shown the initiative to do the assessments – the end result would be the same.

David Davis has argued that there is no point in preparing impact assessments because the scale of change will be so big. Again, if you translate that into business, it’s just nonsense. “We’re going to make major changes in the company – a complete change of direction. And because the changes are going to be so big we’ve decided not to bother making any plans.”

Yep, that would go down well with your TAB colleagues.

Enough lampooning politicians. Sadly, they’re an easy target. There must be a reason for the Government’s failure to carry out due diligence…

Theresa May – the MD in our example – famously campaigned for Remain in 2016. A few weeks later she was roundly declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ She had seen the shareholders get rid of the previous MD and give her the job – with a clear mandate to deliver something she’d very recently campaigned against.

This is the time of year when I traditionally write about planning for next year. And that’s where the lessons of Brexit apply. Because if you don’t absolutely believe in your plans, targets and goals – if they don’t reflect what you want both for the business and as an individual – then you’ll end up exactly where Theresa May and David Davis now find themselves. Trying to deliver a plan that you don’t believe in and, consequently, controlled by external events – when it should be the other way round.

That’s it for this week. Next week will be the last post of the year and I’ll be looking forward optimistically to 2018. And also announcing a change…

You Have Three Months…


Two weeks ago I used a quotation from the late Terry Pratchett as the inspiration for the blog. Struck by the analogy between writing a book and building a business, I wondered if any other writers had some inspiration for us.

Not so much ‘if’ as ‘It…’ That’s the title of Stephen King’s book about a demonic clown which terrorises children in a fictional town in Maine. Whatever you think of the storyline, the film of the same name has just opened – with the third biggest box office opening of the year and largest opening for a horror movie in history. And whatever your view on Stephen King’s writing two facts are indisputable: he’s productive – more than 50 books written – and he’s successful, with around 350m books sold.

So like Terry Pratchett, does King have any insights that we can translate into the business world? ‘Yes’ is the short answer: thirty seconds with Google brings up Stephen King’s ‘Top 20 rules for writers.’

I’m not sure they all translate into business. Number three – ‘don’t use adverbs’ – probably isn’t relevant, I thought confidently. Scanning the list hurriedly I came to number five. ‘Don’t obsess over perfect grammar.’ Right, I’ll try not to do that in this blog what I write every week…

But let me pick out just three points, the first of which is ‘stick to your own style.’ King is counselling against trying to write like John Grisham or Tom Clancy – but the same holds good in business. We all have our heroes of the corporate world: but you cannot run your business like Richard Branson (not, sadly, that he will have much time for business now…) or whichever of the Dragons you want to be this week. You can only run a business in your own style, in your own way and – hopefully with TAB’s help – building on your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses.

‘Write one word at a time.’ That piece of advice almost sounds too obvious to be worth considering: but it has an exact parallel in business. Good years where you demolish your targets don’t just happen: they are made up of good months, good weeks and good days. Success in business is not about consistency of results, it is about consistency of effort. As I have written many times, if you do the right thing every day, the results will come.

But it’s the third point that I think is the most interesting. ‘You have three months,’ says King. ‘The first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.’ By a long book King means 180,000 words, which he aims to write at 2,000 words a day over 90 days – consistency of effort.

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Interestingly, the obsession with three months chimes with something I was reading about Tim Ferriss, of 4 Hour Work Week fame. I’ve commented previously on Ferriss not doing what he thinks will make him happy, but what will excite him. He refuses to have long term plans, instead working on what he describes as three to six month ‘experiments.’ Often he has no idea where these experiments will lead: “What’s the worst that can happen?” he says. “You waste a few months and learn a lot while doing it?”

Three months for the first draft of a best seller: three months for an ‘experiment’ that might change your life. And for me, three months is a very effective period for your business. It’s long enough to set targets which have urgency, without being simply today’s to-do list. More importantly, it’s a long enough trial period.

If you still have misgivings about someone after they’ve been doing the job for three months, you’ve probably made the wrong choice. If your latest brainwave isn’t showing clear signs of working after three months, it’s probably best to cut your losses. And if your KPIs are still off-course after the third month, it is most emphatically time to take action – or bring the problem to the next meeting with your TAB colleagues.

Thanks for the reminder, Mr King. ‘You have three months’ is great business advice – and right now those three months will effectively take you to the end of the year. Make the most of them…

Business Advice from Dr. Who


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for your Annual Service


Well, after last week’s slice of humble pie I’m not even going to mention the cricket this week. I don’t even have it on as I’m writing. Oh, for goodness sake. Pushing forward to one he should have left. That’s a fine start…

Remote found, TV turned off and focused on my Mac, let me turn my attention to something I briefly touched on two weeks ago when I was discussing productivity. According to this story in City AM: ‘Half of the UK’s small business leaders are taking fewer than six days off work each year.’

The research quoted suggested that 52% of entrepreneurs took five or fewer days off last year, with one-in-five taking no time off at all. Of those that do make it to the departure lounge, 1 in 4 admit to answering e-mails and taking calls while they’re away, and more than a third take outstanding work with them to finish.

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Interestingly, the research also showed that the vast majority of the bosses wanted their staff to take their full allocation of time off – recognising the value of time away from the office and paying real attention to your work/life balance.

So why don’t they practice what they preach?

Let’s exercise a little caution before I move into ‘full rant’ mode. It was a survey and I think we can safely assume that there was some ‘no-one works harder than me’ posturing going on. How many hours day do you work? Pah! Never less than 16. How many days a week are you in the office? Easily eight: nine some weeks… Where are the Four Yorkshiremen when you need them?

But even allowing for that natural exaggeration the results are worrying – and it appears from another study that entrepreneurs are now working longer hours than in previous years. So much for the work/life balance message…

Anyone who has read this blog on even an occasional basis will know that I think working longer and longer hours and not taking holidays is madness. Never mind your business, you’re cheating your family. Hopefully we’ll all be at the top of the mountain one day – but you need someone with you to share the view.

More than anyone, entrepreneurs need to take breaks. I have written many times that to think differently you need to be somewhere different. There’s nothing more dangerous these days than ‘doing what we’ve always done’ but if you sit at your desk every day you’ll do exactly that.

Get away, do something different, and you’ll find you’re thinking differently as well. I’ve lost count of the number of problems I’ve solved/insights I’ve had on holiday, simply because I’ve been thinking in a different way.

And as we’ve always said, if the business doesn’t function without you, you don’t have a business. The only way you’ll find that out is to leave them to it. And if you insist on staying in the office every day then all you’ll ultimately do is bring forward the day when they have to function without you – while you’re stressing about the mobile signal in the cardiac unit…

Holidays also give you a chance to let go of your ego for a while – especially if you take your children. And if they’re the age Dan and Rory are then I’ve no choice other than to let go of my ego. Whenever we try anything new I simply have to accept that they’re going to pick it up more quickly/be better than me/not have the aches and pains the day after. Or all three…

I suspect that a large proportion of those entrepreneurs who never go on holiday would all give the same reason: ‘I don’t have the time.’ No, you don’t. There’s never a good time for a holiday. There’ll always be a new idea, a new client – or a crisis. But if you’re not at your peak – and without a break you won’t be – then you can’t be at your best for the client or able to deal with the crisis.

After all, you service your plant and machinery every year: you do the same with your car. Isn’t it time the company’s most important asset received the same care and attention…

The Best Bargaining Chips


It’s now nine days since Theresa May formally triggered Brexit, beginning two years of long and complex negotiations with the remaining 27 members of the EU. Whichever way you voted last June there’ll be days when you’re elated and days when you despair. Right now, only one thing is certain – the word ‘negotiation’ is never going to be far from the headlines…

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It’s certainly played a central part in my life of late, with the lengthy negotiations to buy TAB UK – and what I suspect may be even lengthier negotiations as my sons go through their teenage years. So you’ll be in for ten? I was thinking more like midnight, Dad…

While I await the grey hair and the whispered ‘was that the front door?’ conversation with my wife, let’s take a look at some of the basic principles of negotiation – and then next week I’ll build on those principles by discussing the rather more thorny question of negotiating with a friend – exactly what I was doing when I bought TAB UK.

First things first: unless you’re in a Moroccan bazaar, negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

I’ve always tried to go into any negotiations with three positions: my optimum (sell the car for £20,000); desirable (happy with £19,000) and my essential, bottom line price (I can’t accept less than £17,500).

Your ‘opposition’ – I don’t like to use the word but you know what I mean – will have those three in the reverse order. They’d be very happy to buy your car for £16,500, prepared to pay £18,000 and the maximum they’d pay before walking away would be £19,000.

In the scenario above it’s likely that the car would be sold for around £18,000 – assuming both negotiators are equally skilled.

So what do I mean by a ‘skilled negotiator?’ Looking back over my time in business there are probably four principles I’ve seen that work effectively and consistently: in my view, anyone applying these principles is a skilled negotiator.

  • The first thing is to keep the big picture in mind – and leave your ego at the door. I’ve seen too many negotiations fail because people got bogged down in petty details or tried to score points. It’s not just about demanding, “What’s your bottom line?” It’s also about discovering the other person’s ODE – optimum, desirable, essential. If you can operate within those parameters then you have scope to build – or strengthen – a long term relationship.
  • Sooner or later we all have to negotiate with someone we don’t like: someone who changes his mind, can’t make a decision, can’t remember what decision he did make – or all three. The answer is simple: concentrate on the issues, not the personalities. Stick to what you want, and be patient. It may well happen – as happened to me two or three times – that you sigh, mentally prepare yourself for another frustrating day, sit down at the table – and find a new face opposite you. All the problems vanish and the negotiations are wrapped up in a couple of hours. ‘Keep the main thing the main thing’ applies just as much in negotiation as it does in building your business: and the ‘main thing’ is what you want, not the failings of the person opposite you.
  • And don’t get emotional. At least, not for real. Any emotion is fine as long as you are in control of it. But don’t let yourself get angry, frustrated or sarcastic. And don’t get bored: we’re not talking about smoke-filled committee rooms where the old style politicos turned up with flask and sandwiches and simply bored their opponents into submission – but sometimes you do need to settle in for the long haul.
  • Finally, if you’re talking money, think in real money. We all know the traditional approach of breaking it down into ‘silly money:’ Look, you’re going to have this car for three years. £1,000 is 91p a day: two trips to Starbucks a week. Are you going to let that stand between you and a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow? A £1,000 is £1,000 however you break it down – which brings me back to my original point about optimum/desirable/essential price points. There has to be a point at which you walk away. If you cannot accept less than £17,500 for your car then you cannot sell it for £17,499 – if nothing else determines that, your self-respect should.

With that have a lovely weekend in the (forecast) sunshine and I’ll be back next week with the more personal side of negotiation. And my apologies to anyone who does own a four year old Fiat Punto in Canary Yellow…

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.