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.

The Monday Morning Quarterback


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Fire people: hire people

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

 

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

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

New Year: New Quotes


Good evening/morning – and a very, very happy new year. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that you’re now ready to enjoy a truly stellar year.

…And if I sound enthusiastic and positive, it’s because I am. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to any year as much as I’m looking forward to 2017. (Ah – damn it. Apart from the year I got married, of course. Only four lines into a new year and I put my foot in it…)

For me – and I hope for all of us – 2017 is going to be full of challenges and opportunities. And isn’t that what life and business is all about?

So let’s start the year with some inspirational words. Anyone who’s been in business for a while will have read all the standard Steve Jobs/Henry Ford quotes: so I’ve done a little digging to see if I can find some you might not have come across before. Hopefully one or two of them will kick-start a very successful year for you.

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The first one is from Jake Nickell, the CEO of Threadless. I try not to make any decision I’m not excited about.

I couldn’t agree more. If I turn to someone in a TAB meeting and they say, “I’ve had this idea. I think it’s OK and it might make some money,” then I guarantee that in six months it will have been quietly shelved or – much more likely – it will have turned into a problem and be losing money.

If, on the other hand, my Board member is so excited she needs to stand up when she starts talking about her new idea; if she’s waking up to make notes on it at three in the morning – then we might just have something that changes a business and/or a life. You’re an entrepreneur: having ideas is what you do. You only need to act on the ones you’re passionate about.

The vast majority of us will have seen ads for Under Armour when we’ve been watching sport. Here’s what founder and CEO Kevin Plank has to say: There’s an entrepreneur right now, scared to death, making excuses, saying, “It’s not the right time yet.” There’s no such thing as a good time. Get out of your garage and go take a chance and start your business.

Or as Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, put it, If you wait until there’s another case study in your industry you’ll be too late.

There are 101 reasons not to do anything new in 2017. Worries about Brexit. What will Trump do? Elections in Europe. The possible collapse of the Chinese credit boom…

But there are 101 reasons not to do anything in every year. If you’ve had a great idea; if it keeps you awake at night; if you have the support of your peers round the TAB table… Then, as the iconic Nike ad said, Just do it.

Who’s up next? Indra Nooyi, Chair and CEO of PepsiCo. I cannot just expect the organisation to improve if I don’t improve myself and lift the organisation. That [is] a constant.

I’m not sure there’s much I can add to that. Today – more than ever – you simply have to go on learning and improving. If you stand still your business will stand still – and as I’ve written many times, once a business stands still and starts to stagnate, it’s the beginning of the end.

Fiddlesticks. I’m going to have to admit defeat: I can’t get away without a Steve Jobs quote after all. But here’s one you might not have come across.

Jobs was giving a small, private presentation about the iTunes music store to some independent record label people. At the end of the presentation they were all bursting with ideas and features that could be added. “Wait,” Jobs said. “I know you have a thousand ideas. So do we. But innovation isn’t about saying ‘yes’ to everything. It’s about saying ‘no’ to all but the most crucial features.”

Why do I like that story so much? Simply because you can take ‘innovation’ out and replace it with ‘success.’ And if you want a recipe for success in 2017, that’s it. Make decisions that excite you, don’t wait to put them into action, constantly improve yourself – and above all, say ‘no’ to everything that’s not crucial to your own success and the success of your business.

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.

Five Days Good, Four Days Better


I’ve written about the length of your working week two or three times this year. Specifically, I’ve discussed the difference keeping Monday mornings free has made to my effectiveness and my weekends – and the simple fact that ‘throwing hours at it’ is never the answer. Once you go over 50 hours a week the evidence is very clear: you become less, not more, effective.

I’m not alone with my ‘Monday mornings’ – or Fridays as they are for several Board members.

So I was intrigued when I came across this article in Cap X: ‘Why a four day week isn’t good for your health.’

The article is by Allard Dembe, Professor of Public Health at Ohio State University. The four day week is the Holy Grail he says: it gives more leisure time and family time – and significant cost savings for business.

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He points out that many big companies have tried the four day – or ‘compressed’ – week. It’s not just Amazon and Google, Professor. Plenty of businesses I work with in North Yorkshire encourage flexible working, recognising that they’re in the results business, not the hours business.

In his article Dembe concedes some of the advantages of the four day week: but ultimately maintains that the evidence suggests it isn’t good, either for employees or for companies.

He states – rightly – that the same amount of work needs to be done. In simple terms, five days of eight hours translate to four days of 10 hours. And it’s the extra two hours – tacked on at the beginning or end of the day – that draw his fire. “All hours,” he says, “are not created equal,” citing studies showing that longer working days can contribute to ill-health later in life. And he questions whether a ten hour day is worth it if it means losing time with your children for four days of the week.

And as you’d expect from a professor of public health, he also points out that workplace accidents happen when we’re tired.

I’m not going to put Professor Dembe’s article in the same category as Liam Fox’s assertion that we’re all ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf’ – a claim I note he didn’t make at the Conservative conference – but I do fundamentally disagree with it, especially for the entrepreneur.

He makes some valid points, but there’s a simple fact: flexible working is here to stay. The challenge for anyone running a business is to find working arrangements that work for all the members of your team. You have to do that: the top talent that you want – and need – is increasingly demanding flexible working.

But even more importantly, I think flexible working is essential for you: for the entrepreneur.

Yes, we carry our phone and our iPads and we access Dropbox. And yes, that means work is never more than a couple of taps or clicks away. But it also means we have far greater flexibility – that we can both work when it suits us and work around family commitments and our work/life balance.

Earlier this year I mentioned the tendency to think in the same way if you’re in the same place. It’s almost impossible to think strategically about your business if you’re at your desk, ensnared in what Stephen Covey described as “the thick of thin things.” That’s why I’m an absolute advocate of spending working time away from your desk, be that Friday, Monday morning or whenever best suits you.

Working at home – or in the coffee shop – gives you space to think and to emphatically work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business.

As the Scottish poet said, “’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view.” As the English business coach says, “’Tis distance lends perspective to the business.”

And that perspective is one of the most crucial factors in making your business a success. So don’t be afraid to work from home one day a week or to shorten your working week: in the long run it can only benefit you and your business.

Lessons I Learned from my First Job


That’s that then. Whit’s over, the kids are safely back at school.

For a few weeks. And then the long summer holiday stretches in front of us.

Maybe it’s time to send your offspring out to work…

Dan, my eldest son, has just turned 14: I’ve been thinking about his first job for a while – ever since I was at York races in May.

I always like going to the races – especially in May. And yes, I know real men go to Wetherby in February, but May meetings hold a special place in my heart.

They remind me of my first job. That was at Chester races – and the Roodee is synonymous with May.

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Aged 18 I was a bar porter. Nattily dressed in a green boiler suit my job description was simple: skivvy for anyone and everyone. The general perception was that I wouldn’t be up to it – “talks too posh” was one of the politer comments – but I must have shown some promise as I was ‘promoted’ to the Grand National meeting the following year. And it was a great first job: it taught me about real life, it taught me that you’ll sometimes need to prove people wrong – and gave an early boost to my cash flow. Being there first thing in the morning and hearing all the gossip from the stable lads was invaluable!

So what, I wondered, did other members of TAB York learn from their first job?

Here’s Suzanne Burnett of Castle Employment, someone else who learned valuable lessons in the catering industry:

My first job – aged 15 – was at the Tramway Café in Scarborough. I helped to make the food and clear the tables. It was my first time working with older people who weren’t teachers, relatives or friends of my parents. And it taught me I could make friends with people outside my own age bracket and from different backgrounds. I also learned that not everyone has the same work – or life – ethic. I learned that customers aren’t always right but they’re still customers – and I learned that money gives you independence and freedom. I also learned that I was strong-willed and didn’t necessarily like to conform: I wonder if that was the start of my entrepreneurial spirit…

But not everyone had their first taste of the workplace serving up a full English…

Richard Shaw of Ellis Patents had just turned down a place at Nottingham University:

I had no idea what to do. Eventually my father insisted I did something productive and I went to work in the flattening press department of our family business. It was a dirty, noisy and dangerous place to work – and I remember buying a new pair of overalls every fortnight! I was there for a year and it changed my life. The works manager saw my aptitude for engineering and – despite my initial protests – I ended up on an engineering course at Leeds Poly. The main thing I learned about was stress. At the beginning of each month I was given a ‘panic list:’ orders that simply had to be out by the last Friday. And in the last week of the month I was given the ‘panic, panic list.’ I learned – and I’ve never forgotten – that controlling the workflow is crucial to the success of any business.

Finally, we’re ‘back of house’ again. Chris Wilson of Tailor Made Sales started his working life in a Beefeater Steak House.

It gave me a ‘taste’ for the hospitality industry, seeing the stresses of a busy Saturday night service. I was washing up: being prepared for the onslaught of dirty crockery was an important lesson. Above all, it taught me how quickly your own service can impact on how others will treat you. Make a cracking cup of tea for the chef and you got pans that weren’t burned and even the odd well-cooked sirloin. Include the waitresses in your brew-up and they’d scrape the plates clean before they got to me – and maybe even give me a share of their tips.

Three different people, three different jobs – but in many ways, very similar lessons. Being prepared, seeing things from other people’s perspective, working with a team and – as Suzanne suggests – the beginning of that feeling we all know. I want to be the one in control…

Don’t discourage your children when they come to you and say they want a part-time job. Don’t worry that it’ll impact adversely on their school work. It’s part of them growing up and it’s part of you letting go. And it may just be a key part of their eventual success…

40 and Out


I suppose you shall have the full day off. But I consider myself ill-used. Paying you for no work at all. I should dock your pay by sixpence. And just make sure you’re here all the earlier the next morning…

…Or words to that effect, as Ebenezer Scrooge grudgingly gives Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off.

I’m not sure how poor old Ebenezer would have coped with the 40 hour week and 25 days’ annual holiday – even less so if Bob had suggested he’d be more productive if he worked from home…

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But the spirit of Scrooge lives on. There are still plenty of employers muttering ‘be here all the earlier the next morning’ – and thinking that the way to guarantee success is to be the first person in the car park every morning.

But I’ve never felt that more hours is the answer. As I have written so many times on this blog, it’s not more hours you need, it’s better hours – a view endorsed by my TAB colleague, Tom Morton.

I was listening to a radio programme to this effect as I drove round North Yorkshire the other week. When I was back in my office, I did some research – and found more and more evidence suggesting that the macho dogma of ‘throwing hours at it’ is simply counter-productive.

The US is famous for its culture of working long hours. A recent survey there – conducted by John Pencaval of Stanford University – found that more than 50% of people said they worked more than 50 hours a week. Not surprisingly, there was clear evidence that the internet, e-mails and mobiles were lengthening the working day.

But the research also showed that productivity falls sharply after 50 hours of work. And that it falls off a cliff after 55 hours. Most significantly, someone working 70 hours a week achieves no more than someone working 55 hours – apart from greatly improving their chances of seeing a divorce lawyer.

Working these extra hours may give a short term boost to productivity. But you – and/or your team – need to recover. So you’re essentially paying for that short term boost with reduced productivity further down the line.

There’s another reason why you shouldn’t work more than 55 hours a week. I’d like you to keep reading the blog. I don’t want anything to happen to you. The medical evidence against working long hours is overwhelming: if you work 55 hours a week – as opposed to the traditional 40 hours – your risk of a stroke increases by 33%. Not for me – or for any of my friends hopefully…

…But there’s even worse news for the Ed Reids of this world. Research conducted in Australia recently suggests that once you’re past 40 the optimal number of hours to work is 25 per week: apparently that’s the right amount of time to keep the brain stimulated, but avoid exhaustion and stress.

But surely, you’ll say, we’re all knowledge workers now? Those rules might have applied when work included a high percentage of manual labour, but surely we can apply our brains for more than 40 hours a week? After all, I’m pretty hot in the pub quiz on a Sunday night…

The answer is no: the reverse is true. Studies show that creativity and the ability to solve problems is even more affected by fatigue. Yes, grinding out solutions works – if what you want is inferior solutions. And nothing contributes more to inferior decision making than lack of sleep.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: people who can genuinely manage with very little sleep – who can work ridiculously long hours. But sadly, there are far more people who think they’re exceptions to the rule. For the vast majority of us, the graph of perceived productivity vs. actual productivity once we go past 40 hours would be a sobering lesson.

I repeat, the answer is not more hours, it’s better hours. If your solution is simply to throw hours at a problem then in the long run you’ll damage your health, your business and your relationships. That can never be a price worth paying.

And with that sombre message I’ll leave you to a sun-kissed bank holiday weekend. I’ll be back next Friday with the business lessons you can learn from your Fitbit…