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.


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.

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?


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.

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.’


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.

Why You Need a Longer To-Do List

We’re into April – and the Blog is approaching its sixth birthday. That’s something close to 300 posts and nearly 200,000 words.

Which three word combination has appeared most frequently? I’ve no way of telling, but I sincerely hope it’s ‘work/life balance.’ But there are three more little words that won’t be far behind: the ones that haunt all of us. Yep, I’m talking about the ‘to-do list.’

However you keep it – on your phone, in Evernote or on a pleasantly retro piece of paper – the to-do list dominates our lives.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the trap we all occasionally fall into – scoring a few quick wins at the bottom while the most important thing on it remains ominously un-ticked. Let’s also ignore the need to prioritise the damn thing and to make sure that ‘life’ is every bit as well represented as ‘work.’

Let’s just look at one thing: the sheer length of your to-do list. And let me now make the vast majority of you splutter on your cornflakes or hurl your coffee at the screen in annoyance.


Because I’m going to suggest that your to-do list should be longer.

And that if it was, you’d be even more productive…

Let me use a simple example: ‘plan next year.’ Another three little words that will have appeared on all our to-do lists at some point in the not-too-distant past.

But what does ‘plan next year’ really mean…

Once you go to work you realise that ‘plan next year’ contains a series of questions:

  • What do we want to achieve next year?
  • So what are the quarterly targets we need to reach to do this?
  • What does this mean for staffing levels?
  • Do we need to cut costs? Or raise more investment?
  • What advertising and marketing do we need to do?
  • And how are all these plans going to impact on the cash flow?

All these points clearly impact on your to-do list: but suddenly one big task – made even more difficult because it is so vague – can be broken down into a series of small, precise, achievable steps:

  • Decide key targets/goals for next year
  • Determine necessary quarterly targets
  • Review staffing levels in light of targets
  • Plan advertising & marketing strategy for next year
  • Prepare business plan and cash flow forecast
  • Make appointment with bank

There are days when the to-do list fills everyone with dread: but the dread comes not from the length of the list, but from filling it with things we have no chance of achieving. If ‘plan next year’ is on the list with a host of client work and ‘Nativity Play at 2:30’ then you haven’t a hope of doing it. You won’t even start it.

You do have a hope of determining your key goals for next year. Or working backwards to your quarterly targets. What you’ll do by breaking your to-do list down into smaller segments is achieve something – instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s in front of you.

There are two other reasons for breaking the list down. If you go home at the end of the day and ‘plan next year’ is still on your list it’s going to cause you pain. And it’s going to cause you more pain when you see it again the next morning. But if you go home with your key targets identified and crossed off the list… That’s an entirely different feeling.

Secondly, your to-do list isn’t a wish list: it is – or should be – something that reflects your overall plan for the year or the quarter. And that plan requires specific actions – ‘decide key targets’ – not vague pipedreams like ‘plan next year.’

None of this advice is revolutionary. You’ve almost certainly heard or read it before. After all, it’s only eating the elephant one bite at a time. But we all slip back into bad habits and trust me, this works. It may be counter-intuitive but making your to-do list longer means you’ll ultimately get big things done faster and achieve more. And that’s what we all want…

Do All Those Numbers Really Matter?

In the olden days – when I first dipped a toe into sales management – it was fairly simple. We recorded the number of calls our guys made, the average order value, the number of new customers and… that was pretty much it. And then every month we’d sit round a table and gradually cover it with a blizzard of paper.

Occasionally, a decision would float upwards and be acted on – but you know what? If I’m honest, decisions on the sales force were only one-third dictated by our analysis. The other two-thirds was gut feeling – unless there was a diktat from the top floor, in which case everything we’d decided was irrelevant anyway.

(More of diktats from the top floor in a minute…)

Now here we are in 2014. The year when you can measure everything. All the traditional metrics are still there – plus a myriad of new toys. How many people have visited our website? What pages did they click on? How many Twitter followers do we have? How many Facebook likes?

The list is endless. And the question is obvious – do all those numbers really matter? In fact, is there too much information? Are we in danger of having so much information that what really matters gets lost in the noise?

What we need to do as owners and directors of SMEs is cut through the noise. Twelve weeks today it’s Boxing Day, so I’m confident that your planning for 2015 will be in full swing and a crucial part of that planning is identifying the numbers that are important – and which are just noise.

Why? Because you can’t monitor everything. There simply isn’t time. You need to be at the Nativity Play remember? Not worrying about how many people from Chicago have clicked on your About page.

…Which – had it been available at the time – is what I would have been doing at Nestle. On the first Friday I was there I added them up: I’d inherited 25 ‘key’ performance indicators for my sales team.

Yep, the sales team was a massive overhead. So the diktat from the top floor was simple. Measure it to death. The problem was, the sales team had no idea what they should focus on. I’m proud to say I stripped the 25 numbers they wanted down to three monthly KPIs which never changed – and another three which did change depending on what our brand priorities were. The performance of the sales team improved significantly.

As many of you know, I talk to everyone I work with about the ‘pulse’ in their business. What are the key numbers you need to look at on a Monday morning? To some it’s money in the bank: for others it’s orders taken or new customers.

The key numbers vary enormously from business to business – and sometimes they’re not the ‘headline’ numbers. One of the most important functions The Alternative Board provides is to drill down into a member’s business and help them identify what really drives the business and which numbers determine the health – or otherwise – of the business.

So as you look ahead to 2015, how do you determine the numbers that are crucial to the success of your business? Rest assured that TAB will be tackling that in some detail between now and the year end, but the first step is simple. It’s to have a really clear idea of where you want the business to be in X number of years. Know that – and knowing what you need to measure and act on instantly becomes clearer.

And here’s my commitment. Whatever you want to achieve, however ambitious your plans, TAB will never saddle you with 25 KPIs. We’ll keep the numbers that matter short, sharp and focused – so that when you need to take action, you can take action.

Sixteen Weeks and Counting…

As I mentioned last week, there were 17 weeks to go until the end of the year. Inevitably, that’s now 16 weeks and – as Rudyard Kipling would have said – we need to fill them with 90 days worth of distance run.

…And we all need to make sure we hit the ground running on Monday January 5th. You have two choices on that morning. You can go into your office knowing exactly what you need to do and what you’re aiming for in 2015. Or you can sit at your desk trying to remember what you do for a living. The choice you make will define – at the very least – the first three months of the year.

So as promised last week, here are five key strategies to follow between now and the end of the year that will help you finish 2014 in a blaze of glory and start 2015 in exactly the way you’d want to start the year.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, remember the mantra of Stephen Covey. ‘Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.’ What’s the One Big Thing you really need to do before the end of the year? What’s the OBT that would make all the difference to your business? Keep that front and centre of your agenda in the next sixteen weeks: share it with your fellow Board members. Don’t worry: they’ll make sure you keep it front and centre…

And yes – if the One Big Thing is simply ‘get all the nasty stuff done’ so you can really start 2015 focusing on exactly what you want to focus on, that’s fine. But the key word there is all. If you’re going to clear the decks, do it thoroughly. Write down everything that needs to be done and out of the way by the end of the year – and sit down to your Christmas dinner with it all done.

Go Away. I absolutely mean it. The Northumberland coast is wonderful in the Autumn. Take yourself off for a couple of days, walk on the beach, come back to wherever you’re staying and sit and think. What do I really want from my business? What could we really achieve if we put our mind to it? And most importantly, is my work/life balance as balanced as I’d really like it to be?

Spend a morning with excel as well – and you need to prepare two cash flow forecasts: the best of times and the worst of times (sorry, I’m still hooked on my Dickens quotes…) Prepare a worst case scenario cash flow forecast: don’t gloss over expenses, assume you’ll lose a major client and assume you’ll hit 80% of your targets. And then dare to dream. What would your business, your bank balance and your life look like if you hit all your targets? Even the ones that you think are well out of reach.

Get your tech up to date. Do you have a social media plan? Can you edit word documents on your iPad? How out of date is your website, Facebook page and Twitter profile? Take the time to do a proper audit of the tech and digital changes you need to make to help you achieve your goals – and I guarantee you’ll be able to find a lot of the answers simply by asking Google and investing some time.

Lastly, find your perfect client. There’s a client or customer out there that you really want to work with in 2015. We’ve all got one, and I’m no exception. So what makes them tick? What do they really want from their business? And why are you the perfect person to supply it? Start the charm offensive now – and you may be pleasantly surprised. They may become a customer or client well before 2015.

Of course, if that happened the killjoys round the Alternative Board table would simply demand that you chose another perfect client, but that’s the price of progress!

Oh – there’s one more thing you need to do well before the end of the year. You know it and I know it. None of what we do or achieve would be possible without the support and understanding of our wives/husbands/partners and families. So don’t leave the Christmas shopping until December 24th. Get it done, cross it off your list and give them the Christmas they deserve…

Short, Sharp – and Successful?

‘Medical experts’ have just announced that short, sharp bursts are the answer. As you get older it’s not long spells of exercise you need: it’s short bursts of concentrated, maximum effort. That’s the key to staying healthy and getting the most out of life.

…And according to an article I’ve just been reading by American entrepreneur Chris Winfield, the same is true in business. If you want to get more done – or the same amount done in half the time – the answer isn’t to work slowly and methodically down your to-do list. It’s to blitz it with short, concentrated bursts of effort where you’re 100% focused on your work: no internet, no making a coffee, no re-arranging every pencil on your desk.

This was the article I alluded to in last week’s post – and thank you for all the feedback to that one. I’ll be collating all the tips and tricks in a future post (and obviously leaving out a couple of the too-easily-distracted confessions).

To business for this week – and the idea Chris Winfield is using is the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late eighties (and as the seasoned travellers among you will know, named after the Italian word for tomato).

It’s an incredibly simple technique and works on the principle that frequent breaks can improve mental agility and make you more – not less – productive.

If you haven’t come across it before you break your work down into intervals known as ‘pomodori.’ Traditionally these intervals are 25 minutes long, and are followed by a five minute break. That said, I know someone who uses 15 minute intervals and someone else (obviously a three Weetabix man) who uses a 45 minute interval. Whatever works for you.

During your 25 minutes the idea is that you work on one task, without distraction, and then – after four pomodori – you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

I like this technique, and in some ways it reminds me of the traditional advice steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was dispensing over a hundred years ago: work on your most important task until it’s done – and then move on to number two…

Where Chris Winfield’s adaptation of the Pomodoro Technique varies is in the way he chooses the tasks for his concentrated bursts:

The reality is that I’m a human being, living in a world full of other humans. I have emotions I don’t control and I often get tired. Some tasks I simply don’t feel like doing, even though I know they’re important and possibly urgent. To make this work long term I had to learn to accept these things, working with rather than against them.

He also moved from a five day working week to a seven day week, accepting that not everything could – or should – be done between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. The net result? Winfield claimed to have cut his working week to 16.7 hours whilst achieving just as much as he had done previously – and to feeling a lot less stressed.

The Pomodoro Technique might not work for everyone – but it’s worth trying. The two Board members I mentioned above absolutely swear by it. And as the old saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. That holds good for your to-do list and your personal organisation as much as it does for your sales techniques and your stock control.

Next week is the last week before I go on holiday – when I come back we’ll be more than half way through August and the end of the year will be in sight. So I’ll be looking at what you (and I) still need to do in the remaining four months of the year – and considering what’s the best period of time for business planning. A week? A month? A year? Or do we go really long term and look at three to five years…

The Unforgiving Minute

There you are, 13 or 14, having a game of cricket with your mates or fixing your bike – or plucking up the courage to talk to the girl next door.

“Edward,” your mum says, “Time to come in and write your thank you letters.”

You sigh. Was there ever a bigger waste of time? After all, your auntie will cough up again next year. And at Christmas. She has to: it’s in the rules.

What’s emphatically not in the rules is taking time out of your day to wish someone happy birthday nearly thirty years later. But several of you did – so thank you. I had a lovely day on Wednesday and I really appreciate all the messages – even the less complimentary ones, pointing out that the years may have taken their toll…

I was going to write about testimonials this week but somehow the words wouldn’t come. I managed the electronic equivalent of a great many screwed up pieces of A4 – so let’s consider wasting time instead.

Shortly after I started my first job the sales manager took me to one side. “You want to be successful, Ed?” he said.

“Yes. Absolutely. Definitely. Yes. Obviously,” I said, eloquence not being my strong suit at that point in my life.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Do a full day’s work every day – including Friday. And that’ll put you ahead of 98% of the people out there.”

At the time I didn’t pay too much attention. I may even have been a little dismissive. ‘Do a full day’s work every day?’ That was obvious. How did you become a manager if all you could do was trot out the obvious?

Over the years I’ve realised that ‘do a full day’s work’ is probably the best business advice anyone ever receives. It might even be the best advice for life in general – as Rudyard Kipling pointed out:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…

…Which was fine when If was written in 1895. It was even fine when my sales manager gave me the advice a hundred years later. But it’s not fine now – because since then the internet has come along and the ‘unforgiving minute’ has very definitely become the distracting minute.

Had the Dark Lord spent a large slice of eternity on a project to disrupt your work he could hardly have come up with a better plan than the internet. It will be there all the time in the background, my Lord. With everything on it that they’re interested in. Instantly. At the click of a button. ‘Have a look at this recipe. Why not check the cricket score as well? Here’s your favourite song: it’ll only waste three minutes…’

I’m as guilty as anyone – my particular bête noire is online banking (how many times, Ed? You do not need to check the cash flow every day). Then there are everyone’s updates on LinkedIn, the cricket scores, football, the BBC Sport site…

Staying focused shouldn’t be a problem. But, increasingly, it is. So I’m always interested in articles that look at time management, productivity and getting things done – and last week I came across this one, promising that we can all get the same amount done in half the time.

It’s a subject that I haven’t written about for a long time, and maybe I should return to it – especially as “finding the time to get it all done and still see my family” is such a recurring theme round the TAB boardroom table.

So let me finish this week with two very simple questions. What’s the website that wastes the most time for you? (Please remember this is a family blog – and yes, of course there’s a prize for anyone who replies TAB York.) And what’s the technique/trick/habit/act of will power that most helps you stay focused during the working day?

I’ll look at one very simple technique next week, and then I’ll pull all the collective wisdom together in the following post. In the meantime, enjoy the weekend and please rest assured that sitting back with a glass of wine very definitely does count as ‘sixty seconds’ worth of distance run…’

Jam Tomorrow

We desperately need to do the kitchen. This work-top’s had it.

I know, I know…

It’s no use saying ‘I know.’ We can’t live like this. And that’s before we tackle the bathroom – which is barely fit for human habitation.

I know that as well…

So when are we going to do them?

Soon – alright? It’s just that I can’t afford to take the money out of the business right now…

I’d wager that all of us running our own business have had a conversation that went something along those lines…

As I said last week, entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic: they have an absolute conviction that tomorrow is going to be better than today. But the ‘jam tomorrow’ argument is a tough one. That feeling was echoed in a recent Board meeting – and in a separate one-to-one: it’s much easier to be resilient and optimistic – and to see the glass as half full – if you know the business is making some money and you can draw some cash from it.

After all it’s not just your spouse that you have to explain the ‘jam tomorrow’ argument to…

I realise there hasn’t been a pay rise for three years. But you don’t need me to tell you the state of the economy. And look at our order book. Look at the potential business we’ve got in the pipeline. You must be able to see that a year from now this will be a totally different company.

But ‘a year from now’ doesn’t pay for a summer holiday – and you’re not the only one who needs a new kitchen, bathroom or car.

However, there’s one more person you need to have the ‘jam tomorrow’ conversation with. And this one might be even harder than your spouse or your staff. The person you need to talk to is yourself. Yes, I wrote last week that entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic – but that doesn’t mean we don’t have dark days. We wouldn’t be human if sometimes we didn’t question ourselves – and wonder if it really will be jam tomorrow, or whether we’re letting down the people we love and the people we employ.

So what’s the answer to the ‘jam tomorrow’ question? Obviously it varies from business to business and entrepreneur to entrepreneur. But there are three things your answer cannot be:

It can’t be indefinite. You can’t answer the question by turning into Wilkins Micawber and saying ‘something will turn up.’ 99% of the time something will only turn up if you plan for it and work for it.

Your answer can’t be indecisive. When you’re asked about the new kitchen or the pay rise you can’t say, Soon – alright? No, I don’t know when. How can I know when in the current economic climate? As soon as things improve. Hopefully that won’t be too long… Your spouse and your staff won’t accept that – and they don’t deserve it either.

It can’t be a lie. As 10,000 Physics teachers have said, ‘There’s no point cheating, boy. You’re only cheating yourself.’ And there’s no point lying to yourself either: if the jam tomorrow is actually jam that’s three years away, far better to admit it to yourself and to everyone else. If you’re saying to your spouse, ‘I’m sorry, you need to put your dreams on hold for a while’ then you need to be upfront and open about it.

What the ‘jam tomorrow’ question does highlight is the constant need to set realistic and challenging – but achievable – targets. Hopefully that’s where TAB comes in: rest assured that every Board member round the table has at some point realised that it won’t be ‘jam today:’ but they’ve come up with successful strategies to make sure that it definitely is jam tomorrow.

On Stress – and Tony Blair…

Well, it’s taken 186 blogs and 120,900 words but this week I finally turn to Tony Blair for business advice. ‘Never say never’ as the old adage goes…

The advice – I’ll come to the exact words later – was from his counselling of Rebekah Brooks during the phone-hacking trial. Irrespective of whether we think Rebekah Brooks is guilty or innocent there’s one thing we can agree on – she’s under a tremendous amount of stress.

You don’t need me to tell you that too much stress, especially when it’s prolonged, can play havoc with your physical and mental health. The trouble is that stress is inevitable – especially if you’re running a business.

And that’s fine: moderate amounts of stress are good for us. Studies show that intermittent stress keeps the brain alert and makes us perform better. I’d go so far as to say that there are plenty of TAB members who need some stress in their lives. “If there isn’t any stress I realise that I go out of my way to create it,” is a not-untypical quote.

After all, it’s not so long ago that TAB members would have spent their days in caves picking nits off each other – before they went out to hunt something that was horned and dangerous. We’re genetically programmed to need some stress – just not too much.

But supposing you can’t do anything about it – that whether it’s business or personal, your stress levels are in the red zone? You still have to run your business – so how do you cope? In JFK’s words, how do you maintain “grace under pressure?”

I’ve been reading an article in Forbes magazine by Travis Bradberry, one of their regular contributors. How Successful People Stay Calm is the title and you can read it here.

Bradberry outlines a number of ‘coping’ mechanisms and strategies, among them:

  • Successful people appreciate what they have
  • They avoid asking ‘what if?’
  • They stay positive
  • They disconnect
  • They sleep
  • And they use their support system

Let me pick up on just three of those. People who cope well with stress avoid asking ‘what if?’ Dead right. Deal with what you can deal with. Deal with the situation as it is now. Don’t drive yourself mad imagining a catastrophe: in my experience it invariably doesn’t happen.

They disconnect. It’s difficult to do but it’s invaluable. Whatever the crisis raging at work, you almost certainly can’t do anything about it at 8pm on Sunday. So don’t try. Read to your children instead. Drink a bottle of wine with your wife. Do something that’s really important.

And at last we come to Tony Blair. One of the best ways of coping with prolonged stress is to make sure you sleep properly. In the now-infamous e-mail Blair told Brooks, ‘keep strong and definitely (take) sleeping pills.’

How you get to sleep is up to you, but our former leader was right – if you’re under extreme pressure, you need to sleep properly. A crisis at work – like most things – will ultimately pass: the key thing is to make sure that you’re still standing when it has passed.

I said I’d only pick up on three of those points: that’s because I hope I can take the last point as read. Of course you should use your support network – and hopefully you’ll know that you have the ideal support network round the TAB boardroom table. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as my Grandma used to say. A problem shared with eight of your peers is one that’s well on its way to not being a problem for much longer.

And with that it’s time to leave my cave and take this week’s stress out on a squash ball. Enjoy your weekend – and make sure it’s stress-free…