In Praise of Praise


I’ve written previously about Millennials, Baby Boomers and all the other generational labels that we pretend we know. So far, though, I’ve neglected the ‘Snowflake Generation.’

‘Snowflake,’ for those of you that don’t know, is a less-than-complimentary term applied to the young adults of the 2010s: it probably comes from the 1999 film Fight Club and its famous line: ‘We are not special. We are not beautiful and unique snowflakes.’

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It’s now come to be applied to a generation that supposedly were told they were special; children that were given an over-inflated sense of their own worth and – as a consequence – are now far too easily offended.

But now these easily-offended snowflakes are entering the workplace. So what are we as employers and business owners going to do when these ‘snowflakes’ increasingly make up the workforce? Are we going to have to constantly shower them with praise, irrespective of how well they’re performing?

Maybe the question is academic though – because far too many bosses and managers seem to have a problem with giving their teams any praise.

Why is that? Any number of research studies show that praise and positive recognition in the workplace can be hugely motivating – and not just for the person on the receiving end of it. Employee of the Month is too easily dismissed as a cliché: that’s wrong, it works.

We don’t really need a research study, do we? Our own commons sense tells us that praise works. Your wife only has to say, “Oh, darling, that was wonderful…” And you’ll be far more likely to make her another slice of toast.

One of the worst things a manager can do is reward hard work and achievement with silence. Yet only one in four American workers are confident that if they do good work they’ll be praised for it. Far too often the culture seems to be, “No news is good news” or – as they say in Germany – “Nicht gescholten ist lob genug.” (No scolding is praise enough.)

But we all know that’s nonsense. So why do people struggle to give praise? Maybe it starts with a false belief that really good managers are the tough ones who don’t hold back when it comes to telling people what’s wrong. Maybe some managers believe that giving praise will encourage staff to take it easy and rest on their laurels. Some might be consciously or unconsciously copying their own previous bosses: some managers might even see giving praise as a sign of weakness.

Whatever the reason the number of managers who don’t give any positive feedback is frighteningly high – 37% according to a recent survey in the Harvard Business Review. And you can probably add a few percentage points more: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that what a manager sees as ‘straightforward, honest feedback’ is all too often perceived as criticism.

I think that’s a tragedy. There’s no better way to motivate people than by giving praise and it always works. There cannot be a more effective phrase in a manager’s vocabulary than, “You did a great job. Thank you.”

Not for the first time, I’m struck by the parallel between managing a team and being a parent. I’ve always tried to be honest with my boys: if they’ve done brilliantly, I’ll shower them with praise. If they could have done better, I’ll try to tactfully point it out – and suggest a way they could improve. I’ve never been a believer in praising everything they do – otherwise praise becomes meaningless – and the same is true in the workplace. But if someone has done a great job, tell them.

It will be the best investment of time and no money you ever make.

And now I must turn my attention to my own beautiful, unique snowflakes. If you can call someone who thinks his bedroom floor should be covered in underpants and needs a three course meal two hours before a three course meal a ‘snowflake…’

The Road from Newport Pagnell


Over the last seven years it has been my privilege to listen to some outstanding business advice from the members of TAB York. It’s been advice which has transformed businesses [and] transformed lives.

Those were words I used in my final paragraph last week. Some of you may have detected a valedictory tone.

Well, it’s not farewell. It is, however, time for a change.

Seven years ago I ‘pushed my breakfast round my plate in a desolate motorway service station’ and decided that enough was enough. I walked out of Newport Pagnell services determined to start my own business. In December 2009 TAB York was born and the journey since then has been by far the most rewarding of my business life.

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But, you come to a fork in the road: you have a choice to make and that choice determines your future direction.

In 2015 Paul Dickinson and Jo Clarkson offered me the chance to take over TAB UK – to become the franchise holder for the whole of the United Kingdom.

I thought about it long and hard. It was a significant financial commitment and it meant giving up the regular contact with the majority of my Board members. But that chance – and the challenge – had been offered to me. And – like so many TAB members up and down the country – I didn’t want to think “what if…”

I talked it over with Dav – several times – and thought about little else as I drove around North Yorkshire. And then I committed myself.

So I’m delighted to announce that from today I will no longer be responsible for TAB York: I will be responsible for TAB UK. It will be a challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity for me. I’ll be going into business with an old friend, Mags Fuller, who’ll be my brilliant co-director and co-shareholder. And right now I’d like to place my thanks on record for all the help Mags has given me in getting the deal over the line, and to Paul and Jo for the incredible work they’ve done from the start.

So I’m looking forward to working with her, with all the franchisees and with Suzanne, Rena, Emma, Nathan and Nick – the outstanding team at TAB UK’s Harrogate head office.

Will I have regrets about giving up TAB York? Yes, of course I will. I’m no longer going to have the same monthly contact with several of my TAB York board members, all of whom have been a huge pleasure to work with and who have contributed to my life. As I said last week and repeated in the opening paragraph, it has been a privilege to work with them.

I will still be running one board, with Paul taking over the Board I’m relinquishing. Now, I’ll also be chairing our internal boards of the 28 TAB franchisees: that will see me leave Yorkshire for London and the North West once a month. Breakfast at Newport Pagnell? Maybe once, to reflect on how far I’ve come and how much TAB has given me.

And the blog? EdReidYork? Rest assured that it will continue: the tone and the content may be slightly different, but writing these words every week has been a central part of the last seven years: it’s given me a chance to pause and reflect and – in doing some of the research – I’ve learnt a lot. And the feedback has been consistently brilliant: intelligent, insightful and supportive.

So a chapter has ended – but a new, and very exciting one, is about to start. Let me finish for this week by saying thank you: firstly to the members of TAB York, who have simply been outstanding over the past seven years. And secondly to Dav and our boys for their support and encouragement as I take the next, exciting step in my career.

Rather more prosaically one of the next steps I take will be on to the ski slopes in Morzine. The blog will be on holiday next week as I try to keep up with Dan and Rory and will return on Friday March 3rd., tanned, relaxed and hopefully not aching too much!

Thoughts from a Mile High


As you read this I’m in Denver: the end of August, and time once again for the annual Alternative Board conference.

This year there are more of us than ever from the UK, and we’re joined by TAB colleagues from Germany, Austria, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Canada and the US. It feels truly international and I’m absolutely loving it.

I won’t say the conference is the highlight of my year – just in case my wife pops Ed Reid York into Google – but when I sit down in November to plan the following year the last week in August is at the front of my thoughts. I simply love mixing with colleagues from other countries and the exchange of ideas.

In many ways it takes me back to my days at Northumbria University, when I was Chairman of the sexily-named ‘Polyglot,’ the society for foreign language students. These days Polyglot has matured into ‘EU Students at Northumbria:’ it’s clearly sobered up since the days when my definition of ‘international collaboration’ relied heavily on Sangria…

Not that alcohol won’t make a fleeting appearance in Denver. So far the ‘Brit evening’ has featured Pimms, gins, an Irish pub, cocktails, real ale and bowler hats. Despite the best efforts of US counter-intelligence our plans for this week remain a closely guarded secret…

A lot of my American colleagues are old friends now. I first went to Denver in 2009. At the time Dan was seven and Rory four. So mixed in with the views on Brexit – and the unappetising choice between Trump and Clinton – there’ll be a fair amount of catching up with family news as well. And the issues are always the same…

Yep, whether you’re in Denver or Dringhouses, Colorado or Clifton Moor one of your children is having problems at school: your daughter is refusing to eat her vegetables and your teenage son has just come home two hours after he promised to be home.

And isn’t that exactly the same with business?

The conference in Denver will bring TAB franchisees from eight or nine countries together: without exception, their members will have the same problems.

Yes, local legislation may alter the fine detail, but the wider principles – and the worries – are the same the world over.

• How do I achieve what I’m capable of achieving?
• How do I stay in control of the business and make sure the business doesn’t control me?
• And how do I keep my work/life balance truly balanced?

And so on… The more time I spend working with entrepreneurs the more the common threads emerge – wherever the entrepreneur is based. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose needs a business equivalent.

I’ll be back in the UK after the Bank Holiday and next week’s post will be dated September. Is that a sign of me getting older? This year seems to have flown past. Then again I’ve a friend who’s now into his eighties. “Make the most of it, Ed,” he always says to me. “By the time you’re my age you’re having breakfast every half hour.”

I certainly do intend to ‘make the most of it’ – starting with the last four months of 2016. In many ways the September to December period is the most important part of the year. It’s the four months that’ll see you hit your targets for the full year, and it’s the time to lay all the groundwork for the following year – which I’m absolutely certain will be helped by the insights, wisdom and experience of my TAB colleagues from around the world.

Have a great bank holiday weekend.

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…

Why You Should Hire a Scrum Half


“Man on!!”

“Pick him up!!”

…And of course, Tony Adams marshalling the Arsenal back four of the late eighties, arm aloft and yelling “Out! Out!” like a fervent Brexiteer.

Yes, communication in football has always been a simple affair. But still, it appears, too complicated for today’s young players. You may have seen this story in the papers last week: Southampton boss Ronald Koeman is so dismayed by the amount of time his young team spend with their headphones on and/or playing on their mobiles that he’s sending them back to the classroom – to learn how to talk to each other.

So much for football: let me switch sports. When I read that article about football I realised how much time we spend with my son’s U14 rugby team bellowing one basic instruction: “talk to each other.” It’s simple: the more they communicate, the better they play.

I spent most of my short rugby career on the wing: but I was occasionally switched from that splendid isolation and thrown right into the thick of it. “Need you to play scrum half today, Ed.”

The scrum half’s job is simple: he’s the communicator, the instigator. You see it in nearly all school teams: the chirpy little livewire with no. 9 on his back.

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…And of course thinking about communication in sport set me off thinking about business. I read a great blog post recently from one of TAB York’s members, looking at the different roles and personalities within successful teams. The post referenced the work of British management theorist Meredith Belbin and looked at the nine different roles he identified within teams.

Was ‘scrum half’ one of them? No, not quite. Probably the closest role that Belbin identifies is the ‘Shaper’ – someone who ‘provides the necessary drive to ensure that the team keeps moving and doesn’t lose focus or momentum.’ And you don’t need to watch many games of American football to realise that’s an exact description of the quarterback’s role.

So does your business need a scrum half/quarterback? Or in business terms a ‘shaper?’ Someone whose strengths – according to Belbin – are that they’re challenging and dynamic and have the drive and courage to overcome obstacles.

In my experience what every business – and/or team within that business – really does need is someone who’s enthusiastic, who’s focused on the objectives and, above all, who communicates well.

That might well be the owner of the business – but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve seen plenty of successful businesses where it was the second-in-command, or simply one of the team members.

There’s another strand to good communication that is perennially important in business. Fortunately it’s one that Ronald Koeman doesn’t need to worry about. Footballers may occasionally telegraph a pass: there’s no evidence yet of them needing to e-mail each other.

But how many times have you received an e-mail from someone – especially one pitching their services – and thought, ‘you must be joking. If you can’t even write a coherent e-mail, how can you possibly expect me to do business with you?’

There have been plenty of times when I’ve quoted from Rework on this blog. A sentence that always stays with me from that excellent little book is this one:

If you’re trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. That’s because being a good writer is about more than just writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.

Substitute the word ‘communicator’ for ‘writer’ and that exactly summarises my thinking. Communication is more important than ever in business – and good communicators will increasingly be at a premium. It’s not just footballers who are growing up with an addiction to headphones, mobiles and – as we saw last week – emojis.

So when a natural scrum half walks through your door – someone who’ll communicate your message inside and outside your business – tie him down to a long term contract.

Do you really need an office?


Why don’t you make a tube train your office? Or a treehouse? Or take the office off dry land altogether and turn your yacht into your office?

Don’t have a yacht yet? Maybe it’s because you’re stuck in a conventional office…

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Sometimes the purpose of this blog is to ask ‘why?’ Sometimes – in the words of Robert Kennedy – it’s to see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’ To question the accepted business wisdom: something we’ll need to do more and more if we want to be successful.

So do you really need a conventional office? Or would you be better off in the tube train or a treehouse?

Let’s rewind to when you started in business. An office was essential. In fact it was well beyond essential: it was where you saw your boss, saw clients, worked with your colleagues and gathered round the mythical water cooler. But fast forward to 2013 and the Regus Global Economic Indicator of 26,000 business managers from 90 countries revealed that 48% of them are now working remotely for at least half their working week. And the percentage for 2015 will undoubtedly be higher.

Many start-ups are now doing very nicely without an office – as this story in the Guardian illustrates. And the more you think about it, the more getting rid of the office makes sense. I can easily come up with half a dozen reasons:

How much money would you save? Rent, business rates, office equipment, worrying about which chairs to buy…

Collaborative working is becoming easier and easier. I remember reading about 37 Signals a few years ago – before they became Basecamp. I think at the time they had 17 people spread over eight different countries. Increasingly companies want to work with the most talented people they can – and not limit the pool of talent to a 20 mile radius of a particular building.

The evidence is clear – people who work remotely are more productive. Here’s just one article from the Harvard Business Review that confirms it: the internet is awash with them.

Top people are increasingly looking for flexibility and quality of life: of course they want to build a business, or be part of a team that builds a business. But they want to be at Sports Day as well – not stuck in an office or driving round town looking for a parking space.

Get rid of the office and everyone saves time travelling. And lastly, there’s a new generation of people entering the workforce. They’ve been brought up with Skype, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. They don’t see sitting at a desk going through 200 emails as an indicator of success.

I’m increasingly wondering if the office has simply become symbolic for many of us. ‘I’ve got a business so I must have an office.’ Or is it somewhere to retreat to? Is the office the suit and tie equivalent of the garden shed?

As I said last week, we’re all in the results business, not the hours business. We’re not in the attendance business either. So I don’t see it as a problem if your team work remotely: they still need to produce results and not producing will quickly be apparent – wherever they’re working from.

Ten years ago the idea of being successful without having an office would have been laughable: ten years from now starting a business and immediately digging a hole in the cash flow with rent, rates and desks may seem equally ridiculous. So don’t be frightened to ask, ‘why not?’ – even if the question is ‘why not get rid of the office?’

Team Building? Or Team Busting?


I started drafting this post on Tuesday evening. Tomorrow morning the Ashes start. I’m absolutely certain that by the time you read this on Friday the match situation will be as follows:

England        500 all out

Australia      157-7

How can it be anything else? The England squad have been on a four day trip to Spain. They’ve been mountain-biking, played golf and met the new coach. The Aussies – seriously, what do they know – have warmed up for the cricket by… well, playing cricket.

There is, I suppose, the tiny possibility that it could go wrong. Sadly the ECB has a long history of pre-Ashes boot camps: they haven’t always gone according to the script…

2013/2014 Staffordshire. Kevin Pietersen described it as “a shambles” and the team lost the Ashes 5-0

2010/2011 Bavaria. Jimmy Anderson broke a rib and Graham Swann called it the “worst four days of my life.” But the team still won the series 3-1

2009 Flanders. Ravi Bopara lost his passport and Freddie Flintoff came off second best in a contest with the local beer. No matter: England won 2-1

So much for sport – in fact we’d better turn away from sport fairly quickly: right now hundreds of professional footballers are setting off on pre-season tours. Freddie’s problems will soon be eclipsed…

What about business? Team building exercises, bonding sessions and away days are endemic throughout the corporate world. I’ve spent a couple of days in a remarkably fine hotel and I’ve spent a couple of days in a tent – both in the belief that my team and I would ultimately perform better and the company’s bottom line would benefit.

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But do team building exercises work? Do they really strengthen bonds and trust between colleagues and benefit the company?

A survey published in the Telegraph suggests that the answer is a resounding ‘no’ – that team building exercises leave people feeling awkward around colleagues and less than impressed by a company they feel has wasted time and money.

Instead of benefiting from events like bungee jumping or kart racing, the survey showed that employees simply wanted better, more open collaboration at work. And that ‘trust’ exercises – such as being blindfolded and led by colleagues – were derided as irrelevant and embarrassing.

“British companies are spending a huge amount of time and effort [and money] in building more effective teams,” said a Vodafone director. “The research confirms that people place more value on open, collaborative and flexible ways of working, rather than one-off exercises.”

So with those two days in the tent a – thankfully – distant memory, what do I think?

With the economy picking up team building will be back on the agenda: it seems to appear and disappear as the economy waxes and wanes. In my experience it’s one of the first things to go when the economy turns down. Ironically, that’s probably the time when getting the absolute maximum from your team is essential.

What works? Both Nestle and Diageo were committed to team building exercises and I’ve taken part in some fairly dramatic productions: but in my experience the ‘low-level’ team building, such as going out for a drink together or supporting a common charity, is just as effective as the ‘stage-managed’ events.

What I liked were specific events: if they were aimed at developing you as a leader they were fine. Ditto if they were developing the team. But when the messages were muddled the events always disappointed. “Well that was two days of your life you’re not going to get back,” as the politer participants put it…

If you’re thinking of organising an event for your team there are two more suggestions I’d make:

  • First of all, when the team come back, take action. Do not say, “Oh well, Paul, you’ve spent three days in the Brecon Beacons with the SAS, now could you just go back to normal?” If Paul’s learnt one thing in the Brecon Beacons it’s almost certainly that he wants a new ‘normal’ – so don’t disappoint him.
  • Secondly, make sure the basics are right back at the office. Remember the results of the Telegraph survey: what your team really value are open systems in the office that allow them to work effectively, not spend their time dealing with red tape and procedure.

Long before you go anywhere near a mountain you need the right atmosphere and culture at work. You need to make sure your team have the skills, training and tools they need to do the job, and a culture in which they can grow.

That’s down to you as leaders – and if there’s one thing I don’t worry about, it’s the quality of leadership round the TAB York boardroom tables. If only I could say the same about the Ashes…

Would you Employ Kevin Pietersen?


It seems a long time ago, but I once wrote a blog praising Andrew Strauss – and the great job he’d done in taking the England cricket team to the top of the world rankings.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then: and a lot of England batsmen have found themselves back in the hutch for not many. England are about as far away from the top of the rankings as it’s possible to get: someone is needed to put things right, appoint a new coach and make Cricinfo worth reading again. Step forward, Andrew Strauss, now the ECB’s newly appointed Director of Cricket.

Strauss didn’t have the luxury of easing himself into his new role. Day one, and the hottest of hot potatoes was in his lap: Kevin Pietersen. Should KP be welcomed back into the England fold? Or was it impossible to integrate him into the team – something made doubly difficult by the personal animosity between the two men?

Opinions are sharply divided. On the one hand we have Piers Morgan and the supporters of KP (the small matter of 2.6m followers on Twitter). On the other we have some older, wiser heads, pointing out that Pietersen will be 35 by the time the Ashes come round and that, actually, his average in the last series he played wasn’t that good.

Former players have been quick to wade in – supporting and opposing Pietersen in equal measure. Dominic Cork – one of the antis – used the delightfully old-fashioned phrase “bad egg.”

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The parallels with business are all too obvious. Anyone who has run a company, been in charge of a sales-force or who’s been responsible for any team will have faced exactly the same dilemma.

‘I’ve an undeniably talented person. When he’s on form he’s more effective than anyone else in the company. But he’s not a team player. He’s unpopular. There’s a collective sigh of relief when he’s not around…’

This is one of the toughest decisions any of us face in business. Do I keep him? Do I let him go? Is he encouraging the rest of the team? Does his success motivate them? Or are they held back? Does he cast too big a shadow?

Prepare for some sleepless nights. I’ve certainly had them throughout my working life: the ‘KP challenge’ has been one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to face.

Thinking back, I’ve faced it – with various teams – maybe half a dozen times. It’s easy to say that you should make the decision on a case-by-case basis as opposed to laying down guidelines – but you don’t read the blog for me to sit on the fence…

Looking back, I realise I almost always put the ‘good of the team’ first – and it invariably paid dividends. When the previously-considered-indispensable star was moved (upwards, sideways or out) those that were left stepped up, discovered talents they previously hadn’t felt able to develop and – ultimately – the overall result was a better performance from the whole team.

So the team talk – either in the dressing room or the conference room – became simple.

OK, he’s gone. Yes he was talented, he was mercurial. But he wasn’t perfect and if you’re breathing a sigh of relief this morning you don’t need to feel ashamed. But it’s up to you now. You’re the ones we’ve put our faith in: you’re the ones that need to deliver. I absolutely believe in you. I couldn’t be happier with you as a team and I wouldn’t swap any of you. So let’s do this…

As the old saying goes, cricket is a team game played by individuals. Maybe – as SMEs move increasingly towards collaboration with talented individuals – business is going the same way. But I’ll never tire of quoting the proverb: if you want go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Let’s hope the England team does go far this summer: and I hope you’ll understand if I extend the same sentiments to a certain football team over this rather crucial weekend…

Hitting the Right Note


Well, well. The pundits and the pollsters had it completely wrong and here’s David Cameron with a workable majority. What’s more, the new business secretary is hanging a picture of Margaret Thatcher in his office. Stand by for five years of a low tax/high enterprise economy.

But let’s not get carried away. What Harold Macmillan called ‘events, dear boy, events’ will inevitably come along. And as George Osborne has said on many occasions, the UK cannot be immune to what’s going on in Europe and the rest of the world. So when you factor in the slowdown in the Eurozone, the worrying figures from China, the uncertainty of the European Referendum and the noises from North of the Border there’ll be plenty to keep the Prime Minster and the journalists busy. Most importantly though, it looks like we’ll be able to get on with our businesses without our hands being tied by any more red tape. As Francisco says at the opening of Hamlet, ‘For this relief much thanks.’

Enough of politics: I’m sure you can wait until 2020 to watch the next Leaders’ Debate. Let’s turn our attention to something rather more restful: music.

I was at an Institute of Directors meeting at York University the other week. It was the usual stuff – and then someone made a comment which really made me sit up and take notice: ‘music undergraduates make some of the best entrepreneurs.’

The speaker’s rationale was that music undergrads do a wide variety of jobs to fund their degrees – and hence they’re exposed to a lot of businesses. But I thought it must go further than that – especially as I remembered writing this post about the lessons we could learn from the rapper, record producer and hugely successful entrepreneur Jay-Z.

Was Jay-Z a one-off? Or does musical ability go hand in hand with entrepreneurial ability? It certainly seemed to as the next day the papers were full of stories about Gene Simmons – ‘the financial powerhouse behind Kiss’ – and his net worth of $300m.

A study from Michigan State University suggested that successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to have had music lessons as children – but that might simply be because their parents could afford music lessons. I did some more research and gradually four key characteristics emerged that are common to both musicians and entrepreneurs:

  • You cannot become a successful musician unless you’re prepared to listen – to your own work, to constructive criticism and, above all, to feedback from fans
  • You’ve got to experiment – and you’ll almost certainly need to overcome repeated failure
  • You’ll need to collaborate with other people
  • And finally – as Gene Simmons graphically illustrates – you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors

No entrepreneur can succeed without ticking those four boxes – but let me pick up on the last two points in more detail.

Firstly, musicians – and entrepreneurs – need to collaborate. Well, if anyone reading this blog has ever played in a band (or even the school orchestra…) you’ll know that once the collaboration goes, so does the band. The ability to collaborate successfully is going to become an increasingly important skill for the entrepreneur. Over the next five years we’re going to see more and more people starting their own business – we’re all going to be working with freelancers more, and in many cases those freelancers are going to be people we’ve never met. Skype may become the business equivalent of practising in the garage, as successful collaboration increasingly becomes key to building a business.

Secondly, brand – or identity, or USP. Call it what you will. Every successful musician has a recognisable brand – and they know their target market. Whether it’s Jay-Z, Kiss or One Direction (sorry) they all know their market and the brand is tailored to it. Let me give you a simple example. Why does a band need a logo if it’s not a brand? And some of those logos (AC/DC, the Stones, the Who – off the top of my head) are among the most instantly recognisable logos anywhere.

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So maybe the traditional MBA course needs a module on music appreciation as well as supply and demand curves? Maybe there needs to be less emphasis on left brain logic, and more on right brain creativity? Let me know your thoughts. I’ll be in the garage, looking for my old guitar…

“He’s Lost the Dressing Room.” Or the Sales Team…


Three-nil and their heads have gone down. You know, Mark, you start to wonder if the stories are true – if he’s lost the dressing room…

Too true. And if that’s happened there’s no way he’ll survive.

And sure enough two days later he’s gone and the bookies are betting on the replacement. Another football manager handed his P45 for ‘losing the dressing room.’ Or – if you’re not a long-suffering football fan – losing the respect of his players to such an extent that they’re ignoring his instructions and quite possibly deliberately playing badly in an attempt to get the manager sacked.

The parallels with business are obvious. Anyone who’s worked in a large organisation has seen instances of managers ‘losing’ their teams. They fail to get the best out of them, they fail to develop their full potential – and when it all goes wrong they very quickly shift the blame on to the team.

I saw it any number of times in my business career: sometimes it was hard to pin down the cause. Was the manager making mistakes – or was the culture in the company such that all managers were fair game?

But whatever the cause of the disease, the first symptom was always the same.

Disrespect.

Which takes me neatly back to last week

I talked about three things the owner of an SME simply couldn’t accept – dishonesty, negativity and mediocrity. Disrespect is the fourth one – and not only can you not accept it, you need to take action at the first hint of it.

The workplace is far less formal than it used to be. And ‘banter’ – or ‘bantz’ as I believe we’re now supposed to call it – seems to be the only way a lot of people can communicate. The problem is that one person’s banter is someone else’s sexism, racism – or outright disrespect.

So what do you do if the problem rears its ugly head in your business? At first glance it’s easy to say the problem won’t apply to most members of TAB York: after all, they’re not huge companies with multiple teams and corresponding managers. But I think disrespect is even more worrying in smaller companies – especially as the business starts to grow.

Most of my members and potential members probably follow a similar business model: owner(s) – one or two trusted lieutenants – and then the team(s). So the problem of disrespect is easy to spot – but in a small company it can be remarkably hard to tackle.

Twenty or thirty years ago it would have been simple. Find the ringleaders and fire them. Not so today – not unless you want to spend your days with the HR lawyers and the employment tribunal. But if one of your trusted lieutenants is under fire from his team, you cannot allow it to continue. You have to find a solution – and you may have some tough questions to answer.

Do you trust your lieutenant? Is he a key part of your long term strategy? After all, if The Alternative Board is about anything, it’s about building a successful business and making sure you never miss the Nativity Play. The layer of management underneath the owners is absolutely crucial to that.

But if you’ve a seed of doubt, then the disrespect of the team is probably a sign of things to come. Don’t let the situation fester. As Macbeth reminds us, “If it were done … then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

There’s one last question to consider: how does the owner of a business command respect? It’s easy to say that the answer is to work harder/longer than anyone else: to be able to do everyone’s job. But in the long run that will damage your health, your family and almost certainly your business. As I said last week, you command respect by leading: by setting the direction, outlining the vision and ultimately, empowering your team to achieve their potential and get there themselves.

With that I’ll leave you to what I hope is a remarkably productive Friday – followed by a remarkably relaxing weekend…