United we Fall


Even if you’ve been living in the proverbial cave at the bottom of the proverbial salt mine the news of United Airlines PR disaster-to-end-all-PR-disasters must have reached you by now.

I’ve covered disaster, catastrophe and the required corporate apology before. But that was something minor – just an oil spill and devastation of a coastline. In PR terms, hauling Dr David Dao up the aisle of the United flight to Kentucky was in an altogether different league.

Why? It’s simple. Devastating a coastline is tragic: of course it’s a disaster. But it’s a news item.

What United did to Dr Dao was personal. There isn’t one of us who – next time he flies – won’t sit in his seat, fasten his safety belt and then glance at the aisle of the aeroplane and think, ‘It could have been me…’

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Was United’s action legal? Sadly, yes. It’s right there in the terms and conditions, in 8pt print at the bottom of page 23. Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than a plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough ‘no-shows’ – that is, when passengers are so inconsiderate that they turn up for the flight they booked – then the airlines first try to persuade, reward or bribe passengers to change their flight. Then…

And the figures are small – almost insignificant. In 2016, United Airlines denied boarding to 3,765 of its 86 million passengers: an additional 62,895 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. In very round figures, that gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being ‘bumped,’ voluntarily or involuntarily.

But none of this matters: because we’ll all look at the aisle of the plane and wonder…

Not surprisingly, United took a savage beating on social media: ‘New United Airlines Mottos’ rapidly became one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags…

We put the hospital in hospitality!

Fight or flight

If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em

…And several others which have no place in a family blog on a Friday morning.

The stock market was equally quick to react with more than $1 billion wiped off United’s stock market valuation.

United’s response to all this was ‘apology by committee.’ You could see the eventual statement had gone round the company several times, with every department head making sure his own base was covered. CEO Oscar Munoz even tried to deflect the blame on to David Dao, saying that he had been “disruptive and belligerent.”

What would I have done? Four things:

  • Have one person immediately issue a genuine and sincere apology to Dr Dao and the other passengers on the flight, without worrying about any hurt feelings at United HQ
  • Settle Dr Dao’s lawsuit immediately, whatever the cost. United cannot have people constantly reminded of this incident
  • Sack the security team, sack the CEO and sack anyone else who didn’t have the courage and the common sense to say, “Stop. This is wrong.”
  • Announce an immediate end to the overbooking of flights. United – and all other airlines come to that – need to give an absolute guarantee that you cannot pay for a flight and then be ‘bounced.’

But all those moves are simply locking the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. What they needed – what every company needs – is a culture where incidents like that simply cannot occur in the first place. No-one can legislate for one individual’s erratic behaviour, but in United’s debacle everyone screwed up – and it was indicative of a deeper malaise at the company.

Thankfully as I meet more and more Alternative Board members up and down the UK I see the same commitment to clients and customers, and the same determination to build and empower great teams, that was so evident in York. Dr Dao would be safe with any member of the Alternative Board. (United’s HQ is in Chicago: maybe it’s not too late for Oscar Munoz to sign up…)

That’s it for this week – and yes, before you ask, I have noticed that there’s going to be a General Election. I’ll tackle it next week…

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Manners Maketh Men. But Does It Matter Any More?


I suppose I was 13 or 14. That age when you walk five yards behind your parents. When you’d die of embarrassment if anyone saw you with such ridiculously old people.

Mum and Dad were in front of me, Dad walking on Mum’s right. We crossed the road. Suddenly, Dad was on Mum’s left. What was he doing? Couldn’t he decide which side he liked best?

“Why did you do that?” I demanded when we got home.

“Because, Edward, a gentleman walks on a lady’s outside.”

“Why?”

My Dad sighed at what would be my predictable reaction. “So I can keep my sword arm free if someone rushes across the street and attacks your Mother. So she doesn’t get splashed if a horse and cart goes past.”

I delivered my all-too-predictable reaction and disappeared to my bedroom.

But nearly thirty years later, that incident is imprinted on me. I do try and walk on my wife’s outside. I do hold doors open for her. I hope – to use a remarkably out-of-date term – that I act like a gentleman.

The question is, should I do that in business?

No, of course not.

Who’s the most successful, far-sighted, innovative entrepreneur of our age? Steve Jobs, obviously. Well, according to Danny Boyle’s new (and apparently very accurate) biopic of Jobs, he was a man who shouted at other people in meetings, was visibly impatient and who dismissed other people’s contributions. So that’s that. You can shout your way to success.

Except I don’t think you can.

I may be wrong but the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk probably isn’t reading this blog. That’s not to imply that those gentlemen shout (and so on). It is to imply that the vast majority of us have rather different – but no less worthy – ambitions.

We’re building a business: but we know that business isn’t everything. We know, for example, that the Nativity Play isn’t far away: that we have one unbreakable appointment in early December. No business meeting can ever be as important as watching the little boy you held in your arms hammer on the door of the inn and announce, ‘We are very tired. My wife is heavy with child…’

And we work in a relatively small business community. North Yorkshire is not Southern California (something you may notice now it’s November…) As LinkedIn would put it, you’re never more than a ‘connection’ away from knowing nearly everyone. A reputation for being ‘difficult’ is not ideal – and once earned, it’s a hard tag to lose.

That great quote from Maya Angelou is directly relevant here:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.

Part of building your business is building trust: and an integral part of building trust is doing the right things for the right reasons – and doing it consistently. Good manners are part of that. Whether it’s punctuality, keeping promises, prompt replies or – from a wider perspective – seeing the other person’s point of view. As Stephen Covey put it, ‘thinking win-win.’

All of this impacts on how people feel about you: it’s your personal capital, your reputation – and it’s an essential part of your business.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do two things. First of all I’m going to dig out a couple of photos of previous nativity plays. I may shed a small tear. But then I’m going to have a conversation with the young men in those photos – about horses and carts and keeping their sword arm free…

 

 

 

 

 

Do People Still Buy From People?


‘People buy from people.’ It’s one of the fundamental business truths. It’s drummed into you on your first day in the office.

“People buy you, Ed.”

“People buy from someone they know, like and trust.”

As I say, fundamental truths.

Or are they?

After all, I don’t know Jeff Bezos. No-one I know knows him. And given what Amazon has done to the high street – and not done for UK tax receipts – there are plenty of people that don’t like him. But Amazon is phenomenally successful.

As are a myriad of other online businesses.

And as I look round the TAB York boardroom tables I see more and more business being done online.

So is ‘people buy from people’ fast becoming a myth? Do we actually prefer not to deal face-to-face? Is the ideal business model now to give people all the information they want and then leave them to it?

I was pondering these questions at the weekend when I bought a t-shirt. From time to time I treat myself and buy a t-shirt from Howies. They’re not the cheapest, but they’re great quality, the designs are a little bit different – and I like the story.

In fact for me the two most important words on the website are ‘read story.’ That and the latest happenings from West Wales. The fact that Howies are in a small town in West Wales – Carmarthen – adds to the authenticity and the story. I’m actually more inclined to deal with them than if they were in say, Cardiff.

Back to the story. Here’s what it says on the website:

And one thing you can be sure of when you buy one of our printed organic t-shirts, is that it was screen printed by hand in our own little printshop, here in Cardigan Bay.

Using an old-fashioned carousel, silk mesh screens and a bit of elbow grease, Tomos prints each and every one of them with the same level of skill, craftsmanship and respect for the end product as they deserve.

That ticks every box for me. Local, hand-made, and I even know the name of the person making my t-shirt. In fact, Howies go one step further. When I order a t-shirt I get an e-mail telling me when Tomos will be printing it. So I’m kept in touch, and I’m made to feel that I’m important to the company – and to Tomos. I’m a very happy customer.

But what about a slightly larger scale? We’ve all heard of Boden. One of the things I remember from the early Boden catalogues was the little bit of irreverent description on every page. Maybe it was about the clothes, maybe it was about the model. But it made me feel I was being spoken to directly, that I wasn’t dealing with a faceless, distant organisation.

Did it work? Well, according to Wiki Johnnie Boden, who founded the company in 1991, is now worth £300m. So I think that’s a ‘yes.’

More and more of your business is going to be done online. Whether you like it or not your online presence – and the way you interact with people online – will become increasingly important. But if you’re going to be successful, you’ll need to make it – and keep it – personal. Use your ‘About’ page to tell your story: not to list how wonderful you are. And if you’re not in the centre of York, Leeds or some other major city it doesn’t matter – as the Howies site shows, you can turn it into a positive advantage.

People still want to buy from people they know, like and trust. But these days, ‘know’ may appear in inverted commas: use your online presence to make sure that people like and trust you and you can build a significant business.

The Entrepreneur’s Wife


As the old saying goes, “Behind every successful man is a strong, wise and hardworking woman.”

But that’s the whole point. It’s an old saying – dating back to the days when the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home. Now the chances are that both partners are working full time – and the entrepreneur is just as likely to be the woman.

So how important is an entrepreneur’s partner? Does the success or failure of your business depend not on your brilliant idea, your stellar crowdfunding or your strict control of the KPIs – but on the person you come home to at night?

It’s a subject I need to tackle – however great the personal risk! And bear with me: I’m not being sexist, but I don’t want to disrupt the flow of the post by constantly writing he/she or him/her. So I’m writing this one from my own standpoint and the pronouns are used accordingly.

First things first: being married to an entrepreneur is difficult. There are long hours, holidays that are interrupted by vital phone conversations and – as I wrote in the last post of 2014 – plenty of nights when you’re ‘there but not there’: when your body is watching Silent Witness and your mind is back at the office worrying about the cash flow.

Your wife can be bemoaning the problems one of your children is having at school, the fact that the kitchen wall is about to fall down, or the problems and frustrations of her career – when you suddenly jolt back to reality and say, “I’m sorry. What was that again?”

The bad news is, it may not improve.

Being married to an entrepreneur can put different strains on a relationship no matter how long the business has been established – and no matter how successful it may be. Different stages bring different pressures.

One day the husband comes home. “I can’t take any more,” he says. “I was determined to be at the Nativity Play this year. The boss says I have to be in Frankfurt. No more. I’ve resigned. I’m starting on my own in the New Year.”

Sadly, that may not be what the wife hears… “The dependable amount of money that goes into our account every month is going to stop. I’m going to be working a lot of late nights and we’re not going to have a holiday for three years. And there’s no guarantee it’ll be a success.”

You might not like what she’s thinking either. Oh £$%&. I was going to work part time. Spend more time with the children. Well that’s gone. Or… £$%&. That means I’m going to have to take that promotion. Longer hours, more driving, more stress, less time with the kids. But we need the money. Thanks, pal.

The decision to leave the security of a job and start your own business isn’t just about you: it affects two lives. You’re certainly changing your own career path – but you might just be changing your wife’s as well.

Three years on there’ll be another tipping point. The business has survived so far. The cash flow has evened itself out. There are even a couple of employees on the payroll. But now there’s a problem. A major customer has gone into liquidation; the business is under real pressure. Oh well, the wife thinks, if the worst comes to the worst he can always go back to Giant Corporate plc.

Across the lounge her husband is also deep in thought – and he’s worrying about two things. First of all his customer. But secondly, himself. Because he knows he can’t go back to Giant Corporate. He knows that the last three years of running his own business have changed him. In effect, he’s become unemployable. And it’s not something he shares with his wife: no wonder there’s a certain tension between them…

Ten years later it’s all very different. The business is a success. Money isn’t a problem any more. Everything in the garden is rosy. Except success can undermine a relationship every bit as much as failure. I was talking to a partner in one of our bigger firms of accountants about this. “I can’t count the number of marriages I’ve seen ended by success,” he said. “Suddenly the girl he married when he was 23…” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Being an entrepreneur is tough – but being married to an entrepreneur can be even tougher. Your wife needs to understand that being an entrepreneur is part of you – every bit as much as being right handed or having brown eyes is part of you. She needs to understand risk – and she needs to be able to live with it. Hopefully TAB plays its part in minimising that risk, but running your own business will always bring risk – especially if the bank are eagerly clutching the deeds to your house.

And that’s why your work/life balance is so important. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when you’re planning your diary for this year, get the really important dates in first – the dates when you’re with the people you love. The entrepreneur’s wife pays a high price: make sure you repay her in full.

Mr Motivator


For any fledgling business it’s a pivotal moment. 8/30 one Monday morning and someone nervously opens the office door. Your first member of staff reporting for work. Day one. And it will never be the same again…

And as that great business thinker, Spiderman, would have said, ‘With your first member of staff comes great responsibility.’ He or she is going to need paying – at the same time every month, not when the cash flow can stand it: they’re going to need training and – if they’re going to help you move to the next level – from time to time they’re going to need motivating…

I’ve written about motivation before: but it’s one of those subjects that’s worth re-visiting. So for this week, here are my five favourite ways that owners of SMEs can motivate – and get the best out of – their team.

Vision

As I’ve written many times on this blog, you’re the leader and your job is to lead. Winning new clients, dealing with suppliers, sorting out the finance – they’re all crucial parts of running your business: but first and foremost you’re the boss, the CEO, the guv’nor. First and foremost your job is to say, “There’s the promised land; that’s where we’re going. Follow me.” If you don’t do that, then you simply can’t expect your team to be motivated. Their simple question, ‘Are we going anywhere?’ will be very quickly followed by a simple answer: ‘Yes. The door. Where’s my CV?’

Feedback

There are some interesting stats from the USA. Gallup conducted a year long survey of American workers – and found that 70% don’t believe they’re engaged at work. Chief reason for this? Lack of feedback from their boss. A global survey by Towers Watson found that a majority of people planning to change jobs cited infrequent and ineffective communication as one of the main reasons for their dissatisfaction. So feedback’s essential – and that can include criticism, as long as it is positive, constructive and – see the point above – it is clearly part of the company’s overall direction.

Lead by Example

‘I’d never ask my men to do something I wouldn’t do myself’ may be one of the oldest clichés in the book but it remains true – especially in business. If you’re not committed, you can’t expect your team to be committed. The same goes for punctuality, looking after the clients and taking the trouble to get it right. If you don’t, they won’t.

Trust Them

Many members of TAB York will tell you that delegation was one of the hardest skills they had to learn. Yes, it is your business – and yes, you probably can do everything. But if you’re going to build a successful team and a successful business you’re going to need to trust your team and empower them. Nothing motivates people more than knowing that their boss trusts them and will back their judgement.

Appreciate their work/life balance

Remember why you started the business? You wanted to be in control of your time: you didn’t want to miss the Nativity Play because some distant head office had decreed that you should go to a waste-of-time conference in an anonymous hotel off an anonymous motorway. Your team are no different – and as flexible working becomes more and more the norm they’re going to expect to be at those not-to-be-repeated family events. Without doubt the most successful teams I see when I visit the TAB York members are the ones where the boss really understands that everyone’s work/life balance is crucial.

Five simple ways to make sure you motivate your team. I could easily have taken the list up to a dozen, but these five are the ones that I’ve seen work consistently for SME’s. If there’s a crucial one that you think I’ve missed, let me know. In the meantime, have a brilliant weekend.