My First 100 Days


It’s not often I compare myself to Donald Trump – well, not this side of the psychiatrist’s couch – but he’s famously completed 100 days in the White House and I’ve now completed 100 days in my new role as the MD of The Alternative Board in the UK.

I haven’t pulled out of any climate change agreements, sacked anyone or threatened wholesale renegotiation of every trade deal that’s ever been made. Instead I’ve worked with some brilliant people and generally had the privilege of running an organisation that changes people’s lives. So thank you once again to everyone who helped to make it happen, and to everyone who keeps making it happen on a daily basis.

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Quite obviously, I’ve had to get used to a few changes. I’m not driving round North Yorkshire anywhere near as much: I see a lot less of Costa Coffee at Clifton Moor…

I’m now in the office at Harrogate for 2½ days a week, working as part of a team of six. I didn’t realise I’d missed the office ‘buzz’ so much. That’s a bonus that I hadn’t anticipated.

…And I’ve discovered another, equally unexpected but far more important bonus. Every month Mags and I are in London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester.

We always go on the train – and it’s a brilliant place to work. (But why, he asked innocently, could I get a mobile signal under Hong Kong harbour ten years ago but still can’t get one on the train between Huddersfield and Stalybridge? I’ll vote for whoever has that in their manifesto…)

As I was saying, a brilliant place to work – and to pick up on a point from last week, it’s a great place to work on the business. By definition you can’t work in the business, so Mags and I have time to discuss strategy, make plans and generally do all the things phones, meetings and the need to pop out for a sandwich stop you doing.

I’ve always liked working on the train. I’ve written before that if you want to think differently you need to be in a different physical location and I get some of my best work done on trains and in cafés, ploughing through as much paperwork between York and King’s Cross as I would in a full day at my desk.

Why is that?

Why do so many of us enjoy working in locations like that, and why are we so productive? And yes, I have been known to play a ‘café soundtrack’ on YouTube when I’m working in the office.

Early studies suggested that it was what’s known as ‘the audience effect:’ that we work better when we have someone to work with and/or compete with – witness the peloton in the Tour de France.

But according to an article in New Scientist, what applies to Team Sky doesn’t – for once – apply to us. The answer, apparently, is that hard work is contagious.

A study was done which involved sitting people doing different tasks next to each other: neither could see what the other was working on. When A’s task was made more difficult B started to work harder as well, as he or she responded to subtle cues like body posture and breathing.

I’ve often talked to TAB members who say their number one criteria for hiring another member of their team is work ethic: now it looks like there’s real evidence to back up that good old gut feeling.

…Except, of course, the evidence also suggests that I shouldn’t be on the train or in the coffee shop. I should be where people are working really hard. So I may hold future meetings in the library at Leeds University – and if it’s still the same as in my undergraduate days, on the same floor as the law students…

If it Ain’t Broke…


You’re the one who had the idea.

You’re the one who persuaded the bank. Convinced your wife to put your house on the line.

You’re the one who went in early. Stayed late. Made sacrifices.

You’re the one who took the difficult decisions. Sat down with Bill and explained – as gently as you could – that his future wasn’t with the business.

You’re the one whose energy, drive, commitment – and sometimes your sheer force of will – has taken the company to where it is now.

And now, Sir or Madam, I am telling you to do nothing. Play golf. Have another day at York races. Walk the Pilgrim Way.

“What?” you splutter. “That’s ridiculous advice. I need to be there. Hands-on, constantly fine-tuning the business, ever-present.”

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No, you don’t. Let me explain…

Several times over the last few years I’ve had conversations with entrepreneurs along these lines: “I’ve got nothing to do, Ed. Everything’s under control. I could walk out for a day. For a week, a month even. Things would still run smoothly.”

Are the entrepreneurs happy about that? No, they see it as a sign of failure.

But it’s not failure. It’s exactly the opposite: a sign of success.

I’ve written about this before, but if you haven’t built a business you can walk away from then you haven’t built a business. Because one day you’re going to sell the business and if it is entirely dependent on you – if you are the business – then you have nothing to sell.

Entrepreneurs are driven, passionate, committed people. They love working and they love working hard. Secretly, they’re never happier than when they have to set the alarm for 4:30.

But businesses are constantly evolving. No business goes upwards in a straight line. There are always steps and plateaus. And one of those plateaus might suddenly see you with nothing to do. Trust me, it won’t last. Every time an entrepreneur has said, “Ed, I’ve nothing to do,” it’s been followed one, three or six months later by, “Ed, I’ve never been busier.”

In the short term, though, the hiatus can be a real problem for the entrepreneur. They’re conditioned to see doing nothing – not constantly running at 100mph, not being there all the time – as a sign of failure.

They start to feel guilty, start to think they’ve missed something. And sooner or later they start to make changes for the sake of making changes.

Tap ‘entrepreneur doing nothing’ into Google and the search engine doesn’t believe you. By the third listing it has defaulted to the norm: ‘Why nothing less than 100% can ever be enough.’

Once you’ve built your business to a certain size, your job changes. It’s another topic I’ve covered previously – and I’ll be writing about it again next week – but your job is no longer to work in your business, it is to work on your business. Clients and customers still need to see you, but they do not need to see you behind the counter – or whatever you equivalent of a counter is.

Working on your business means a lot more thinking time and a lot less ‘doing’ time. Initially, it can be a difficult transition – but let me repeat: resist the urge to meddle, to look for problems where none exist.

And if you do find yourself with nothing to do, remember it’s not a sign that your business is broken. It is not a reason for you to feel guilty. It’s a sign of success. So enjoy it. Take time off and re-charge your batteries. Spend time with your family. Give something back to your local community. You deserve the break – and don’t worry: you’ll soon be smiling quietly to yourself and re-setting the alarm clock…

The Workplace Taboo


It’s been a busy week for me: Tuesday brought our annual event for TAB members – always a highlight for me – and on Wednesday I was at York races. Just remind me again: when it rains at York it’s low numbers in the draw isn’t it? Or is it high?

By the time I’d worked it out the damage had been done…

But I was in great company and – despite the rain – it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. So having been outside in the rain yesterday this morning I’m obviously at my desk as the May sun shines steadily in through the window.

…Which seems entirely inappropriate as this week I’m going to write about mental health and depression, something which a significant number of people are understandably – but regrettably – unwilling to talk about at work.

First, some stats:

  • In 2015/16 30.4m working days were lost due to self-reported work related injury or illness: only 4.5m of these were due to a workplace injury
  • On average injuries saw people take 7.2 days of work: ill health meant 20 days off work
  • Stress, depression and anxiety – plus musculoskeletal disorders – accounted for the majority of the days lost: 11.7m and 8.8m days respectively
  • The average number of days off for stress, depression or anxiety was 24: for musculoskeletal problems it was 16 days

I think those numbers are significant: 24 days for stress, depression and anxiety – that’s effectively five weeks off. To a small business a key employee having five weeks off can have a catastrophic effect. You can’t recruit someone: if you get someone on a short term contract it’s five weeks before they’re fully up to speed. It is simply a hole punched below the waterline for five weeks.

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. 49% of those surveyed said they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues.

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As someone running a business you want to hire and retain the best people – but you need those people to be working efficiently and effectively. You also want them to be happy and healthy: as I’ve written before, health, fitness and performing well at work go hand in hand. More and more businesses will introduce ‘wellness’ programmes for their employees, covering everything from flexible working to help with emotional and psychological problems: if you’re not looking at it already, now would be a good time to start.

So much for the team: what about you?

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely business: it is also stressful and the feeling that the buck – and everyone’s livelihood – stops at your desk can be all too real.

It can also be a macho business: many people – men and women – constantly feel the need to act the part. In some ways I can understand that: confidence can be a currency, especially if you have outside investors to deal with. No round of financing is going to be helped by, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m having doubts.’

But we’re not always ‘crushing it’ – as my Fitbit constantly demands. Statistically the odds are stacked against any new business and virtually every entrepreneur will have occasional moments of doubt. There’s a theory that entrepreneurs are more prone to depression: a personality that will accept extreme risk and reward at one end of the scale also has its darker moment at the other end of the scale.

That, I am absolutely certain, is one of the very best parts of TAB. To paraphrase the old saying, when the going gets tough, the tough need someone to talk to. As I have written many times, no-one understands like your colleagues round the TAB table: not your wife, not your partner, not your parents, not your friends. The only people who truly understand the pressures are other entrepreneurs.

…And in The Alternative Board they don’t judge, they don’t compare, they don’t score points. In every instance they simply say, “Yep, I’ve been there. What can I do to help?”

What can we learn from Emmanuel Macron?


Meet the new boss. Definitely not the same as the old boss…

After a year of campaigning we have a new man in the Elysee Palace: Emmanuel Macron, the new President of France with 66% of the votes cast and the youngest leader of the country since Napoleon.

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Judging by some of the paeans of praise for the new President, all of France’s problems – indeed, all of Europe’s – have been solved. In reality, Macron faces huge problems with French unemployment, domestic security, the creaking French pension system and – not least – Brexit.

There’s also the small matter of his En Marche movement not having any MPs. Macron is due to appoint a Prime Minister next week but it may be a short-lived appointment. If he doesn’t win a majority in next month’s parliamentary elections then he could well be forced to appoint a new PM from the largest – possibly opposition – party.

And then there’s the votes: or lack of them. Yes, he won 66% of the votes cast, but on the lowest turnout since 1969. What’s more, between 10% and 11% of those that did go to the polls spoiled their ballot paper. That’s not someone sitting up in bed, reaching for their smartphone and clicking ‘none of the above.’ That’s someone getting up, getting dressed and making a conscious effort to reject both the candidates.

Many of those people will have been supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose high-spending, anti-EU platform had many similarities with Marine Le Pen’s message. Many voters do not see Macron as a ‘brave new dawn.’ To them, he was simply the least-bad of the two candidates on offer, with one poll suggesting 43% of voters supported him purely to thwart Le Pen.

But despite all that, what Macron achieved was remarkable. He launched En Marche (On the move) in his home town of Amiens on 6th April 2016, little more than a year ago. He didn’t announce his bid for the Presidency until November. The rest, as they say, is history…

So are there any lessons we can take from the success of the former Minister for the Economy and Finance and one-time Rothschilds banker? The English speaking, German loving politician that “Europe has been waiting for…”

First and foremost, Macron represents change. Conspiracy theorists may criticise him as a creation of pro-banking, pro-globalisation elites, but the French election was notable for its rejection of the established parties. I think that’s reflective of an attitude to change that’s all around us: look at the way traditional industries and professions – banking, the law, accountancy – are now being shaken up by new technology. If your pitch to your customers is ‘we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way’ you’re going to find people responding with, ‘I’m sorry, I’m bored.’ The old way may still work, but there is an entirely different class of consumer out there, who wants to interact with you in an entirely new way.

Macron, apparently, has always been different. At school, according to one of his former classmates, while other boys watched TV and played football, Macron read classic French literature and wrote a novel about Spanish conquistadors. He had, said the classmate, “Olympic intelligence.”

I’m not sure I know what ‘Olympic intelligence’ means, but I do know that some of the very best operators I have ever worked with were multi-dimensional. They had deep and genuine interests outside work: what Denis Healey famously referred to as ‘hinterland.’ This not only made them fascinating people to work with, it also gave them a sense of perspective, and a different way of looking at business problems.

…And, of course, Macron represents a fresh start: someone without baggage. As a general rule I’m an advocate of promotion from within. Occasionally though, you need to go outside and bring someone in who represents a break with the past, an entirely different way of looking at the problems and the opportunities. Whether Emmanuel Macron can do that remains to be seen: I, for one, will be hoping that his En Marche movement gains enough seats on 11th and 18th June to at least give him a real chance.

In many ways I can see similarities between En Marche and TAB. You can’t call TAB a movement, but can most definitely term it a community. Yes, of course there’s a bottom line to take care of and a cheque to send to HMRC. But we’re driven by ideals, not by profit. It’s about changing lives, not about dividends to shareholders.

Let me finish by returning to those murky conspiracy theories. All conspiracy theorists will have heard of Bilderberg – along with the Illuminati and the Freemasons one of three secret, shadowy organisations that rule the world. Emmanuel Macron was a Bilderberg attendee in 2014, along with one Edward M. Balls.

Unlike the Masons, members of Bilderberg do not have a secret handshake: instead, they reveal themselves to each other with a series of very slight, very subtle ‘moves.’ How unfortunate that these ‘moves’ were leaked so publicly

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…’

365 Wasted Days


Hesitantly, the young graduate trainee approached the seen-it-all sales manager to proffer his excuse…

“I just don’t think it was the right time for them. Maybe next month…”

The sales manager sighed. The lad showed promise, but he needed to learn a basic truth. “You know what, Ed?” he said. “There’s never a right time.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well quite clearly no-one’s ever going to buy anything in January. Just recovering from Christmas and hiding from their credit card bills. February it’s too damn cold. March and April it’s Easter and they’re all doing DIY or out in the garden. May they’re thinking about summer holidays. June there’s always the World Cup or the Olympics. July and August they’ve gone on holiday; September they’re recovering from the holiday. October it gets dark. Everyone’s always depressed in November and December’s written off because of Christmas.”

“So…”

“So there’s never a right time. Go back and see them, Ed. Explain that there is a right time and the right time is now.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation and over the last 20 years I’ve quoted it word for word to several potential customers. I was reminded of it last week when the news broke that Theresa May would be demanding our attendance at the polling stations on June 8th.

Yes, the election – and Brexit – is going to happen. Clearly Theresa May wants her own mandate and equally clearly she doesn’t want to be bound by David Cameron’s election pledges.

Sir Martin Sorrell was being interviewed on TV and failing to hide his irritation. The election, he said, was “another excuse” for people in business to stop making decisions. The run-up to the election would see an inevitable slowdown in the economy: “another 50 wasted days” as Sorrell termed it.

Well, by the time you read this there’ll only be 41 more days to waste – but he may have underestimated the problem. My old sales manager would have understand it perfectly…

‘You’re right, Ed. First and foremost no-one can possibly take a decision before Macron is confirmed as the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. Then there’s our election. But by then we’re into the summer holidays. And as soon we’re back from summer there’s the German election to worry about: if Angela Merkel is defeated it’ll be chaos. Then there’s Philip Hammond’s first Autumn Budget (assuming he’s still Chancellor). I mean seriously, given the hints there have been about tax rises it’s safer to wait and see. Then it’s Christmas and staggering back to work in January. And by February/March we’ll have had six months of serious Brexit negotiations with the new German government. It makes sense to wait and see how those are playing out. And then it’s Easter again on April 1st 2018. You’ve nailed it: no-one can possibly make any decisions for at least a year…’

50 wasted days? More like 365.

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As we all know, there are always reasons not to take decisions. They might be macro – political, economic – or micro, such as staff problems and cash flow, but they’ll always be there.

But making decisions is our job. It’s what we signed up for when we sat in the motorway services, pushed our breakfast round the plate and decided there had to be a better way. Business is about making decisions – and as that as that well-known pioneer of the waste management industry, Anthony Soprano Snr., put it, “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”

He’s right: you can correct a wrong decision. Indecision eats away at you and your business until it does far more damage than a wrong decision.

But making decisions isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Tony Soprano again: “Every decision you make affects every facet of every other thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”

Unless, of course, you’re a member of the Alternative Board, and have seven other people to offer their input and their experience and – nine times out of ten – help you make the right decision.

But having last week recommended that the boss of United Airlines joins TAB, perhaps I’ll just stop short of suggesting a new member for TAB New Jersey…

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…

Negotiating with Friends: How we got it Right


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

That was what I said last week when I was discussing the general principles of negotiation. ‘Think win/win. Nine times out of ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship.’ But that becomes even more true when you’re negotiating with a friend – as I did when I bought TAB UK from Paul Dickinson and Jo Clarkson.

“Never do business with a friend,” is an old business maxim – and it’s probably saved a lot of friendships – but sometimes doing business with friends and, ultimately, negotiating with them is inevitable.

“Loan oft loses both itself and friendship,” said Polonius, giving advice to his son Laertes before he set sail for France. Well negotiation can do exactly the same: the negotiations can flounder and the friendship can be ruined. Worse still, the negotiations can apparently ‘succeed.’ And then one party gradually realises he’s been ripped off: that he’s been taken advantage of by someone he previously considered a friend. Not any more…

The negotiations to buy TAB UK were long and complex: there were two people involved on both sides, plus accountants, bankers, lawyers – and our respective families.

As Mags and I sat across the table from Paul and Jo I had four priorities:

  • I wanted to buy the UK franchise for The Alternative Board: I’d talked it over with Dav – at length – and I absolutely believed it was the right thing for me, and for my family
  • But like any business deal, I wanted to buy it at the right price
  • I wanted to make sure the negotiations did nothing to damage TAB UK going forward
  • And I wanted to retain the friendship of two people I liked, respected and valued greatly as business colleagues and confidantes.

So how did we set out to achieve that? There were three key rules that guided us through the negotiations and which protected and strengthened our friendship.

  • First and foremost, we set the stage. Both sides were absolutely open about what they wanted to achieve in the negotiations. We constantly asked ourselves a simple question: ‘Is this fair to you? Is it fair to us? And is it in the best long-term interests of TAB UK?’ That question was, if you like, the mission statement of the negotiations
  • …Which inevitably brings me to one of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits.’ “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” There was a real willingness to see the other side’s point of view. If you do find yourself negotiating with a friend it’s vital to see the negotiations from both sides of the table
  • So there was plenty of goodwill on both sides. But even with all that goodwill, there were bumps in the road: that was inevitable with such complex negotiations. The key was to look ahead and anticipate problems, to be open about setbacks and to clear up any misunderstandings as quickly as possible.

The net result? A very successful negotiation and both sides happy with the outcome. Was it easy? No, but then readers of this blog don’t need telling that few things that are worthwhile are easy. Ultimately, I’m absolutely delighted with the outcome – I’m equally delighted that Paul and Jo will be friends for life.

As it’s Easter, let me finish on a slightly lighter note – and a warning, if you’re planning to spend four days in the garden…

When I’m writing these posts I always – irrespective of how well I know the subject – check with Google, just to see if the Harvard Business Review or one of the entrepreneur magazines has a different perspective. And I’m increasingly astonished at how few words I need to type in before Google guesses what I’m after.

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Or I was – until this morning. How do you negotiate with I tapped in. Before I could add a friend, Google completed the sentence for me. How do you negotiate with a Sim eating plant? Seriously? That’s the most popular query about negotiation?

Well, fair enough. I always preach the value of knowing and researching your market…

So for those of you whose Easter might otherwise be ruined by the death of your carefully-nurtured Sims, I present perhaps the most useful advice ever offered on this blog. (Warning: the video contains violent scenes which some readers might find distressing. It also contains a teenage son doing nothing while his father is eaten by a tomato plant…)

The Best Bargaining Chips


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agile Leadership? Or Fundamental Truth?


Agileadjective: able to move quickly and easily. Or, increasingly, relating to software development: relating to or denoting a method of project management characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans

And – even more increasingly – the new buzzword in management thinking. We’re now supposed to be agile leaders and agile managers. Our companies need to have an agile culture and, of course, the work is done by our agile teams.

But is ‘agile’ really a new way of thinking? Or is it simply the latest spin on what have always been the best business practices? The Emperor’s latest new clothes – and maybe I’ve seen them all before…

The more time I spend working with business owners and entrepreneurs, the more I’m convinced that – to borrow a line from a classic – the fundamental things will always apply. Hire good people: don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Give them responsibility and remember that your job is to lead. As Stephen Covey said, “keep the main thing the main thing” and – as this blog constantly repeats – never stop learning. If you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Unquestionably business is moving at an ever faster pace. It used to be only companies like Dropbox that boasted of employing staff all over the world: I forget the exact quote but it was something like ‘thirty staff in ten different countries in 12 different time zones.’ But now I notice an increasing number of local entrepreneurs working with suppliers and contractors in different countries, knowing exactly what time it is in the Philippines and as happy to price in dollars as in pounds.

Agile-leader

Is this ‘agile?’ No, it’s change. As an entrepreneur said during one of this week’s inevitable discussions on Brexit, “We’ll do what business has always done: we’ll adapt.”

What about the ‘agile culture’ we’re all supposed to use in our offices as we build our ‘agile teams?’ I saw it suggested recently that we should use an agile culture ‘to foster a healthy and positive working environment that takes advantage of the talent within.’

“No surprise there, Sherlock” as the PG version of Dr. Watson would have said. No entrepreneur succeeds alone – and if you don’t foster a positive working environment and take advantage of everyone’s talents, you’ve no chance. In the seven years since this blog started I have lost count of the number of times I’ve preached the benefits of trusting people and giving them responsibility. You should never be the only person in your company with the ability to say ‘yes’ to a new idea. That’s not ‘agile,’ it’s simply the best way to build a business.

…As is constantly being aware of the way your market – and new markets – are developing. “Agile leaders constantly see their business as a start-up” was another quote I read. If you started in a railway arch and you’re now employing 100 people and turning over £25m I suspect it’s quite hard to still see yourself as a start-up. But every entrepreneur I know who has built to that level is as open-minded and outward looking as any fresh-faced start-up.

My big fear with ‘agile’ is that we’ll all feel we should work at a faster and faster pace: that if we’re not Skyping Chicago at 9pm or instant messaging Manila at 5am we’re failing as entrepreneurs. I remember, nearly 20 years ago, reading an article about Gerry Robinson when he was building Granada – and famously, going home to his wife and children at 5pm. His philosophy was simple: if he couldn’t achieve it between 9am and 5pm, he was unlikely to achieve it between 6am and 8pm.

Trends, theories, buzzwords – and lucrative book deals – will continue to come and go in the realms of management and business but, whatever they’re called, the basics will never change.

…And a little over a month into my new role with The Alternative Board, I’m delighted to see those basic beliefs, practices and values running through every TAB franchisee and every TAB member that I’ve met. Yes, of course the next two years are going to throw up difficulties – some that none of us have yet contemplated – but there will be opportunities as well. And I know every TAB franchisee and member will do what businesses have always done – adapt, and meet the challenge.