I’m Lazy, I’m Fat and I’m off to Play Golf


The UK trade deficit shrank in July, down to £4.5bn from £5.6bn the previous month. The services sector rebounded sharply as the Purchasing Managers’ Index jumped to 52.9 from a seven year low of 47.4 in July. The construction sector is showing signs of recovery – but the British Chambers of Commerce has cut its forecast for UK growth this year, reducing it from 2.2% in March to 1.8%, citing uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations.

In short there’s been the usual mixture of good and bad economic news over the past couple of weeks. There hasn’t been the immediate post-Brexit apocalypse some commentators had predicted, but the negotiations to leave the EU have barely begun. None of us – including the negotiators – have much idea what the talks over the next two years will bring.

But none of this has stopped Liam Fox, the MP for North Somerset, current Secretary of State for International Trade and quite recently, possible successor to David Cameron.

Last week Liam Fox made his feelings known on British businessmen. The country, he declared, was “too lazy and too fat” with businessmen preferring golf on a Friday afternoon to trying to boost the country’s prosperity.

This country is not the free-trading nation it once was. We have become too lazy and too fat on our successes in previous generations. Companies who could contribute to our national prosperity – but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon – we’ve got to say to them that if you want to share in the prosperity of our country you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country.

Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, said that Mr Fox had “never done a day’s business in his life.” I suspect that several members of TAB York would respond in significantly stronger terms…

Of course the comments are nonsense. Of course they’re insulting to the overwhelming majority of people running SMEs – and worryingly they show an International Trade Minister alarmingly out of touch with… well, trade. But there are possibly even more important considerations than that.

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I’m not fat (said he, squeezing into the suit he got married in 18 years ago) and I hope no-one considers me lazy. I did, however, play golf on Thursday and I make no apology for that.

Since this blog started – more than six years ago now – I’ve repeatedly stressed the need for time away from work. ‘Work hard, play hard’ might be a cliché, but it stops burnout, keeps you fresh and, importantly, gives you a broader perspective on life.

I remember reading about Denis Healey criticising Margaret Thatcher for having no ‘hinterland:’ no breadth of knowledge of art, culture, literature or science.

You might argue that ‘hinterland’ isn’t important for business success: that a laser-like focus on your goal will get you there.

I wonder… As the worlds of technology and business continue to change ever more rapidly, then knowing about – and learning from – seemingly unconnected disciplines will, I think, become increasingly important.

Just as importantly, hinterland – and the associated work/life balance – is a lot of fun. Which brings me back to Master Fox and our politicians: when was the last time you saw one on a golf course? Too many of our politicians – other than the obligatory August photo op in Cornwall – don’t seem to have any concept of work/life balance: and our political life is poorer for it.

Rather than criticising people running businesses, perhaps our politicians could learn from them – not least in being able to take planned, productive time off. If I see someone who never takes time off then I see someone who’s heading for trouble. You only have to look across to the US to see the latest example of a seemingly ‘indestructible’ politician showing herself to be all too vulnerable.

So I’ll continue to encourage the members of TAB York to work hard and play harder. The idea that any of them opt to do less than their best is simply wrong: the moral obligation they feel to their businesses, their staff, their customers – and the work ethic that flows from that – is something I’m honoured to see on a daily basis.

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Is Positive Thinking Positively Bad for You?


Time has to speed up doesn’t it? How else can we explain the phenomenon we all know: ‘how can it possibly be two weeks since I was on holiday?’

But, sadly, it is. The shops are full of ominous ‘back to school’ signs; football season has started (badly); and the long, light nights are gone for another year. You may think I’m sounding reflective, and you’d be right. I’m still thinking about the holiday – and specifically, about an article I read in a golf magazine I managed to smuggle into the luggage when my wife wasn’t looking.

It was written by Karl Morris of www.TheMindFactor.com and was about differentiating between positive thinking and positive actions.

I think this is fascinating ground for the entrepreneur – are we in long term, positive thinking mode, dealing with planning and strategy, or are we concerned with the short term and positive actions: the simple business of ‘getting to yes?’

Golf’s a great analogy here: when I started playing I thought ‘long term’ – and I couldn’t have been more positive. Today’s the day. Sun shining. Ball with run on the fairway. Good session at the driving range. Putter working. Under 90 for the first time in my life…

And of course, I’d duff my first drive into the thick stuff, hack it out, chip into a bunker, two shots to get out, three putt. And after one hole my chances of going under 90 had gone. And I’d been so positive, so optimistic – which made the disappointment even worse. The rest of the round was ruined. ‘A good walk spoiled,’ as Harry Leon Wilson – no, not Mark Twain – famously said.

Eventually it dawned on me that while the sun may be shining and the fairways like greased lightning, none of that mattered in my quest to beat 90. When I stepped onto the first tee, I had one job, and one job only. That was to hit my drive a reasonable distance into the middle of the fairway.

Nothing else mattered. The second shot didn’t matter: neither did the putting, nor the bunker on the 7th hole…

This is the point that Karl Morris makes in his article. He’s writing about Rory McIlroy (a golfer with a connection to Ireland, which is where our similarities end…)

Early on in McIlroy’s career there was plenty of positive thinking – from player and pundits alike – but there was a nasty tendency for the wheels to fall off, most famously in the 2011 Masters. Karl Morris made the point:

One of the most important skills in golf is dealing with setbacks and positive thinking doesn’t prepare you for that. In fact, it does the opposite, by making you feel the setback more keenly. When a positive forecast doesn’t come off, you’ll be in danger of throwing the rest of the day – or round – away. Commit to carrying out a series of positive actions, and keep doing it whatever the outcomes. That commitment helps you dig in and get something positive out of the day.

Back to the office. And I think you can replace ‘golf’ with ‘business’ and all the above holds good. Clearly the entrepreneur is interested in both the long term and the short term: positive thinking and positive actions. There has to be a long term plan in place, but it can only be realised through a series of short term wins.

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This is one of the fundamental facts of business. You never get a day that is 100% good or 100% bad. But if the morning is bad, keep acting positively and the afternoon will be good.

Someone once said to me, “I was too busy looking at the mountain top to take the necessary steps to get there.” That’s the problem in a nutshell: we all need a vision of what we want for ourselves and our family. But positive thinking alone won’t make it happen – as my early rounds of golf testify, positive thinking will only deepen the disappointment when it doesn’t happen.

Success comes from a daily commitment to positive actions – and the determination to repeat those positive actions, even if the first two or three don’t give you the result you want. If the day starts badly it’s far too easy to start dreaming of the mountain top: everything will be fine, you’ll get there one day.

Don’t give in to temptation – and remember the words of that well-known CEO, Buddha:

Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind in the present moment.

What we can Learn from Baboons…


We’ve all been on holiday. We’ve all experienced it.

For me, it comes around lunchtime on the third day…

You’ve finally hauled yourself off the sun lounger and wandered down to the beach restaurant. There’s a plate of calamari in front of you. A glass of cold beer at your elbow, the condensation running down the glass. The sun’s on your back. And suddenly you feel it.

You feel the muscles in your back relax. You feel the tension go out of your shoulders. At last, you’re relaxed. Stress? What stress?

But holidays end. You come home. Go back to work. Delete 300 e-mails. Drift back into the old routine. And before you know it, the muscles in your back are as knotted as they ever were…

So let me break off here, and consider two species which are closely connected: the baboon, and the British civil servant.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University is a primatologist. And every year, he forsakes the charms of California for the African jungle, where he studies baboons. Specifically, he studies their social structure and stress levels.

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Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Public Health at University College London. He’s stayed rather closer to home, and conducted a 40 year study into the British civil servant, looking at 18,000 members of the service from the lowest new entrant right up to Sir Humphrey level.

Both studies come to the same conclusion: the higher up the social order you are, the less stress you suffer. Lower ranking baboons had higher heart rates and higher blood pressure than their leaders: their arteries contained more plaque, significantly increasing their risk of a heart attack.

Marmot’s findings mirrored those of Sapolsky. Men in lower employment grades were more likely to die prematurely: there was a ‘social gradient’ for mortality. Subsequent studies involving women revealed a similar pattern.

Why? Surely those at top of the tree – literally and figuratively – have bigger decisions to make? Protecting the troop, pleasing the new PM…

Apparently not: Sapolsky identified five factors that are responsible for the more stress/lower down the pecking order correlation:

  • You feel like you have no control
  • You’re not getting any predictive information – how bad is this going to be? How long will it last, and so on
  • You feel trapped
  • You interpret things as getting worse
  • And you’ve no support system or ‘shoulder to cry on’

And now we’re coming closer to home. Most people reading this blog will be the top baboon, the alpha male or female in their organisation. But every single one of us has known that feeling of not being in control of our business, of feeling trapped, of not knowing how things will turn out – and of not having anyone who truly understands what the problem is. And therein lies the stress – and the inherent dangers that come with it.

I think I’ve done a reasonable job of eliminating stress in my life, but on the third day of the holiday I can still feel the muscles in my back loosening. Much as I like that moment, I’d prefer it didn’t happen. So one of my key goals for the rest of this year is to remove even more stress from my life: given the responsibilities I’m taking on, that’s not going to be easy – but I’m determined to do it.

As a starting point, I’ve just written down all the factors that cause me stress: there are six of them. So here’s a firm commitment: by the end of this year I’ll have the list down to three. And I challenge you to do the same. Make your list, and commit to reducing it by 50% over the next 4½ months.

…And by all means share it with your fellow Board members, the ultimate ‘shoulder to cry on.’ Whatever you’ve written down, it’ll be mirrored around the table. Much more importantly, though, the solutions will also be around the TAB table –in the knowledge, insight and experience of your fellow baboons…

Marks out of Ten


Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery.

We’re all familiar with Mr Micawber’s quote – and while inflation may have changed the numbers, the essential truth of Charles Dickens’ words can never be challenged. Translate them into business and they’re the reason you monitor your cash flow, the reason you check your KPIs and the reason you keep a lid on the expenses.

Yes, you can get away with spending that extra shilling in the short term, but annual expenditure of twenty pounds, ought and sixpence catches up with you in the end. ‘The mills of the Gods grind exceeding slow,’ Sextus Empiricus pointed out in the 3rd Century, ‘But they grind exceeding fine.’

Make no mistake, the result of that extra shilling of expenditure is misery. There is nothing that drags you down – mentally and physically – like staring at the cash flow every night, realising it just doesn’t add up.

So make sure you don’t spend that extra shilling, and you can forget about Wilkins Micawber, and be happy for the rest of your business career.

Or maybe not…

…Because I think there are other areas of business life where the ‘Micawber deficit’ can have a significant impact on your happiness. It’s not just the cash flow.

Let me turn for a moment from Micawber to Maslow – and his hierarchy of needs. Right at the top of the pyramid is self-actualization: as Maslow put it, “what a man can be, he must be.”

Nowhere is this more true than in business. And it takes me right back to last week’s post and the decision to ‘move to the next level.’ If you feel you can do it, you have to do it. If you don’t, you’ll end up frustrated and disappointed – and ultimately, a danger to your business.

We’ve had a recent innovation at TAB York. Before the meeting starts I ask every member for a ‘mark out of ten.’ It’s not quite ‘life, the universe and everything,’ but it is an indication of how they’re feeling – about life and business.

Supposing I were to take that one stage further – and ask the board members to rate their own performance over the last month: to give themselves a mark out of ten?

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The actual mark wouldn’t matter: one man’s eight is another woman’s six. But in the context of this blog, one thing emphatically would matter. We all have minimum standards for ourselves. Whether that’s a six or an eight is immaterial. We all have a number that reflects the minimum level of performance that’s acceptable – that in Maslow’s terminology, confirms our self-actualisation.

To miss that number on a consistent basis – to regularly deliver less than your best – is a recipe for long-term unhappiness. As Mr Micawber might have said:

Monthly target eight, monthly average eight point one, result happiness. Monthly target eight, monthly average seven point nine, result misery.

There are few worse feelings than performing below the level you’re capable of: do that consistently, and it starts to eat into you. And suddenly ‘could have, should have, would have’ are rearing their ugly heads…

KPIs and the cash flow are crucial to the health of your business: but monitoring the KPI that’s your own performance is every bit as important.

Mention of KPIs takes me back to last week’s post: to cricket, a sport which is most emphatically measured in KPIs. Bluntly, I’m not sure whether to order a slice of humble pie or send an invoice…

You may recall that I was mildly critical of Joseph Edward Root. I wonder if he really wants to be one of the game’s greats or merely very, very good. Let’s see if he makes the decision [to move to the next level] over the next five days…

Joe Root – obviously having read the blog on the Friday morning – responded with 254 in the first innings and the highest aggregate runs ever scored by a batsman at Old Trafford.

So don’t ever tell me the blog doesn’t work! And if you’d like me to be mildly critical of your football team as the season approaches, simply send a large cheque to ‘Reid Sports Predictions.’ I’ll do the rest…

I’m now off on holiday for a week. The blog will be back, relaxed and refreshed on August 12th. And I’ll be back determined to deliver at least 8.1 to all my members through the rest of the year.

The Next Level


I was watching the test match at the weekend. Specifically, I was watching Joe Root as – for the second time in the match – he got out playing a shot he emphatically shouldn’t have played.

Joe Root is one of the most naturally talented batsmen I’ve seen – probably the most talented if you only consider England players. And in his short career, he’s not been short of accolades. ‘Could be the best we’ve ever seen.’ ‘He’ll break every record there is.’

But I wonder…

Because as I watched Root casually swat a long hop from Rahat Ali into the grateful hands of Yasir Shah, I wondered if he really wanted to be one of the game’s greats. Or merely very, very good.

Whatever sport you watch, there are people with incredible natural talent. But talent doesn’t always translate into the record books. And everyone reading this blog has watched a sporting event and thought, ‘Why is this person not playing/competing at a higher level?’

Not for the first time, I was struck by the ever-present parallels between sport and business. There are some incredibly talented entrepreneurs out there: some of them right at the top of the tree – but some of them working ‘a long way below their pay grade.’

There are others who may not have been the sharpest tool in the box. But they’ve kept pushing themselves, kept learning, kept setting new targets.

I’ve written many times that the progression of a business is never a straight line. It’s never a graph going inexorably upwards. More often than not it’s a series of plateaus. Reach a level, consolidate, take the next step, reach a new level, consolidate…

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The more time I spend working with entrepreneurs, the more I think it’s the same for them. Reach a certain level – quite possibly the level that was the original goal – there’s a period of consolidation, and then one morning the light bulb goes on again: ‘I’m capable of more than this. I can go to the next level.’

Not for one minute am I saying that you must move to the next level. Goodness knows, no-one has written the phrase work/life balance more than me. But equally, you don’t want to watch the sun go down one day thinking, “If only…”

And my experience of working with entrepreneurs tells me that once the light bulb has gone on, you have to act. Otherwise frustration and boredom set in – and as I’ve written previously, they are few more dangerous forces than a bored entrepreneur…

Moving to the next level is one of the key areas where TAB can help. Yes, we’ll always make sure that your work/life balance stays well and truly balanced. But once you’ve decided to make that move, the support of your peers becomes invaluable – both consciously and subconsciously.

Clearly your fellow board members can help: there’s almost certain to be someone around the table who’s made the same decision: who’s asked themselves the same questions you’re now asking.

And rest assured I’ll do everything in my power to help. There’ll come a day when I’m watching the sun go down: rest assured that I have no intention of letting my mind drift back to any TAB York members and thinking ‘if only…’

But it’s the subconscious side that fascinates me…

I’ve seen this happen several times.

Someone around the TAB table makes a major announcement. They’ve clearly moved to a different level.

Across the table an expression changes. There’s a momentary raising of the eyebrows. Then the eyes narrow. The focus intensifies. The lightbulb goes on. ‘Good’ is no longer good enough. An entrepreneur has made the decision to move to the next level.

Let’s see if an England batsman makes the same decision over the next five days…

You Don’t Need to be Outstanding


…Or ground-breaking. Or develop a wonder-drug. Or an app that no-one’s ever dreamed of before.

If you want to be successful in business, you don’t need to do any of those things.

You just need to be 10% better than your competitors.

And now let’s travel back in time. The year is 1985. The place is Seattle. A husband and wife are having a conversation…

Wife: This is madness. I’m pregnant with our first child and you want to throw in a good job and start a business based on a trip to Italy!

Husband: Yes

Wife: And how much do you need?

Husband: $400,000

Wife: Do we have $400,000?

Husband: You know we don’t

Wife: So you’re going to borrow the money. You’re going to risk everything – including the future of our child – because you want to open a coffee shop. Like the world needs another coffee shop. For God’s sake, Howard, you have a good job with Starbucks…

If you haven’t guessed, the husband was Howard Schultz – then just about to sink $400,000 of borrowed money into Il Giornale, a coffee shop based on a trip to Italy – where they sold excellent expressos, where coffee shops acted as meeting places and where there were 200,000 of them. Two years later the original Starbucks management decided to focus on Peet’s Coffee and Tea and sold its Starbucks retail units to Schultz and Il Giornale for $3.8m. The rest, as they say…

But in many ways, Mrs Schultz was right. The world didn’t need another coffee shop.

The world didn’t need another operating system either. Windows? IBM, Atari – about half a dozen companies already had operating systems.

Neither did it need another social network. It already had Friendster and My Space.

And with seven search engines already operating, the world most certainly didn’t need Google…

But Howard Schultz – along with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – knew he could do it better.

And that’s true of 99% of the business successes I’ve seen. For every one ‘why has nobody thought of that before’ idea, there are 99 businesses that have succeeded by simply doing it better.

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Unless you’re a creative genius, the very-high-chances are that the business idea you’ve just had has already been thought of. In fact, as soon as you’ve had the idea you’ll find that everyone is doing it.

That is not the time to be discouraged. Exactly the opposite: all you’ve done is proved that there’s a demand for your idea. Now, you simply need to go out there and consistently deliver a better product or service.

Starbucks isn’t significantly better than its rivals. But – as I’ll describe next week – the remorseless attention to detail that Howard Schultz ingrained in the company’s DNA means it is that crucial 10% better in several key areas.

Let me finish by returning to that conversation between Mr and Mrs Schultz. The numbers and the business may be different, but I’ll wager heavily that a lot of people reading this blog had exactly that conversation.

And no – the world didn’t need your business. But like Howard Schultz, you had the drive and the vision to believe that you could be 10% better: the 10% that makes all the difference.

The world didn’t need another peer-to-peer business coaching company either. After all, anyone can get together with a few friends and create a mastermind group. Just make sure the group is a good fit, commit to meeting each month, find someone to coach you and you’re away…

Except it’s not quite that easy.

Like Starbucks, Google and Facebook, I absolutely believe TAB does it that crucial 10% better. It’s what makes our business model so successful – and if you’re not a member of TAB York, it’s what could add the vital 10% that would make all the difference to your business.

Not So Mad Men


Think of Mad Men on TV and what’s your first thought? Almost certainly it’s Don Draper: liquid lunch, chasing tail and unbridled cynicism…

What you call love was invented by guys like me … to sell nylons.

People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.

I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.

Except, of course, that there is a tomorrow. And tomorrow morning those of us running businesses will still need to market our products – and ourselves.

But let’s not waste time worrying about it. We’ve got Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, a few more new apps that I still haven’t come across but which are undoubtedly valued in the billions, good ol’ LinkedIn, and – of course – our blogs.

So Mad Men is purely there for entertainment. There’s nothing we can learn from it. The ‘Golden Age of Advertising?’ It’s about as relevant today as the ‘Golden Age of Steam.’

And yet…

Maybe I’m finally getting older, but I seem to pay more and more attention to some fundamental truths. Advertising has been with us a long time – commercial messages and political campaign slogans have been found in the ruins of Pompeii – and whatever’s happening on your iPhone this week, I suspect some of its core messages will be with us as long as people buy and sell goods and services.

There’s a great blog post from Hubspot which develops that argument in much more detail – but there are three points from it which are particularly relevant to all our businesses in North Yorkshire.

 

“Word of mouth is the best medium of all.”

Whatever medium you use for your advertising – whether it’s a traditional newspaper ad or the very latest inbound marketing platform – nothing will ever beat word of mouth. As I’ve said many times on this blog, it doesn’t matter whether you’re B2B or B2C: ultimately we’re all P2P. And nothing will ever beat a person-to-person recommendation, especially in a relatively small business community like North Yorkshire.

 

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

I sometimes think we’re in danger of drifting away from this simple fact. Ultimately your advertising, your customer relations, everything you do has to be directed at selling your product. Yes, go out of your way to give information, to entertain and engage. That’s exactly what I’m doing every week with the blog. But I never forget that the blog has two fundamental aims:

  • It’s there to build and strengthen my relationship with my existing clients
  • And it’s there to convince potential clients that I’d be a good person to work with

 

“It’s not the ink, it’s the think.”

When Charles Saatchi was still in short trousers, David Ogilvy – ‘the father of advertising’ – was founding Ogilvy & Mather, for many years the top agency in the world. Ogilvy built his business on research and data. He believed that the function of advertising is to sell, and that successful advertising for any product is based on information about its consumer.

 

Take the word ‘advertising’ out of that last sentence, substitute ‘your business’ and it still makes perfect sense. And that to me is a fundamental truth: who is your customer? Where is he? What does he want? How can we supply that?

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Here’s Don Draper’s answer:

Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

With respect, Don… I know we can go further than that with TAB. I want everyone I work with to be a lot more than ‘okay.’ That’s what I work towards every day – and those fundamental truths play a key part.

Dealing with the Dark Side


A great half term, a brilliant family holiday and – like my trip to Australia – absolute confirmation of why I run my own business.

But as I wrote two weeks ago, it’s time to consider the darker side of being an entrepreneur. How to cope when it’s all going wrong.

So my Google search was fairly straightforward – and back came the regulation 26.7m results. Almost without exception they failed to address my query.

Coping with failure is the key for entrepreneurial success. Don’t see it as a failure; see it as a learning experience.

That’s all very fine. It’s easy to trot out the old clichés, and all successful entrepreneurs have had their share of failure. Equally, you’d expect the vast majority of articles about entrepreneurship to be unremittingly positive.

But this blog has always sought to address the real world. Entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic people, but everyone running a business will – sooner or later – go through tough times.

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We’ll go through times when we wonder if we’ve made the right decision, we’ll go through times when the old security of the corporate world seems remarkably seductive – and we’ll go through times when we wonder if the price is worth paying, both for us and the family we’ve dragged along on the journey.

And once or twice in our entrepreneurial careers, we’ll go through times when the ship seems to be heading for the rocks.

So the question is, how do you cope? I’m not talking about the practical here – solving the immediate problems, keeping everyone informed, stringent cost control – I’m talking about you.

How does the entrepreneur cope when the easiest decision might be to wave the white flag? How do you stop yourself going mad? How do you put on a brave face and focus on sports day, not on what is – or isn’t – happening back at the office?

If that’s what you’re going through right now, here are five strategies that work. These themes are remarkably common in talking to entrepreneurs who’ve ‘been there, done that’ – and eventually steered the ship away from rocks.

Remind yourself why you started

…And remind yourself that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You started because you wanted to build something and you wanted to define your own future. Creating anything that worthwhile will involve some pain – and remember the old adage: ‘the only thing harder than carrying on is giving up.’

Take the opportunity to make changes

Tough times can be an opportunity as well: take the chance to make some hard decisions about what’s really working and what’s not working. That might be parts of the business – or it might be people. Sometimes difficult times force you to make the decisions you’ve been putting off for far too long.

Keep the end in mind

This is self-explanatory. Remind yourself why you started this journey – and remind yourself where it’s going to end. That can be incredibly difficult when you’re fire-fighting, but force yourself to do it. Lift your eyes up and look at the eventual destination. Trust me, when the fires are out, you’ll be more determined than ever to reach it.

Walk…

Do some exercise, release some endorphins. No problem was ever solved by eating junk food and gaining half a stone. Get out there in the fresh air, walk up a hill and somehow it puts problems into perspective – and often presents a solution.

…And talk

You’re not the only parent whose teenage daughter has just slammed the door and walked off into the night – and you’re not the only entrepreneur who’s ever had this problem. There is an absolute wealth of experience around any TAB boardroom table, and I’d be amazed if one of the members hasn’t experienced – and solved – whatever problem is facing you right now.

And next week I’ll take a look at one of those problems – one that everyone building a business faces sooner or later. Until then, have a great weekend.

 

Are You Selling Sugared Water?


Last week I was reflecting on the American Presidential race and the nature of leadership:

The title doesn’t make you a leader: neither does the biggest office or the reserved parking space. What makes a leader is the ability to bring your ideas to life – to paint a picture of the future your team can see and believe.

Let me continue that theme this week – and take a more detailed look at the one quality all great leaders have in common. Vision.

We live at a time when the future is more uncertain than ever, whether it’s economically (slowdown in China, Brexit), politically (US election, tension everywhere you can think of), socially (refugee crisis) – or the constant and ever-faster pace of change in technology.

Predicting the future is almost impossible.

And yet there are some astonishing success stories in business. The famous quote from Robert Kennedy is more relevant than ever:

There are those that look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’

So did Mark Zuckerberg when he wondered if his Harvard dating app couldn’t go a step or two further.

So did Pierre Omidyar when he wondered if there wasn’t a better way of buying and selling and founded eBay.

So did Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp when they wondered if the traditional taxi business might be due for a shake-up and founded Uber.

Jonathan Swift – taking a break from Gulliver’s Travels – famously wrote that ‘vision is the art of seeing things invisible.’ That’s what Zuckerberg & Co did: they saw things that were invisible to everyone else.

And that’s what Steve Jobs did in 1983 when he asked John Sculley, then the President of Pepsi-Cola, his famous question: Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

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Let me pause, and look at the other side of the coin for a moment. Let’s take one example of leaders without vision. I’m prepared to wager that the vast majority of people reading this blog have owned a Nokia mobile phone. How many of us own Nokias now?

Ten years ago the word Nokia was synonymous with the mobile phone. Does anyone know what the company does today? Did the company’s leaders have a vision of the future? I seriously doubt it. As the Harvard Business Review said, “they were acting like leaders – reassuring, calm, confident, giving fine speeches – [but they] were not being leaders.” And they woke up one morning to find everyone holding an iPhone or the latest Samsung.

What are the implications of all this for our businesses in North Yorkshire? That in our changing world leadership and vision is more important than ever. That while you may well make money selling sugared water, real and lasting success comes from seeing – and realising – your vision. To quote the Business Review again, “a leader’s fundamental role isn’t merely to perform the same tasks as yesterday, just more efficiently: it is to re-define the idea of performance entirely.”

The role of the leaders isn’t to take power, it’s to give power. It’s to create a vision, a purpose, that’s so exciting that your team can’t help but buy into it – then you give them the power to achieve. And suddenly you’re no longer selling sugared water – you’re changing part of the world. As the old cliché goes, you’re not predicting your future, you’re creating it.

…And as another old cliché goes, ‘All work and no play makes Ed a dull boy.’ So with the half-term holidays looming the blog will be taking a break next week as we head for the ski slopes. I’ll be back on Friday 26th looking at a darker facet of leadership – coping emotionally when the ship is heading for the rocks…

The Great Communicator


You may have noticed a little excitement on the other side of the pond, specifically in Iowa. The starting gun’s been fired and the 2016 Presidential race is officially under way.

So a quick quiz question. Name the three Republican front runners and the two leading Democrats. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That’s easy. That old guy – Bernie something? The young one from Florida. And Ted something? Didn’t he win in Iowa?

Yes he did. Ted Cruz is the one you’re trying to think of. He beat The Donald and Marco Rubio. And Hillary beat Bernie Sanders. Just. 701 precincts to 697.

You’ll soon know everything there is to know about them – because on November 8th, one of them will become arguably the most powerful person in the world (subject to a small discussion with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping). Barack Obama will voluntarily give up power and one of the five mentioned will find him or herself sitting behind the desk where the buck most emphatically stops. POTUS 45 will be in office.

I’m fascinated by American politics for two reasons. First of all I now go to Denver every year – and thanks to The Alternative Board I think of a great many Americans as friends. The second reason is simple: how can such an energetic, vibrant, enterprising country produce such consistently underwhelming candidates?

I was born in 1973 – more or less a year before Woodward, Bernstein and Deep Throat finally put paid to Tricky Dicky. He was followed by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Then came ‘the Great Communicator’ – to be followed by the Bush/Clinton years and the current incumbent.

How many of them have impressed me? Probably only one: Ronald Reagan.

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Was he the brightest President of my lifetime? Absolutely not.

Did he have the best grasp of policy and foreign affairs? No way.

But was Reagan the best leader? Without question.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, leadership isn’t being the best, the smartest or the one with the most knowledge. Leadership is about leading. It’s about saying ‘that’s where we’re going’ and getting your team – or the American people – to follow you.

I’m always struck by the sharp Democrat/Republican divide when I visit the States. Changing allegiance seems a much more difficult step to take than in this country. And yet Reagan’s folksy style – and his ability to capture the spirit of the US – easily bridged the divide.

Reagan gave the impression that he wanted to be President because he believed; because – like Margaret Thatcher – he’d had a moment when he’d realised, ‘No-one else is going to do this: it has to be me.’

Too many politicians since – on both sides of the Atlantic – have sought to lead for all the wrong reasons. To mis-quote JFK, for what leadership will bring to them, not what they can bring to the people they seek to lead.

The parallels with business are obvious. Everyone running their own business has had their own ‘it has to be me’ moment: the moment when they knew they had to act. And as we all know – and as Reagan said after the Challenger disaster: “the future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted: it belongs to the brave.”

As this week’s title suggests, Reagan’s effectiveness as a speaker lead to him being known as ‘The Great Communicator.’ As Ken Khachigian, one of his former speechwriters says, what brought him the name was “his ability to educate his audience, to bring his ideas to life, by using illustrations and word pictures to make his arguments vivid.”

And that’s an exact parallel with business leadership. The title doesn’t make you a leader: neither does the biggest office or the reserved parking space. What makes a leader is the ability to bring your ideas to life – to paint a picture of the future your team can see and believe. And then they’ll follow you anywhere…