Be Brave


Last week I wrote a Tale of Four Leaders, contrasting Paul Dickinson and Barry Dodd with two leaders who I consider to be far less successful – the Donald and the Maybot.

I’m still coming to terms with Paul’s passing, but gradually the sadness is giving way to what I’ll think of as his personal legacy to me.

Many of you will know the words of the poem by Henry Scott Holland, so often read at funerals. It’s called Death is Nothing at All, and there is a line that is particularly apt: ‘Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?’

Paul will never be out of mind for me and – two weeks on from the funeral – I feel a duty to his memory to make TAB UK the best it can possibly be. That means for everyone in the TAB family: our members, our franchisees, our team at head office – and the colleagues we work with overseas.

How are we going to do that? We are going to be brave. What was it Thoreau said? ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with the song still in them.”

No-one in the TAB UK family should do that and so – and I know Paul would have approved – the message this week is simple: Be Brave!

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This, more than ever, is a time for brave decisions, on both the micro and macro level. The world is changing at an ever faster pace: AI and machine learning, advanced search and the personalised internet are knocking on the door of virtually any business you can name. Businesses that were once cornerstones of the national and local economy are crumbling away. Brave decisions have become essential.

So let me turn to two decisions – sadly both from our government – which illustrate exactly the type of decisions we should not be making.

A couple of weeks ago Theresa May announced an extra £20bn – from your taxes – for the NHS. That’s a worthy decision: with four out of five people apparently in favour of tax rises to fund the NHS I’m sure the focus groups will approve.

It’s worthy, but in the long run I think it is wrong. And it’s the easy decision, not the brave decision.

Anyone who walks through any town centre will notice that the UK has an obesity epidemic which is getting worse every year. That in turn is leading to an explosion in Type 2 diabetes which is currently costing the NHS £25,000 a minute. Diabetes UK put the cost of treating Type 2 diabetes and its complications at £14bn a year.

Those are staggering figures for what is – in the main – a preventable disease. And quite clearly there isn’t much of the PM’s £20bn left when you’ve paid the diabetes bill: if we carry on getting fatter there very soon won’t be anything left.

The PM’s £20bn is, in essence, a very expensive bucket. There’s a hole in the roof of your factory, the water is coming in ever more quickly, so clearly what you need to fix the problem is a bigger, more expensive bucket…

Yes, that might be the answer while the guys go up on the roof to fix the hole. But as far as the diabetes epidemic is concerned, we’re not sending anyone up on the roof: we’re relying on an ever more expensive bucket instead of making difficult decisions and telling people the unpalatable truth.

Secondly, pot. Or weed, or whatever you might want to call it. Last week the case of Billy Caldwell and an article by William Hague brought cannabis front and centre in the news.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Hague argued that the war on cannabis has been “irretrievably lost” and called for it to be fully legalised. He argued that cannabis is freely available in the UK, but available in unregulated forms, with a thriving black market bringing huge profits to criminal gangs and putting an unnecessary strain on the police and our criminal justice system.

Some time ago I wrote about the legalisation of cannabis in the US state of Colorado. The state – which I visit every year for TAB’s global conference – legalised  cannabis in 2012. Teenage use of the drug in the state is now at its lowest level for a decade, opioid deaths are down, crime has not risen – but tax revenues have, by an estimated $230m over two years. The population of Colorado is around 5.6m – that is around one-tenth of the UK, so it is easy to project the tax revenues that might result from legalisation here.

Sam Dumitriu, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute says, “We estimate that legalisation would raise at least £1bn a year for the Treasury.” He added, “Just as the prohibition of alcohol failed in the US, so the prohibition of cannabis has failed here.”

What is the UK government’s position? A flat refusal to even discuss the subject – a refusal, not to make a brave decision, but to even have a brave discussion.

In business, you cannot do that. It bears repeating: we are living in the age of brave decisions. The problem is, there’s no pain in buying the NHS a bigger bucket or refusing to discuss cannabis. The government – like so many businesses – is in a comfort zone.

But you know and I know that it cannot last. We cannot go on getting fatter, we cannot go on seeing young people murdered on the streets of London and we cannot ignore Google, Amazon and Uber when they tap on our door.

Throughout his life – and never more than towards the end of it – Paul Dickinson took brave decisions. That’s the legacy he left me: that’s the legacy that we all – in government or in business – need to follow.

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Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend


I bumped into an old friend in York last week. He was wearing a suit. And a tie. This was the man who became bored with dress-down Friday – and dress-down every other day of the week – when the rest of us were still learning not to wear a striped tie with a check shirt…

There was only one possible explanation.

“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ve finally made an honest woman of Claire. Where is she?”

He didn’t laugh. “Other end of the scale I’m afraid, Ed. Funeral. My second in two weeks. And both of them not much older than us.”

We’ve all been there: mentioned someone in conversation only to hear, ‘Hasn’t anyone told you? Last Thursday. No warning, nothing.” And inevitably the person being discussed was ‘not much older than us.’

That meeting with my friend played on my mind for the next few days. One thing I am sure of is that there is an ever-increasing level of stress in the average entrepreneur’s life. A few years ago people e-mailed or phoned. Now there is myriad of different ways of contacting someone: whatever you turn off, something else will bleep just as you sit down to dinner.

And we all know the dangers of stress.

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So that chance meeting with my friend stayed with me – not just because we’d been talking about someone close to our own age, but because the conversation posed a question that’s absolutely central to The Alternative Board.

You’ve started a business. You know what you want to achieve: you know what you’re capable of achieving. And you’re determined to get there.

So what do you do? How do you react when someone says, ‘haven’t you heard?’

Do you take it as a signal to run at 100mph in case the same thing happens to you and you never realise your potential?

Or do you stop and smell the roses? Pay attention to your work/life balance? Remind yourself that no-one’s last words have ever been, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

The more I thought about it the more I realised I’d seen business owners – perhaps without even recognising it – struggling with the same dilemma. And not just as a one-off.

It’s a problem that raises it head, in different forms, at different stages of your entrepreneur’s journey.

What should I do? Put in the time? Re-invest the cash? And build a company that will really be worth something in 10 or 20 years’ time?

Or realise that I might not get there – and milk the business for all its worth and take my rewards in the here and now.

The answer, of course, is that there is no right answer. The right answer depends on your own individual personality and how you want to live your life. As everyone who knows me will recognise, I’m in the ‘building a business’ camp – and I’m determined to enjoy the journey along the way, sharing that journey with my family and my friends.

Yes, I could be in the office every minute of every day – but I remember waking up one Tuesday morning early in my TAB York days. It was a morning like today: early May and the sun was shining in through the window. I looked at the pile of paperwork on my desk and went off to play 9 holes of golf.

It was a moment when I suddenly appreciated the freedom the decision to start my own business had given me – and when I knew I’d made the right decision in Newport Pagnell service station.

Not every entrepreneur would have taken that decision: some would have ploughed through the paperwork. The important thing, I think, is to recognise what works for you – and what you want from your business.

Whatever choice you make – whether you take your rewards now or later – remember that the business is working for you. It is emphatically not the other way around.

The Toughest Decision You’ll Have to Make


You go to the doctor’s. You’ve a nagging pain in your stomach. It’s a pain you’ve never had before. Worrying, because you’ve reached the age where you know your body pretty well. The age where most of your aches and pains are old friends: you know how long they’ll stay – and you know how to get rid of them.

“How bad is it?” the doctor asks.

“Yeah,” you nod. “Pretty bad.”

“Conscious of it through the day?”

“Absolutely.”

“Keep you awake at night?”

“Two or three times a week, yes.”

The doctor examines you. Sits you down in the chair. Puts on his ‘time to deliver bad news’ face.

“You’re right,” he says. “The pain is serious. And the bad news is, it’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. A lot worse. You’re going to worry more, have more sleepless nights.”

You gulp. In truth this was the news you expected. But hearing someone else spell it out makes it worse.

“What can we do?” you ask.

“We can do one of two things. We can operate. There’s no risk, but it’ll be painful. You’ll be in pain for maybe a week. After that, you’ll be fine. Better than fine. Better than you were before the pain started.”

“What’s the other option?”

The doctor shrugs. “Just carry on as you are. The pain will get worse and worse. It’s your choice…”

So what would you do? Which choice would you make?

Without a shred of doubt, everyone reading this blog would make the same decision. “It’s a no-brainer, doc. How quickly can we schedule the operation?”

And yet when the vast majority of people are faced with a business decision that is an exact parallel, they choose to continue with the pain.

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“What’s the matter, sweetheart? It’s two o’ clock in the morning.”

“Can’t sleep. I’ve been lying awake since you turned the light out.”

“You’re not worrying about work again are you?”

“I’m always worrying about work. That is, I’m always worrying about Brian.”

Your wife sits up. Turns the light on. “Why don’t you just get rid of him?”

“I don’t know. It’s difficult. I mean…”

What you really mean, is that the decision to get rid of someone is painful. And you’re right, it is. But what’s even more painful is keeping an employee who’s not right. It affects you, it affects your whole team. Chances are, you’re not the only one awake at two in the morning…

I’m fascinated by how many of my TAB members shy away from the pain of firing someone they know is wrong – especially when they know that the pain of keeping them on is ultimately greater. I’m equally fascinated by how members can bluntly say “fire them” when it’s someone else’s problem – and hesitate when it’s their own.

By now I’ve seen plenty of problems brought to TAB meetings, and this is the one which causes the most anguish. Of course you don’t want to sack someone. But it comes with the territory. Leadership is a lonely place.

Do you remember that breakfast? The one where you pushed your food round your plate as you sat in the motorway service station? The one where you finally decided: ‘It can’t go on like this. I’m going to start my own business?’

You started a journey that day – and one day it had to lead to Brian and the problem you now have. It’s one that every leader has to face at some time.

Let’s go back to the doctor’s surgery. What did you say? “It’s a no-brainer, doc. How quickly can we schedule the operation?” If you want to put it more eloquently, take the advice of the man who was briefly CEO of Scotland: Macbeth.

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/It were done quickly.

As another former CEO, ‘Junior’ Soprano, said, ‘That’s what being a boss is. You steer the ship the best way you know how. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes you hit the rocks.’

And sometimes – sadly – you need to leave a crew member behind. Yes, you’ll do it as gently, as tactfully and as constructively as you can because you’re a good person. But the decision has to be made. And you have to make it.

The Worst of Times


I was on the receiving end of a… I don’t know. I was going to say ‘rant’ but that’s not fair. It wasn’t quite a plea for help either: just an outpouring of frustration.

It was someone I’ve sort-of-known for about six months. He knows what I do: he runs what appears to be a successful business based a few miles outside York.

I’ve tried to reproduce Michael’s words more or less exactly as he spoke – and yes, obviously I’ve changed his name.

Ed, I desperately need to go away and think for a day. Somewhere there isn’t a sea of paperwork pursuing me. Where there isn’t a client on the phone, one of my staff with a problem – where everything I see doesn’t remind me of a job I haven’t done.

The trouble is, I need the same day for client work – I’m worried that I’ll lose new or existing clients by not doing enough work.

You know what, Ed? I’ve needed this ‘away day’ for about two years. I work most nights and every weekend. Even my holidays are work related. I’m having a few days away when I’m speaking at a conference and a few days in France – guess what, speaking at another conference.

I’ve got clients I need to develop and clients I need to get rid of. And what do I do about my staff? Six people depend on me to pay their mortgage every month. The business is ready to jump to the next level: that means taking on three, maybe four more people. Do I want to be responsible for four more mortgages?

I don’t know. Maybe finding an answer is a fantasy. Maybe this is the way it is until I retire or I’m carried out in a box. You want me to sum it all up in one sentence? I am a prisoner of my business. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy it. I’m not mining coal and I’m not banging widgets mindlessly together on a production line. But I know I could enjoy it a lot more. What’s that saying? I’m in the thick of things – and I need to find a way out. But I can’t see one.

It’s now four and a half years since the first person joined TAB York and it’s been a while since I’ve had a conversation like that one with Michael. The more I thought about it, the more important I realised the conversation was – for me it was a real ‘back to basics’ reminder of why people join TAB.

The focus of TAB is on improving your business and getting results – and making sure that your work/life balanced stays balanced. ‘I work most nights and every weekend’ isn’t a phrase I want my members to use because ultimately it means that something – work or your personal life – has to give: and along the way you’ll be too tired to make effective decisions.

One of the things that really struck me about Michael’s comments was how lonely he sounded – and as we’ve said many times, no-one really understands the pressures and strains on the owner of an SME apart from another owner of an SME.

Over the last four years that’s one of the best things to emerge from TAB York: you don’t have to fight fires or make tough decisions on your own. The collective wisdom of the Board is there to help and ultimately that gives the members real peace of mind. Eight heads are most definitely better than one.

…And eight heads will hold you accountable as well. I’d love Michael to join one of our Boards and discuss his plans for taking his business to the next level – and for finding something a lot more rewarding to do with his weekends. Board members hold each other accountable for business and personal goals and they’re equally important – and equally rewarding.

I’m now off for a (hopefully!) rewarding week in France, so the blog will likewise be going on holiday next week. I’ll be back – no doubt feeling even more reflective – on Friday, August 22nd. If you’re also packing and waving goodbye to the office, have a brilliant time.

Asking Questions: Expecting Answers


Last week – which for some reason seems a remarkably long time ago – I was writing about the Awards which members of TAB York had won. I just want to repeat this quote from Rachel Goddard of Intandem Communications from last week’s post:

The other members of my board were great. That is, they asked me the questions I didn’t want asking but knew I had to answer. I remember one question in particular: it pinpointed the exact problem I had to solve.

I’ve been thinking about those three sentences a lot this week, and it seems to me that they go right to the heart of what a TAB Board is all about.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, successful people do what unsuccessful people don’t want to do. Part and parcel of that is asking questions when you know that you won’t like the answers.

We’re all guilty of avoiding things when they’re going to be difficult – even though we know that they’d benefit our business. Hands up everyone who’s had a job on the to-do list for three months or more? Six months, anyone…

Bringing a problem to your fellow Board members specifically eliminates that problem. Because once you’ve asked your fellow Board members the question you’ve been putting off asking yourself, there’s no going back. You’re committed.

Even after nearly four years of TAB that moment in a meeting still enthrals me. The dynamics around the table are something special.

“OK. Claire, it’s your turn.”

“Thanks, Ed. (Pause) Question for this month. (Pause) I should really have brought this one three months ago. (Pause) The thing is this. (Pause)”

Then finally the question. And the other Board members immediately know it’s important. So they don’t leap in with an answer: they pause as well. Then they’ll ask for some clarification. Finally someone says, “And if you did that, what difference would it make to your business?”

This time Claire doesn’t pause. This time the dam breaks and we realise just how important solving the problem is.

Then the members make their suggestions and – most importantly of all – Claire commits to action.

Fast forward a month. Claire is reporting back to her fellow board members. She hasn’t done as much as she committed to doing. Which is understandable: it’s hard to go from doing nothing about a problem – however pressing – to working on it flat out.

This is when TAB really shines. Because the other members ask a simple question. “Why? Why haven’t you done the things that you know would benefit your business?”

Being held accountable by your peers makes all the difference. There’s no hiding place and bluntly, the only option over the next three or four months is solving the problem. And you can guess the conversation when that happens.

That’s why I was so pleased for Rachel – she went through exactly the process I’ve outlined above and it was painful. But in the end she achieved what she wanted to achieve and her business took a significant step forward. Sooner or later everyone who’s a TAB member is going to find themselves in Rachel’s position – with a decision which is damn difficult but which just has to be made.

And these decisions are the pivotal moments on a TAB board. When I started the business those moments were theory – yes, I’d seen them replicated in business, but never with the personal nature of the TAB discussions. When I see a ‘Rachel moment’ – and even more when I see the successful outcome – I know that nothing in the corporate world could give me more satisfaction. Or produce better results for Rachel – and Claire.