Time for your Annual Service


Well, after last week’s slice of humble pie I’m not even going to mention the cricket this week. I don’t even have it on as I’m writing. Oh, for goodness sake. Pushing forward to one he should have left. That’s a fine start…

Remote found, TV turned off and focused on my Mac, let me turn my attention to something I briefly touched on two weeks ago when I was discussing productivity. According to this story in City AM: ‘Half of the UK’s small business leaders are taking fewer than six days off work each year.’

The research quoted suggested that 52% of entrepreneurs took five or fewer days off last year, with one-in-five taking no time off at all. Of those that do make it to the departure lounge, 1 in 4 admit to answering e-mails and taking calls while they’re away, and more than a third take outstanding work with them to finish.

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Interestingly, the research also showed that the vast majority of the bosses wanted their staff to take their full allocation of time off – recognising the value of time away from the office and paying real attention to your work/life balance.

So why don’t they practice what they preach?

Let’s exercise a little caution before I move into ‘full rant’ mode. It was a survey and I think we can safely assume that there was some ‘no-one works harder than me’ posturing going on. How many hours day do you work? Pah! Never less than 16. How many days a week are you in the office? Easily eight: nine some weeks… Where are the Four Yorkshiremen when you need them?

But even allowing for that natural exaggeration the results are worrying – and it appears from another study that entrepreneurs are now working longer hours than in previous years. So much for the work/life balance message…

Anyone who has read this blog on even an occasional basis will know that I think working longer and longer hours and not taking holidays is madness. Never mind your business, you’re cheating your family. Hopefully we’ll all be at the top of the mountain one day – but you need someone with you to share the view.

More than anyone, entrepreneurs need to take breaks. I have written many times that to think differently you need to be somewhere different. There’s nothing more dangerous these days than ‘doing what we’ve always done’ but if you sit at your desk every day you’ll do exactly that.

Get away, do something different, and you’ll find you’re thinking differently as well. I’ve lost count of the number of problems I’ve solved/insights I’ve had on holiday, simply because I’ve been thinking in a different way.

And as we’ve always said, if the business doesn’t function without you, you don’t have a business. The only way you’ll find that out is to leave them to it. And if you insist on staying in the office every day then all you’ll ultimately do is bring forward the day when they have to function without you – while you’re stressing about the mobile signal in the cardiac unit…

Holidays also give you a chance to let go of your ego for a while – especially if you take your children. And if they’re the age Dan and Rory are then I’ve no choice other than to let go of my ego. Whenever we try anything new I simply have to accept that they’re going to pick it up more quickly/be better than me/not have the aches and pains the day after. Or all three…

I suspect that a large proportion of those entrepreneurs who never go on holiday would all give the same reason: ‘I don’t have the time.’ No, you don’t. There’s never a good time for a holiday. There’ll always be a new idea, a new client – or a crisis. But if you’re not at your peak – and without a break you won’t be – then you can’t be at your best for the client or able to deal with the crisis.

After all, you service your plant and machinery every year: you do the same with your car. Isn’t it time the company’s most important asset received the same care and attention…

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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…

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.

Short, Sharp – and Successful?


‘Medical experts’ have just announced that short, sharp bursts are the answer. As you get older it’s not long spells of exercise you need: it’s short bursts of concentrated, maximum effort. That’s the key to staying healthy and getting the most out of life.

…And according to an article I’ve just been reading by American entrepreneur Chris Winfield, the same is true in business. If you want to get more done – or the same amount done in half the time – the answer isn’t to work slowly and methodically down your to-do list. It’s to blitz it with short, concentrated bursts of effort where you’re 100% focused on your work: no internet, no making a coffee, no re-arranging every pencil on your desk.

This was the article I alluded to in last week’s post – and thank you for all the feedback to that one. I’ll be collating all the tips and tricks in a future post (and obviously leaving out a couple of the too-easily-distracted confessions).

To business for this week – and the idea Chris Winfield is using is the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late eighties (and as the seasoned travellers among you will know, named after the Italian word for tomato).

It’s an incredibly simple technique and works on the principle that frequent breaks can improve mental agility and make you more – not less – productive.

If you haven’t come across it before you break your work down into intervals known as ‘pomodori.’ Traditionally these intervals are 25 minutes long, and are followed by a five minute break. That said, I know someone who uses 15 minute intervals and someone else (obviously a three Weetabix man) who uses a 45 minute interval. Whatever works for you.

During your 25 minutes the idea is that you work on one task, without distraction, and then – after four pomodori – you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

I like this technique, and in some ways it reminds me of the traditional advice steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was dispensing over a hundred years ago: work on your most important task until it’s done – and then move on to number two…

Where Chris Winfield’s adaptation of the Pomodoro Technique varies is in the way he chooses the tasks for his concentrated bursts:

The reality is that I’m a human being, living in a world full of other humans. I have emotions I don’t control and I often get tired. Some tasks I simply don’t feel like doing, even though I know they’re important and possibly urgent. To make this work long term I had to learn to accept these things, working with rather than against them.

He also moved from a five day working week to a seven day week, accepting that not everything could – or should – be done between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. The net result? Winfield claimed to have cut his working week to 16.7 hours whilst achieving just as much as he had done previously – and to feeling a lot less stressed.

The Pomodoro Technique might not work for everyone – but it’s worth trying. The two Board members I mentioned above absolutely swear by it. And as the old saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. That holds good for your to-do list and your personal organisation as much as it does for your sales techniques and your stock control.

Next week is the last week before I go on holiday – when I come back we’ll be more than half way through August and the end of the year will be in sight. So I’ll be looking at what you (and I) still need to do in the remaining four months of the year – and considering what’s the best period of time for business planning. A week? A month? A year? Or do we go really long term and look at three to five years…

Passing the Four Week Test


…with flying colours.

Last week I posed some questions. Supposing you walked out of the office door and didn’t come back for four weeks. What would happen to your

 Sales and revenues?
 Stock control, production and delivery?
 Relationship with your clients/customers?
 And what would be the biggest problem you faced when – tanned and smiling – you eventually came back?

As I said last week, ideally the answers would be nothing, nothing, nothing and ‘there wouldn’t be one.’ The trouble is that we don’t live in a perfect world and for most TAB members and potential members the Four Week Test provides an all too reliable examination of the business they’re building.

So, assuming you’re running a small to medium sized business and that the success of the business is in large part down to you, how do you pass the FWT? As I said, at some stage you have to pass – because if you don’t the business won’t be a very attractive proposition as and when you finally want to sell it.

Obviously, it comes down to your team: the people who are going to be left behind when you go on your gap month.

What’s the first step in making sure your team cope while you’re away? Simples. Hiring the best people in the first place. We’ll look at recruitment and the key qualities you want in a future blog, but if I’ve learnt one thing in my life it is this: key members of staff have to be right. Don’t ever hire someone because they’re the best of a bad bunch – the last man standing when the music stops. Better to struggle on until Mr Right does turn up. To slightly mangle the old saying, ‘Hire in haste, repent at leisure.’

Assuming you’ve found the right people, motivate them. Yes, that means money and yes, it may mean giving them the chance to acquire some equity in the business. But read this blog from a Board member: there are plenty of ways of getting the best from your staff, and this is one I must admit I hadn’t previously considered.

An essential part of motivating people is trusting them. It’s a lot like children: Dan’s getting older and we’re getting to the stage where we have to say, “OK, if that’s the decision you want to make, we’ll go with it. And we’ll support you.” The key word there is support: you’ve got to let people make decisions and you have to support those decisions, even though you may not agree with them 100%. Have faith; you may be pleasantly surprised…

Hand in hand with that goes the ability to delegate: ultimately it’s the quality in a leader that will allow you to get your work and your life properly balanced. It’s interesting that as TAB York develops a lot of the conversations I used to have about building a business have been replaced by conversations about delegating and time away from the business. That must be a good sign…

Choose the right people, motivate them and trust them and you’ll be amazed at what they can achieve. And even more, what they can achieve without you there. Being away gives people the chance to step up, take responsibility and try things they probably wouldn’t attempt if you were there.

Who knows, there might come a time when they’re suggesting you take another four week break…

Next week I’m looking at the management of stress – but in the meantime, here’s a quiz question. A bottle of red wine and some serious kudos if you can tell me who came up with this piece of advice on time management:

A person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.

Would your Business Pass the Four Week Test?


I was talking to a friend of a friend. Entrepreneur – successful – and about to subject his business to the ultimate test.

“I’m going hiking,” he said.

“That’s good,” I replied. “Just for the weekend?”

“Four weeks,” he said. “I either do the hikes I want to do now – really challenge myself – or I admit I’m too old and unfit.”

As he looked fit enough to put several SAS members to shame I doubted that – until the following day. That’s when an e-mail dropped into my inbox.

Here you go. Some of the hikes. Promised you the link.

WARNING: If you’re scared of heights; if you’re one of those people who looks at a picture of a cliff and gets a funny feeling at the back of his legs, do not click the link.

OK, you did click the link didn’t you? So did I. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind for the rest of the day.

No, no, not the Hua Shan plank walk. The second part of our conversation from the previous day.

“…Or I admit I’m too old and unfit. Besides, I need to find out if I’ve really built a business – or whether I’m just stacking shelves in Tesco.”

That was the key question he wanted answering. Not ‘have I still got what it takes?’ but ‘have I built a business that can survive without me? Or will it grind to a halt as soon as I’m gone?’

Plenty of us go away for a fortnight in the summer – and our businesses survive. Some of us even go away for a fortnight and don’t phone the office every day – and our businesses still survive. But four weeks struck me as a different challenge. That’s going away today and coming back to work on Monday March 31st – that’s a real test of the business you’ve built.

Because if the business won’t survive without you for four weeks – or if it starts to spiral downwards – then you haven’t really built a business. You may not have been stacking shelves but, as the old saying goes; you’ve spent too much time working in your business and not enough working on your business.

You have to build a business that can pass the Four Week Test because ultimately your business is going to be sold – and if it doesn’t pass the Test then it isn’t going to be sold for very much.

So ask yourself these questions: if I walked out of the door now and didn’t come back until March 31st…

 What would happen to sales and revenues?
 What would happen to stock control, production and delivery?
 What would happen to the relationship with our clients/customers?
 What would be the biggest problem I’d face when I came back?

If the answers are nothing, nothing, nothing and ‘there wouldn’t be one’ then congratulations. You’ve passed and I salute you. But I suspect that not many of us will be able to give those answers.

For some small business owners the FWT will reveal nothing more than an inevitable drop in income if you go away – or (as was the case when we went to Oz) some fairly ridiculous time pressures either side of the break. But if the answers show that a) the business stops or b) you have to phone/e-mail/take calls every day to keep the business running, then there are clearly problems.

Next week I’ll look at the steps you need to take to make sure that you do pass the Test. Then you can reach for your hiking gear in the certain knowledge that there’ll be no impact on the business…