The Man who Couldn’t Play Frisbee

Tap the following words into Google: have you got what it takes…

And before you finish ‘takes’ – at least on my computer – Google’s filled in the rest: to be an entrepreneur.

Just short of 30m results so I’m clearly not the first one to ask the question. And here’s just what I’m looking for, second on the list. Courtesy of This is Money, the Great Entrepreneur Quiz.

There at the top is the obligatory picture of the Dragons, followed by ten questions. They’re exactly what you’d expect: ‘why do you want to start your own business?’ ‘How committed are you?’ And if you answered mostly A’s…

I suspect a large proportion of the 29.9m search results will lead you to a quiz like that. And I’ll wager quite heavily that not a single quiz will ask one of the most important questions every entrepreneur faces as they build their business:

How well do you cope with loneliness?

Make no mistake, from the one man creative to the owners of the Sunday Times fastest growing companies, every entrepreneur feels alone at some time. They recognise with absolute certainty that ‘the buck stops with you’ doesn’t only apply to American presidents.

I was introduced to someone last week: one of the most focused young entrepreneurs I’ve ever met:

It was fine when we started. All one big adventure. And I’d go out and play Frisbee with them all. Now they’re still playing Frisbee and I’m in the office driving it all forwards. But suddenly there’s so much more responsibility. Some of them have mortgages now. We’ve just hired our first guy with a family. And it’s all down to me…

There’s not much I can add to that. Even if you’re a director, you might well have started as ‘one of the lads.’ But gradually, the distance grows: you realise that you can’t be their boss and their best friend.

Naturally they’ll still go for a drink with you. But nothing sums it up quite like this quote from Carmela, wife of successful (but not entirely legal) entrepreneur, Tony Soprano. I found it in an Inc article by Tim Askew, the CEO of Corporate Rain.

Carmela tells Tony:

[They] go around complimenting you on your new shoes, telling you you’re not going bald, not getting fat. Do you think they really care? You’re the boss! They’re scared of you. They have to kiss your ass and laugh at your stupid jokes.

Askew repeats what I’ve said many times in this blog – almost no-one else understands the pressure of being an entrepreneur, of building a business. Not your wife, your brother, your best friend from school or even the girl that cuts your hair.

Almost no-one. Where has Askew found some solace? …Through my affiliation with the Inc. Business Owners Council … a growing concentration of peer friendship, humor and allayed loneliness.

The parallels with TAB are obvious. It’s easy to think of all the positives of being an entrepreneur: in control of your own time and your own destiny; building a business and the material rewards that come with success. But there’s a darker side to it as well: being responsible for other people’s lives can be a tremendous strain, as this article in Forbes discusses. Entrepreneurs are not immune to depression, anxiety and even addiction. I’ve seen plenty of very successful people with ‘withdrawal symptoms’ when they’re not at work.

So from time to time you’ll need a group of your peers. People who’ve been there, done that, worn the t-shirt and almost certainly suffered the same loneliness. It’s easy for us to sit round the TAB table and applaud when the goals are achieved and everything’s pointing in the right direction. But it’s when you’ve a real problem – when you need friends who understand – that you see the full potential of peer support.

Live on Stage… The Entrepreneur

“No, of course you don’t feel like it every night. Sometimes you just want to be at home with your kids. And bluntly, I hate touring. I hate the hotel rooms, I hate the travelling, I hate the unpacking. I hate it all. But then I go on stage. There’s me, the mic, the audience. And everything else melts away…”

“I can still remember the feeling. You’d pull up outside someone’s house – a ‘real prospect’ your sales manager had said. Invariably you were late due to them saying ‘take the second right’ when actually it was the fourth right and then left at the pub. It was raining, you wanted to be at home and you just didn’t feel like going in there and delivering your pitch. But you did. And somehow the disillusioned guy in the car always morphed into a charismatic salesman half-way up the garden path.”

Two views – ostensibly from completely different perspectives but both reaching the same conclusion. The first is my recollection of a remarkably well-known performer speaking when he wasn’t that well-known (and who certainly wouldn’t admit to ‘I hate touring’ any more). The second is a TAB member talking about an unhappy year he spent in very direct sales.

And the conclusion? I’m sure we can all recognise it. You’re fed up, you’ve done this presentation a thousand times before, the client won’t appreciate it anyway – but somehow something happens, a switch flicks at the crucial moment, and you’re fine. And it happens every time.

I’ve been taking some time off to be with Dan and Rory this week. As they’re happier with the Xbox as a companion I found myself reading about the well-documented problems in the F1 industry. This week’s GP is in America – land of the free and home of the salesman. The consensus there seems to be that F1 needs to connect with more potential fans – be more ‘personality led.’

If you’re running an SME then the words ‘personality led’ will be familiar to you – because that’s exactly what your business is. Despite the internet, Facebook, LinkedIn and a gazillion tweets a day, when it comes down to it people always have and always will buy from people. That means there’s no hiding place for the owner of an SME – which brings us back to the man waiting to go on stage; to someone sitting in his car outside a prospect’s house.

That’s you. You’re the one that needs to flip the switch. You’re the one who’s on stage every day. You may well be desperate for a day off from performing. But I’m sorry, your audience is stamping its feet, demanding the main act

And it’s me as well. I’m lucky that I’ve always enjoyed the ‘pressure of the presentation.’ Nestle used to wheel me out when there were difficult presentations to give to sceptical clients – and I revelled in the challenge. Why? Because I believed in the product – I genuinely believed that we had a great plan which would help the clients (and help us).

But I must have done thousands of sales presentations in my life. Surely I must be getting jaded by now?

Fortunately, there’s never been anything in my business career that I’ve believed in as much as TAB. Does that mean every presentation and every meeting is a piece of cake? Far from it: if I’m driving to a meeting with a potential member and I know that TAB would be perfect for her and she’d be perfect for TAB then it’s fine.

But there are plenty of other meetings with potential members that I do have to motivate myself for. Just as I know there are sales presentations and meetings that you have to motivate yourselves for – even though you believe passionately in your business.

So that’s the question for this week. How do you motivate yourself when you’re sitting in the car or waiting in the hotel lobby? What is it that flicks the switch and guarantees your absolute best presentation, every single time?

Goodbye, Goodbye, I’m Leaving You, Goodbye…

If the title of this week’s post seems vaguely familiar, it’s because I’ve sort-of-stolen the title of a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore song…

…But no, I’m not leaving you. I’m thinking instead of the situation all employers will face at some time. One of your employees is going to say, ‘I need a word with you’ and tell you that they’re leaving.

Quite possibly you won’t have seen it coming. I remember working on 12 months’ plans and sales forecasts at Nestle when one of the key parts of those plans walked into my office and said she’d received a better offer. Not for one minute had I anticipated it.

For a while I took her resignation personally. Should I have seen it coming? Could I have managed her better? The reality was that she’d received a better offer; she was ready to move on and the new job better fitted her family circumstances. All I could do was wish her well.

So what should you do when it happens to you? You may be losing a key employee but you need to find a way of making it a positive for the business: here are six points that may help you do that.

Don’t take it personally. Salesmen: writers: actors. Everyone’s told not to take rejection personally and everyone finds it almost impossible to do. But the reality is that your soon-to-be-ex member of staff received a better offer or felt it was the right time to move on. And if they’re leaving to set up their own company what can you do except offer your congratulations and support? After all, that’s what you once did.

Learn from the experience. If you didn’t want this employee to leave, what could you have done differently/better? Were they sufficiently motivated? Could you have provided better working conditions? Very often these ‘softer’ factors are just as important as money – and with the new laws on flexible working that have just been introduced that’s not going to change.

Think hard before you make a counter-offer. In many ways this is the natural first reaction. But if my experience is anything to go by, don’t. It’s one of the lessons you should have learnt as a teenager – when a relationship is over, it’s over. And whether it’s your first girlfriend or one of your team, there’s no going back. I’ve made counter-offers and persuaded someone to stay twice in my working life. It didn’t work out either time: in both cases the employee still left and all we’d done in the interim was pay a higher salary.

Stay Positive. At some point the other members of staff need to be told – and the point here is to stay positive. Someone leaves – so someone else gets the chance to shine. And the way to de-motivate the entire team is to convey the ‘X has left. We’re all doomed’ message. You’re the leader and it’s your job to lead. Whether X has left or not, you’re still leading your troops to the Promised Land.

Look inside your own company. This has been a recurring theme of this blog. Your team – and the individual members of your team – are almost always capable of more than you think. So before you go outside the company for a replacement look inside the company. Very often someone you thought was irreplaceable leaves – and you find that not only were they very replaceable, they were also holding other people back.

Think hard about gardening leave. I know one very successful entrepreneur who has one inflexible rule. If someone is leaving – for whatever reason – they’re out of the door the same day. “Once they’ve decided to go, they’ve gone” is how he puts it, meaning that once they’ve handed in their notice their minds will be elsewhere and they’ll possibly do more harm than good. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with him: then again, his house does have a remarkably long drive…

No-one wants to see their key members of staff leave but it’s going to happen to all of us at some point. Hopefully the six suggestions/reflections above will help when one of your staff does come and ask for that quiet word…

The Time to Take a Risk

There he is – at the high stakes poker table. The four, six and eight of hearts are face up on the baize. He’s all in. Surely he can’t have the five and seven? Can he? You’ll have to pay to find out…

There he is again. York races. The horses flash past the post. Was that the slightest of smiles? That’s between him and his bookmaker…

Seven o’clock the next morning. As always, the first one into the office. A bank of computer screens. Stock market prices, foreign currency exchange – and the production figures from his factories; the sales figures from his shops. He finishes his black coffee, takes his tablets and settles into another high-risk, high-pressure day. Another typical day for an entrepreneur…

That’s the popular perception of the entrepreneur – someone who loves risk, who needs the adrenalin rush from risk, who even goes out of his way to create risk where none exists.

That’s the popular perception – and in my experience it couldn’t be more wrong.

How can I possibly say that? After all, I run my own business. Most people reading this blog run their own business – or at least have a significant portion of their future prosperity tied up in the success of the business they’re managing.

We’ve all taken risks. We’ve given up the security of the corporate world for the doubtful joy of working until ten o’clock at night and wondering why the person you thought you’d developed a relationship with hasn’t paid his invoice. Maybe some of us have had to tell our families that Christmas won’t be quite so spectacular this year – and spend January explaining to the building society that they’ll need to be patient…

There’s nothing more stressful than running your own business. You put your wealth, your health and your psychological well-being at risk.

But that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs enjoy risk – and it certainly doesn’t mean that they go out of their way to create risk.

In my experience, the vast majority of entrepreneurs I work with would class themselves as being ‘risk averse.’ And as I wrote last week, that’s one of the key strengths of The Alternative Board – the collective wisdom round a Board table goes a long way to reducing risk, to making sure that you’re aware of all the possible downsides before you press ‘go.’

But there’s something else I notice as the discussion on risk goes round the table. Entrepreneurs define risk differently to other people. The entrepreneurs I work with see a different type of risk. Let me explain by taking you back to Newport Pagnell service station…

I’d finished another identikit motorway breakfast in another identikit service station – and I’d decided to leave the security of the corporate world and start my own business. Doing what? I didn’t know at that time. But come hell or high water, I was going to be my own boss. That meant saying goodbye to security, to my company pension, company car and all the other trappings of being a few rungs up the executive ladder.

And conventional wisdom dictates that I was taking a huge risk in giving all that up.

But if I didn’t start my own business there were far greater risks. Risks I simply couldn’t accept any longer.

The risk that I’d never know if I could have succeeded on my own.

The risk that I’d never really fulfil my potential.

And above all, the risk that someone else could dictate my schedule – and that I might miss seeing my boys grow up.

Almost everyone reading this blog will be able to identify with that. It isn’t conventional risk that the entrepreneur fears. ‘No money? Fine. I had no money when I started. I’ll start again.’ It’s the risk that can’t be quantified. It’s the risk of not fulfilling your potential, the risk of missing your children growing up and, above all, the risk of never knowing if you could have done it or not…

On Stress – and Tony Blair…

Well, it’s taken 186 blogs and 120,900 words but this week I finally turn to Tony Blair for business advice. ‘Never say never’ as the old adage goes…

The advice – I’ll come to the exact words later – was from his counselling of Rebekah Brooks during the phone-hacking trial. Irrespective of whether we think Rebekah Brooks is guilty or innocent there’s one thing we can agree on – she’s under a tremendous amount of stress.

You don’t need me to tell you that too much stress, especially when it’s prolonged, can play havoc with your physical and mental health. The trouble is that stress is inevitable – especially if you’re running a business.

And that’s fine: moderate amounts of stress are good for us. Studies show that intermittent stress keeps the brain alert and makes us perform better. I’d go so far as to say that there are plenty of TAB members who need some stress in their lives. “If there isn’t any stress I realise that I go out of my way to create it,” is a not-untypical quote.

After all, it’s not so long ago that TAB members would have spent their days in caves picking nits off each other – before they went out to hunt something that was horned and dangerous. We’re genetically programmed to need some stress – just not too much.

But supposing you can’t do anything about it – that whether it’s business or personal, your stress levels are in the red zone? You still have to run your business – so how do you cope? In JFK’s words, how do you maintain “grace under pressure?”

I’ve been reading an article in Forbes magazine by Travis Bradberry, one of their regular contributors. How Successful People Stay Calm is the title and you can read it here.

Bradberry outlines a number of ‘coping’ mechanisms and strategies, among them:

  • Successful people appreciate what they have
  • They avoid asking ‘what if?’
  • They stay positive
  • They disconnect
  • They sleep
  • And they use their support system

Let me pick up on just three of those. People who cope well with stress avoid asking ‘what if?’ Dead right. Deal with what you can deal with. Deal with the situation as it is now. Don’t drive yourself mad imagining a catastrophe: in my experience it invariably doesn’t happen.

They disconnect. It’s difficult to do but it’s invaluable. Whatever the crisis raging at work, you almost certainly can’t do anything about it at 8pm on Sunday. So don’t try. Read to your children instead. Drink a bottle of wine with your wife. Do something that’s really important.

And at last we come to Tony Blair. One of the best ways of coping with prolonged stress is to make sure you sleep properly. In the now-infamous e-mail Blair told Brooks, ‘keep strong and definitely (take) sleeping pills.’

How you get to sleep is up to you, but our former leader was right – if you’re under extreme pressure, you need to sleep properly. A crisis at work – like most things – will ultimately pass: the key thing is to make sure that you’re still standing when it has passed.

I said I’d only pick up on three of those points: that’s because I hope I can take the last point as read. Of course you should use your support network – and hopefully you’ll know that you have the ideal support network round the TAB boardroom table. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as my Grandma used to say. A problem shared with eight of your peers is one that’s well on its way to not being a problem for much longer.

And with that it’s time to leave my cave and take this week’s stress out on a squash ball. Enjoy your weekend – and make sure it’s stress-free…

Drones, PESTs and the Future

The difficult we do at once: the impossible just takes a little longer.

We’ve all seen that message on someone’s website, or tacked up on the wall as we wait in reception.

And we smile to ourselves and think, ‘Yeah, yeah. Cliché alert. Impossible is impossible and let’s not pretend otherwise. Certain things can’t be done and they’re never going to be done.’

And yet here I am carrying my entire music collection in my pocket. Every book in our house wouldn’t even fill a quarter of my Kindle. And I’m just going to have a face to face conversation over a mobile phone…

What was science fiction when I was a child is now part of everyday life. And so are plenty of things that didn’t even make it into the imagination of the science fiction writers.

So I watched this video with some interest. And I showed it to someone else who said, ‘Don’t be stupid, that’s never going to happen.’

If you haven’t time to click the link – and I really suggest you do – it’s from Amazon. And it shows a drone delivering the book you ordered around 30 minutes ago.

Now you might say it’s a remarkably clever marketing ploy by Amazon to release the video on Cyber Monday – the day when we’re all apparently ordering online as if our lives depended on it and last year we Brits spent £10,000 a second.

I’ve been reading a lot about Amazon lately. They’ve received a good deal of negative press over the past few weeks and it was hard not to be swayed as I read this article in the Observer at the weekend – especially as it included one particularly chilling stat from the US.

According to research from the ILSR, shops employ 47 people for every $10m in sales. That figure rises to 52 if you only look at independent retailers. Amazon employs only 14 for every $10m of sales. So, argues the ILSR, Amazon doesn’t create jobs, it destroys them.

But is that really Amazon’s fault? I think they’ve captured a need brilliantly. Let me say here and now that I find the idea of ordering a book and watching it touch down on my patio half an hour later remarkably attractive. I don’t see that as destroying the high street: I see it as consumers’ needs changing. There’s still a place for the high street. But customers now want great products, superb customer service and a willingness to change and adapt.

That’s what I admire in the Amazon/drones story. Someone has looked at the way they deliver products to people, looked at the technological advances and thought, “Why not?”

From time to time I encourage my clients to forsake SWOT and do a PEST analysis instead. If you’ve never come across it, PEST stands for Political – Economic – Social – Technological. In short they’re the changes that might impact on your business – and if I have one message for 2014 it’s ignore PEST at your peril.

I’ve often written that if Amazon does what you do you’re in trouble. Well, if there’s a possibility that Amazon could do what you do, then you’re also in trouble. EBay and the internet meant a boom time for courier companies and the distribution sector. 20 years from now drones could well have wiped them out.

So more than ever in 2014 be aware of the world and the way it’s changing. For once, the cliché is right – these days, the impossible does just take a little longer. And if you don’t do the impossible, your competitors will.

Robert Kennedy wasn’t talking about running an SME in North Yorkshire, but in 2014 we’ll all need to remember his words:

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

Do Milestones Matter?

As many of you know it was my 40th birthday on Tuesday – and to those of you that sent cards, text messages and e-mails, thank you very much indeed. I suppose I should also say thank for the ‘good natured banter’ on Facebook: some of the messages have been noted, ladies and gents…

And thank you to the Government as well! I never expected the 41 gun salute at the Tower of London. What an honour! And what a coincidence that the royal baby was born only the day before…

So 40 is significant. ‘Life begins at 40’ and all that.

Or does it? Does the fact that Tuesday was my 40th birthday have any real significance? Does the fact that your business is 5 years old or 10 years old next Wednesday really matter?

Yes. And no.

I don’t think milestones as dates matter at all. I do think milestones as signposts matter. Let me explain.

From a business point of view I don’t believe that a 40th birthday or a tenth anniversary is either a cause for celebration or a reason for beating yourself up if things haven’t gone so well. I don’t necessarily hold with the planning which says, ‘I must achieve this by my 40th birthday’ or ‘This is where we need to be on August 17th next year because it’s our fifth anniversary.’

One of the keys to success in business is that every day matters – and every part of every day matters. If you make a pound at four o’clock on Friday afternoon it’s exactly the same as a pound made at 8:30 on Monday morning. This is where I’m very much with Rudyard Kipling. If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run/Yours is the earth, and everything that’s in it…

To me, every day is vital and what I want to do – and what I want to encourage all my Board members to do – is make the most of every day. If and when you eventually achieve your goal you’ll appreciate it just as much at 10 years and 174 days as you would at exactly ten years.

In my experience goals that are set to meet a deadline created by an anniversary or ‘outside event’ almost never work for the entrepreneur. But that’s not to say that we should all forget our birthdays and eschew the party when we’ve successfully negotiated ten years in tough times.

Because what I think milestones do give is a moment to reflect: a chance to take stock and say, ‘We started this business with nothing much more than a conviction. And here we are at a £1m turnover.’ That’s what I did on Tuesday July 23rd.

So the rest of this blog is a personal reflection – and I think I’m very, very fortunate. I have a business that I love, dealing with clients that I like and admire.

But above all that I have my family. I wrote a few weeks ago about the half-eaten breakfast in Newport Pagnall service station when I realised that something had to change. Well, Tuesday gave me the chance to take stock and it has changed. I’m where I should be – not halfway down a motorway – at an important time in the life of my children.

Dan starts ‘big school’ in September – there’s a milestone if ever there was one – and when I look at him now I can see the teenager lurking in the shadows and, very occasionally, catch of the glimpse of the young man he’ll grow into. Rory too, albeit a couple of years behind…

I love my boys beyond all human measure – but we’re good friends as well. Would that have been the case if I’d made a different decision at Newport Pagnall services? I don’t like to think about it.

So Tuesday was a big milestone for me: a chance to take stock, to celebrate (only a little with a Board meeting the next day…) but above all, to be thankful.

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.

Winning Awards is Good for You

Glamorous actress, golden envelope, the audience all household names. She opens the envelope, pauses dramatically…

“And the winner is…”

Well not quite. But in the real world the rest of us inhabit the TAB Member Awards at Oulton Hall were close enough. And as I hinted last week, three of the four awards were won by board members from TAB York – and I am absolutely delighted for them.

In fact, I’m more than delighted. All the parents reading this blog will know exactly what I mean: you’d far rather see your children win something than win an award yourself. My business is just the same: I have in the past won TAB Bod of the Year. And that was lovely – but nowhere near as lovely as seeing my members collect richly deserved awards.

So without further delay, the roll of honour:

TAB Member Contribution Award – Chris Wilson of Tailormade Conference Management
TAB Community Award – Simon Hudson of Cloud 2
TAB Member Achievement Award – Rachel Goddard of Intandem Communications

To them – and to several other York members who came damn close – congratulations.

So that’s nice. Chris, Simon and Rachel marched up and received their awards, shook hands, sat down and hopefully will be in the running again next year. But back to work the next day, folks – awards are nice, but they don’t change the fundamentals of your business. Or do they?

I was talking to Rachel after the ceremony. Not immediately afterwards, when the euphoria of winning was still rushing round her bloodstream, but a few days afterwards – when problems with clients and suppliers had brought her back to earth.

I don’t think I’m giving away too many confidences if I say that one of the reasons for Rachel winning her award was that she’d had to make a very big – and very difficult – business decision during the past year. “I sat in this office and agonised about that decision,” Rachel said. “Then I went home and agonised some more. And the next day I came to the office and started agonising again.”

Everyone who runs a business can empathise with that. If you’re self-employed, if you’re running a business, then you’re never alone. If you’ve a major problem in the business, it’s with you wherever you go.

Fortunately, if you’re a member of a TAB Board, you don’t have to deal with the problem alone. “The other members of my board were great,” Rachel said. “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.”

Rachel worked through the difficult decision and her business has moved forward significantly. Hence the award, now sitting proudly on the window sill in her office.

“You know the best thing about that award?” Rachel said. “It means someone else noticed. Someone else recognised what I had to do. And that recognition feels astonishingly good. I’m proud of myself – and it’s helped my team see what we’ve achieved as a business.”

And that’s why awards matter. This blog has often touched on ‘the lonely entrepreneur.’ Sooner or later difficult decisions have to be taken and when that happens the buck stops resolutely and defiantly on your desk. Sometimes you can feel very alone.

But an award like Rachel’s says that other people did notice: that they’re impressed by what you did and that you deserve the recognition.

So if you’ve the chance of an award in your industry – go for it. Yes, you might have to spend some time on a submission, telling the judges what you’ve done and why you deserve the award. But it will be time well spent.

As Chris, Simon and Rachel will tell you, there’s no better feeling than hearing your name announced – immediately after, “And the winner is…”

Saying ‘no.’ But saying it effectively…

Well, I must say I could have stayed in Ireland over Easter. Somehow the fact that it was so cold outside made staying inside with the Guinness even more attractive…

But duty calls – and on Wednesday I found myself having a very typical conversation with a Board member.

Sorted out my to-do lists over Easter, Ed
– And…
– They’re too long. Way too long. I got quite depressed
– So…
– I’m going to have to find a way to cut them down. I simply cannot keep on getting up earlier and earlier in the morning
– No, you can’t
– And there were too many jobs on there… I don’t know – that were there just to make me feel good
– Did they earn you any money or advance your business?
– No, none of them
– Well then…

In truth he knew the outcome of the conversation before it had even started. He needed to say ‘no’ more often – and the simple fact is that most people reading this blog will need to say ‘no’ more often.

I wrote the other week that certain business facts are fundamental, and they bear repeating over and over again. Saying ‘no’ is one of them – and we all need to be reminded from time to time. I’m certainly no exception to that rule.

The trouble is we all want to be liked and we all want to help people – and the easiest way to do that is to say ‘yes.’ And damn it, it’s nice to be asked. Whose ego doesn’t need stroking occasionally?

But you can’t do it. There are only so many hours in the day. You cannot go on “getting up earlier and earlier.” And there’s also the small matter of your family to think about. So you need to learn to say ‘no.’

But I don’t think that’s enough – I think you need to learn to say no positively, in a way that builds your authority and leaves the person asking actually feeling good about hearing ‘no.’ Here are some suggestions and phrases that might help you do that:

• Don’t ever give the impression that you might say ‘yes’ if you think the answer will be ‘no.’ If you’re not absolutely sure you can commit to something err on the side of saying no, even if you have to check first.
• Say ‘no’ quickly. Everyone likes a ‘yes’ – but a quick ‘no’ is infinitely preferable to a long, drawn-out ‘maybe.’ From everyone’s point of view
• Suggest someone else. “I’m sorry, it’s just not possible at the moment. But have you thought about asking …”
• “I’d love to do it. But I’m busy with my clients at the moment and I simply couldn’t do it justice.” I like that phrase. It builds-up, rather than diminishes, what you’re being asked to do. You’re not saying ‘no’ because you can’t be bothered; you’re saying ‘no’ because the job is important and demands more than you can give at the moment.
• “I’d love to do it but I’ve got some major commitments coming up that I need to focus my attention on…” That’s fine – again the job is important, but you have to prioritise your time.

I think there’s an interesting parallel here with the recent blog about having the confidence to promote yourself. Once you realise that you’re actually doing someone a favour by saying ‘no’ you’ll become much better at it. No-one gains if you are simply too stressed to think straight. So learn to be ruthless with your time and everyone will benefit.

To go back to a point I’ve made many times in this blog and to quote the late Stephen Covey: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is your business. Saying ‘no’ – but learning to say it effectively – may well be one of your most productive ways to build that business.