Does Brexit Really Matter?

Friday June 24th – and today is potentially the most important day in the six years I’ve been writing this blog.

As you read this, you’ll know whether we’ve voted to remain in the EU, or whether ‘Leave’ has won the day.

I’m writing these notes on Wednesday: I hope – and I have to believe – that common sense and a vision of the UK really playing its part in the wider world will have prevailed. I hope we’ve voted Remain by a significant margin – enough to settle the issue not just for a generation, but for several generations to come.

So now let’s talk about Chinese Corporate Debt…

If you’ve given up on your football team and started supporting the International Monetary Fund instead, you’ll know that its First XI were recently playing away in China. And after a fortnight of meetings with Chinese bankers and high-ranking Communist Party officials they came away issuing stark warnings.

The source of their displeasure was Chinese debt.

You may at this point say ‘what debt?’ And on the face of it, you’d have a point. After all, China regularly generates a trade surplus of $40-50bn every month. The economy may be slowing down – but growth of 6.7% in the last quarter is something George Osborne can only fantasise about.

But the IMF believe much of this growth has been built on unsustainable levels of corporate debt – especially among State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s). These organisations produce only 22% of China’s output but account for 55% of its corporate debt – which in total, is equal to one and a half times GDP.

Why am I making this point on the morning of the Referendum result?


For this reason. The IMF believe that the current level of Chinese corporate debt is unsustainable. If they’re right – and if the chicken comes home to roost – then there’ll be significant sectors of the Chinese economy unable to fulfil orders, unable to pay their suppliers and unable to service their loans.

Cue problems for the banks, cue problems for the rest of the Chinese economy – and therefore, cue problems for the wider world economy. And possibly, for your business as well…

So you may or may not be celebrating this morning. The question I’m asking is, ‘Will the victory for Leave or Remain be a key factor in the success of your business?’

I’d suggest the answer will be ‘no.’ I’d suggest that over the next five years other events in the political and economic arena will be at least as influential as what happens today.

Political and economic events may shape the landscape – but it’s how you react to them, how you navigate the landscape that makes the difference. As business owners we’re the masters of our destiny. The four horsemen of the PEST analysis – Politics, Economics, Social and Technological change – may make the waters choppy, but the most important factor will always be how we sail the ship.

I appreciate that the last few weeks have been difficult for many TAB York members: like stock markets, businesses need certainty and “I’m sorry about your cash flow but I can’t make a decision at the moment” has been heard all too often in the past few weeks and months.

This morning – for good or ill – we know where we stand. From now on it’s the quality of the decisions we make about our lives and our businesses that will determine our success – however we choose to define that success. But – and as always, this is a big ‘but’ – the one thing we can be sure of in the future is change. If the champagne corks are popping at Leave HQ, the British political landscape won’t be quite the same again. Then there’s Trump vs. Clinton, the continuing threat of terrorism – and the Chinese corporate debt…

What can we be certain of? That whatever difficult decisions you have to make in business, TAB York will be there to help. That seven brains are better than one: that the collective wisdom of your colleagues will help you make better decisions – and, when it’s needed, keep a sense of perspective.

So if you’re depressed by the result of the Referendum, take heart. If you’ve backed the winning side, remember it doesn’t automatically guarantee the success of your business. That will always be down to you, to the decisions you make, and the support team you build around you.

Team Building? Or Team Busting?

I started drafting this post on Tuesday evening. Tomorrow morning the Ashes start. I’m absolutely certain that by the time you read this on Friday the match situation will be as follows:

England        500 all out

Australia      157-7

How can it be anything else? The England squad have been on a four day trip to Spain. They’ve been mountain-biking, played golf and met the new coach. The Aussies – seriously, what do they know – have warmed up for the cricket by… well, playing cricket.

There is, I suppose, the tiny possibility that it could go wrong. Sadly the ECB has a long history of pre-Ashes boot camps: they haven’t always gone according to the script…

2013/2014 Staffordshire. Kevin Pietersen described it as “a shambles” and the team lost the Ashes 5-0

2010/2011 Bavaria. Jimmy Anderson broke a rib and Graham Swann called it the “worst four days of my life.” But the team still won the series 3-1

2009 Flanders. Ravi Bopara lost his passport and Freddie Flintoff came off second best in a contest with the local beer. No matter: England won 2-1

So much for sport – in fact we’d better turn away from sport fairly quickly: right now hundreds of professional footballers are setting off on pre-season tours. Freddie’s problems will soon be eclipsed…

What about business? Team building exercises, bonding sessions and away days are endemic throughout the corporate world. I’ve spent a couple of days in a remarkably fine hotel and I’ve spent a couple of days in a tent – both in the belief that my team and I would ultimately perform better and the company’s bottom line would benefit.


But do team building exercises work? Do they really strengthen bonds and trust between colleagues and benefit the company?

A survey published in the Telegraph suggests that the answer is a resounding ‘no’ – that team building exercises leave people feeling awkward around colleagues and less than impressed by a company they feel has wasted time and money.

Instead of benefiting from events like bungee jumping or kart racing, the survey showed that employees simply wanted better, more open collaboration at work. And that ‘trust’ exercises – such as being blindfolded and led by colleagues – were derided as irrelevant and embarrassing.

“British companies are spending a huge amount of time and effort [and money] in building more effective teams,” said a Vodafone director. “The research confirms that people place more value on open, collaborative and flexible ways of working, rather than one-off exercises.”

So with those two days in the tent a – thankfully – distant memory, what do I think?

With the economy picking up team building will be back on the agenda: it seems to appear and disappear as the economy waxes and wanes. In my experience it’s one of the first things to go when the economy turns down. Ironically, that’s probably the time when getting the absolute maximum from your team is essential.

What works? Both Nestle and Diageo were committed to team building exercises and I’ve taken part in some fairly dramatic productions: but in my experience the ‘low-level’ team building, such as going out for a drink together or supporting a common charity, is just as effective as the ‘stage-managed’ events.

What I liked were specific events: if they were aimed at developing you as a leader they were fine. Ditto if they were developing the team. But when the messages were muddled the events always disappointed. “Well that was two days of your life you’re not going to get back,” as the politer participants put it…

If you’re thinking of organising an event for your team there are two more suggestions I’d make:

  • First of all, when the team come back, take action. Do not say, “Oh well, Paul, you’ve spent three days in the Brecon Beacons with the SAS, now could you just go back to normal?” If Paul’s learnt one thing in the Brecon Beacons it’s almost certainly that he wants a new ‘normal’ – so don’t disappoint him.
  • Secondly, make sure the basics are right back at the office. Remember the results of the Telegraph survey: what your team really value are open systems in the office that allow them to work effectively, not spend their time dealing with red tape and procedure.

Long before you go anywhere near a mountain you need the right atmosphere and culture at work. You need to make sure your team have the skills, training and tools they need to do the job, and a culture in which they can grow.

That’s down to you as leaders – and if there’s one thing I don’t worry about, it’s the quality of leadership round the TAB York boardroom tables. If only I could say the same about the Ashes…

The Dad Dividend. And an Announcement…

Like a lot of people I didn’t have much time for Gordon Brown. But I found myself thinking about him over the weekend; specifically, the speech he made as he left Downing Street.

Above all, I want to thank Sarah … I thank my sons, John and Fraser, for the love and joy they bring to our lives. And as I leave the second most important job I could ever hold, I cherish even more the first – as husband and father.

He got that one exactly right. As Malcolm might have said in a modern Macbeth, ‘nothing became his time as Prime Minister as the manner of leaving it.’

Why so reflective? Why was I thinking about Gordon Brown? Because at the weekend I stumbled across this article in the Economist: ‘The dad dividend.’

Its central premise is simple. Fathers who take even a short amount of paternity leave continue to be more involved as their children get older. As a result, their children do better.

Yes, TAB York is important. Every job I’ve ever had has been important. But as Gordon Brown would have pointed out, none of them have counted anywhere near as much as being a husband and a Dad.

As I see it I have two jobs as a Father: I need to love my children and I need to do everything I can to help them realise their full potential.

That’s why I started TAB York. That’s why – as I pushed my breakfast round the plate in Newport Pagnell service station and missed my boys – I knew I had to start my own business. (And that’s why I spent Tuesday fitting coaching meetings round a 70 mile round trip to take them to cricket camp…)


And then I came across a second article – this time in the Independent. Holland is one of the happiest countries in the world. Why? Because it’s one of the very few countries where they really have their Work/Life Balance balanced. 27% of Dutch men of working age and 77% of women spend less than 36 hours a week at work. The comparable figures for the UK are just over 10% and 40%. The Dutch also get more physical exercise than we do: they’re top of the European league table, with 53% of adults doing moderate physical exercise on four or more days. The UK is below halfway in the table.

Those two articles go right to the heart of what I do: right to the heart of who I am and what I believe. They’re the absolute focus of what I’m trying to do with TAB York and why I write this blog every week.

So it seems an appropriate time to make an announcement.

I’m going to write a book.

This blog is rapidly approaching its fifth birthday and 250th post. That’s somewhere around 150,000 words. Gradually, week by week, one small step at a time, I’ve already written a book.

Why not publish it?

So that’s the announcement. Around Easter next year – after I’ve planned it, re-written it, edited it and sold my soul promoting it, I’m going to publish my book. I haven’t quite decided on a title yet but the theme is simple. It’s the subject of this week’s post and everything I do: Work/Life Balance.

In a nutshell: How to build a successful business and make sure you never miss Sports Day.

I’m going to send some sample chapters out as they’re written. If you’d like to receive them just let me know and I’ll start making a list. Of course I’d like your feedback – and your thoughts on what should and shouldn’t be in there.

I’m hugely excited by this challenge – and slightly nervous. But there you are – it’s on the blog, so I’m committed. There’s no turning back…

Peanuts, Monkeys and Frozen Custard

Let’s consider one of the major global economic indices. Not the FT-SE 100, the Dow Jones or the Chinese Purchasing Managers’ Index: let’s consider sales of McDonald’s burgers.

2014 was a disastrous year for McDonald’s: it was dogged by scandals and sales fell around the world. “The best thing about 2014 for McDonald’s is that it’s over,” said But worse was to follow with the Wall Street Journal reporting that same-store sales were down 4% in February.

Meanwhile, consider Shake Shack. You may not have heard of Shake Shack. You will. It’s just had a ridiculously successful debut on Wall Street, valuing the chain of 63 outlets at over $1bn and raising more than $100m for future expansion. Two things struck me as I was reading about Shake Shack: first of all customers spend significantly more than the industry average and secondly, they’re committed to paying wages which are also well above the industry average. Could the two be related? Of course they could.

If you look at chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s in the US the emphasis is on speed and price. The average meal may cost as little as $5, with virtually all the food prepared off-site: workers then ‘assemble the ingredients.’ Recently this sector has been losing out – as McDonald’s sales testify – to the ‘fast casual’ chains, where the emphasis is on fresher food that is prepared on site: quality and sustainability are far more important than price.

This changed emphasis is crucial to the ‘millennials’ – the 80m strong consumer base that every marketer is desperate to reach. The change in emphasis also means that higher quality staff are required – and hence the higher wages paid by Shake Shack and another operation you’re going to hear about, the splendidly named Moo Cluck Moo.

Paying higher wages “is the right thing to do,” according to Bryan Parker, co-founder of Moo Cluck Moo. “It empowers our people, we don’t have to babysit our staff and we have low turnover as a result.”

Is there a lesson for us in this? Emphatically, yes.

You’re building your business. You can’t do it all alone – so you need to build a great team. And we’ve all been there. It is hugely tempting to look at the cost of wages at the end of every month and think you could save some money. Increasingly, I think that mindset will be positively damaging to your business.

If there’s one absolute fact I see as I deal with the members of TAB York and other clients it’s this: talented people are becoming increasingly hard to find. If you’ve got one – or better yet, if you have a team of them – then you need to do all you can to keep them, develop them and motivate them. And skimping on wages doesn’t achieve any of those three.

Bear something else in mind: talented people are not only hard to find, they’re expensive to replace. What’s it cost to recruit, train and ‘bed in’ a new person? My rough rule of thumb in industry used to be a year’s salary. And if you’re the owner of an SME the cost of your time may push it even higher than that.

Nope. Good, talented, hard-working and loyal staff are priceless. If you’re going to reach your goals, they’re the people that will be with you on the journey. Being afraid – or unwilling – to pay them what they’re worth is the falsest of false economies.

52% of fast food workers in the US earn wages that are below the poverty line. Shake Shack pays its staff in New York a starting salary of $10 an hour: a 25% increase on the State minimum wage. “We believe this enables us to attract a higher calibre employee and this translates directly to a better guest service,” the firm said when it floated. It translates to a better bottom line as well. It’s a lesson you can’t ignore.

…And I won’t be ignoring Shake Shack next time I’m in the States. A Smoke Shack burger, fries, Shackmeister beer – and obviously, frozen custard to finish it off!

“He’s Lost the Dressing Room.” Or the Sales Team…

Three-nil and their heads have gone down. You know, Mark, you start to wonder if the stories are true – if he’s lost the dressing room…

Too true. And if that’s happened there’s no way he’ll survive.

And sure enough two days later he’s gone and the bookies are betting on the replacement. Another football manager handed his P45 for ‘losing the dressing room.’ Or – if you’re not a long-suffering football fan – losing the respect of his players to such an extent that they’re ignoring his instructions and quite possibly deliberately playing badly in an attempt to get the manager sacked.

The parallels with business are obvious. Anyone who’s worked in a large organisation has seen instances of managers ‘losing’ their teams. They fail to get the best out of them, they fail to develop their full potential – and when it all goes wrong they very quickly shift the blame on to the team.

I saw it any number of times in my business career: sometimes it was hard to pin down the cause. Was the manager making mistakes – or was the culture in the company such that all managers were fair game?

But whatever the cause of the disease, the first symptom was always the same.


Which takes me neatly back to last week

I talked about three things the owner of an SME simply couldn’t accept – dishonesty, negativity and mediocrity. Disrespect is the fourth one – and not only can you not accept it, you need to take action at the first hint of it.

The workplace is far less formal than it used to be. And ‘banter’ – or ‘bantz’ as I believe we’re now supposed to call it – seems to be the only way a lot of people can communicate. The problem is that one person’s banter is someone else’s sexism, racism – or outright disrespect.

So what do you do if the problem rears its ugly head in your business? At first glance it’s easy to say the problem won’t apply to most members of TAB York: after all, they’re not huge companies with multiple teams and corresponding managers. But I think disrespect is even more worrying in smaller companies – especially as the business starts to grow.

Most of my members and potential members probably follow a similar business model: owner(s) – one or two trusted lieutenants – and then the team(s). So the problem of disrespect is easy to spot – but in a small company it can be remarkably hard to tackle.

Twenty or thirty years ago it would have been simple. Find the ringleaders and fire them. Not so today – not unless you want to spend your days with the HR lawyers and the employment tribunal. But if one of your trusted lieutenants is under fire from his team, you cannot allow it to continue. You have to find a solution – and you may have some tough questions to answer.

Do you trust your lieutenant? Is he a key part of your long term strategy? After all, if The Alternative Board is about anything, it’s about building a successful business and making sure you never miss the Nativity Play. The layer of management underneath the owners is absolutely crucial to that.

But if you’ve a seed of doubt, then the disrespect of the team is probably a sign of things to come. Don’t let the situation fester. As Macbeth reminds us, “If it were done … then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

There’s one last question to consider: how does the owner of a business command respect? It’s easy to say that the answer is to work harder/longer than anyone else: to be able to do everyone’s job. But in the long run that will damage your health, your family and almost certainly your business. As I said last week, you command respect by leading: by setting the direction, outlining the vision and ultimately, empowering your team to achieve their potential and get there themselves.

With that I’ll leave you to what I hope is a remarkably productive Friday – followed by a remarkably relaxing weekend…

Back to Basics

Sorry about the title – I must have been influenced by the start of the General Election campaign. I didn’t mean to sound like a wannabe Minister of Education…

First of all – even though it’s January 9th – a very happy, peaceful and successful new year to everyone who reads this blog. If you’ve seen any of the papers this week and over Christmas you’ll be in no doubt that the world is going to be a turbulent place in 2015. No-one knows what on earth will happen with May’s General Election: the Greek elections later this month are going to throw the Eurozone into chaos: China’s economy is slowing down: France in social turmoil: the rouble has more or less reached parity with the chocolate coin…

Maybe it’s best to simply go back to bed and not poke your head above the covers until it’s all settled down. Except that we all know it never will settle down and we’ve simply got to roll our sleeves up (metaphorically – it is January) and get on with running our businesses.

And I have to say that I’ve never felt more optimistic. I’m delighted that the members of TAB York are managing to defy the headline writers. It was my privilege in December to look at and discuss a great many plans and targets for 2015. I’ve never seen such a series of positive, ambitious and – just as importantly – realistic documents. It’s going to be a great year for a lot of people.

…And hopefully the information, ideas, suggestions and random thoughts in this blog will help in some small way. But for the first post of the year, let’s go right back to basics. Why do I write this blog?

When the blog started – very nearly five years ago, which I find astonishing – I had four basic aims:

  • The blog was there to keep my name in front of people – after all, TAB York had the grand total of seven clients at the time
  • It was there to prove that I could deliver: that was – and is – why it is always published at the same time every week
  • I wanted to build authority: to show that I knew about business and that if you wanted to take your business to the next level I might be able to help
  • And I wanted to start a conversation. If I got one thing right, it was the realisation that the old ways of marketing had passed their sell-by date. As social media became more and more important, so marketing became more and more about sharing useful information and engaging people

Five years on, nothing has changed. Neither has the answer to another equally important question: who am I writing the blog for?

That answer’s equally simple. It’s for the members and potential members of TAB York. But it goes further than that: I’m writing for anyone who wants to start, or build, a successful business – and also wants to guarantee that they never miss sports day or the nativity play. I’m writing for people who know that the only way to be really successful is to keep your work/life balance truly balanced.

One of the best things about the Christmas break – apart from the obvious – is that it gives you chance to reflect. Every year I flip back through my diary (for ‘flip’ read scroll, obviously) and look at the year’s appointments and notes – and it’s amazing. Every year I see things I stressed over that I’d forgotten about a week later. Appointments that seemed crucial at the time that turned out to be irrelevant. Don’t sweat the small stuff as the cliché goes: it’s all small stuff.

But there are other dates in the diary that really were important. Dates that are never going to come again. Dan’s rugby match. Rory in the school play. Our 16th wedding anniversary.

So to repeat – many of the plans for 2015 that I looked at were breathtaking in their ambition. It will be an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with you this year. But the first question round the TAB table will be simple: have you made sure the really important dates are in your diary?

So Here It Is…

Merry Christmas.

But before you all burst into a rousing chorus of Slade, let’s try and finish the business for 2014…

As I wrote last week, December isn’t a normal month: it’s a month for taking stock, having some fun and saying ‘thank you.’

And with six days to go – yep, I miss the days when my boys used to count down to Christmas in ‘sleeps’ – it’s time for the last of those three.

It seems a long time ago – certainly a lot longer than 11 months – when I started the year by encouraging you to ‘think the unthinkable’ and get rid of a significant number of your clients or customers: the unprofitable ones. Here’s what I wrote:

I think 2014 represents a major opportunity for all of us. There are clear signs that the economy is recovering and the evidence – both analytical and anecdotal – points to a year where significant growth is possible. But you can’t do that if you’re wasting a lot of your time dealing with unprofitable clients – or profitable clients who simply suck the life out of you.

Hmmm… I’m not so sure about the first part of that paragraph now: there are worrying signs for the global economy and the UK isn’t immune to what’s happening in the rest of the world. But damn it, there have always been worrying signs for some part of the global economy. Whatever winds are blowing, if you’ve planned and prepared properly, if you know what you want to achieve and you’re absolutely focused then you’ll succeed in the coming year.

Over the 47 weekly posts since then I’ve drawn on the management lessons of David Moyes, the incremental gains of Dave Brailsford and encouraged you to ignore the advice of Gordon Gekko. As well as reaching the significant milestone of blog post number 200. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read and I hope at least some of it has been useful, encouraging or entertaining.

So thank you for reading the blog every week – and in particular, thank you for all the comments, whether they’ve been on the blog itself, by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or a casual aside in the pub. Anyone who writes a blog will tell you that it’s a slightly lonely business, so the comments mean a lot.

…And it goes without saying, thank you to the Board members of TAB York and to everyone at TAB head office in Harrogate. There are not many people who can say they roll out of bed every morning looking forward to their day. I’m one of them and I’m blessed to work with so many intelligent, inspiring, amusing, challenging, ambitious and – to use a simple but accurate word – good people.

Two particularly good people are my colleagues in TAB York, Jackie and Julia – who have emphatically added a new dimension to the business throughout the year. It’s been a pleasure to work with you: thank you for your support, energy and expertise.

Let me also say a word to my TAB colleagues in the UK. All the adjectives above apply – and maybe a few more… Thank you ladies and gentlemen: you have given me a memorable year. Thanks too for the exceptional welcome I receive from everyone at TAB in the States: the visits are always a highlight of my year.

Closer to home, a word to my boys, Dan and Rory – thanks for keeping me grounded and for reminding me what’s really important: Rugby World Cup on the Xbox. Make as many tackles as you like, guys. The Master will show you how it’s done over Christmas…

But my biggest thanks are reserved for my wife, Dav. Being the partner/husband/wife of an entrepreneur is not easy: there are long hours, occasional mood swings and times when you’re there but not there. No-one succeeds in business without an amazing person at their side – and I’ll say the rest somewhere other than the blog!

That’s it for 2014. The blog will return, refreshed and rarin’ to go on Friday January 9th. In the meantime have a truly lovely Christmas, and may the New Year bring everything you would wish for.

The Disaster Recovery Plan

Let me introduce you to George. Good friend, building a successful business, and keen sportsman – but like many of us, not quite as young, fit and active as he once was. Or would like to believe he is.

Three weeks ago George was playing five-a-side. As he does every Friday afternoon. Then a pint of Theakstons and straight home for the weekend.

Or on that particular Friday, straight up to A&E. “I’ve still no idea how it happened, Ed. One minute I’m stretching for the ball. The next I’m in agony. And my world is turned upside down.”

Tib and fib as the medics say – both broken about six inches above the ankle.

George needed an operation. His scrap metal value has increased considerably. Sadly his business has gone in the opposite direction.

“A week in bed, a week on the settee. Serious levels of painkillers. And I’m exhausted. But worst of all, the business is suffering.”

George employs two staff: he’s at that key point where his business is just about to take off – where 2015 was going to be a year of serious growth. But one mis-timed tackle and the business has stalled. George can’t drive. He lives in a small village. Getting into the office is impractical: seeing clients is next to impossible.

His business will ultimately survive – but as George says, “it’ll be feeling the effects of the broken leg long after I’ve had the screws out.”

The conversation made me think. After all, it isn’t that long ago that I cheerfully cycled into a tree. At the time I didn’t have Julia and Jackie: a few inches to the side and I’d have put myself – and TAB York – out of action for a long time.

We have a disaster recovery plan for virtually everything. All our data is backed up in the cloud. The only thing that’s not backed up in the cloud is our bodies. As I surveyed the wreckage of my face and realised how lucky I’d been a sobering thought struck me. I wasn’t really building a business. If your ‘business’ can be derailed by a tree root or a bad tackle, it’s a lifestyle, not a business.

To build a business you need to build a team – and you need to delegate to your team. That way your business gets continuity – even if yours is temporarily interrupted

As I said in the Four Week Test at the beginning of the year: one day your business is going to be sold. Building a team goes a long way to guaranteeing that you sell when you want to – not when you’re forced to.

Back to George – and thankfully to a silver lining. “My concentration levels have dropped off a cliff. Even daytime TV seems a bit complicated. But I’ve learned one really important lesson. I can manage maybe two to three hours work during the day. And I still make a To Do list every day because, well, that’s just what I do.

“But because I’m only able to work for a short time, I have to do what’s most important. No more patting myself on the back for ‘quick wins.’ No more crossing six unimportant things off and thinking I’ve had a productive morning.”

Amen to that. In many ways that’s exactly the same point as my blog on recording your time. Just as Toggl has forced me to acknowledge the fact that I used to ‘faff’ and fritter time away, so George’s broken leg has brought him face-to-face with the irrelevance of most quick wins.

With that I’ll wish you an extremely safe weekend. As for George, he’ll return to work wiser and more focused, some time around January. Just in time for the ice and snow…

I Have Seen the Future…

Scene One: A car park outside a hotel on the York ring road. A man and a woman, Neil and Sophie, come out of the hotel. They’re both carrying a leather case. Possibly it contains an iPad, or something of similar size.


Sophie:          Ed was on form today…


Neil:                Unbelievable. How can anyone have that much knowledge? Scanned straight through that proposal of ours.


Sophie:          What was it? Twenty pages?


Neil:                Thirty six. Full of really complex technical data as well.


Sophie:          It’s relating the proposal to all the previous experience that staggers me. Honestly, Neil, I thought I’d reached the age where not much impresses me, but you put a proposal in – a business plan – and two minutes later Ed’s analysed it, compared it to about a thousand other businesses and told you the strengths and weaknesses. TAB is staggeringly good value for money.


Neil:                Not like the old days, eh?


Sophie: (laughing) You can say that again. I mean, I liked Ed Reid. He was a decent bloke. But the difference in my business since they replaced him with Edwina…


They shake hands and climb into the back seat of their cars. They can be seen speaking some instructions. The cars start up and drive out of the car park.


If the blog is still around in ten or twenty years’ time that’s what you might be reading. Like Sophie, I thought I’d reached the age where not much impresses or surprises me – but the other day I came across this story on the BBC news site.

I had to read it twice to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. But no, the story’s real and the implications are enormous – for all of us. I’ve often written on the blog, ‘don’t think it can’t happen because it can.’ Amelia has taken that one step further – especially when you click on the link in the BBC story and see that a Hong Kong company has appointed an algorithm to its board of directors.

History is littered with people who’ve thought their business model was untouchable – that there’d always be a demand for candlesticks. Now more than ever you need to think the unthinkable – and think about how it would impact your business. Ten years from now the world will be a radically different place – and machines managing humans may be one of the least surprising aspects.

After all, as it says in the BBC article, “human judgement is often clouded by irrationality, emotion and imperfect knowledge.”

But human judgement and human behaviour is also distinguished – by insight, empathy, gut feeling and the sheer bloody-minded will to win.

Nowhere is this more evident than round an Alternative Board table. One business owner acting on his own is frequently irrational and emotional and acts on imperfect knowledge. But when he’s run that decision by six or seven of his peers irrationality is replaced by careful consideration; emotion by cool detachment and the imperfect knowledge is supplemented by the wisdom of the group. And when you’re accountable to your peers, your determination to succeed is even stronger. To repeat one of my favourite sayings, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

None of us knows what will happen in the future: but if you have to meet the challenges of running a business in an ever more rapidly changing world, you can’t be better armed than to have your TAB colleagues at your side.

But yes, I suppose it’s possible that it could play out like this…

Scene Two: The same car park, one month later. Sophie and Neil meet as they climb out of their cars.


Sophie:          Hi Neil. How are you doing? Good month?


Neil:                Staggeringly good thanks, Sophie. Smashed all our targets.


Sophie:          Ed’ll be pleased with you.


Neil:                Well it’s all thanks to her. Trouble is, she’ll make me increase our targets for next year.


Sophie:          Yeah, she did that in December last year…


Neil:                No Christmas drinks, either…


Sophie:          Nope. One thing a Cognitive Learning Hologram doesn’t have is the Christmas spirit.


Neil:                Maybe we should bring back Ed Reid…


They look at each other. Simultaneously they laugh and shake their heads. They walk into the hotel. Lights dim…


-The End-

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.