Born or Made?


It’s a perennial question, whether it’s sport or business. 

Many of you will have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and come across his 10,000 hour rule: that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any discipline is – to a large extent – practising in the correct way for 10,000 hours. 

So let’s forget business, management and The Alternative Board for a minute and instead focus on sport – specifically, golf. After all, golf is a sport where you do the same thing time after time – and where there’s no opponent trying to block, tackle or foul you. 

If any sport lends itself to 10,000 hours of practice, it must be golf and – as most people know – I’m a golfer (said he, using the word in its broadest possible sense). 

Could I, with 10,000 hours of practice, become a world class golfer? Let’s leave aside the maths and the marriage. 10,000 hours is 20 hours a week for 10 years: Dav might not be too impressed. Would that amount of practice make me into a top class golfer? After all, I only need to hit my 7-iron 150 yards to the centre of the green. Surely 200 hours will take care of that – leaving me 9,800 hours to perfect the rest of my game…

Let’s leave it there. The ball is heading inexorably towards the pin. Time to consider the broader question of leadership. 

January brought us the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual meeting of business and political leaders from around the world. An article in City AM posed an interesting question: how many of those who met in Davos are actually trained and competent leaders? 

We’ve all come across the Peter Principle – people in an organisation rise to their ‘level of incompetence.’ Is it the same in the top echelons of business and politics? 

The article made the point that training almost always starts far too late. Someone reaches a senior position and they or their company suddenly recognise that they need some executive training. 

But by that time it’s too late. The article quotes Elke Edwards, founder of a corporate training provider: ‘If we leave it [training leaders] until they’re 35 or 45 it’s too late,’ she says. ‘They already have a whole load of neural pathways that are fully formed, based on what we’ve already role-modelled for them.’ 

So are leaders born or made? You won’t be surprised to hear that Ms Edwards thinks it’s the latter. ‘We all have a leader within us. Leaders are made.’ 

…Which brings me back to my golf ball. 

It was heading straight towards the pin. It really was. But at the last minute it faded to the right. Caught the lip of the bunker. And you know the rest…

I remember reading about Greg Norman and his dedication to practice. He would go to the driving range and hit 600 balls. He’d hit golf balls until his hands were bleeding. Somewhere along the line he must have sailed past 10,000 hours of practice. 

Which is why I think people who reach the top are born and made. Those hours and hours of practice obviously helped Greg Norman. But it was something innate – and unteachable – inside him that made him carry on practising, long after most of us would have decided that bleeding all over our 7-iron wasn’t such a good idea…

It’s the same in business. My own view is that we don’t all have a leader within us. That may be unfashionable but the best leaders I’ve seen have something innate. An instinctive understanding of the organisation they lead: the empathy to bring the very best out of people: the insight to see that if they help everyone achieve their potential, then the only thing the company can do is succeed. 

Whatever Ms Edwards says, we don’t all push our breakfast round the plate in Newport Pagnell service station and decide something has to change. The vast majority of people decide that they’ll stick with it. The kids, the mortgage, not that many years to retirement…

That’s why I believe in born and made. Once someone is sitting round a TAB table then it’s our commitment – backed by the input of their fellow Board members – to help them achieve everything they want to achieve personally and professionally. But we cannot drag them to the TAB table. The drive to start your own business, the courage to accept the risks, the willingness to be responsible for someone else’s mortgage: that comes from deep within…

So no, I may not believe that ‘we all have a leader within us.’ But I absolutely do believe that we all have the ability – with the right support and coaching – to reach our potential and achieve all our goals. And that is a promise TAB UK will always keep: that we will do everything in our power to bring the very best out of all our members.  

Polls, Publishing and Plans for Next Year


What was it Jane Austen said? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who has to publish a blog on Friday 13th does not want a General Election on Thursday 12th…” 

Something like that – but you have to press publish at a certain time. And, very clearly, you can’t press publish without commenting on the result of the Election. But when do you start writing? When you see the BBC exit poll? When the first result comes in from Newcastle? 

Or do you decide that the polls are going to be right for once, and get your introduction written on Tuesday afternoon? 

In the event, I did a bit of all three – and then hastily revised my estimate of the Conservative majority as the BBC exit poll and the early results confirmed a very clear win for Boris Johnson. While the final numbers are not yet in, it looks as though we are on course for a Conservative majority of 70-80 seats. 

Dodging the scrutiny  of Andrew Neil appears to have done Boris no harm at all. Not having a policy on the most important issue to face the country in the last 70 years unquestionably did Jeremy Corbyn a great deal of harm – as anyone who runs a business could have told him. You are the leader. Your job is to lead, not sit on the fence. 

Labour recorded its lowest number of seats since 1935, as large sections of the ‘red wall’ turned blue. ‘Workington Man’ – this election’s version of the mythical ‘Worcester woman’ – has swung decisively behind Boris Johnson and his simple, endlessly-repeated mantra: ‘Get Brexit Done.’ 

So, sometime around mid-afternoon today, Boris Johnson will emerge from 10 Downing Street and tell us his plans. With all 635 Conservative candidates having pledged to back his deal with the EU, we’ll be leaving the European Union on or before January 31st. Negotiations on a future trade deal will follow, and Sajid Javid will present a Budget some time in February. 

Well, I didn’t want to leave the EU, but neither did I – or any business owner I know – want to be locked in a spiral of never-ending uncertainty. We may not have the certainty I wanted, but at least we have somecertainty. There will not be another referendum this year: neither will there be another referendum on Scottish independence. 

And the next General Election won’t be until 2024 – and even then, there’s only a 50% chance of it coinciding with ‘blog Friday.’ You can relax, Ed…

…And look back on what has been a great year for TAB UK. There are now more than 50 people working with and for TAB UK. That was a significant milestone to reach and – as I have said many times – it’s a privilege to work with every single one of them. 

Our franchisees cover the UK from Rick in the South West to Helen, Chris and Jonathan in Aberdeen. Yes, there are still some gaps on the map – but we’ll fill them. 

The head office team has also grown this year – and let me use this last blog of the year to thank them all for everything they’ve done in the last 12 months. A special word, though, to Lydia and Tracey who joined this year. They’ve fitted in seamlessly and are already making a great contribution to TAB. 

There was also a personal highlight for me this year. I still run one TAB board, and this month it turns seven years old. That’s more than 80 meetings with the same small group of people. Over the seven years their businesses have grown (so have one or two waistlines…) and I hope TAB has played its part in helping to preserve the sanity of the relevant MDs. Last time I checked none of them was an alcoholic. Well, not confirmed…

Looking ahead to 2020 

So what of the coming year? 2020 sounds like an auspicious year, and there are two TAB developments I’m particularly excited about. 

First of all there’s TAB Connect, a global platform connecting all our 4,000 members worldwide. It’s live now, and 2020 is the year when it will really come to life, allowing a TAB member in North Yorkshire to connect with a TAB member in North Carolina. If you want to use a shorthand term, it’s LinkedIn just for TAB members – but it’s a lot more than that and I’m certain that it will lead not just to sharing ideas and expertise, but to business partnerships that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. 

Closer to home, 2020 will see TAB UK roll out StratPro. This will allow us to work with the owners of bigger companies and those companies’ directors and senior managers, to ensure decisions made at the top flow down through the company as efficiently and as effectively as possible. It’s a really exciting initiative, and I’ll write a specific blog post on it early in the New Year. 

2020 will be an interesting year on a personal level as well. Around this time next year Dan, my eldest son, will be home from his first term at university. How did that happen? It’s only two months since I held his hand and took him into the reception class…

But it has happened, the time has passed and – hopefully – I’ve put it to good use. I couldn’t, though, have done it without a lot of help. To everyone who has been part of my journey this year – thank you. Have a wonderful Christmas, may 2020 bring everything you would wish for and the blog will be back – no doubt vowing to do more exercise – on Friday 10th January. 

Your NOT-To-Do List


The children have gone back to school, the nights are drawing in, there’s only a month until the clocks go back. Christmas has appeared on the horizon, you’ve spotted a 2020 diary in the shops…

Which means that for many of us thoughts are already turning towards plans for next year. For what you want to achieve in the year – and, by implication, what you need to do in the first quarter and first month of 2020. 

No question about it, you’ll march confidently into your office on Thursday 2nd January, pull that brand new pad towards you and – knowing exactly what you’re going to achieve – confidently write ‘To Do’ at the top.

But there’s another list you need to write. Not just for 2020, but starting now. And in my view, it’s even more important than your ‘to do’ list. 

Your ‘Not To Do’ list. 

I can still remember the shock I got the first few weeks I used Toggl and realised how much of my time wasn’t being used effectively – and how many things I was doing very definitely belonged on a not to do list. 

Despite the technological advances of modern life virtually all of us are leading busier and busier lives: perhaps because of those advances. How many of us check our e-mails just before we fall asleep? 

Add in family commitments – and for many people reading this blog, taking care of ageing parents is now starting to become a major commitment – and all of us have a seemingly endless to-do list. 

At work you need to delegate: at home you need to decide what’s really important. 

Let’s start in the office. Delegation is one of the hardest skills to learn. It is all too easy to sigh and think, ‘It’s quicker to do it myself.’ But you cannot build a business without delegation. Sometimes ‘done’ is more important than ‘perfect.’ 

And as I have written many times, it is not your job to be the best engineer, coder or salesman. It is your job to lead a team of outstanding engineers, coders and salesmen – and to help them go on improving. 

So as you contemplate your plans and targets for 2020 ask yourself – or get someone else to ask – why should YOU be doing that? And delegate what you can delegate, whether it’s to your own team, or to an outsourced specialist. Even starting a ‘not to do’ list will be a valuable exercise: it will unquestionably challenge some of your long-held assumptions about what your job really is. 

Time to come home – where exactly the same principle applies. Let me give you just one example. One of the best decisions Dav and I ever made was to hire a gardener. Andy comes for three hours a week, he cuts the grass and generally keeps the garden under control. We pay him £60 and it is a superb investment. It gives me three hours – longer, really, as I’m not as good a gardener as Andy – which I can spend with my family or simply de-stressing myself. Or yes, as has recently been pointed out to me, hacking out of the rough…

There is one final, and very important, point about your ‘not to do’ list. It doesn’t just apply to you. 

Take a look around you. Is everyone in your team seriously making the very best use of their time? Or are they doing jobs that really could be delegated, allowing them to do much more important work? 

We were guilty of this at TAB head office. Members of the team were doing admin tasks that they really shouldn’t have been doing. That wasn’t a failing: we’d simply reached one of those moments every business reaches from time to time. We’d expanded, there were new challenges, the team needed to focus their attentions elsewhere. 

So Tracey has joined us, she’s immediately picked up a whole range of admin for us and that has helped the existing members of the team to focus on what’s really important. It’s also given them some time to think – to stand back and look at the business. 

I’ve often talked on the blog about working on your business not in your business. A ‘not to do’ list helps you do that. Equally importantly, making sure all the members of your team have a ‘not to do’ list means they can sometimes work on their part of the business not – as Stephen Covey put it – constantly be ‘in the thick of thin things.’ 

And now, with exactly 13 weeks to go until we all abandon the office for Christmas, time for me to make a list…

Don’t Join the Navy. Be a Pirate!


Of course we are always going to shop on the high street. Of course there will always be bank branches in town centres. Marks and Spencer closing branches? Don’t be ridiculous.

Suddenly, so many things that seemed absolute cornerstones of our life are – to use the modern phrase – being ‘disrupted.’

In fact, if you want to predict the future, there’s a very easy way to do it. Think the previously unthinkable.

If I look back to when I started TAB York and started writing this blog, the changes – in a relatively short space of time – have been remarkable. But I am prepared to wager a hefty sum that the pace of change over the next seven years will be far faster than it has been over the last seven.

So if you’re running a business – or planning to start one – then ‘innovate’ and ‘think differently’ have to be right there at the top of your list. As Steve Jobs put it, if you want to be successful, you can’t join the navy: you have to be a pirate.

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So everything is changing.

Or is it? Because according to the hot new business book, 300 years ago things were, well, pretty much the same…

Three centuries ago, the world was surprisingly similar. The establishment was broken, there was a backdrop of international interconnected conflict and millennials of the day worried the rise of technology would crush employment as they knew it. So they left town and created new societies aboard ships – societies that pilfered and raped, yes, but that also included the systems we operate and abide by today.

The book is Be More Pirate, by entrepreneur-turned-author Sam Conniff Allende – you can read more of his views in City AM here.

I’ll take issue with some of his points – I’m fairly certain that it was the Roman legions, not pirates, who first came up with pension schemes and workplace compensation, for example – but he’s absolutely right in suggesting that the old ways of looking at things simply don’t work any more.

Much of what we have taken for granted for so long – as the high streets and the banks will testify – is starting to break.

So where does that leave mentoring and peer group coaching at a time when innovation is more important than ever? Where does that leave The Alternative Board UK?

Mentors, surely, are part of the established order? It will be a fairly safe bet that the mentor will have more grey hair – or less hair – than the person being mentored. It’s easy to think that the mentor will simply say, “Aye well, ’appen it were done this way when I were a lad and there’s nowt new tha’ knows…” Or words to that effect.

And you could very easily make the accusation that a peer board doesn’t encourage innovation. People are drawing on their own tried and trusted experience and – with a board of six or seven – there must be an inclination to find the common ground in the middle.

In my experience, exactly the reverse is true. The one thing a good mentor knows is that there’s a great deal he doesn’t know. He knows that there is plenty that’s new – and keeps up to date with social and technological changes.

And I am constantly amazed by the cutting edge knowledge of TAB members: yes, even the ones with grey (or very little) hair. In fact, far from a TAB board producing a consensus of ‘safe’ advice, exactly the opposite is true. There is a real willingness to think outside the box and look for innovative solutions when you are discussing a different business to your own. To use a pirate analogy, the shackles are off.

It is then the job of the TAB coach – a job they do superbly well – to make sure that nothing is off the table. That the brave, innovative and outright hard questions get asked – and that they are taken seriously and answered.

So yes, the world is changing at an ever-faster pace. But watching a TAB board meet the challenges of that change is an exhilarating and very, very rewarding experience.

The Board members may be a rum bunch, but none of them parrot the company line.

I’m here all week…

Long White Beards are not Mandatory


Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.
I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

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The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…
Without wishing to sound old – but policeman definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.
That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.
Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?
Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.
Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.
This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.
I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.

Time to go into Reverse


Mentor: noun – an experienced and trusted adviser. Someone who gives an inexperienced or younger person help and advice over a period of time.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with the most famous mentor of them all…

But now the phrase on everyone’s lips is ‘reverse mentoring’ – because it’s not just young people that need training in the office.

What is reverse mentoring? To turn the dictionary definition around it is when an inexperienced or younger person gives an older, more experienced colleague help and advice. Why? One word: Snapchat. Another word: Instagram.

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As social media – and other developments such as gamification and virtual reality – come to play an increasingly important part in both the workplace and the customer journey, so Mr Older-Experienced can be left feeling, well… helpless.

But why do you need training in the office? Why not just ask your teenage children? If you’re asking that question I can only assume you don’t have teenage children. You cannot ask your teenage children. Sadly, I’m becoming all too familiar with their response. The long, drawn-out sigh. The raised eyes, the pained expression. ‘Oh God, I’ve got to explain it to the old person again…’

Back in the office there are some very successful advocates for reverse mentoring. Former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts credits it with helping her turn the company around and grow the brand value from $3bn to $11bn. John Lydon, MD of McKinsey Australia said that his tech-capability had increased tenfold – and he was able to understand the minds of a younger generation, and the emerging trends that came with them.

Why does reverse mentoring work? Because human nature all too often dictates that we spend too much time talking to people like us. People who are roughly the same age, from the same background and have the same views. Speaking to someone who’s younger than you, from a different background and significantly lower down the organisation chart can help you see the business from a new angle. In large companies it’s also a good way to identify future leaders: not just how much does someone know, but how good are they at communicating, and making the complex easy to understand.

The other great plus of reverse mentoring is that it creates a culture where everyone in the company is constantly learning – something you emphatically need to do today.

Depending on which projection you read, by the middle of the next decade millennials (people who entered the workforce around the turn of the century) will comprise up to 75% of employees. And yet most MDs and CEOs will still be significantly older.

So we’ll be hearing a lot more about reverse mentoring. I think it’s a great idea: looking back over my days in the corporate world, I can remember plenty of times when it would have helped me, my boss and – in the long term – the company. But I worry that too many organisations will introduce a reverse mentoring programme and simply pay it lip service – ‘this is the latest big thing apparently. I suppose we’d better give it a go’ – while carrying on doing what they’ve always done. And as I have said many times, if you always do what you have always done, these days you will no longer get what you have always got.

In many ways reverse mentoring has been part and parcel of TAB since I joined – even if we didn’t use the exact term. When I was running TAB York I always wanted my Boards to have a mix of ages and backgrounds – and it’s something I now encourage the franchisees in the UK to do. When someone brings a problem, challenge or opportunity to a monthly meeting it is absolutely invaluable for them to see it from different angles and different perspectives. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as the old saying goes: a problem seen from seven different viewpoints is very often a problem solved.

With that, I’m going to leave you for a fortnight. Next week I’m on holiday and the week after I’m joining TAB colleagues from around the world in Denver. But first, a holiday with Dav and the boys: hopefully without the sighs and the pained expressions…

Negotiating with Friends: How we got it Right


Negotiation is very rarely about the short term. It’s an area where you really need to think ‘win/win’ because nine times out ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with the person across the table. So don’t set out to ‘screw’ someone: in the long run that attitude is unlikely to be profitable.

That was what I said last week when I was discussing the general principles of negotiation. ‘Think win/win. Nine times out of ten you’re going to have an ongoing relationship.’ But that becomes even more true when you’re negotiating with a friend – as I did when I bought TAB UK from Paul Dickinson and Jo Clarkson.

“Never do business with a friend,” is an old business maxim – and it’s probably saved a lot of friendships – but sometimes doing business with friends and, ultimately, negotiating with them is inevitable.

“Loan oft loses both itself and friendship,” said Polonius, giving advice to his son Laertes before he set sail for France. Well negotiation can do exactly the same: the negotiations can flounder and the friendship can be ruined. Worse still, the negotiations can apparently ‘succeed.’ And then one party gradually realises he’s been ripped off: that he’s been taken advantage of by someone he previously considered a friend. Not any more…

The negotiations to buy TAB UK were long and complex: there were two people involved on both sides, plus accountants, bankers, lawyers – and our respective families.

As Mags and I sat across the table from Paul and Jo I had four priorities:

  • I wanted to buy the UK franchise for The Alternative Board: I’d talked it over with Dav – at length – and I absolutely believed it was the right thing for me, and for my family
  • But like any business deal, I wanted to buy it at the right price
  • I wanted to make sure the negotiations did nothing to damage TAB UK going forward
  • And I wanted to retain the friendship of two people I liked, respected and valued greatly as business colleagues and confidantes.

So how did we set out to achieve that? There were three key rules that guided us through the negotiations and which protected and strengthened our friendship.

  • First and foremost, we set the stage. Both sides were absolutely open about what they wanted to achieve in the negotiations. We constantly asked ourselves a simple question: ‘Is this fair to you? Is it fair to us? And is it in the best long-term interests of TAB UK?’ That question was, if you like, the mission statement of the negotiations
  • …Which inevitably brings me to one of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits.’ “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” There was a real willingness to see the other side’s point of view. If you do find yourself negotiating with a friend it’s vital to see the negotiations from both sides of the table
  • So there was plenty of goodwill on both sides. But even with all that goodwill, there were bumps in the road: that was inevitable with such complex negotiations. The key was to look ahead and anticipate problems, to be open about setbacks and to clear up any misunderstandings as quickly as possible.

The net result? A very successful negotiation and both sides happy with the outcome. Was it easy? No, but then readers of this blog don’t need telling that few things that are worthwhile are easy. Ultimately, I’m absolutely delighted with the outcome – I’m equally delighted that Paul and Jo will be friends for life.

As it’s Easter, let me finish on a slightly lighter note – and a warning, if you’re planning to spend four days in the garden…

When I’m writing these posts I always – irrespective of how well I know the subject – check with Google, just to see if the Harvard Business Review or one of the entrepreneur magazines has a different perspective. And I’m increasingly astonished at how few words I need to type in before Google guesses what I’m after.

Sims_FreePlay_WP8_Sim_Eating_Plant

Or I was – until this morning. How do you negotiate with I tapped in. Before I could add a friend, Google completed the sentence for me. How do you negotiate with a Sim eating plant? Seriously? That’s the most popular query about negotiation?

Well, fair enough. I always preach the value of knowing and researching your market…

So for those of you whose Easter might otherwise be ruined by the death of your carefully-nurtured Sims, I present perhaps the most useful advice ever offered on this blog. (Warning: the video contains violent scenes which some readers might find distressing. It also contains a teenage son doing nothing while his father is eaten by a tomato plant…)

Agile Leadership? Or Fundamental Truth?


Agileadjective: able to move quickly and easily. Or, increasingly, relating to software development: relating to or denoting a method of project management characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans

And – even more increasingly – the new buzzword in management thinking. We’re now supposed to be agile leaders and agile managers. Our companies need to have an agile culture and, of course, the work is done by our agile teams.

But is ‘agile’ really a new way of thinking? Or is it simply the latest spin on what have always been the best business practices? The Emperor’s latest new clothes – and maybe I’ve seen them all before…

The more time I spend working with business owners and entrepreneurs, the more I’m convinced that – to borrow a line from a classic – the fundamental things will always apply. Hire good people: don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Give them responsibility and remember that your job is to lead. As Stephen Covey said, “keep the main thing the main thing” and – as this blog constantly repeats – never stop learning. If you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Unquestionably business is moving at an ever faster pace. It used to be only companies like Dropbox that boasted of employing staff all over the world: I forget the exact quote but it was something like ‘thirty staff in ten different countries in 12 different time zones.’ But now I notice an increasing number of local entrepreneurs working with suppliers and contractors in different countries, knowing exactly what time it is in the Philippines and as happy to price in dollars as in pounds.

Agile-leader

Is this ‘agile?’ No, it’s change. As an entrepreneur said during one of this week’s inevitable discussions on Brexit, “We’ll do what business has always done: we’ll adapt.”

What about the ‘agile culture’ we’re all supposed to use in our offices as we build our ‘agile teams?’ I saw it suggested recently that we should use an agile culture ‘to foster a healthy and positive working environment that takes advantage of the talent within.’

“No surprise there, Sherlock” as the PG version of Dr. Watson would have said. No entrepreneur succeeds alone – and if you don’t foster a positive working environment and take advantage of everyone’s talents, you’ve no chance. In the seven years since this blog started I have lost count of the number of times I’ve preached the benefits of trusting people and giving them responsibility. You should never be the only person in your company with the ability to say ‘yes’ to a new idea. That’s not ‘agile,’ it’s simply the best way to build a business.

…As is constantly being aware of the way your market – and new markets – are developing. “Agile leaders constantly see their business as a start-up” was another quote I read. If you started in a railway arch and you’re now employing 100 people and turning over £25m I suspect it’s quite hard to still see yourself as a start-up. But every entrepreneur I know who has built to that level is as open-minded and outward looking as any fresh-faced start-up.

My big fear with ‘agile’ is that we’ll all feel we should work at a faster and faster pace: that if we’re not Skyping Chicago at 9pm or instant messaging Manila at 5am we’re failing as entrepreneurs. I remember, nearly 20 years ago, reading an article about Gerry Robinson when he was building Granada – and famously, going home to his wife and children at 5pm. His philosophy was simple: if he couldn’t achieve it between 9am and 5pm, he was unlikely to achieve it between 6am and 8pm.

Trends, theories, buzzwords – and lucrative book deals – will continue to come and go in the realms of management and business but, whatever they’re called, the basics will never change.

…And a little over a month into my new role with The Alternative Board, I’m delighted to see those basic beliefs, practices and values running through every TAB franchisee and every TAB member that I’ve met. Yes, of course the next two years are going to throw up difficulties – some that none of us have yet contemplated – but there will be opportunities as well. And I know every TAB franchisee and member will do what businesses have always done – adapt, and meet the challenge.

Survival of the Happiest


Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano

Those of you with a classical education will recognise the words of Juvenal. ‘You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.’

But was the Roman poet satirising those things unwisely sought from the gods – wealth, power, beauty – or was he dispensing business advice a good 2,000 years before Messrs Carnegie, Covey and Robbins?

So why ‘healthy mind’ and – specifically this week – ‘healthy body?’ It’s because I spent a large part of last week reading about the great and good gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos – the annual gathering of business leaders, politicians and gurus, sprinkled with the odd dash of celebrity. Last year the delegates listened to Leonardo di Caprio attack corporate greed – and then went off to drink Cheval Blanc at £290 a bottle.

Tuesday January 3rd – the first working day of the year – was the day when the vast majority of the British population must have said, “Right, this it” and, along with quite a few people I know, I’m doing my best to have a ‘dry January.’ Yes, it’s a wrench to give up my Friday night bottle of Cheval Blanc, but sacrifices have to be made…

…And dry January – plus increased visits to the squash court – mean I’m feeling fantastic, as the resting heart rate on my Fitbit testifies. I can’t think I’ve ever reached the end of what’s supposedly a depressing month and felt so fit or so focused.

There’s no doubt about it: exercising and eating well – having a healthy body – is a fundamental building block of happiness. It’s also a key part of your business success, as evidenced by this report from Davos: as it says, the kind of drive, discipline and determination needed to push yourself to work out and compete are exactly the same skills needed to get to the top.

I might quibble with the BBC’s wording: I might replace ‘skills’ with ‘mindset,’ but the sentiment is spot-on. The determination you need to maintain an exercise regime is the same determination you need in business: it’s consistent effort that counts, not the results on a single day.

After all, any of us who play golf/play squash/go running know there are days when it just doesn’t ‘click.’ But – like business – there are other days when it magically comes together. The skill is to trust yourself: to know that if you consistently do the right thing the results will come.

So exercise is good – and it follows that the more exercise you do the better it must be. After all, look at the story of Chip Bergh, CEO of Levis who – along with rescuing the 163 year old jeans brand – does a mixture of swimming, running and weights every morning from 5:30 to 7:00. “No-one is as intense as me,” the BBC quote Chip as saying.

As an updated version of Animal Farm might have it, thirty minutes good, ninety minutes better: so should we all increase the time we spend working out?

I’m not so sure.

I look round the tables at TAB York and I see a group of people who are almost certainly fitter than the average entrepreneur. There aren’t many members who don’t do some form of physical exercise.

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But I also see a group of people who are happier than the average entrepreneur. They may have spent January re-thinking their fitness regime, but the people round the TAB York table also know that it’s about balance: not just work/life balance, but keeping every aspect of your life balanced. And if you’re committed to an exercise regime that consumes you from 5:30 to 7:00 and ‘no-one is as intense’ as you, then somewhere down the road something has to give.

There’s a fine line between dedication and addiction – as I suspect one of my new followers on Twitter knows: she’s called LycraWidow…

Christmas, a Speech and a Chocolate Teacake


Well, here we are at post no. 49 of 2017. 12 months and around 35,000 words after I started the year by considering some of your worst clients – Messrs Sceptic, Indecisive and Over-Thinker – we come to the end of the year.

But not to the end of my wife’s shopping list. I’m certain that you’ve also got plenty to do – that business fripperies like ‘cash flow,’ ‘finalise plans’ and ‘chase debtors’ have rightly been pushed to one side – so I’ll crack on…

Let me start the final post of the year with some thanks, beginning with the members of TAB York. As always they’ve been committed, focused, ambitious, challenging – and at the right moments, irreverent. Thank you also to the stellar TAB team at the Harrogate head office and my equally Stella colleagues around the country…

…And my thanks to everyone who has read, commented on, and hopefully enjoyed the blog. The post that brought the most reaction – by some distance – was A Conversation with my Wife: thank you for some of the very personal, reflective and supportive comments. Post that generated the most vitriol? Oh, easy. I’m Fat, I’m Lazy and I’m off to Play Golf, as International Trade Minister Liam Fox revealed he knew nothing at all about the people who run small businesses.

My biggest thanks, of course, go to my wife, Dav, who has been endlessly supportive. It’s now 23 years, 10 months and 29 days since I tiptoed into a phone box in Wingrove Road, Fenham NE4, screwed my courage to the sticking place and nervously asked her if she’d like to see Sneakers. I could live to 1,000 and never do a better day’s work. And to my boys, Dan and Rory who never fail to remind me what’s really important.

It’s normal at this time of year to hand out awards. Given the amount I’ve drunk, ‘Takeaway Coffee of the Year’ is a possibility, but let me go with just one: ‘Moment of the Year.’ It came at a Board meeting not much more than a month ago: as many of you know, there’s plenty of hard-headed business analysis at a TAB meeting: there’s a healthy dusting of good-natured banter as well. And just occasionally, there’s a moment like this: I’ve tried to convey the sentiment, whilst protecting the identity of the individual member:

Hang on, he said. Just let me say something. This – TAB – the seven of you round the table, you’ve changed my life. When I joined – not that long ago – I had no direction: bluntly, I’d fallen out of love my business. Something I’d never have thought possible. It was impacting me, my health and my family. And now it’s totally changed. I know what I’m doing, I know where I’m going, I’m in love with the business again and that’s benefitting the business in spades. I couldn’t be happier, my wife couldn’t be happier. And I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks, guys.

That single moment made the year for me. Two or three of us round the table suddenly seemed to have something in our eye. The individual member will almost certainly recognise himself, and I simply want to say thank you. A hundred words: a 50 second speech and that’s The Alternative Board – and why I do what I do – in a nutshell.

With that memory still warming my heart, I’m off now to spend some serious time with the family: so let me formally wish you all a very happy Christmas and the absolute best for the coming year.

Christmas for us will start with the now vaguely-famous Reid Xmas Eve party for friends and their families.

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Five years ago the average age of the children was about six: I wandered into the room where they’d all been watching TV, gasped in horror at the mess and watched a chocolate teacake slide gracefully down our wall. Not long now and the average age will be approaching sixteen: I suspect I may have rather more than chocolate teacakes to worry about…