Thursday, 23 October 2014

Get your facts right!

This is the response of the Governor of the Bank of England recently when a journalist dared to suggest his thinking on forward guidance was muddled:

“Muddled? You’re muddled I’m afraid. We’ve had two phases of forward guidance that we’ve given. The first phase is exactly as you described – 7 percent threshold at a point where we thought there was considerable excess supply in the economy. In February we put in place the next phase of forward guidance and that next phase, as we said in our last minutes, as we said in our previous minutes, as we said in the April minutes, as we said in the March minutes, as we said in the February inflation report and the February minutes, that guidance is entirely consistent.”

I suspect that journalist may think again before challenging Mark Carney to explain his “muddled” thinking!

What interests me about this exchange is not how the Governor responded but how he got into the position to be able to fire off a memorable response like that in the first place. All the evidence points to the fact that the Governor had his facts very much at his fingertips. He was completely relaxed, in command, and as a result, was able to fashion a stinging reply with detail, repetition and a crescendo effect. He would certainly not have been able to do that had he been scratching around for relevant facts to fire back at the unfortunate hack.

Of course, we can’t all be as articulate as the Governor of the Bank of England. Luckily, by the same token, we don’t all have to soak up the kind of pressure he is subjected to. However, I would suggest we can all apply some of the principles at play here and use them to good effect in any business.

In today’s business world it sometimes seems we value speed and appearance of response over accuracy and quality of content. It might feel terribly out of date now but who can deny the continuing validity of that old expression – failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Subject matter expertise (SME) is not something anyone in business can afford to ignore but a little practice and a few hours homework can make it a lot easier to grasp than you might have thought.

There are few things more impressive or memorable in the world of business than someone who really knows their stuff and can manipulate content to achieve their goals. It’s motivating of course in itself and there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had from mastering a brief and operating seemingly on automatic pilot. With the confidence that comes from knowledge, it’s possible to relax, get into a controlling position and drive your business to where you want it to go.

As in the words of the well-known advert – don’t you just love being in control!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Get yourself noticed!

My eye was drawn recently to a story in the paper about the famous North West business Daisy Group. No. I’d never heard of Daisy either but the name of the entrepreneurial founder Matthew Riley did ring a bell somewhere. As I read on I realised where I’d heard the name Matthew Riley before – he enjoyed a bit of fame via Dragon’s Den. Or perhaps the word should be notoriety as hid job was to shatter the dreams of some young hopefuls by pouring a great deal of cold water over them and their dodgy CV’s.

Great TV, if you like that sort of thing, but also great marketing by Matthew Riley. What he did on the show by using edgy language – one candidate was told his business plan made the reader feel sick and their growth strategy smelled suspiciously like bulls**t – was to establish himself as someone with a personality and the chutzpah to show it off. Now that’s not rocket science but it established Mr Riley as confident, knowledgeable enough to criticise firmly and probably having a good sense of humour as he was clearly using hyperbole for dramatic effect.

By this simple means and getting himself on TV via his pal Lord Sugar, Riley has ensured that I was hooked enough to read on when I next came across his name in the media. In best Californian tradition, his business was launched from the garage and he is now aiming to become a Northern telecoms champion with all the job creation opportunities that no doubt brings in its wake.

We don’t all have the possibility of getting on national TV but we do have the means to work on our business persona and get it noticed. That really tired old expression about people buying people is coming to mind as I write these words.

Take some risks; get some PR out there even if you do it yourself. As the world gets busier and messages proliferate at a rate of knots it still makes perfect sense that standing out is a good idea if you need promote your business.

Mr Riley is a good example to follow in many other ways too. He left school at sixteen, prefers hard work to a flash lifestyle and professes to “like all the boring and mundane stuff like cost cutting” which he carries out from his base in Nelson. This is not really a celebrity image – rather someone who knows how to use publicity methods often favoured by celebs but in this case to drive an acquisitive business empire founded on solid growth plans.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Don’t give up!

As a rallying call to business, they probably don’t get much more relevant than this and yet it would be hard to imagine a simpler phrase. So how come something so simple can profoundly alter the course of a business and often yield success when disaster appeared to be looming?

The uncomfortable truth, I think, is that this line of thinking relies heavily on gut instinct and a deep-seated conviction which is impossible to put into words. For that reason, not giving up often looks like an illogical course of action and who likes to be thought of as someone who acts without proper thought and consideration of all the issues?

 Over the years I have been fortunate enough to witness past masters in the art of not giving up and I like to think a little of that experience has rubbed off on me. Think of the animated cartoon character that runs off the edge of a cliff and still tries to get back by spinning his feet fast enough to somehow defy gravity – in the same way, business people who just don’t give up appear to be able to perform magic and bend the rules of nature.

This may sound a little fanciful but I believe there’s more than a grain of truth in the theory. Why not harness that feeling of pushing the boundaries and achieving something extraordinary – I think it’s what I’ve been doing for years, if only by instinct.

Of course, this is all tied up with the concept of risk and any business needs to take risks in order to grow. So why not think of adopting this strategy for a small part of your business and see what can be achieved before scaling up fully?

As well as the downside of appearing out of control or deluded there are many upsides to weigh in the balance:

The fear factor itself is liberating and energising. The success is going to taste all the sweeter for having been won against the odds. You will gain infinitely more respect from all the parties involved for demonstrating unswerving faith and perseverance in pursuit of your goals. What’s more, the benefits for that action will be multiple and probably come from all manner of unexpected and very welcome sources to help you grow in new and exciting areas.

You may also appear to be something of a magician as you pull a rabbit out of the hat when all around had given up on you. Who in business doesn’t need a trick or two in their repertoire to keep the target audience coming back for more!

Thursday, 11 September 2014


No, not another column about being lazy! I’m back from the summer holiday now and moving on from extolling the virtues of laziness. What I’d like to offer this week is a little reflection on how difficult it can be to achieve business goals without being properly relaxed.

For me, sport and business are pretty well connected – indeed the very concept of coaching, now rightly so popular in the world of business, originated in the world of sport. So, I often draw parallels between business and my particular sport, which is running. Having started again to run later in life, I’ve benefitted greatly from expert advice when warming up for a large event. The bigger events where money is being raised for charity often have professionals on hand to help you warm up thoroughly. It is no coincidence that these are the events where the best times are always achieved.

With a professional to guide you, it’s easy to make sure your muscles are relaxed and supple enough to cope with the stresses and strains that are about to come the way of your ageing legs. I know this is a physical phenomenon and the stress in business is very often mental but the connection is very definitely real.

After all the brain is a muscle and that’s often where business problems start and finish – inside your head. Physical relaxation very often leads to mental relaxation and it’s a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your business and overall performance levels.

I also know from personal experience that physical relaxation aids focus and clarity of thought – the very tools you absolutely must have to help you cut through complex business issues. It stands to reason that relaxed people perform far better that tense ones but how often do we ignore that fact and plough on regardless?

Ignoring the need to relax can have disastrous effects far beyond a malfunction on the day. To continue the sporting metaphor, muscle damage can ruin a footballer’s season or even end his/her career so the effects can indeed be long-lasting. High stress levels can of course be damaging in a business context and very often the answer to the problem comes from within.

Of course, there are many ways to relax and I can clearly remember a situation that mattered for me. Having failed my driving test on more than one occasion, I was indebted to the instructor who finally got me over the hurdle. His secret of success was very simple – he relaxed me with humorous stories before the test and got me to put my nerves out of mind. Jokes and humour are obviously very light-hearted things but when used to good effect as on this occasion the results can be life-changing.

Don’t be afraid to relax – we all need to warm up like professional athletes, especially in a business world that often requires mental marathons of us!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Think ahead…

I’ve worked for a variety of businesses in my time and seen many different approaches to the question of whether or not to try and forecast the future. Of course I don’t mean the future of the planet and this kind of forecasting has nothing to do with crystal balls although they are often mentioned in a vain attempt to inject a bit of humour into what many regard as a lost cause.

But if the thought of forecasting sales or  future economic circumstances makes you smile or even laugh at the futility of the exercise, why not just pause for a second to reconsider? You never know – you may just gain a little advantage that gets you ahead and who wouldn’t want that?

So, for me, a forecast of some sort is absolutely vital and a very powerful weapon in my business arsenal. There are a few reasons why I say that – namely focus, creativity and targeting. Taking these concepts in order, I’ll try to summarise what each of them means to me and my business.

Forecasting helps me to focus on where my opportunities lie and where I might encounter obstacles. That may sound obvious but if that’s the case why are so many business people reluctant to do it? Clearly, it requires discipline to set aside time and conduct the exercise but would you plan a cross country hike without knowing the terrain so you could dress and pack provisions accordingly?

Forecasting helps me to unlock my creative side (and we’ve all got one!). It’s impossible to do a forecast without allowing yourself a decent stretch of free time and once you’ve done that the creative juices start to flow automatically. Enjoy the benefits of thinking differently, seeing different angles and adjusting your output accordingly to take advantage.

And finally, forecasting helps me to target my business effectively. I don’t say I will hit all my targets but if I’ve forecast them then they have an identity and a kind of reality which brings them to life. Chasing targets requires self-motivation and who can motivate themselves with just a number? Far better surely to get acquainted with the detail and inject a bit of enthusiasm into the whole exercise to keep you going when the road gets harder!

Maybe, in the last analysis it is sensible to pour a little cold water on forecasting and occasionally ridicule it but just maybe it might be a friend to you when your business hits a bit of choppy water ahead…  

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Take a holiday…

At this time of year a lot of us are actually taking holidays or thinking about a sitting on a beach in some faraway destination. In France the whole country heads for Le Midi for an entire month and, in many ways, why not?

Working in business in today’s difficult economic climate where we’re all obsessed with time, I propose that every now and then it does you good to deliberately waste a bit of it! In the age of “brush-by” meetings and “leaning in” to stay in focus and on-track with a punishing schedule, we can be forgiven for forgetting what the benefits of laziness might be.

Enforced laziness has a unique value that should not be underestimated, according to Schumpeter of the Economist magazine. Ronald Reagan famously believed in not overdoing things – “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?” Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, praised the virtues of “masterful inactivity” and Asquith employed a policy of “wait and see” when he was in power. In the world of work, Jim Collins, famous author of Good to Great, exhorts us to create a stop-doing list to complement our to-do list.

I guess the point really is that occasionally we all need to get off the tread mill to figure out if there is a better way of doing things. In my view, that’s more necessary than ever today as we are plagued by phenomena such as email where our ability to manage the task is compromised by the constant need to respond within seconds. We are sucked into the vortex as we earnestly lean in to hear the “conversation” and before we know it we’re agreeing to the terms of an unknown email assailant who has just pushed his or her way to the top of our agenda.

Email is only one facet of the way we do business today but it’s a good indicator of where we are. According to a recent survey, 80% of us continue to work after we’ve left the office, 69% can’t go to bed without routinely checking the email in-box and 38% check their emails whilst at the dinner table!

So, if you’re lucky enough to be taking a holiday this year, my advice would be to truly enjoy it.
Big chunks of uninterrupted time are like gold dust – lean back a bit, enjoy the silence or the view or whatever’s available and the next time you need to lean-in you might find it’s not so difficult from your position of relaxed readiness!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


We’ve all seen that expression at the bottom of the agenda for a business event of one type or another. Two innocuous looking letters that allow your guests to pose their favourite questions or allow the organisers another chance to reinforce their message.

What on earth could be wrong with that, you might wonder? It all sounds very fair and democratic and should surely lead to a more balanced event with no-one feeling left out. All well and good but the danger is of course that the whole issue of Q&A is treated exactly how it appears on that agenda – an afterthought, tagged on at the end!

Questioning is a vital part of life. As we’ll all know if we’ve witnessed the incessant questions fired relentlessly at a tired mother or father by a single-minded and demanding toddler. It’s also a very deep-seated and instinctive phenomenon capable of arousing strong feelings! As the harassed parent will no doubt testify, questions are in themselves an issue and one which literally demands a strategy if it is not all to go horribly wrong.

So, just as no parent would deny the offspring the right to pose questions, equally there will always be guidelines and rules of engagement. Pointless or repetitive questions will be discouraged and questions with a purpose, aim or direction encouraged.

In business, some of the same rules should probably apply. Despite, or maybe because of the imbalance of knowledge levels that may well still exist between the person asking and the person answering, care needs to be taken over the questioning.

Whether in a Q&A session, or as part of a relaxed catch up over a cup of coffee, why not concentrate a little more on the question rather than the answer, for a change? Obsessed as we often are, indeed trained as we are in certain professions, to extricate an answer from someone – just ask yourself occasionally, is my question the right question?

If you get the “right” answer to your question but the person you are talking to refuses to agree to a second meeting to carry the business relationship forward, then you have failed. As the harassed parent with the excessively inquisitive toddler knows all too well, we can say one thing and then do the exact opposite – think before you question, even if it seems like low-priority stuff at the end of the agenda!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Brazil Nuts!

You won’t be surprised to see a world cup link in the column this week. Like many other millions of people, I saw Brazil crash out of the tournament courtesy of a rampant German side who may go on to be eventual winners.

Like many other millions of people also, I felt sorry for the fans who were reduced to floods of bitter tears. It’s tricky to hide your emotions when streams of salty water are coursing down your cheeks in a way that’s hard for observers to miss! This was obviously extremely painful and you couldn’t help but think what had they done to be pushed out in such a humiliating and excruciating manner?

In some ways you could argue that they hadn’t done anything at all – they weren’t even playing, just watching. And yet, as we all know from the subsequent coverage and prior knowledge, this hurt Brazil as a nation, not just as a bunch of footballers. Failure, shared or otherwise, is a recurring theme in sport and no less so in the world of business. How we deal with it is a matter of some importance for Brazilians and business people alike.

In business you may not share your failure with millions of other like-minded and passionate fans – you are more than likely to be sharing with just one person – the little guy who lives inside your head.

By sheer coincidence, I’ve suffered a few setbacks in my business in recent weeks which at the time they occurred I was definitely describing as failures. Arguing with the voice in my head, which sometimes is prone to gabble a little too much, I assigned these problems an imaginary status and moved on. Over the years in business I’ve come to recognise that as a skill I’m fortunate to have been able to develop.

“Failures” happen to everyone and it’s vital in business to realise that and deal with it quickly. In my case, there were three “failures” in rapid succession – two have subsequently turned into business and the third is already moving in a positive direction. What you perceive in your head as a failure may be seen entirely differently by others. In the last analysis, the view of others is usually the only one that matters so it’s not a bad idea to try and focus on that as soon as ever you can.

I hesitate to hand advice to a nation, especially a powerful, dynamic world force such as Brazil. I’m fortunate enough to have visited Brazil some years back when I did business there. Of course football defines the nation, as does the Copacabana, Rio carnivals and a feisty spirit but in hindsight it is lunacy to suggest this is going to damage Brazil in the long term. Coming back stronger is what it’s all about and that football team may well be surprised what a cathartic effect a defeat can have – even one on that scale!

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Another Place

Nearly three years ago I took my first diffident steps into the world of blogging. Inspired by a trip to Crosby to see the famous cast-iron figures standing boldly in the sea, I typed up my first blog about the connection between art and business. Rereading the blog now simply reinforces for me the value of such work for anyone who has the will to do it. I’ve reproduced it in full below because I think the points are as valid now as they were then.

There’s an additional note of optimism around the reading this time as the turmoil hinted at in this piece seems to be receding as the economy gathers pace. Anything that stands the test of a revisit in this way and reveals more not less is a valuable thing to my way of thinking.

Here is the blog in question – I hope you enjoy it:

A few years ago Antony Gormley persuaded Sefton Council to let him place 100 cast-iron figures along the foreshore at Crosby. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about providing inspiration for business people when he did that. But that’s certainly what he did for me when I took my family to visit Another Place this Christmas. What’s more, I think his statues give us a brilliant example of what value visiting “another place” can give. Indeed if you are someone battling to succeed in business then simply being in “another place” can be the key that unlocks your creativity, reveals a new angle or allows you to put an old problem into perspective…

As I see it there are at least 5 major benefits you can enjoy if you take the trouble to visit any major sculpture in such a natural and often dramatic setting. You’ll probably have different ones and maybe even more but see what you think of mine. I hope my experience can help you to find your “other place”.

Here are my top 5 points:

•         Inspiration comes from just seeing things done very differently and in a remarkably bold way

•         Sculptures like these often provide more questions than answers and thus encourage you to keep faith in a business process which often does the same and where answers are similarly hard to find

•         Personal interpretation is challenging and fosters original thought, steering you well away from the familiar patterns and ruts of everyday business thinking

•         Community and family values are enjoyed and reinforced in a shared experience which is novel, memorable and therefore of lasting value

•         A vigorous walk along a wind and rain swept coastline provides an excellent chance to live by the motto “a healthy mind in a healthy body”

I just hope when you visit Another Place that the wind is blowing a little less vigorously since we managed to visit on the windiest day of the year and consequently enjoyed a sand-blasting experience too which will also not be forgotten easily!”

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Plus ça change…

That’s a pretty ridiculous expression!

How can something that keeps changing stay the same? What does it apply to? Who does it apply to? Who uses the expression and is the expression itself in need of an update?

Well, in the business world it’s not very difficult to think of examples of change. When I first began working internationally, the trips were referred to as safaris and receiving a telegram from an overseas agent was not uncommon! This of course was quickly replaced by the telex. The telex was overtaken by the fax and the fax was killed off by email – and all that over a period of only 40 years or so.

Over roughly the same period I can remember clunky desk phones giving way to mobiles like house bricks. Car phones that filled the glove box gave way to the luxury of in-car hands-free communication.

When I made by first business flight to Durban with the very exclusive and business-like British Airways, little did I suspect how budget airlines would come along and totally transform air travel for all.

So, massive change and, as we all know, the pace of that change is now break-neck as we rush into strange concepts like internet specs and driverless cars and so on.

And yet, in the context of business I hear a lot of people saying lately that the old methods are still the best. I suppose the problem is, as with most fundamentals in business, old stuff looks exactly what it is and value is a difficult concept to sell. We all love the idea of something new and that little expression might just be useful in reminding us that the underlying values need never change.

People still buy people, as another popular expression goes, and for my money they always will.

Yes, it’s important to keep up in the race for “new” – how many consumer products get a new lease of life simply by the addition of the word “new” in bright letters on the top right-hand corner of the pack? But for long-lasting business success it might be a good idea to think deeper and work out what’s going on beneath the surface.

Clearly it would be Luddite to deny that the instinct for change, which we all have, is anything but a force for good. Optimism and inventiveness are all bound up with change and what business will not profit from having those qualities in the mix? We need to constantly renew and refashion as we search for better ways of doing things and more efficient ways of living our lives.

On the other side of the coin, it’s also good to remember that a vital sense of stability and security can spring naturally from simply not changing at all.

So it would seem that plus ça change may not be a tired old expression that’s outlived its usefulness – perhaps that’s why we keep using it?

Thursday, 5 June 2014

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it…

Reading about the kerfuffle caused recently by a footballer getting upset over a forgotten birthday cake, I started to think about special events in the workplace.

Whether or not that particular player was genuinely aggrieved is of course hard to say, given the hype that often abounds in the world of football. It could have been a gambit to presage a move from the club or a negotiating tactic to increase the weekly wage packet. On the other hand it may have been entirely genuine and symptomatic of how he was treated behind the scenes when not scoring goals on the pitch.

Just because he is a famous footballer and very high profile does not mean we can waive the rules of engagement. On both sides of the fence, whether managed or a manager, it’s generally a good idea to treat everyone in the workplace with respect. I think probably everyone will acknowledge that fact if questioned in isolation but how many of us actually behave like that consistently and unerringly?

Yet, by failing to keep up high standards of relationship building in our daily business lives we run the risk of failing to motivate or, worse, giving cause for disaffection. A recent study by Accenture - and reported in the Times - revealed that 43 percent of those surveyed cited “lack of recognition” as a reason for unhappiness at work.

Trained as we are from a very early age in almost every walk of life to look for faults that need correcting, we sometimes forget to look for the positive. By instinct we strive to solve the problems that are blocking our path to the holy grail of sustainable business growth. We spend hours trying to fix what’s broke whereas in reality there may be a lot more to be gained by polishing up the assets under our noses!

We all know that the people are the most important asset in a business but how many of us forget to give the metaphorical birthday cake once in a while? And it doesn’t have to be lavish of course – far more important that the feeling behind the gesture is authentic. Wishing someone “congrats” on Linkedin may be a step in the right direction but is a formulaic statement like that really going to do the job?

And why not give a compliment in the other direction too – even managers or directors need encouragement and support. It’s not a one-way street and of course the benefits of the gesture can flow in both directions.

Perhaps giving a cake is the best way to ensure that you receive one in return?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Surrounded by growth…

I see growth has been in the headlines a lot lately. Earnest and learned think tanks have confirmed the end on the “Great Recession “is nigh. NIESR has revised up its estimate for GDP growth for 2014 from 2.5% to 2.9%. The economy is or will be shortly bigger than it was in 2008. I could go on…

However, I thought it might be interesting to take a different tack and see what other growth indicators might be of relevance to us all. Are there other signs that might give us confidence of being able to battle our way out of the deepest and longest recession we have ever known? Do stats alone do it or do we each need something more tangible and more powerful?

I got to thinking about this as I was walking my faithful dog over the green hills of Cheshire. Musing on what might put these encouraging but essentially dry economic facts into context I tried to look at the big picture. Is there a logical narrative that flows through all the twists and turns we’ve all experienced in business since 2008? Is there anything that ties it all together and makes more sense than just stark headlines or lifeless statistics on a printed or digital page?

At the risk of being laughed out of court I’m going to suggest that the unifying theme could be nature. I know it’s a tenuous link but does that matter if it does the job?

When I first started work for a multinational chemical producer my manager often used to talk about seeing “the green shoots of recovery”. Long before the media got hold of such expressions and used them to excess he used to talk about tending delicate seedlings from which a strong and mature business would grow. Gardening and natural metaphors abounded of which Percy Thrower himself would have been proud.

So I think my old boss might approve of my stance today. Toiling over the hills in all kinds of weather I see at first hand the results of nature’s work. I can frequently see storm damaged trees on one side followed immediately on the other by the most resplendent wisteria blooms imaginable.

For me this is a fantastic reminder of where we have been and where we are now. I’m reminded of what harsh treatment has been doled out as the sights of destruction are still visible. Equally though, I’m now able to feast my eyes on bluebells in record-breaking abundance, cow parsley that shimmers at almost shoulder height and wisteria so heavy and dense it hides the wall its hanging almost entirely from view.

Which will inspire me and drive me more – reading the Economist or walking in the Bickerton Hills? I think you can guess! What will you draw on for inspiration?

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Is motivation worth the sweat?

“He failed to motivate them! They were bereft of motivation!”

So ran some of the headlines when one of the North West’s most famous football clubs recently sacked its manager. The fact that motivation had gone missing seemed to be vastly more important than purchasing the right players, choosing the appropriate tactics or putting in the effort on the training pitch.

And this is a serious matter – whether you follow football or not you probably can’t have failed to see this story. How often do you see the word “bereft” in your daily newspaper? For me it brought to mind the famous Monty Python sketch in which a certain parrot was dead, no more and ultimately bereft of life!

In some ways, this felt like someone had died. So it certainly provides a good backdrop for considering if motivation is a skill worth talking about. The context is wide-reaching and it was no accident that one of the commentators brought in by the BBC to discuss this topic was a Harvard professor of business. The skills needed to lead a football team are exactly the same ones needed to lead a team in the world of business.

David Moyes, in my humble opinion, did indeed fail to motivate. I personally felt sorry for him as his tragedy was played out in the full glare of the cameras but then again he was well remunerated for taking those risks. However, I felt he must take responsibility for failing to motivate – any seasoned business person will tell you how vital a “soft skill” motivation is.

Perhaps calling it a soft skill is partially where the problem stems from. For Moyes, there was nothing remotely soft about the nature of this skill which eluded him so teasingly and painfully. So called soft skills are vital in the world of business. The fact that they are linked so closely to emotional behaviour often makes them less accessible to people not prepared or able to change hardened attitudes and take them on board.

It’s not for me to decide whether Moyes was guilty or just unfortunate but insofar as he’s demonstrating a lack of motivational skills which are undeniably vital to successful business I ‘m going to put in my two penn’orth!

Why use the word “hope” when talking publicly about how his players will perform in the future? To my mind this subtly reveals you are hoping and praying which suggest strongly that you haven’t motivated yourself, let alone the players! Hope is not a strategy and even soft things like motivation need planning. Perhaps, like some business people, he underestimated the value of a seemingly optional concept like motivation.

One thing’s for sure, motivation is hard to build up but it can disappear in a second as you fall off the cliff – better not to fall in the first place as it’s an awfully hard climb back up to the top!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Can a brand cause sleepless nights?

In this case – yes! A certain hotel chain, fronted by the amiable comedian Lenny Henry, is currently looking to build a new 60-bed premises in Ambleside. As surely almost everyone will know – Ambleside is one of the Lake District’s finest destinations. Put yourself in the shoes of those people living in Ambleside or those engaged in running the village’s thriving independent B+B’s or small independent hotels. I imagine there were more than a few winks of sleep lost as the news broke of this new proposal.

But what of the people who simply visit this fabulously beautiful North West tourist delight? Once we start to consider their views I think we might get some powerful insights into the power of brands. Or should that be the hazards of brands? By examining the challenges faced by practitioners of the dark art of branding maybe we will understand better some of the issues involved.

As there are something like 1500 beds already available for tourists in Ambleside, this represents a modest increase of nearly 5% but I would suggest the struggle will be titanic. Battling with locals, planners and general lovers of the Lake District, the brand will have to be extremely resilient even to get to first base. This is not an academic exercise – people love the Lake District and for everyone who says this will encourage more visitors to the area there is a voice which claims it will be a blight on the landscape.

But, assuming go-ahead is given, the battle is far from over as I know well from my experience in marketing brands to the public. It may take many years of detailed research, subtle marketing and persistent brand support to ensure sustained sales. The bad news is it can take next to no time at all for the public to turn its back on that brand. Years of work may be ended and you will not even be involved in the decision process. The public is fickle and investors in brands need to know that.

My example refers to consumer products on the shelves of a supermarket – obviously we’re talking about something on a far larger scale here. If a product is delisted then it is pretty soon forgotten and can be replaced by better and more customer-friendly versions. But what can you do with a 60-bed hotel if the expected visitors don’t come? The stakes are high – win and the Lakes will probably attract a new demographic and get fresh blood to keep it alive longer – lose and the fragile beauty of the whole region is compromised. Think of Prince Charles’s friend with the embossed carbuncle on his face! Poor old Ambleside is faced with a gamble if it goes ahead – let’s hope it does its homework well and pays attention to the branding messages which will be pushed out at every opportunity.

In my humble opinion, this one is an extremely hot potato which could be burning hands for a long time to come whatever the outcome.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Business is no laughing matter.

That statement might well ring true for some people.  It’s all too easy to lose your sense of humour in the heat of the battle – especially when you’re fighting on a daily basis to make your business venture a success. But, pause for a second to reconsider like I did and you might just decide to take a different view.

What got me thinking about this was the story concerning Arsène Wenger’s 1000th match in charge of Arsenal football club. He was given an award at a ceremony hosted by Sir Chips Keswick, the Arsenal chairman. Unfortunately for Sir Chips, he stumbled over his words and congratulated the manager on achieving the laudable milestone of 1000 years in charge! Like the consummate professional he is, Arsène Wenger covered the potential embarrassment with a daft joke. He quickly replied how being in charge for a 1000 games had certainly made him look a 1000 years old. As you might imagine, I wasn’t at the ceremony but I can fully picture the scene and easily imagine those circumstances transposed to a business setting.

There was probably a shared laugh which diffused the tension surrounding the gaffe. The audience no doubt thought better of Arsène Wenger for his generosity and Sir Chips had the opportunity to laugh at himself and reveal his human side. Win win as far as I can see and the relationship between the two men probably strengthened not weakened.

Pretty much the same in business I feel. As the world gets tougher, more competitive and more volatile it seems to me a good idea not to forget basic weapons like a good sense of humour. Whether you’re making a presentation, negotiating with a landlord or dealing with an irate customer, humour can be a good ally.

The second reminder of this came recently when I hosted a post-budget presentation on the North West economy with the IoD’s chief economist, James Sproule, as my speaker. I confess to being a little apprehensive as some 50 people gathered in the room to hear the presentation. Although this had been mostly a positive budget for business, economics can on occasions be a dry topic. A combination of facts and figures and obsessive detail on comprehension-defying subjects such as annuities can send anyone to sleep. So it was with some relief that I could thank the speaker for having been not just informative but also charismatic! By wrapping up the facts in a blanket of humour, wit and parody, the speaker had managed to fully engage the audience, make his content memorable and left them all wanting more.

We can’t all be charismatic to that extent but I like to keep trying – sounds odd but maybe humour is worth a bit of serious consideration.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Does our maths teaching add up?

According to recent reports, Wales is lagging behind in provision of maths skills for young people - fact! There are statistics galore to prove this and no shortage of government ministers queuing up to apportion blame.

But let’s stop before we jump on the band wagon and maybe try to deflect blame onto politicians or teachers or anyone else but ourselves.

There was an interesting comment made recently that negative remarks made about maths by parents in front of their children was partially to blame. I watched a feature on this on the BBC and the father in question had his children sitting behind him whilst chatting to the interviewer. The children were playing on a huge touchscreen computer and appeared to be not very focused or engaged on whatever it was they were doing. The body language strongly suggested to me aimless filling in of time and it did not appear to be giving the children much pleasure either.

I just wonder if that readiness to abandon the child to the mercies of a screen is symptomatic of the attitude that abounds. By making negative remarks about maths in front of children, adults are reinforcing stereotypical images which can and clearly do stop a child from putting in enough effort. If the responsible adult gives in to the majority view, presumably whilst able to see the value of maths skills, what a glorious opportunity to motivate the child is lost.

I know from my own experience of learning maths what a challenge is involved and I fully recognise the size of the task. But equally I also know, and this is backed up from my experience in the world of business, that taking responsibility is what makes all the difference. Parents must not only refrain from running down the study of maths – they probably need to do a refresher course themselves before throwing themselves into the job of motivating their children to learn.

There have been examples of parents learning signing skills to communicate with a deaf child and I have heard of some spreading that skill around the NHS to benefit others. Granted, this is an extreme example but to me it illustrates what single-minded determination can achieve.

A child can still communicate with his or her friends if deficient in maths but what about holding down a job in the quicksand of today’s viciously competitive world? A parent or a business leader has a fabulous opportunity to foster skills irrespective of whether they excel themselves. Don’t waste that chance – take control and do the job!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Whither the future for Europe?

With the visit of Angela Merkel to Downing Street recently, this is perhaps a good time to talk about seismic world events. With the anniversaries of two World Wars to consider and the 25 year milestone achieved since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, there is no shortage of prompts.

But actually the political upheaval I wanted to focus on is the one which is happening in the Ukraine.

I was prompted to think about this for a whole variety of reasons. Firstly, there was the jarring juxtaposition of humour and tragedy which I saw in the newspaper reports from Russia and Ukraine at the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics. On one side we read an article about the humorous end to the games which deliberately feigned a technical fault to mirror the real one at the opening ceremony. And then right next door to it we see a feature about the carnage, despair and hopelessness of the deteriorating situation in the Ukraine. Secondly I was drawn to this subject because I myself once visited Kiev. It was back in the 60’s when the Ukraine was a part of the USSR and we were accompanied everywhere by our Intourist guide, Masha. But even as a schoolboy, which I was then, I was struck by the warmth and approachability of the local people. Finally, my attention is always drawn to this part of the world as I studied Russian at University and have been lucky enough to visit since as a businessman.

Involved as I am these days in international trade with a variety of businesses, it seemed to me a good time to reflect on the economic tragedy underpinning the political warring. Uncertainty is the enemy of economic growth and we are all involved whether we like it or not. Of course it concerns us greatly in the UK because of the potential EU enlargement angle but really it is a major event which will shape the global distribution of power.

The former proud breadbasket for the Soviet Union is today on her knees economically. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Ukraine and Poland both had a GDP of $80 billion. Poland today is nearing $600 billion while Ukraine struggles to reach $200 billion. At the mercy of foreign aid from whichever source, it is very hard to imagine things getting better, if indeed further crises and bankruptcy can be staved off.

But, in my view, this is not the time or place for academic discussion on painful contrasting economic fortunes. Perhaps we should simply be reflecting and doing what we can to ensure that our government’s response to this crisis is appropriate. When we come to discuss the question of “in or out” votes for Europe, maybe some consideration of Ukraine’s plight might just help us to focus better on our own problems and issues.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Comparison is odious...

The RSPB has more members than all the three major political parties combined.

That was the earth-shattering statistic used in a debate recently by a senior Conservative peer in the House of Lords. I presume his aim was to shock his party members. This is the extent of the job they have on their hands if they are to engage properly with all 63 million of us.

As attention grabbers go, this was a really good one as far as I could evaluate. This is probably because the statistic is surprising in itself and probably also because it creates a striking and unexpected picture which sticks in the memory.

I know the remark wasn’t meant to be pored over at length and analysed from different angles but nevertheless it might be worth doing precisely that.

What makes the comparison so striking? Why shouldn’t the RSPB membership exceed that of all the major political parties? Being generous to the politician in question, let’s say it was an accident that the organisation chosen to contrast with the party membership was the RSPB and any organisation would have served the same purpose.

In this case, the comparison has inadvertently brought about other consequences – namely to suggest subtly that membership of the RSPB is a light-hearted and inconsequential thing. A comparison with membership of the CBI, for instance, probably wouldn’t have had anything like the impact. No, on reflection it seems the contrast between heavy and light was what really did the trick.

I’m not suggesting either, by the way, that this politician thus risked alienating the one million strong membership of the RSPB. What he revealed to me was perhaps the gulf between himself and the people he is trying to communicate with.

By suggesting that one group of people is in some way less relevant than another I feel he may have encapsulated the modern political dilemma. Young people, for instance, often do not engage with politicians of any stripe. Perhaps they feel pigeon-holed, undervalued or simply misunderstood. 

In business, it seems to me, similar rules apply. Any statement that makes a judgement is dangerous, especially in a global and interconnected market where many of us operate. By revealing, however obliquely, that we care more about “I” than “we”, we run the risk of disengaging the very audience we need to engage.

Modern society, like today’s business arena, is a hugely complex place and of course that variety is what makes it so interesting and valuable. In some respects the pace of change is phenomenal but in many areas of life or work the fundamental values have not changed one iota.

As another famous politician once said, say what you mean and mean what you say!


Monday, 3 February 2014

Time flies!

Time flies!

No sooner have we said goodbye to 2013 then here we are approaching the end of January 2014. How does that happen and where does the element of surprise or shock really come from?

Sir Terry Wogan used to joke that thankfully when God made time, he had the foresight to make plenty of it. But does it really feel like that to you?

If your business is anything like mine you’ll probably be wishing right now that you had more time available to finish off all those important if not urgent tasks. More time would allow you to solve a whole host of knotty problems at a stroke, make those pressing calls or finish that website upgrade that’s been bugging you for weeks. But would it?

Why is this one of the biggest issues in business that continues to fox us, deceive us and at times play downright unfair with us?

As with most big issues, the main problem often lies in our passive attitude towards it. Lie back and let it happen and time will simply roll over us like the sea broke down the defences at Aberystwyth in the recent storms. Of course we are powerless to stop the passage of time unless we happen to be Doctor Who – but we can recognise the reality of the issue and devise a plan to deal with its often pernicious effects.

By respecting time, valuing it and planning its use well we can often make more use of the same resource. This may sound far-fetched but you only have to give it some serious commitment to see what I mean.

It’s often said in business that just turning up is 90% of the battle and I think that remains as true today as it ever was. The well-organised person who sets the alarm to arrive unflustered for a 9 a.m. appointment many miles from base is always going to beat someone who arrives ten minutes late or not at all. Having got up early of course, the successful candidate is now in a much better position to take full advantage of the rest of the day and push home further his or her advantage.

So, by respecting time and giving it the status of a valuable and finite resource, business people not only get more done - they also get the massive benefit of being perceived as in control. This really is the big game changer because, of course, everyone wants to do business with someone who displays a can-do attitude. Manage your time well and everyone will want to be involved with you as you efficiently rip your way through obstacles and move with visible relish from one challenge to the next.

So, yes, time definitely flies but as far as I can see not half as much if you’re flying too!