Monday, 22 May 2017

WHY BEING A BIT AWKWARD WORKS

I’ve even gone so far as to espouse rebellion, something Thomas Jefferson perhaps unsurprisingly recommended. There’s simply too much dumb acquiescence going on right now in business and in politics. I keep on hearing this dire word “alignment”. Alignment behind Prime Minister May’s manifesto by her Cabinet is horrifically servile. Thank God for Ruth Davidson the only Tory with an awkward brain. This manifesto was crafted by Nick Timothy (as my mother said never trust a man with a beard.)


Awkward is about asking “why?” Children can be awkward in their genuine attempts to unravel adult totalitarianism:

“Why?”

“Just because I said so. Now be quiet”

Hey, that sounds like a Cabinet Meeting.

But most awkward of all is democracy. Those who praise the strong stable leadership of Erdogan or Putin are discounting the fact neither accepts any attempt of truth being spoken to power. Working in a democracy is tough as it involves give and take and constant compromise. In a democracy you have to listen and you have to be patient.


So imagine the dismay that poor perplexed Donald Trump must be feeling as his attempts to impose his will on an American Constitution are thwarted so publicly. He actually thought being president was like being CEO. As a wise commentator recently put it:

“Somehow he seems to lack the skills that the job requires”

Those skills include patience, diplomacy, guile and charm.

Awkward is also about being persistent and trying to ensure that the downside and potential for problems is understood and anticipated. Here’s how Sir Kit McMahon, one time Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, put it:

“No time is as usefully spent as that spent guarding against disasters that do not in the event occur”.

Life is awkward. We are not masters or mistresses of our destiny. We are constantly surprisingly and irritatingly mugged by little setbacks. It was like this over 50 years ago:


Interviewer: “What is most likely to blow a government off-course Sir?”
PM Harold Macmillan: “Events, dear boy, events”

My own bit of awkwardness relates to books.

I spent my long and idle life building a quite decent library of a few thousand books. When we moved house and downsized somewhat, the few thousand books wouldn’t fit in. I tried hiding them in cupboards and keeping some (no idea which ones now) in expensive storage.


Belatedly (this is where patience comes in) I’ve decided to adopt a process of zero based book collecting. If I shan’t ever read it or refer to it, if it isn’t central to my core interests and passions, if it isn’t a “friend” whose absence will be noticed and depressing and if it is too big and weighty (no one needs the complete works of anyone…the complete includes stuff that a good editor would have discarded) they are sold, given away or destroyed.

Last awkward thought: time is too short to be tyrannised by people, music, art or books.

Monday, 15 May 2017

SOME MORE IDEAS WORTH SPREADING

TED has transformed the world of presenting. Presenters now learn their presentations - no scripts, barely any notes. They line up with their stories and they practise, boy, do they practise.


The 2017 London Business School TEDx event was on Friday; the standard was higher than ever. But there’s a problem. In a world of virtually universal competence and consistency little stands out unless it’s exceptional.  Here were some highlights from the day’s insights and entertainment during which some ideas worth spreading were spread.

We had  presentations on the importance of dance, on radical developments in reading for the blind - “seeking the holy braille,” on how bilingualism is like having two eyes whilst we monolinguists are one-eyed unfortunates, on finding whose live saving heart tissue was donated to you and the emotions this stirred, on narcissism, on colonising Mars and much, much more.

Here are a few “aha!” observations:


Sangeeta Bhatia who talked about nano-sized cameras - in effect tiny particles that can roam your body seeking cancer cells and which are flushed out in your urine.

She said:
“OK where are we going with this?”

I love that - where we are going is early cancer detection and longer lives…is that a dream? Not much longer…anyway

“We all need dreams to help us keep pushing forwards”

***


Lucy Kellaway who has given up her cushy job writing for the Financial Times and writing so well that she is probably the foremost management writer of our times constantly pricking the pomposity of the corporate world. On being asked how she would make Maths (which she’ll be teaching) more fun she retorted:
“Fun? Why should Maths be fun? I want to make it clearer.”
***


Rafe Offer who set up Sofar Sounds abandoned a career in global marketing with companies like Diageo. Sofar organises intimate, secret and small musical gigs for people who want to listen and savour quietly. It’s gone global and is operating in 300 cities worldwide. You only get to hear what’s happening, and where, the day before they happen. Inevitably (this is the London Business School hosting this TEDx event after all)

Rafe was asked:

“How do you scale this?” to which he replied
“We scale it by staying small.”

Interesting and right. The root of Sofar’s success is its intimacy and lack of big scale concert-venue paraphernalia. These are not events; they are “happenings.” Too many brands betray their original magic in the quest to grow. I don’t see Rafe making that mistake.
***


Renier Zeldenrust is in the construction business in complex environments. Like Mars. Why go to Mars and beyond? The silica rich earth on Mars and the precious metals like titanium and nickel in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter that’s why. There’s a gold rush into space about to happen.


We need to have more radical, important and inspiring conversations like these more often. We just need to think and debate more deeply.

Monday, 8 May 2017

WHAT'S THE FUTURE?

When you read most pundits the future is not the one we signed up for. It’s currently predicted as likely to be somewhere between ‘Brave New World’ and ‘The Circle’. As Caitlin Moran observed (and what a brilliant writer she consistently is) the only people creating the future currently are Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook (and I suspect Microsoft is still in the game as is Tesla). They are the forces behind driverless cars, robotics and space travel. We have blindly given them all licence to shape our lives and control our destinies.


Whilst they are creating a future of sorts for us we are living in the present and practising mindfulness, being in the now not in the next. Recent oddities in terms of forecasting have made many people apathetic about the future. Brexit, Trump, North Korea - we’re doomed and we don’t know why or when - let’s meditate…

So there are increasingly those soaked in nostalgia, yearning for a safer past when summers were summers and climate change hadn’t been invented (but remember the Great Smog of 1952) and those in the zone, in the ‘now’ controlling (or who think they are controlling)  the present. The future party has no members apart from those in Silicon Valley.


But the future isn’t so hard.

For a start fast as disruptive change seems there’s always a reversion to the mean - what my old History Master used to call “the swing of the pendulum”. In other words despite the pundits predicting the death of books in the face of the threat of e-books, book sales in 2016 went up (specifically non-fiction and children’s books) and e-book sales went down; Justin King when he was CEO of Sainsbury's was categorically predicting the growth of out of town shopping and the demise of the High Street. Well actually wrong Justin. Everyone’s snapping up small shops now - convenience, as well as online, is the buzzword. And as for the demise of TV? Don’t be daft.  Amazon, Netflix and HBO are transforming the viewing figures.


Donald Trump and other so called business leaders often talk about doing things quickly, changing things fast; complex evolutions are expected in days not months. The future will unfold more slowly with, if we are smart and overall I think the human race is very smart indeed, the continued medical breakthroughs making us healthier, communications technology making us reach and converse with more and more people and things like driverless cars liberating the elderly and allowing them life enriching mobility and artificial intelligence making it possible for us to enhance our own learning capacity. Magnus Carlsen, Norwegian world chess champion plays against computers to improve his game. Of course.


What I do not believe is everything will be delivered by drone or that our lives will be so connected that everything we do will be controlled from our watches.

Run the bath at my favourite temperature now.

No run it yourself, lazy git

Because the future will not be stupid.

Monday, 1 May 2017

TAKING A BREAK

We have gone. We are not accessible. We are being selfish.


The idea of the “staycation” became briefly fashionable but it wasn’t until we did one we realised how refreshing it could be. Forget “chillaxing” which is what David Cameron did posing with a fat tummy for the paparazzi in Ibiza. Forget walking in wet Wales and coming up with whizzy ideas like calling a General Election - yaki da Theresa.

The idea is simple - you create a programme of things you want to do - a series of restaurants you want to visit - the rest is conversation, looking and listening. Oh and reading, lots of reading. The rules are no work, no e-mail, no news, no phone and absolutely no surreptitious visits to the office.


We shall visit Stockbridge to see friends and then Winchester for evensong - a magically uplifting experience; Rye because it’s so fabulous, quirky and unspoilt ; the bluebells at Arlington; Eastbourne for the nicest seafront in the world; Salisbury for the infinity font, the Cathedral close which is one of the most pleasant places in Britain outside Oxbridge and that spire - the tallest church spire in Britain (no wonder Constable was so smitten by it); we’ll go to Guildford  for lunch with friends taking in the RHS Wisley Garden; to Gun Wharf Key at Portsmouth for some retail therapy; to Parham House, one of the gems in the South East, a superb Elizabethan house reeking of history  (it has a long gallery 160 feet long where the Parham troop of yeomanry were drilled in the late 18th century - when it was raining).


We’ll stroll around the wonderful gardens and finally have a day in Chichester and a wander round the Cathedral and listen to some sublime music.

That’s the idea. A reasonably busy, flaneur sort of week absorbing, going to places we’ve been before but discovering things we’d missed. Reasonably busy but not a route march. We’re happy to go on exciting detours and miss out some of this if we discover something we like. This is meant to be a slow movement week where whatever we see will stew deliciously in our minds (hopefully).

We spend too much of our lives in “transmit” mode - well I do anyway. I get up earlier than my wife so by 7am I may have already read the Times and the key issues on the Today programme ready to loudly present the news together with my commentary on the important issues in what my poor wife, cowering helplessly under the bedclothes, describes as “that hectoring voice of yours - as if you were addressing fifty and not just me”.

We shall see if the “staycation” does the trick, whether we shall both be more affable, receptive and happy people as a result of it. The prospect of escaping the refrain of Conservative candidates saying “strong and stable leadership” and the whole electioneering process will be reward enough for me.

Monday, 24 April 2017

WHY I FEEL CHEERFUL (most of the time)

“Bounce, skip and hop”… synonyms for “spring” and this Spring, which has been especially colourful, has given me feelings of joie de vivre.

This was heightened as I went to Lords on Friday to see Middlesex play Essex. For those not versed in cricket let me explain it’s an English pastime that’s a cross between baseball, ballet and chess that can last four or five days. Like steam trains it was on its way out commercially but as the recent relaunch of the Flying Scotsman steam engine showed the past can be recreated and a fan base re-inspired.


I recently saw an advertisement for Jack Daniels. Here’s the bit of copy that stuck in my mind. It observed:
“That simpler things are probably better. That when something works you stick with it till it doesn’t. And that change is fine so long as there’s a good reason for it.”

It seemed an appropriate philosophy as I walked around the “Home of Cricket” (as its marketers style it.) Only one word can describe the architectural perfection, summer green grass and ambience here - “gorgeous”. But no longer is this place, as it were driven by steam, it’s been transformed from a noisome old boys’ club to a world-class entertainment arena with brilliantly modern and fragrant loos, excellent food, comfortable places to sit and always that smell of Spring and the sense of a hot, lazy summer waiting in the wings.


The game has changed and is now a 21st century contest with the 3 hour versions (20:20 Big Bashes as they are styled); these are the real money makers through TV rights. Think baseball on speed and you’ll get the idea.

In the Sports Shop I looked at the “new” equipment. To fully equip oneself, as I’d have done when I played 20 years ago, would cost around £2000 (you could pay less but I liked the best). Everything is lighter, better, more powerful or more protective. This is not a men’s game anymore. It’s an athlete’s game. And that’s a big difference.


So Lord’s and cricket itself have managed brilliant transformations.

But my bucking, seasonal good humour was dampened a little by two stories I noticed last week.  The first about Joanna Coles, chief content officer at Hearst Media (no me neither) who has a treadmill in her office on which she walks in high heels whilst phoning or emailing and, to save time, watches all her TV on double-speed. Why not? Elon Musk has a diary broken into 5 minute slots. I’m going to try that (not).

The second is about Sir George Buckley, Chairman of Stanley Black & Decker and the Smiths Group who gloomily says: “Every company in the world is dying, the trick is knowing what to do next.”


Hell, we are all dying. The real trick is to leave a memorable legacy and  wait for the next Spring. Nature has a great way of renewing itself.

Monday, 17 April 2017

I'M A CUSTOMER

Like so many leaders in the past, like Jack Welch and Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy, Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, had a folksy way of distilling management wisdom. He said.
“It takes two weeks for your employees to start treating customers the way you treat them.”


This makes you wonder how the management of United Airlines treat their people. The story of the week was not that of Bomber Trump but the ordinary (but extraordinary) story of a Doctor who’d paid for his seat, had been checked in and then allowed to sit in his seat and do up his seatbelt being dragged bleeding and broken nosed from that seat because they wanted it for an employee and had arbitrarily chosen him to “de-plane”.


Think about it.

United must have managed to create a culture of utter hatred. The idea of beating up someone who’d given you their money to fulfil a contract is just so weird as to defy analysis.

They had a problem - the way to solve it was crudely by money. They wanted people off the plane so they could get employees to another airport. An airline like Virgin (maybe) and South Western (certainly) would have turned it into a win-win game:-

“Do you want $2000 plus an all-expenses-paid night in a top hotel and a first class flight to your destination tomorrow? All you have to do is give up your seat, so raise your hand….your names go in a hat and the lucky ones win.”

Have we lost the art of marketing? Have we become stupid?

United will rue this and their top team will be punished. But consider this first response from their CEO:-


Well Oscar this is an upsetting event and we apologise for having to re-accommodate you in the dole queue. As regards the passenger involved well it was his fault apparently for refusing to leave the seat he’d paid for. That’ll teach him not to stand up for his rights.


Yet some experts in the aviation business say the incident unavoidable given the regulations involved.

Recently - it was Sam Walton again - I read this:-
“There is only one boss - the customer - and he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

If you don’t feel valued as an employee or as a customer bad things will happen.

It was not a good week for business ethics with Aspen Pharmaceuticals trying to achieve a massive price hike on cancer medicines.  Leaked internal e-mails depict the company as unscrupulous and prepared to actually destroy cancer pills if the Spanish Health service thwarted Aspen’s price increase. Meanwhile at Barclays CEO,  Jes Staley, is in trouble for having broken their rules in trying to unmask a whistle-blower.
The media, on the other hand, had a great week teaching CEOs to behave properly…or else.

Or else what?

United’s stock value fell by $1 billion this week.

Monday, 10 April 2017

IS WARREN BUFFETT A FITNESS ADDICT?

No he isn’t.

But the other morning as I emerged from the shower I saw this blancmange of a person in the mirror. It was me. I reflected I needed to do something about my weight. Christmas indulgence had been going on far too long for Mr Blobby.


I started to get dressed pulling on a pair of freshly laundered black jeans I hadn’t worn for a while. They seem a bit tight I thought grimly; no it was worse - they were as tight as a tourniquet. Unbelievably they were several inches too small to fit round my waist. I had ballooned overnight.

Then I discovered, as I miserably considered my obesity, that I’d been trying to put on my sylph-like wife’s jeans - she’s size eight. I was a bit fat yes, but not that fat.

In the Times the same day - gloomy Tuesday - I read a piece entitled “How to get fit enough to be the CEO.” It was about a couple - Tim Bean and Anne Laing - whose mission in life is to put executives on the kind of gruelling regimens that are required to survive in today’s rat race. Here’s their mantra:
“The business world is relentlessly tougher, faster and more stressful….the stakes are high and the cost of failure inconceivable. You have to be on your game physically for your business brain to operate at peak performance.”


How depressing to see the number of CEOs doing marathons has doubled which is a “personal branding tactic” says a Professor from Cass Business School ….oh my, pass me a glass of Cote du Rhone and a doughnut.


So are these alpha-fit, Olympian cyborgs going to run our world? Harriet Green - remember her at Thomas Cook? She’s now at IBM still getting up at 4am every day and pumping iron. She is part of a clique who believe your muscles must match your mind.

I don’t buy it.

Roy Jenkins one of the cleverest and most successful senior politicians of recent times didn’t run except when he heard the cork being extracted from a bottle of claret.  Nor was Churchill a great advertisement for working out. Some of the most stupid people I know are the fittest. Intellectual stamina and physical stamina are not necessarily linked.

Whilst I’m not advocating the benefits of what existed in advertising years ago - “The Fat Boys’ Breakfast Club” - or the brilliant Peter Mead, co-founder of the agency Abbott Mead Vickers who would sit down at lunch at the Connaught and order “20 Marlborough please”, this unhealthy obsession with pecs and running times runs counter to the need to think and converse over a glass of wine.

When you hire superman or superwoman don’t expect their athleticism to translate into business results. Some of the most lamentable stories about company super-leaders have been like this one:

I took my top team up Kilimanjaro - do you know some just couldn’t make it.