Monday, 28 July 2014


We all spend too much time worrying about what other people think. John Carey’s wonderful book “The Unexpected Professor” describes him wandering through his favourite books and poems and describes a life of literature and learning in Oxford.  He made even the formidable Milton fun. He talked and wrote in simple English and with a lightness of touch. Carey laments the poverty of insight in most literary criticism.

I’d extend that to management books, to political books to virtually everything. Why do so many of us live in a world of recycled views, a kind of air-conditioned world where many of the interesting bits have been filtered out? Asking “what do you think?” may for many seem a bit dangerous. Because if it happens to be at odds with what your boss thinks then you  don’t think it, even if you do (if you see what I mean.)

In his book “” Ed Catmull (joint founder of Pixar) says they decided early on:
“if we made something we wanted to see , other people would want to see it too.
The über- creative Steve Jobs (also Chairman of Pixar) put it like this “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Because most people don’t think because they’re scared to, they either agree with what someone else they like says or the group says or their boss says even if it’s daft. Psychological experiments show that in a rigged focus group with a bunch of plants saying line A is longer than line B
__________________________  line A
_____________________________________________ line B

Then the rest of the group, denying the evidence of their eyes, will be cajoled to into agreeing line A is definitely longer.

There was an old story about the management consultant who being allegedly very good at his job was also in consequence very rich. In being asked by a client what the time was he countered oleaginously “what time would you like it to be?”

But the real entrepreneurs, the risk takers who believe they are right and others are wrong, the people who have an idea and focus on making that idea better are the characters I want to spend time with.
I loved the recent report of Lidl who are mounting an assault on the other retailers with exceedingly good low priced claret.

Paul Goldschmidt, owner of Chateau Siaurac , who is supplying a 2007 Réserve de la Baronne at £13.99, said: “Some retailers bargain on quality — but Lidl didn’t."

Lidl didn’t because they know what they think and I bet their expenditure on market research is infinitesimal, if it exists at all, compared to Tesco. Poor Tesco who are listening to their customers giving them what they say they want and being accordingly shafted.

Too few people are spending enough time doing what matters. Deciding what they think, being true to their own values and doing and saying accordingly - clearly, loudly, and proudly.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


I heard it said that, in Germany, comedy was no laughing matter. Whoever said that hadn’t met Juergen Voss who’s German and CFO at the Tetra Pak European and EMEA division. He’s German and he’s a finance guy and he’s very, very funny, one of the best stand-up presenters. He can make a spreadsheet seem incredibly humorous (which is, in itself, a great art.) Following the triumph of the German football team in Rio I asked him what the mood in Germany was like.

 “Leaving the obvious celebrations aside (like the return to Berlin today) the overall atmosphere here is actually very pleasant. People are walking around with a satisfactory smile rather than pounding their chests. More at peace with themselves instead ‘we showed them’. Interesting in a people that struggles in displaying some national pride. I guess humbleness is a good to describe it without reading too much into it, but I guess the atmosphere here is very much in line with how the team acted in Brazil.

I was in Germany just after the Falklands War had started, in Nuremberg at the Deutscher Hof Hotel (said to be Hitler’s favourite).  As I went up in the lift the grim-faced porter turned, smiled at me and said with considerable satisfaction “Warmonger.” Follow that. Well I guess the Germans did in finding the “Don’t Mention the War” episode of Fawlty Towers very funny.

I sense we underestimate the Germans as human beings and are stuck with our stereotype of them. Recently on the London Underground a kid offered me her seat (do I look that old?) She was with a group of friends and they told me this was their first time in London and they were having a ball. They were full of fun, intelligence and laughter. Where are you from I asked as their fluent English was pretty well devoid of a giveaway accent. “Germany” they said.

I’ve decided I like the Germans a lot. They do great graffiti. They can manage an economy. They can do the most difficult thing brilliantly which is merging two cultures in East and West Germany. They have the liveliest creative culture ion the world in Berlin. They put a smart woman in charge. They make great cars, great beer and run the best SME sector imaginable.

Their Mittelstand (mid-sized) companies are highly focused with a ruthless focus doing one or two things really well. They believe in a great coaching/apprentice system and create through it a highly-skilled workforce. And they don’t waste their time buying and selling their companies - they stick with them keeping them in the family through generations.

Years ago I ran an advertising agency that had Storck as a client (they’re the Werther’s Original producers). At a board meeting the CEO one Otto Pancke decided there was insufficient energy or creativity so he roared:

Everyone take all your clothes off now. Let’s see if nakedness makes a difference.

Don’t tell me the Germans don’t have a sense of humour.

Monday, 14 July 2014


A word on genius. It’s hard to be a genius but it’s probably even harder to live with one. Was Leonardo Da Vinci sparkling company? Was Van Gogh a jolly person to have dinner with? And more recently what have would Steve Jobs have been like over a drink and would you want to be in the same lift as Jeff Bezos?

Supreme talent has its downside. The very clever, very skilful, very creative and very extraordinary can be a complete pain in the neck. We like the iPad but we didn’t like Steve’s manners. Most of the greatest talents in history would be unemployable, in prison or have been sent to Coventry had they been around now.
Simon Barnes in Friday’s Times wonders why we as a nation have such problems with excellence. In cricket the David Gower’s and Kevin Pietersen’s of this world seem too hard to live with. Give us instead journeymen. Better to be mediocre than a nuisance.

There’ll come a point when the unspeakable behaviour of a Mozart gets too much for the average manager. But listen to the music. Wonder at the invention. Marvel at the facility to astonish, delight and transport. At what point would we be happy to burn all Dickens novels and settle for Disraeli’s instead? Or John Donne? Sacked and job given to Abraham Cowley instead. Not as good but quite sound.

What price Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven? Was Elvis Presley a worse singer as his excesses grew? Forty four years later he still sounds great at a Las Vegas Concert so do I care?

How do we harness and control the commercial Luis Suarez’s we know about? The ill- tempered, plilanderers, drunkards and drug addicts who have an astonishing talent at what they do. We clearly can’t control them but can we get the best out of them? John Barclay said of Kevin Pietersen that he thought England had managed him brilliantly…”after all we got over 8000 brilliant runs out of him”.

The problem is that I know people who are nice with ordinary talent, people who aren’t very nice who have none but I know none with great talent who aren’t different, a bit awkward and mercurial. Genius is wayward. It seems to play by different rules.

But unless we can handle difference, moodiness and erratic behaviour can we expect the best work to be done? John Milton (another genius) was not reflecting on the hospitality business when he wrote “they also serve who only stand and wait”. He was reminding us that backstage there are people who make a big difference - the minders, the great managers and the coaches. At their best and most selfless it is they who allow us to see the greats on stage the Olivier’s, Burton’s and Finney’s rather than safe dullards

Richard French, the ex-advertising man put it like this:-
The real mark of leadership is to be able to manage the unmanageable.
That’s spot on.

Monday, 7 July 2014


Rachel Bell who founded and runs a rather successful PR company called Shine Communications told me she insisted on good manners from her people. One of the first characteristics of someone who shines is that they must be well mannered.

Gosh. How old fashioned is that? “Good morning Sir…. Welcome Madam”…. And opening doors for people. They’ll have us saying “thank you” next.

Yet as formal courtesy has edged its way out of our culture, and gone the same way as ties and shiny shoes, it’s had a knock-on effect on customer service. And without great customer service our nation of shopkeepers has some pretty serious problems.

Chris Rendel used to run an advertising agency. He was, by training, an account man whose job was to look after clients, anticipate their needs, advise them fearlessly on the right thing to do and generally keep them happy. He was very good at what he did, so when he recently lamented the casual indifference of most people he encountered today in customer service, I listened.

Listening, it would seem by the way, is something a lot of people in customer service today don’t do. Nor do they charm people. They take an order for something and if it’s available arrange its delivery. But they neither seem to respect, like or care about their customers. And Chris is on a mission to change this.

Of course it isn’t always like this. As part of my rediscovery of brilliance in Brighton I discovered that a new bar has opened at Brighton Station called “The Cyclist”. It has brightly coloured beach type chairs, a counter resting on old suitcases, an ambience of silliness and holiday fun…Donald McGill of postcard fame would have approved.

But most of all “The Cyclist” has great service. “Hi guys what would you like - please sit wherever you’d like and I’ll bring it to you.”  He was Australian and was (or seemed) genuinely pleased when we told him how great the place looked. Do they send all Australians on “I’m so happy just to be alive” courses?

But the fact is good manners need to come from customers too. If they’re nice so will their waiter be.

It was one of the best clients whom I ever met in advertising, Bruce Purgavie of Heinz, who said “I always say ‘thank you’ and try to make constructive comments because I know how hard people work trying to find a solution to my problems. It’s my job to encourage them”.

Good manners alone are not enough as anyone who’s been charmingly served food in a restaurant that’s disgusting will tell you. It’s good manners allied to intelligent, self-critical pride in product which creates the kind of customer service that makes a real difference. And not good manners that are grovelingly servile, just the sort of good manners that come from the sheer pleasure of making other people happy.

If in doubt ask an Australian.