Monday, 29 April 2019


Who needs champagne when there was the astonishingly wonderful weather of Easter weekend? As the sun beamed down on the beaches of Brighton it was as though all the miseries of Brexit  - the hokey-cokey story– “in-out-in-out-shake-it-all-about” – had been erased . And anyway during the week it dawned on me that this Brexit stress was not actually what it was all about.

A study, from the National Institute on Ageing and the National Institutes of Health, suggests even small daily stress factors can lead to health problems later in life. What about “big daily stresses”? Because I have rarely seen such disaffection as now.

According to work done recently at the University of Bristol there’s an alarmingly high incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease amongst young adults in the UK. The startling insight of this study is that the liver diseases normally associated with hitting the bottle may instead be brought about by stress in the young. I was so concerned by this that I had to have a glass of wine.

We live uncertainly in a stressful world. And it’s not just Brexit. It’s not just terrorist attacks. It’s about something rather more in our own control. The complexity and crowdedness of our lives today. Technology is remarkable in  its cleverness.  But the creativity of people creating apps that solve problems we didn’t know we actually had, creates stress.  And stress leads to liver disease.

I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur although I’m afraid I am one. I was born into a pre digital world and I cannot honestly say that WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even Amazon have necessarily transformed my life for the better. When I’m travelling my Kindle allows me to carry a library but actually reading a real book printed on crisp new paper in a nice font that smells of “new book” is still an unbeatable experience. As is writing a real letter on Basildon Bond using my poor ignored Mont Blanc full of Quink.

Our world is crammed with “solutions”. We have eating solutions, logistic solutions, accommodation solutions, clothing solutions, health solutions or, ultimately, solution solutions. We don’t need solutions (which presuppose problems) we need simplifications and less choice.

Libby Purves following that long, languorous Easter weekend, speculated on the large number of people who’d be saying they wanted to get away from it all. I can hear them:
“let’s sell up, take a camper van, go through France stopping wherever takes our fancy, eat chunks of fresh bread lying next to a bubbling stream,  quaffing local wine from the bottle and watching white fluffy clouds scud across the deep blue sky.”

I know people who did just that. They came back,  said it had been fun at first….but not after a while. Too many bloody fluffy clouds. You can’t turn back the clock. Dinosaurs die but until they do let’s stop submitting meekly to technology that’s not a solution just stress inducing.


Monday, 22 April 2019


When something goes very wrong the biggest companies seem to hang on, not so much by their fingertips as by one finger whilst cocking a snoot with the other hand. It’s amazing that the Costa cruise brand, VW and Boeing all seem to be in such rude health after their respective calamities.

The Costa Concordia foundered with 32 deaths, the Costa brand being now emblazoned on 17 skyscraper ships. The share price of owner, Carnival, dipped by 20% after the accident but was followed by a swift and sustained recovery. VW under assault following their emissions scandal is being sued in the US together with CEO Martin Winterkorn and four other executives but “shock-horror” has been largely followed by “yawn-so-what”. Their share price down to €132 after the scandal broke is now at €164. Boeing’s calamities, two planes crashing with allegedly similar causes and 347 fatalities is remarkable in a world where, first of all, air disasters are increasingly unusual and, secondly, because no other commercial aircraft has been implicated in so many fatalities in so short a period since 1966. Their share price is only down 15% despite a monthly cost in grounding the 737 MAX of around $1billion. “Could they go bust?” I asked a friend to a derisory snort of “of course not; follow the share price”.
There are too many rich, dispassionate interests in all these companies to be overly fussed by a few deaths. The 72 poor, lost souls in the Grenfell tragedy were faced with more anger, outrage and animation to allocate blame. The same will happen in the death-free Notre Dame fire. Blame is a cheap commodity except when mega companies are involved. Do we really believe Facebook would have survived as unscathed as it is it had been a small company?
Ruth Rochelle, mentor and consultant, said about scale-ups in business that at the moment of raising funds to go to the next stage “idealism takes a kicking.” I think that she’s right and I think it’s a pity. It’s idealism that’s inspiring the Climate Change demonstrations (and about time) but they are spending more time dreaming than making a big difference. When they stuck themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s fence I wondered if they’d gone mad but when he refused to engage them in conversation I realised he’d completely lost the common touch that got him where he is today. This beautiful summer Bank Holiday – it’s far too good for Spring – has restored our faith in ourselves. We are just not a big company country, we only have 4 in the top 100 global companies and two of those are petroleum companies (one 50% Dutch) one’s a bank and one’s another 50% Dutch business. We simply do small better. We are more like Waitrose than Asda; more like Bill’s than Burger King.
As the sun gives those climate change protesters “this-isn’t right-in-April” suntanned faces, applaud the fact that so many care about something other than money.

Monday, 15 April 2019


The art of the modern  leader

In a recent poll by the Hansard Society and Ipsos Mori, most people polled said they wanted a “strong” leader (whatever that means) and 54% approved of a leader who’d break the rules.

I’m deeply suspicious of this.

Currently the most successful leaders in sport and business are a more consensual breed. They recognise we no longer live in a world where blind obedience is demanded.  I once witnessed something in an American business to whom we were consulting. The Chairman had a bee in his bonnet about introducing colour variants to their flagship brand to make to more appealing to children. We begged his top team to tell him this was insane, wrong and doomed to failure. They wouldn’t … and it was.

Obedience is over-prized. “Because I said so” was always the worst reason to give a child for doing something they disagreed with. And our world is slowly changing in recognition of  this. “So what about loyalty to the company?” I’m asked. Loyalty goes both ways and all the loyalty in recent years has been to investors and top management rather than to the downsized workforce. 

I was once asked to do a presentation on Generation Z to a household name in office
equipment. All the available research and that I did myself showed they were mostly fair minded, determined to do a good job,  unimpressed with material  possessions, sceptical about things like simple  “career paths” or “property ladders” and most of all disinclined to take instruction at face value. They interviewed rather than were interviewed and took instruction reluctantly. The senior executives listened to this with stony faced incredulity whilst at the back of the room the interns were applauding.

Today leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are praised  by those who might in the past have applauded Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini – men who made things happen – people who saw things in black and white and in capital letters. In business such leaders would be characterised by comments like “at least you knew where you were with Tom” which is rather like saying you know where you are with Ebola.

In the 2020s, as they approach, we need a new breed of leader and top team that coaxes the best out of their people rather than tries to beat it out of them.  Above all they need to be leaders who are selfless, better listeners and great coaches. Leaders who say “we” not “I”. Here’s what gurus at Harvard say:

People will be more effective leaders when their behaviours indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us … rather than their own personal interests.“  (Kim Peters and Alex Haslam Harvard Business Review August 2018)

Old fashioned attitudes to leadership exist because we’re reluctant to discard our worship of historical role models. But the world is changing so leaders had better change too or be changed.

Monday, 8 April 2019


I’ve been intrigued by the story in America about rich parents paying large sums of money to get their children into the top Universities. The scale of the scam is extraordinary. William Singer’s business, “The Edge College & Career Network”, has pleaded guilty to masterminding the scheme helping children of wealthy people get into universities through bribing college athletic coaches, having other people take admission tests for the applicants and hiring people to correct students' incorrect answers on those tests.

He faces up to 20 years in gaol. His “clients” have invested over $25 million with him to get their children into these universities. Strategies have included applying for sports scholarships like swimming, though they couldn’t swim. There are 50 rich and famous parents in the investigation (see above) the FBI are pursuing. The case is the largest of its kind to be prosecuted by the US Justice Department. 

How far would you go to get an unfair advantage for your children? Where does white become grey and when is it clearly black? Does spending £33,000 a year on sending your child to boarding school count as bending the rules? Obviously we’ve decided not although this is about the same as the gross average annual earning of those in full time work.

More interestingly government pays up to £6,000 a year per pupil in state schools which compares with £17,000 it costs for day pupils in private education.  Is this fair when the only reason such disparity exists is because of parental wealth? It’s a thorny issue and in a free democracy social engineering is something we rightly try to avoid. But and it’s a big but  …. Shouldn’t we be trying to make top quality education available to all; shouldn’t we be turning flickering flames of talent into great flames? That was what grammar schools were supposed to be all about.

The reason I care so much about inequality at the scale we see it, is that it’s such bad business for the country and I care about that. As does Janice Turner, Times journalist, who said this on Saturday:
I don’t care about Brexit. I fear for our country”.

For “Brexit” read Trump, Macron or Erdogan in America, France and Turkey. 

The fears we have relate to the reasons these people have been elected.  When deep rooted issues exist the equivalent of Japanese Knotweed flourishes. This ghastly plant is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world's worst invasive species.

Actually, provided we get rid of the knotweed, I don’t fear for our countries because I think we are pretty resourceful and resilient people. We need to watch it though. Any suspicion of complacency should be over after the past three years and we all need to remember that how we vote carries more of a punch than we thought.

By the way there are more of us than them…

So cheer up and look out for the knotweed.

Monday, 1 April 2019


Outside the sun’s shining, the birds are singing, cats are rolling sensuously in the dusty earth and the Jays are contemptuously flying over them with their ‘look-at-me- you-losers’ plumage.

It’s the most gorgeous of Saturdays and I’m in a can-kicking grump.  Others are too. People I’ve always heard speak in mild and careful tones have become “effers and blinders”. Quentin Letts got it right when he suggested that Dominic Grieve begging for “compromise” was like Don Juan advocating celibacy.

My friends in Europe don’t call me like they did. In common with the rest of Britain I’m regarded as dotty and not to be taken seriously or trusted.

Unsurprisingly (and I think this is the norm) I’ve rather given up on politicians, their motives and their command of any picture bigger than their soon to be dwindling constituency vote in the election that’s looming. Expect some shocks when that happens.

How about this doomsday scenario?  Another hung parliament but with a scrambling of the old orders through wipe-outs for both Tory and Labour, the latter from disgruntled leavers migrating to UKIP, the former because the ERG has made conservatives seem unelectable to many life-long Tories.

Greens, Independents and the occasional Liberal will take up the slack.  If the founder of the Raving Monster Looney Party, the late Screaming Lord Sutch were alive he’d have fun. Since for many protest is the only alternative to not voting at all we can expect more Martin Bells to emerge (he was the Independent who usurped Tory Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997.)

Civil War? Nothing so crude just a loud and inharmonious bellow of “a plague on both your houses”.  And this is sad because all the MPs I know and have known, with just a few exceptions, were hard working, honourable and doing the job for worthy motives. We knew that they didn’t think or behave like us of course, being constantly in fear of the whips, their constituency, a faux pas on Question Time or losing it all in an election.

But the game, such as it was, is over. We’ve had enough and we shan’t take it anymore. So expect some shocks. I can just about take becoming a medium sized economic entity and a third ranking political entity…just about …but a laughing stock?

But why not? Our proudest assets include cartoons, Private Eye, TWTWTW, The News Quiz, Paul Merton, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais and so on. Laughter is what we do; irony is our language. My memories of business at its best is rueful laughter in the face of disaster and the constant ability to make jokes when the chips are down. 

Banter has got very bad press recently but only because everything has become too serious. It’s time we stopped kicking cans down the road and started laughing again and making jokes about  the folly of politics.

Laughing stock? I think winning that accolade’s  the equivalent of a political Oscar.