If a tree falls on your business…

Are you on top of your business finances, managing your cash flow, your sales takings ratio to money going out?

Are your orders coming in well? Are you attracting new business?

Do your staff have any issues? Are they happy? Have you asked them recently?

The strange thing is that some business owners are so focussed on the sharp end of their business, their enthusiasm and what drove them to start in the first place that they don’t realise when things are going wrong. It may be that the product is going out of fashion, or that someone else is selling a better one, or that that the whole marketplace has changed, or that they should be competing more on-line.

Because the product is fun, and the business is fun doesn’t mean that it is still successful. Just now and again, we, by which I mean you and I, need to check on the mechanics. Money makes the world go round, and money and our workers make our business wheels go round.

An extension of the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum physics suggests that if a tree falls in a forest it hasn’t really happened until someone notices (measures the event). Unfortunately your business and mine could fail without our noticing until it is too late, so we need to check regularly on the nuts and bolts of our businesses.

I don’t much like the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum mechanics and it certainly does not make sense when we could easily go bust without noticing if we take our eye of the ball.

Is your business safe from falling trees?

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What the BBC can teach us about management and team work

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Head Man (Director General) at the BBC, George Entwhistle, resigned not because he made an error of judgement but because his management or his employees did not keep him informed about a major mistake they had made. He then looked foolish because he had not seen what was reported through other media including both the press and Twitter. A man who seems not in control has to go. He might very well be able to take control, but he has lost the confidence of the customers and his staff.

These sorts of disasters can happen in small businesses too. It is so important if you are the person at the top that you are approachable. For that to be so, your employees have to feel part of a team and to belong. They have to know you and to like you. Then it will be easier for them to tell you what you need to know, which will include the bad things as well as the good things. They need to be able to tell you anything, without fear that you will be angry.

As long as there is communication between you and your workers, and as long as you keep them informed as well as they keep you informed, there should be no disasters and no problems that can’t be managed. Of course that requires mutual respect, and from your side that requires you to be fair and to listen to their feedback, critical and general.

Do you manage a successful team?

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How not to run a business


English: NHS logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Patience is a virtue?

This week I have witnessed some very poor business management, or more to the point, no management at all. As it was in a hospital I have also come to understand how the word “patient” has become the word used for those “customers” who are in hospital, because you have to be exceedingly patient when you are in there.

This is not a piece bashing the UK National Health Service. The NHS is great when you have an acute problem. Emergencies are usually dealt with very well. Our local plaster room has always seemed very efficient, but the key there is that the staff in there take responsibility for their own work. They are skilled and they move things along.

A good start

We had to go to a surgical assessment unit. We were told that the patient would be there five or six hours while she was being assessed and the tests were done. She was checked in quickly and efficiently. They took blood fairly early on and the patient was examined a couple of times soon after arrival in the morning.

All downhill

The ward was not especially busy. In the afternoon several patients were taken down for X-rays. Our patient was left to her own devices, and it was just as well she had a good book to read. However at around 7 in the evening when clearly nothing had happened for hours, she asked to be collected as she thought they must have finished with her and she had been told she was fit to go home.

Comedy time

When I arrived, the patient told me she was now supposed to be going to have an X-ray. A porter duly arrived and wheeled her off. Fifteen minutes later they were back. The lady had been rejected by the X-ray department because she was still in her day clothes. She offered to put on one of their gown there and then, but was told she would have to return to the ward to get one.

Now be-gowned she was wheeled off again. Fortunately the porter managed to keep her place in the queue from the previous visit, which was the only initiative shown by anyone all day.

Breaking out

We escaped from the hospital at 9 in the evening. I was starving and while I had been waiting I had sought food in the canteens and hospital coffee shops, all of which had closed. The patient had been fed a rather disgusting shepherds pie in the hospital.

Blaming the management

I found the hospital nursing staff and admin people to whom I spoke very pleasant. I am sure they are good people. It was no good complaining anyway. Clearly there was no organization or management. Many of them were sitting or standing around most of the time, and it did seem that they were over-resourced when we hear so often that the NHS suffers from staff shortages.

It seemed to me that the staff were in the wrong places. Also, in the absence of hands-on management and being told what to do at each stage (often not a good idea as it damages self-esteem), workers do need to be allowed to use their initiative and take responsibility as in the plaster room. Empowerment of the workers to think for themselves within certain constraints leads to greater efficiency and, very importantly, they will be happier and more confident.


I have always believed in largely hands-off management but not in no management at all. Managers should be friendly with their charges because that encourages loyalty, which again promotes good work. You really can’t beat giving your employees responsibility for their own domain in an atmosphere which encourages them to report problems without any fear of criticism. Then you have a really efficient productivity model.

It is a shame when good people are not allowed to be at their best in the workplace. It is a terrible waste of their abilities and a dreadful waste of money.

We wouldn’t run a business like that would we?

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Lucky or what?


Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook by Elaine Chan and Priscilla Chan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lucky, lucky, lucky

In business as in so many contexts, we hear others say “Some people have all the luck”. Well, is that so? Are some people just lucky or is it something else? What is luck? Is it all pure chance?


I am writing the week after Chelsea won the Champions League, which to the uninitiated is the European (Soccer) Club Tournament. Pundits and fans of other clubs, including those defeated by Chelsea, have said that Chelsea were not good enough to win the competition. A lot of this criticism has emanated from the club’s ultra-defensive approach.

So apparently Chelsea have been lucky to defeat and get past the following clubs: Valencia, Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich? Can a football team be that lucky? I don’t think so. Especially in the latter stages of the competition it was all about management and planning. Oh yes, and hard work.

Riding the wave

Is Mark Zuckerberg lucky? He is a multi-billionaire following the recent public offering of Facebook shares. Was he lucky because he had an idea? No, he had an idea and saw a demand. He developed his website, he rolled it out from Harvard to other colleges and universities. He adapted what had become a business. He and his partners thought on their feet. They got investment when they thought they needed it.

Heaven knows how many internet businesses have tried and failed because they didn’t look for an investor or finance when they were still on the crest of a wave.

The Facebook gang worked on their business. They understood the demand. They are phenomenally successful, but they are not lucky. Winning the lottery is lucky. Knowing how to ride their particular wave was not luck.

No excuse

We all have different talents with which to run our particular businesses. We are not successful through luck. We succeed through working hard, making the right business decisions, and getting help when we need it, whether that be advice, hands-on assistance or finance.

Saying someone is lucky in business can be an excuse for our own failings, but an excuse is not a reason. Success is in our own hands, isn’t it?

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Doing far too much not well enough


"Spaghetti alla chitarra" and Bologn...

Photo courtesy of "OneArmedMan" via Wikipaedia

Riding for a fall

My wife and I have been away recently, which has meant eating in restaurants rather more than we usually do. I love restaurant watching. So often one can see in a very short time the very best business practices and some of the worst.

We ate in a hotel several times. The first time the food and service was really quite good. The second and third times were really less than successful. After the second, maybe we shouldn’t have dined there a third time, but circumstances rather meant that we had to.

What’s cooking?

The third time of dining the menu was fairly unappealing but we tried to pick our way through. My wife’s starter was good but then it was plainly Waitrose’s finest lemon sole goujons so I would expect it to be. My starter was spaghetti bolognese. At least it was supposed to be. It was really only beef mince in a not very nice gravy on a bit of spaghetti. If either my wife or I had produced such a poor “spag bol” for the other, words would certainly have been said. Maybe we should have volunteered to take over in the kitchen.

Two of our party ordered trout. It was dried out and burned round the edges. Whether it had come out of the pan like that or just sat on very hot dinner plates for too long before being delivered I have no idea, but the dishes were not fit for purpose. When we complained about the fish and the menu we were told that we could have ordered from an “a la carte” menu which we had no idea existed because the waiters never mentioned it. It was nowhere to be seen in the restaurant.

Run too fast, fly too high

However, the main problem was the kitchen. The chef might be quite capable but is trying to do everything on his own. He cheats with the goujons. He can’t watch the trout, which should have had his total attention while it was cooked, plated and out of the kitchen. There is simply too much to do and he fails. He probably couldn’t have coped with the “a la carte” menu anyway.

This is all too often the way many small businesses fail. They try to do too much without the resources to do anything properly.

I subcontract quite a lot. I decline to do quite a lot of work I am asked to do because it is not valuable or cost-effective and because someone else would do it better than I. In my business we do what we are good at and so that we can provide the best service. That is what most of us in business do, don’t we?

Do you see businesses who are under-resourced and overstretched? If you can’t stand the heat…

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The physics of getting expert help for your small business and for yourself

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mecha...

Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics (1927) by Yassine Mrabet. Image via Wikipedia

I have a confession. I like to know how everything works. I like to know how my cameras work, ancient though several are. I like to know how the universe works so I buy and try to read the books about quantum physics and string theory. That is why I recently purchased, upon recommendation by a friend, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (not an affiliate link).

I have a general idea of how my car works. I have a manual for it. However, if anything goes wrong with it I wouldn’t have the first idea how to fix it other than changing a headlight bulb. Even that is really difficult with my car, just getting access past the air-con on one side and the water pump on the other.

So I have a guy who is a great mechanic. He knows how to fix cars. He has all the manuals. He has the computer and the software, and most of all he has the experience. That is worth a lot more than reading all the manuals. He is used to dealing with almost any problem and even if it is one he has never encountered in practice he will know where to look for guidance or who to talk to. He knows what he is doing whereas I couldn’t even start to fix my car.

Many of you may know I work with tax issues for businesses and in other areas as well as helping businesses with other problems they may have. Recently I was contacted via email by someone who had converted his private house into two flats or apartments he was selling and he was building two other flats in the garden, also to sell on. He wanted to know his tax situation.

In UK terms, this sounds a lot like property-developing liable to income tax on the profits, and I told him so, and offered my services.

He replied “What a load of old tosh! I can deal with HMRC myself thanx, thought you might know the answer.

By your account anyone who improves their own property could be treated as self-employed
property developers, what planet are you on? (Well, yes, if they do it with a view to short term profit)

I’ve worked out the answer for my self from the gov (Government) web site.”

I was polite in the face of this and suggested that even if he did not want to engage my services he needed to do some more research. He responded by suggesting that I was only after his money and was out to mislead him. He ended by calling me “Jonny Boy” which was no doubt supposed to be a put-down, though it was not an effective one to someone who was used to being called Jon-Boy in his youth after John-Boy in The Waltons.

If I started to take my car apart to find a problem I would soon get into trouble. If I tried to design a new brochure for my business I would make a mess of it because I haven’t the skill, the experience or the knowledge. If I tried to write my own tax compliance software or build my own website from scratch without having the right tools I would fail.

At a certain point there is no substitute for paid professional advice. We could read all the manuals in the world but without hands-on experience and good tutoring we will make a mess of things. Reading A Brief History of Time didn’t make me a cosmologist or astrophysicist and much of what I read in that book was very difficult to grasp.

I am still working on learning quantum physics as I mentioned. In the meantime I will leave the difficult stuff in my business that I can’t do for the specialists I bring in. Do you know when it is time to “phone a friend”?

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Why we need mutual respect between managers and their staff

A winning team (choir) I was once in. We all pulled together.

Such is life with football (soccer) managers that we can be quickly overtaken by events, or in other words, sackings. That is unfortunate in the context that the two most successful English clubs over the last fifteen years or so have had the same manager, albeit one is struggling at the time of writing.

Generally in management in any business, continuity is very important. But it is not the only thing that is essential. The other is the support and loyalty of your staff, and particularly those that earn the profits. It doesn’t matter how much your workers are paid, even when they are paid large and silly amounts. They have to want to work with you. They are not ciphers. They are human beings with emotions, and emotions have a lot to do with best performance.

So when the Chelsea football manager, Andre Villas Boas, says “it doesn’t matter if the players back my project” he is 100% wrong. What naivety, probably as a result of lack of experience. Having the support of his players is essential.

So many companies and businesses have foundered on strife and having a workforce who are not in tune with the management has been the cause of so much failure and chaos in industrial relations. Even if the manager has the support of the owner or managing director of a business he will fail if he cannot carry and motivate the staff and have them share a vision.

As we know, if there is mutual respect between a manager and her team, the sense of belonging to that team and an eagerness to please and be successful will bring about that success, and with that, profits.

It really is that simple. I have been junior staff and I have been a manager, so have seen it from both ends. The greatest business achievements are rooted in a sense of belonging to the team. A team is people who enjoy working together, not a list of people you pin on a board.

Don’t you love team work?

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Why managers and workers need to respect each other

Respect is our starting point

Respect is one of the most important qualities we can have in business. We need to respect our clients. We need to have their respect by delivering quality service; the very best we can do and strive to be better than the rest in our field. We all know this. I have written about it once or twice.


Respect is important in the workplace too. I am not talking about forelock touching by employees towards their bosses. I am talking about mutual respect between employees and their bosses. That means communication between them.

All my yesterdays

Going back a while in my working life, I was a manager in a small firm which was taken over by a larger firm. I had two bosses. Neither had any respect for me. In their eyes I was a worker whom they didn’t want. They made assumptions about me. They assumed that because I didn’t have a large firm background I was not a capable manager. Not only that but they assumed that I did not know as much as their “own” staff about the technical issues of a job I had been doing for a long time.

These bosses didn’t give me a good run out with any difficult work so they were not likely to find out how good I was. I began to believe their stories, and when one client I was responsible for had a really difficult issue I had that client taken away. It was humiliating at the time. As I said, I even thought they might have been right, and it was not until I left and got another job which was really challenging that I realised just how good I was. And that was really good, though I say it myself.

I received no respect from my bosses. I was not the only employee who had no respect.

All I heard from my bosses was complaints that I was not making them enough money, but actually that was because they allowed me no decent clients and no decent work. They didn’t listen to me. I tried to speak to them but all I got was sarcasm and abuse from one and total indifference from the other. The only respect I received was from my own team, the people whom I supervised as a manager. And we were a team even though they suffered because I had no respect from above.

Managing is satisfying

I always enjoyed my time as a manager, and it was for the most part very rewarding. Management is about communication, and communication involves listening. To listen to someone we have to respect their opinion, and not to receive a dismissive answer such as “I hear what you are saying”, which, translated, means “I am not listening, I don’t respect your opinion, and you are bound to be wrong”.

Of course no one is perfect; even me, but I have always tried to listen. When I forgot once I was pulled up by a business friend, even if he didn’t realise. He reminded me how to help other business owners listen too.

I don’t think there is any way to manage a business except by:

  • Valuing our workers
  • Listening to what they have to say about their work
  • Having an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Your workers may think of a better way of doing things which can improve your business and make it more efficient. They turn out to be much better than you could have hoped for if you gave them their head. They may make a great contribution to improving profitability if you listen to them.

They will deserve greater reward if they do help your profits go up. It also starts with listening. And respect.

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Working for Godzilla

A couple of weeks ago I saw an interview on a news channel with a client of one of my former employers, which was a very large firm. This ex-client of mine who I believe is also an ex-client of the firm I used to work for was one of the most difficult people I have known in my working career. There are always fireworks around this man because not only does he not suffer fools gladly; he doesn’t suffer anyone gladly.

The interviewer, whom I like, innocently asked about his subject’s company performance in the current economic conditions (which is good considering everything) and about big business directors’ salaries. I was waiting for the explosion and it duly came. I am afraid if anyone watching was waiting to be impressed by the response, she or he would have been severely disappointed. The journalist asking the questions was quite taken aback. Maybe he hadn’t been warned.

This ex-client of my former employer is not someone who follows Dale Carnegie. He gets his way by being a big bully and imposes a reign of terror wherever he goes. The sad thing is that it works for him and he is for that reason a bad-boy darling of the financial press.

When I had to deal with this guy I was an employee some way down the pecking order. When I was permitted to speak to him on the telephone he used to shout at me over any reasonable question I asked and would use a series of expletives. I put up with this because I had to, although one one occasion I did tell him I would speak to him when he was feeling better, and put the phone down.

Of course I and my peers took the flack as a cushion between the client and our principals, who of course only really saw the client on social occasions when he was obliged to try and be nice. Our bosses knew what we had to put up with, though.

When we start out in business on our own account it is tempting to take any work we can get, no matter from whom we are getting it. That might on occasion mean taking on as clients some people whom we find very unpleasant. That would be a mistake.

There is a great deal to think about in running a business and we need as little stress as possible both for our health and well-being and to allow us to think clearly. We don’t need to take on clients who are monsters and who will swear at us and be ungrateful when we are delivering the best service any business could offer.

Once I was cannon fodder for my employer. Acting for myself, I don’t need to be in a war at all and neither do you. That is no way to run a business, is it?

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The Other Man Who Fell to Earth

Street of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street of Buenos Aires, Argentina by Martin St-Amant. My home in a parallel universe?

I have been in a contemplative mood recently. I am another year older, and it might be tempting to wonder whether I could have made different choices in my working life which would have resulted in my being in a different place both literally and figuratively.

I am not tempted, though. I wouldn’t be anywhere but where I am now.

It would be so easy to dwell on past mistakes. Easy to wonder whether I had chosen the right career. Should I have started work with an insurance broker or a merchant bank? I wouldn’t have worked in tax then, and I could have made loads of money. On the other hand I might not have done. Actually I didn’t have the right and posh enough background to get a nice job like that in the first place coming from a family of bank clerks. Education was less important than ancestry. It’s no use worrying about that.

Should I have taken a junior role with an institution that might have sent me to Hong Kong or Buenos Aires?

Should I not have taken the job which led to my final exit from employment when they got rid of me after thirteen months? Last in, first out, an expression which used to matter in tax as well as employment, or rather in unemployment. That was a very hard fall to Earth.

Well, in some terms the financial losses as a result of certain decisions, or not being aware of what were the right decisions, have been costly. I am not sorry I have my business independence and of owning three businesses and helping in another.

I might as well say that maybe I should have married that girl I was in love with when I was twenty-one. I think she would have married me. Perhaps I let her down. Well, maybe I should have married her, but that would have meant I wouldn’t have been married to the lovely woman who is my wife now. I like what I have. In fact that’s rather understating it.

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!”

I think that is a good philosophy for having no regrets. That doesn’t mean any of us should be without ambition in our business lives . Of course we should want more in terms of business and to be more successful. We should plan to the best of our ability what we believe can control.

We should always think of the future. Accidents will happen but the more our destiny is in our own hand the safer we are, because employment makes so many hostages to fortune.

Do you have regrets? Is there any point?

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