Archives for July 2011

Diseased and toxic workplace cultures


I understand the furore over the apparent disbelief, especially amongst politicians, when the management of the News of the World and the senior editorial staff say they didn’t know that telephone hacking was used to get stories about well known people. Yet I know from my experience as an employee that senior management can be completely oblivious of certain cultures that develop within the staff. Of course many politicians of all hues have never had proper jobs having fallen out of university into political “research”. They wouldn’t know about proper workplaces.


What causes poor workplace cultures to develop? Well, often it is peer pressure or just because people can. In my first job there was a lot of laxity in our office. Management was very strict that we had to be in the office on time. If we were not there to sign in by the appointed time the book was taken away and we had to go in and explain our lateness to the Chief Accountant. My train service was dreadful, and it was humiliating to have to do this. However once registered as at work we could do what we liked to do, go missing for hours or go home early or spend half the day in the pub. I was just out of education and inexperienced, so it was not for me to dissent.

Middle management was not only slack on keeping the staff on the straight and narrow; they positively led by example and peer pressure meant that if you demurred over some proposed misdemeanour you were the object of mirth.

There was a drinking culture too, and quite a heavy one. I couldn’t always keep up and didn’t want to. There were cocktail parties almost weekly for staff who were retiring. I didn’t actually know many of the retirees because they would often have been posted overseas and only just returned to Good Old Blighty at the ends of their careers. I remember saying to my immediate boss one afternoon that I would rather not attend the evening party. He said “but you have to come and drink as much as possible. It’s part of your salary.” No, he wasn’t joking.

Anyway, ultimately the management was so out of touch with the staff that many of us were treated badly in the career sense, so I left. In many ways it was a relief to get out. I had felt uncomfortable but not really able to avoid conforming with the rest.


Some years later I worked in an office where some staff were very careless in the way they worked. Accuracy mattered rather less then did getting clients’ work “done” through short cuts. By that time I ran my own group and certainly did not fall in with the others’ lower standards. I did things by the book, by which I mean with proper diligence, which I also expected of my immediate supporting staff. I had no say in the way others ran their groups. I was not is a position to tell anyone about the other lot of course because I would have not helped my popularity. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.

I rather think that it would be this sort of workplace culture that infected the News of the World. Many if not most employees would have kept their hands clean but there would be a few who would get their stories by whatever means. Management is often too engaged on the bigger commercial picture to wonder how the workers get their tasks done. It is no excuse of course; they should keep in touch, but it is probably a step too far to insinuate that those in charge at News of the World knew at the time about dirty practices.


Management is a skill. It doesn’t matter whether it is exercised in a newspaper or a restaurant.  Management is by definition about directing workers in the right direction and getting the best out of them. That involves neither just telling them what to do to get results, nor is it just about looking at the bottom line in terms of profit and assuming everything is in order. Management is about listening. It is about communication. It is about being respected in order for employees to want to give of their best for their managers. That means that managers and indeed business owners have to do their best for their employees by helping them with their difficult issues and leading by example to show them how things should be done. That way they get enough feedback to know what is going on.

That didn’t happen at the News of the World. Do you agree?


Making a meal of our managing duties

Full course dinner

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I am all for delegation of responsibility to staff. That is part of good management if you are confident your managers and employees are up to coping. Of course it is important that they ask for advice and they are properly trained. Sometimes things can go wrong when we are not in touch with our staff and we have not properly defined their roles.

Last weekend my wife and I were at a pub restaurant we had not tried before, It did not aspire to being a gastro-pub (up-market food) but it was unfortunately trying to cover all the bases rather than concentrating on a few things and doing them well.

We were guests so it was not our place to bring various problems to the management’s notice at the time.

On arrival we were greeted enthusiastically by the waiting staff. We were offered menus very quickly, someone took a drinks order, and two waiters fought over who should take our food order. We had to send them away to start with because the menu was very long and we were faced with too much choice.

I can’t speak for the lunches ordered by our companions. My wife and I both had the same starter which was very good. Though obviously made with bought-in products some thought had gone into its composition.

Our mixed grill main course was disappointing. Only our steaks had been freshly cooked to order, The rest had been sitting pre-cooked for a long while and was dried out. That is the fault of having a long menu. The poor chef cannot cook everything to order because she or he has no idea what diners will want, They have too much choice. The food wastage must also be considerable if a lot of the menu is pre-prepared. By having a long menu they end up not only with a smaller margin on the food due to the amount they throw away but also end up serving poorer quality dishes.

After the main course the service was not only less enthusiastic. It was impossible to find a waitress or waiter or indeed any member of staff for around twenty minutes. Eventually we saw someone in the distance and caught his eye. He called that he would be right over. He then disappeared. Around ten minutes after that we saw someone else and caught her attention. She appeared to be the manager and she did take an order for our companions desserts. These were delivered without too much delay, at which time, having perceived the problem the bill was requested. Over the next twenty minutes it had to be requested twice more.

Clearly like any other business, the restaurant should concentrate on some things it could do well. In its case this would be a shorter menu delivered by a chef who then has the time and is supported by properly trained staff. In other words:

  • Do what you are good at and can deliver.
  • Don’t try to do too much.
  • Avoid waste by using your resources properly and not buying in what you don’t need.
  • Make sure your staff are properly trained and know what is expected of them.
  • Keep an eye on them to make sure they are coping. If not, dive in to support them.

One final necessity: ask for feedback, because people will often refrain from complaining but just not come back. They will tell their friends about your failures so they won’t even try you out. It is easy to fix a problem if you know what it is. Otherwise the reason for your falling sales will escape you until you have no business. There’s something to chew over.


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Closed and open networks in the 21st Century

Under orders

Do you like being told what to do? As a small business owner, I don’t, and I don’t suppose you do either.

To be honest, I never really have liked being told what to do. When I was an employee I had to be at the start, but as I became more experienced and senior, generally most of my bosses allowed me to get on with it. A hands-off approach to management is usually the right way to go, and as I had been treated, so I treated others. I always thought that the best way to get employees to do their best for you was to be nice to them so that they liked you and didn’t want to let you down. Actually I am not sure that was mostly a conscious process; after all if you treat people well they should like you and aim to please.

Out of jail

So, when I gained my freedom, one advantage of having my own business was that no one told me what to do. Of course I have always sought advice. I would be stupid not to, but I have never been under an obligation to anyone other than my clients, for whom I do my best.

In order to gain more business, or indeed to get any at the start I joined several networks. One was a well known breakfast networking organization, but I also joined two business groups. Both operated on the principle that accredited members won work and that which they couldn’t or were not directly qualified to do themselves, they farmed out to other better qualified members, taking a commission for the work won. It was not the done thing to sub-contract to non-members.

The Dark Ages

I suppose that was OK in back in the mists of time a decade ago and when the internet was still a clumsy child and not the sophisticated fast-growing brash youngster it now is. It was OK when my business was also a child and the networks and I were products of a pre-internet age.

These days I want to work with the best people I can when I am managing a project. I have gathered a large network and would want to bring in whomever I wish who is most suited. I don’t expect a commission for subcontracting. Either I would hope for reciprocal referrals or I can sell on the sub-contracted work at a profit. I am not demanding that people give up to me some of what they consider their due reward.


I know many more people than I did. I have met them through Ecademy, LinkedIn , Twitter and other on-line networks. I have met them off-line face to face so that I know that I like them. People move on from other networks, but they don’t necessarily move on from mine, unless I decide I couldn’t work with them. My network is in my head even if their contact details are not. I work with whom I like.

The trouble is the old closed networks still like control of their members. They like to tell them what to do. They like to tell them with whom they can work and with whom they can’t. Incredible isn’t it?

The Real World

I value my old networks very much, by which I mean the members with whom I have worked. The networks are the people in them, not the founders or owners. The founders are facilitators now, not controllers. If they don’t let their networks grow up and their members work as they wish the networks will not survive in formal form. Of course any network must have acceptable ethics, but not restrictive rules which might even constitute a restraint of trade.

Freedom and flexibility are what all businesses need now, not just small ones. As long as we are ethical in our approach and stick to what we are good at, please don’t tell us what to do, or with whom we are allowed to work. That is so Last Century, isn’t it?.

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Networking and participation

I have been involved with referral networking groups over a number of years. Generally they have been the breakfast meeting organizations which only one member for each category of business is permitted to join. Mostly they work well and a good number of referrals is passed,

Occasionally we get grumbling both from members and from visitors who are reluctant to join.

Often the visitors will say “It just seems to be the same people there every week”. Well, of course it is. That’s the whole point; to have a close-knit group of people working together to find business for each other. Also, if you do have that relationship with other business people it can survive in friendship long after other factors have meant that you or they have moved on.

If people don’t get that it is about working they probably don’t get networking.  If they cannot be recruited and educated it is no use worrying about them.

I was rather surprised once when talking to a member whose attendance had fallen off dramatically. When I asked him why he wasn’t coming he said he was bored with the “same old”. Well, a referral group is about working together, not having a meeting served on a plate with breakfast. What had he given? How many referrals had he passed? If he thought the group was stale, why hadn’t he invited any new blood along?

The leadership of a referral networking group or any networking meeting is not there to provide entertainment. Of course it is useful to sometimes have a speaker who can educate about networking or about their business so that members can better refer them. Networking groups are about business and while they ought to be a lot of fun, that comes from members’ participation

It is up to the members to make the group successful; to work together fro the common good. It is their responsibility to make a success of their opportunity having been able to join. It is for them to contribute and to give their enthusiasm as well as their referrals. The business will come to them when they are committed to contribute. Don’t you agree?

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Telephone blues

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...

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As some of you may remember I think it is very important that the published telephone number of any business is answered in person by a human being. I tried to contact a couple of sole trader business advisers last week and both of them were using answering machines or voice-mail on their land lines. One I later contacted via his mobile (cell) while he was driving.

I don’t speak to my clients on my mobile. I can’t give them proper attention. If you telephone my office I cannot guarantee that you will be able to speak to me. I might be with a client, out at another meeting or working on something and not wanting to be disturbed. What I can guarantee is that if you call in reasonable office hours you will speak to my PA who will take a message very courteously. I also guarantee that I will call you back.

What do you do if you telephone a potential supplier of goods or services and you either get voice-mail or worse still, no reply at all? You probably hang up and the odds are that you will phone someone else. Prospective business lost by the non-answerer.

I was watching with my wife a television programme called The Restaurant Inspector. Fernando Peire who presents the show is a famous restauranteur and from my brief viewing I could see that he was excellent not only at food matters but also at branding and marketing. He was helping a small fish restaurant on the South Coast.

The last task after a successful re-launch was to change business name on the message on the restaurant ‘s telephone answering machine: “We’ll call you when we get back”. I was rather shocked. Imagine you want to book for a Friday or Saturday night and you get that when trying to book. You are going to call another restaurant to make sure you have a table to go to. I would employ a telephone answering company or a PA to take the call; someone who had access to an on-line booking system. The bookings could be filling up while you were still out in the fish market or wine merchant.

In the restaurant business as in my tax and business advice consultancies, if people take the trouble to inquire by telephone they are almost certainly going to buy. Please don’t let them be put off.

The bottom line is, if you don’t want to be seen as unprofessional have a real person answer your phone and take a message or make a booking.

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How to get the right result in your service purchasing

A Roman denarius, a standardized silver coin.

Image via Wikipedia

We know what we want?

It is easy to think we know what we want when buying in services, but we do need to check what our supplier thinks we have asked for. After all, if we buy a new TV or dishwasher, we need to know it fits our requirements; whether it is the right quality or has enough capacity. We need to make sure that the item is of a suitable specification.

I am sure we have all made mistakes with our purchasing. If it is not a high value item we can shrug our shoulders and learn. If we have spent a lot of money we need to make sure we are getting what we expect.

Often in business we do spend quite a lot when buying in services. It might be on marketing, it might be on our telecoms purchasing, or finance or accounting services. It is vital that we give our suppliers all the information they need to know that they can fulfil our requirements.

From the other end

As a supplier I have on occasion found that I have not been told what I needed to know. Once I had a very detailed brief from a client, and asked the questions that seemed obvious from the instructions. I started work on the project and then found out something that changed everything. I did not learn of this additional factor from the client. I won’t say I found out completely by accident. Sometimes we can make an educated guess based on not much. However from where I started I could not have known about something which was so left field and which for legal reasons meant I could not complete the project as originally instructed.

Looking back, the client had no excuse not to tell me. It would be akin to forgetting to tell the builder putting up an extension to your house that there was a disused mine shaft underneath.

Lay it bare

The moral of the story is that if you are buying in services, whether it is website design, accountancy, financial advice or re-fitting of your shop you need to specify exactly what you want and tell your supplier everything. It is always better to tell them too much than too little, and use common sense to decide what they might need to know but couldn’t guess. Otherwise everyone ends up with egg on their face. I prefer my egg in an omelette and I cook a decent one. I don’t like wasted money, wasted time or wasted eggs.

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Wrapped-up people

Have you noticed how some people carry on in their own little world oblivious of their surroundings. They don’t see the sights and hear the sounds around them, or rather they see and don’t observe, and they hear but don’t listen.

A few weeks ago I passed a guy walking quite fast along a path beside a cornfield; the one in the photo below. The birds were singing, there were flowers in the hedgerow, the sun was out and the sky was blue. Yet there he was trotting along looking straight ahead with headphones connected to his MP3 player (couldn’t tell you the brand).

It is the same with some using or trying to use social media for business. They haven’t looked round to see what might be successful. They haven’t learned what could work for them. They broadcast their sales message on Twitter and don’t converse, or they think they can increase their “influence” by recycling banal quotations from famous people. Not all quotations are banal of course, but the banality comes from those who repeat them without thought, but with auto-feed.

It is not so difficult to observe and to listen. I was trying to think how I learned to do that and I came to think that it must have been from my old biology teacher. Actually for some reason I think he never liked me much. However I do remember that he would interrupt a lesson in the summer, exclaiming “hear that?” There would be a bird singing or tweeting outside.

It was the same teacher (or master as they were called at our school) who made us get up at three in the morning (and our parents of course) to take us to the woods to hear the mid-summer dawn chorus. Certainly I have always noticed bird song since then and listened to all the other sounds many others hear but don’t listen to. I am lucky to have the habit.

Early summer cornfield

Still, I bet the auto-tweeters of their wares and repeaters of quotations don’t hear the birds and very probably bump into lampposts while listening to their iPods. How do they fare with their businesses and with their marketing? They are the people doing the same old thing and wondering why it doesn’t work.

I wonder if those who don’t notice their surroundings learn from their business experiences at all, or whether they are so wrapped up in themselves that they are doomed to failure by not taking the proper action to remedy problems or to advance their businesses.

Do you know any of these wrapped-up people? If you do, see if you can bring them to me and we will unwrap them and help them see what others see by looking and observing. That way they might start to earn some money.

The Water Margin guide to business


The Water Margin

The expression “small business” has many meanings. There is no way of knowing whether we mean a business with fifty employees or just one person on her or his own. What I am going to say apples to the smaller small businesses although slightly bigger businesses may benefit too from that magic word “cooperation”.

I believe in sub-contracting what I don’t like doing and maybe don’t do well. I believe we can benefit others through channeling work to them while making a profit in their contribution as well.

Sometimes there are some quite large projects that we may baulk on taking on on our own. As a tax practitioner and business adviser, I might with a large project such as a share scheme introduce to a client one of my tax adviser friends, perhaps also a solicitor or lawyer, and perhaps a financial planner.

In the past with a large project I have engaged a franchise expert, a lawyer and a health and safety specialist to work on a project for me. In fact aside from a little project management I did little of the work, and I could not have done any part of the project on my own.

Many people are afraid to take on what sounds a large project if they are a very small business. I think that if you have a good network around you and can get the right team together, you can do a better job than much larger businesses.

The only real issue is the level of risk just in case something goes wrong. If the worst case scenario occurred, would everyone’s insurance cover it? Remember that you don’t have to have done anything wrong to get sued because some people have an eye for the main chance.

Given that proviso, though, and if we use sound judgment we can deliver premium work and exceptional service because we can give the attention of a small business and small business people as against somebody else’s managers and employees with other distractions.

It’s not just joint ventures, though. We can impress all our clients by bringing in specialists in our network without any formal agreement. If someone needs a financial adviser, I know several and would pick the most suitable one. If they need health and safety I know just the people. If they need sales and marketing… We can deliver just what our clients require much better than large corporations.

Do you remember the 1970s TV series (based on ancient tales from China) called The Water Margin? It started with a quotation:

“The ancient sages said “do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon? So may one just man become an army.”

That is true for all of us in business because even when we are small. One just woman or man can become an army and deal with very profitable large projects. It is all about who you know and can enlist to help you.



Here is the opening sequence of a vintage TV show.

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