Remembering the few and many others

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As I write this there have been commemorations and memorial services remembering The Few, those who fought in the Battle of Britain seventy years ago, and without whom I probably would not be here running my business in a free society. It is almost unimaginable what might have happened to European politics and culture in the intervening period, and what suffering there would have been beyond the terrible things that happened back then.

Of course very little in modern society can quite compare with what The Few did, but we should be very grateful to those in the last seventy years who have helped preserve our freedom with their courage.

It struck me recently that there are so many people making all sorts of contributions to our society including the business fabric of the modern economy. They did their bit and are so easily forgotten. My Dad spent time in North Africa, the Middle East, Italy and Austria during the Second World War. If it sound a little lame to say “spent time” it is because he has never talked about it much. I know that those years were mostly pretty unpleasant. The desert was a very uncomfortable place to be. Dad was in Signals, but was still a target landing on the beach in Sicily. He did his bit. Later, he worked in the City for a well-known bank (not one of the infamous ones), but he retired a long time ago and no one there today would know about his contribution.

My wife’s Dad joined the Navy in the Twenties and to his chagrin was injured on duty before the start of the Second World War and he was invalided out. He became a salesman, and a good one. He was the first to sell the beer produced by a well-known (then just local) brewery to non-ties outlets, free-houses, clubs and so on. The company is now huge and international, but to give you a clue it all started in Bury St. Edmunds. His son, my brother-in-law carried on the good work, but it would be nice to think my wife’s Dad, whom I never knew, was still remembered by more than just his family.

We work with others through our lives and their efforts help our employers and often our own businesses thrive. We have learned from other workers from the day we started in the working world. We always must owe a lot to those with whom we have worked, and maybe we have made small contributions to their lives too.

Isaac Newton was perhaps thinking more in terms of science and maybe philosophy when he said “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” but everything we have in business and in our society is from standing not only on the shoulders of Giants but on the shoulders of the little people, many or most of whom are forgotten. I think we owe it to ourselves and to them to remember while we can how we have come to where we are.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Responsibility in leading

In my last piece I talked about getting the best out of our employees and co-workers, and including giving them some responsibility for their work. Delegation is great, and as long as people do not feel out of their depth they should feel more energized. We will have more time to run and further the interests of the business and think where we are going, knowing that work is getting done on our behalf.

However, just because we have given our workers responsibility does not mean that we have given up our responsibility. It can be difficult working on one’s own as an employee in a larger organization especially, because bosses and senior managers will want something done in a certain way. It is important to check that those responsible to us are happy in what they are doing, and understand what is required of them. In particular, if they come to us and ask, we must listen and help them. It is no good waiting until they have finished the task as they see it, and then telling them we did not want it done that way, or they had misunderstood what was needed. If they have got it wrong, it is our fault, not theirs, and our responsibility for cutting them adrift.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked to undertake a local project for a client with a particular brand, and I ended up on the wrong end of a poor relationship. Yes, I could and have completed the task in hand, and it will run quite effectively as it is. The frustrating part is, I can see ways of making it better, providing a better service to customers and giving them added satisfaction through feeling wanted, so increasing loyalty and reducing churn. The only cost will be in terms of my time, and I can get my reward directly through increasing my share of the revenue. The trouble is getting the brand owner’s permission to tweak as it will make the service slightly different but better than in the other areas in which the business operates. Of course if my idea were to be rolled out more widely, it would in my opinion make the whole brand better. However, unfortunately despite my best efforts I get no feedback, which is very frustrating.

So, do not leave your employees, workers or contractors high and dry after giving them that initial responsibility for their task. Listen to them and seek their feedback if you are not getting it. Otherwise you may be disappointed, and worse, may not allow them to improve on your original idea.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Realism, job seeking and cats

I heard a feature on BBC Radio Five Live this morning which related to the newly unemployed. There was a lady made redundant from the the Findus factory in Newcastle which closed down a few weeks ago, Christine Tinling, who was talking with Katja Hall of the CBI and Sarah Veal of the TUC.

Now I can understand that Ms. Tinling is still in shock, so she was resistant to being put forward for jobs worth £13-14K per annum when she was earning a lot more prior to losing her job. However, she was advised by Ms. Veal that she was quite right to hold out for more because employers would be looking to get labour on the cheap. So on the one side, Ms. Veal was overlooking the fact that cash-strapped employers might be having difficulty in keeping their businesses afloat and on the other hand she was encouraging someone to scrape along on benefit, which she had said she could not afford to do, in the hope of getting something else. At the same time she contradicted herself in a way by saying what we all know: that the longer you are out of a job the lower your prospects of getting another one, let alone a decent one.

The discussion was not taken a great deal forward by Ms. Hall suggesting that Job Seeker’s allowance of £60.50 per week was enough for basic living whilst one is looking for work. Living on another planet?

I have been along the path. I found myself unemployed with no warning whatever. It takes a while to realise that the ideal job is hard to come by when you do not already have one.

This blog is not called “On Our Bikes” for nothing. There comes a point quite soon where you have to have some earnings coming in even if you had some savings, and believe me they evaporate quite quickly with a mortgage, council tax, utilities and food to pay for. So my wife and I did things we would not have considered. We were prepared to do anything, and did. We started a cat-sitting business to allow people to leave their cats at home whilst they were on holiday. The money wasn’t great, but it was a help whilst we were getting on our feet with other businesses, and we were so appreciated that my wife and I still have loyal customers so the business still lives and is seen as a valuable service. If you live locally to us and need your cats cared for in their own home, you know where to come.

Everyone newly unemployed might all have plans to get back into “their” sort of work or build a business, but in the interim and to keep active and committed, take or do anything you can get. Anyway, if you are out and about meeting people that is natural networking which might lead to more rewarding work. Don’t just sit at home and think this or that job is beneath you. You will be more admired for making the effort.

Bankers, untimely schadenfreude, and how to avoid their fate

I felt a little sorry for the ex-banking chiefs being quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday. They are genuinely bemused by the state in which their former employers, the banks, find themselves. We are talking specifically about the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS though others took risks and have made considerable write-downs of assets.

The reason I feel a small amount of sympathy is that they are akin to drivers who have been careless in the maintenance of their vehicles. There have been annoying rattles, and maybe the car has not been serviced. If there is a major failure in an important component (and in this case the wheels came off) then one should not be surprised that there is a nasty crash. Just the same, the actual event is shocking to the drivers and these guys are not over the smash, which has been very traumatic.

While it is easy to be wise after the event and we as spectators might have indulged in a little schadenfreude had we not been so badly hurt as passengers in the car, it is a lesson to everyone to make sure that we know every part of our business, and what is working well and what isn’t. The bankers took their eye off the ball. Northern Rock was by no means the first bank to fail. We had the grisly spectacle in 1995 of an old traditional bank, Barings, being brought down by the reckless actions of one man, Nick Leeson, the famous rogue trader.

The recent banking debacle was more of a cultural accident in that they were doing what everyone else was doing in the sub-prime market in the US. At the same time no one apparently thought of the risk, or what would happen if the US economy had a downturn and the domino effect on the market. Those of us in small business knew months before the initial crash in 2007 that the UK economy was struggling too, and we commented on it.

Anyway, we should all look at what we are doing in our own businesses; what works and what doesn’t, and what we should change now because it is going to stop working very soon and need to be replaced. I have stopped using Yellow Pages and Thomson’s because directories do not work for me. They work for other people but not for my businesses. Don’t do things just because other people do them. I am constantly reviewing my marketing, and need to think about whether other people getting on their bikes in the light of the large job losses which actually give my business more competition.

What about you? Do you take a step back and look at your business? Are there areas of risk you should try to eliminate? Is your marketing for purpose in the current climate?

I am taking my own advice anyway. If you need another perspective on your business ask an outsider; even ask me!

Workplace tribalism

In the week that we learn from the CBI that 38% of small businesses have laid off staff in the last quarter of 2008. Workplace tribalism many of us will feel uncomfortable over the strikes at the oil terminals and elsewhere over the employment of foreign labour. At times when the economy is weak and there are job losses, workers of larger organisations tend to blame the foreigners for their problems, whether or not the local labour force is qualified to do it; indeed as we know in more recent and prosperous times foreigners have been doing low paid jobs that resident workers (not just British workers) have not been prepared to do because the pay was not good enough. At the Lincolnshire oil refinery where the recent wave of strikes started the workers brought in are from an Italian contractor. I suppose it is pointless to mention that these workers have freedom of movement within the EU and British citizens are entitled to work in Italy if they wish. There would be arguments over the effect on family life but no doubt these issues have already been addressed by the Italian families providing the contractors at the Lindsey plant.

I do not want to get into the issue of prejudice. That is a touchy subject and one on which I am hardly an expert, though I was once shouted at in racist terms (no, twice, come to think of it) and it is pretty unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

What the whole business of apparent xenophobia in the workplace does bring into focus is the tribalistic “we are all in it together attitude”. In a large business the workplace camaraderie is often a great asset in ensuring that all workers pull in the right direction. In the same way that the print industry skiving which existed up to the seventies was proliferated by its own culture, it is also true to say that such sticking together can make for better and greater productivity and less shirking on the basis that the lazy let everyone down. At the same time an unsatisfactory work culture can lead to a lowering of morale and lower productivity due to a loss of respect and loyalty for management. I have seem both ends of this spectrum when an employee.

Anyway, a workforce that sticks together is admirable, but because employees become used to a stable environment, when something goes wrong there is a need to apportion blame. I have written recently about those in charge taking responsibility. We in our own businesses know that we are largely responsible for our success and avoiding failure. However, sometimes accidents happen; at least events over which we have no control even if we think Governments or regulatory bodies ought to have had. I do not think we could quite have imagined in 2005 or 2006 (2007 perhaps) that a steel producer providing material for ships, cars and particularly construction would suddenly find itself short of orders. It is no good blaming the company or its orders. They had a niche in the economy producing materials that were needed and they were hostages to fortune. It is not their fault if they have to lay off workers any more than it is the car manufacturers fault if they have to close for months because no one is buying new cars. In as much as these companies and their workers can be, they are victims of an accident. It is human nature to blame those closest but if there are culprits they are further away.

The point is that as employees we are paid weekly or monthly. We know that the money will appear and while we might do our work diligently we only have responsibility to ourselves and our comrades. The fear over the potential or actual loss of a job is terrifying. How can we survive? You need someone to blame close at hand. I know, I have been there, but lashing out and soft targets is not the way.

Small business owners are making hard decisions over job cuts and have to face the music and their workers. Some businesses could not be viable with less than a certain number of workers if the work is hands-on. I saw an example on television this morning of a small bakery down to a core of five staff. For many there is just a minimum number of workers without whose output the business cannot pay the rent and make any money. It is even harder for small business owners to make tough decisions because they are close enough to their workers to be part of the “tribe”. However when out of a job you are out of the tribe which is a terrible shock, and an owner letting an employee go is at risk of being out of the tribe or family too depending how the other employees take the loss of their comrade.

Despite my comments about taking responsibility, I am not going to say that laid off workers should all start their own small businesses. That would be absurd, especially given the current economic climate. Some may and I wish them all the best. Doing something for yourself rebuilds self-esteem which is the biggest loss when you lose your job. Nor is this a “be positive” pep-talk though It does help to be happy with what we have. As a population we will not be as badly off ever as in the only two Third World countries I have visited where the level of poverty and especially poor sanitary conditions was shocking for me even though I thought I was prepared. No, we have to stick it out, help families who have no incomes through taxation of our own and future incomes as we can. This is not a sermon, so I will not say we should be thankful; just remember that we are better off than many, no matter how long the recovery takes.

Just look past the tribal culture and be tolerant. Almost the whole world is in this economic mire and we will not solve anything by using our valuable workplace tribal culture to bash foreigners. If we have to let people go, handle the matter as kindly as possible and if we do know of any niches with our friends, businesses, see if we can facilitate a move through our network.

© Jon Stow 2009