You’re Never Too Big For TAB

Hmmm… Vladimir Putin is effectively President for life. Xi Jinping President for life as well. With the annual congress of the People’s Alternative Board having been held a couple of weeks ago a chap could get ideas…

Sadly there is a rather more serious idea that I want to discuss this week: the idea that you are too big to fail – which all too often starts with the idea that you are too big to learn anything new. This year has already seen the administrators called in to once sound businesses: Carillion, Toys-R-Us and Maplin.

I’ve already discussed Carillion and the impact that collapse will have on up to 30,000 SMEs. More recently we’ve also seen Toys-R-Us and Maplin close the doors and – especially in the case of the now renamed Toys-Were-Us – it seems that arrogance and complacency and a ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ attitude were largely to blame. As the Greeks used to remind us, hubris leads inexorably to nemesis.

I often use the question ‘why not?’ on this blog, referencing the well-known quote from Robert Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’”

But in business today ‘why not’ – to borrow from SWOT – isn’t just about strengths and opportunities, it’s also about weaknesses and threats.

Could this business start-up I’ve just read about disrupt our industry so much that our whole business model is outdated? Why not?

Could our customers decide that sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes to drag children round a toy warehouse isn’t how they want to spend a Sunday morning? Why not?

Today you have to think the previously unthinkable. Not doing that and believing your business model is inviolate – and Toys-R-Us seems to have been the perfect example – is to signpost your own downfall.

With the company having closed its doors there are plenty of anecdotal stories – from former employees and executives – emerging about the decline of Toys-R-Us. Was it simply competition from Amazon? Or did it go deeper than that?

Of course having Amazon as an alternative didn’t help. But all the stories point to Toys-R-Us seeing themselves as ‘king of the toy jungle’ and simply not giving their competitors enough respect. Add in a failure to lock-in the loyalty of their customers, a determination to open new stores whatever the cost and tales of wholesale fall-outs with their suppliers and the story only had one possible ending.

And when the inevitable happened, whose fault was it?

Everyone else’s.

Right now the directors of every failing company seem to have an instant explanation. ‘Picking the low hanging fruit’ might well mean reaching for the most easily available excuse. Competition from Amazon – uncertainty caused by Brexit – fall in the value of the pound – and (my personal favourite) customers changed their shopping/buying/spending habits.

What no-one ever seems to say is that it was rank bad management. Customers and clients are always changing their shopping/buying/spending habits: with the greatest possible respect that’s why you get paid so much – to anticipate those changes and do something about it.

It is my privilege to work with some very talented and very successful people: that includes members of TAB boards up and down the UK, and franchisees both here and overseas. Without exception they have one thing in common: they know that they don’t know everything. They’re willing to learn and they’re willing to listen. They accept that ‘why not’ could overtake their business – as it can overtake any business today.

You are never too big to learn and – bluntly – you are never too big to sit round the table with your colleagues from TAB. If we’d had a director of Toys-R-Us as a member then very quickly – in his first meeting would be my guess – someone would have said, “You know, last Christmas, we bought all the kids’ present on this thing called the internet. From a site called Amazon. Took half an hour, delivered them the next day…”

The loyalty of your customers, not opening stores for the sake of opening stores and working with your suppliers might well have been mentioned as well…

Nothing stays the same for ever and nowhere is that more true than in business. I floated the idea of a TAB for young entrepreneurs recently: maybe we should have one specifically for directors of ‘too big to fail/nothing to learn’ PLCs as well. The blunt common sense of their new colleagues round the table would be the best investment they ever made.

 

Long White Beards are not Mandatory

Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.

I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

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The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…

Without wishing to sound old – but policemen definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.

That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.

Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?

Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.

Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.

This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.

I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.