What business challenges can I bring to Retreat to Advance?

On a Retreat to Advance retreat you guide the agenda. Once you book you’ll be sent a questionnaire to tell us about you, your business and your requirements. Upon receipt of the completed questionnaire your requirements are evaluated alongside those of your fellow participants and then mapped out across a series of one-to-one and group sessions as well as dinner round-table discussions.

You might be wondering what are the sort of business challenges that get explored on a Retreat to Advance retreat? While every business is unique the following are some of the hot topics that tend to come up time and again.

  • Exit planning and exit strategy – building a business takes dedication, blood, sweat and tears. Know how and when to exit the business to ensure a good outcome for you, your family and for the people within the business is a major challenge faced by owners of SMEs. We will work with you to explore how to plan for a profitable and timely exit; when is the right time and why; what are the signs to look for; how to value your business; the key steps to increasing business valuation; the barriers to a profitable exit.
  • Raising capital – you know there is a growth opportunity in the market; you know you have a unique offer, that you’re well placed and that the time is right. But readying your business to exploit the opportunity is going to require capital that you don’t have. What are the risks/rewards of capital raising; what are the various way to attract additional funding and what cost do they come with; how to structure a deal; how to retain control and what happens if you don’t!
  • Mergers and acquisitions – many businesses operate in markets alongside others with competing or complementary offers, making mergers or acquisitions an enticing way in which for businesses to gain size and strength rapidly. Gaining scale through M&A can bring big benefits, broadening or deepening customer bases, improving efficiency, strengthening competitiveness. Discover how to know whether a merger is right for your business; how to seek a partner; how to structure a partnership; and the ramifications of share dilution.
  • Staffing for success – employing the right people is one of the biggest challenges facing all businesses large and small, but for small- to medium-size businesses it is even harder because often costs constraints make it difficult to get right people on board. Explore how to overcome this hurdle; how to retain, incentivise, motivate and develop your best people; how you can get them to share the risks and rewards without giving everything away; how to balance your team with your own skills/weaknesses.
  • Culture – It has been said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Explore how to build a high performance culture that’s right for your business, your clients and your market. Evaluate whether your values/ethics/belief systems are working for you or against you. What do you want your clients to say about you? Or your team? Or your suppliers? And do they? Vision and culture are derived from the feelings and beliefs we have about the business; they are built on the true values of the business owner, which for most remain buried, as very few people are aware of what their defining values are. Vision and culture are so much more than pleasant-sounding statements put into a picture frame and hung up in reception. There’s a science to discovering the deeply buried and transformative values and beliefs that really underpin successful communication inside and outside the business.
  • Skills and ability – do you have what it takes to make your business a success? This is a difficult subject which often requires much soul searching. You know your industry, you know your products – but are you really a CEO? Perhaps you feel your company is not where it should be. Are you capable of taking it the next stage, are you ready and prepared for that next stage, if not why not? Explore the key attributes of a CEO, and how you rate against these. Plus what to do if you’re not. How can you acquire the skills yourself; or how to hire a CEO and still remain relevant in your own business.
  • Teamwork is about understanding what makes us different as individuals in our thinking and our behaviour. Developing personal emotional intelligence as a leader and learning to understand our individual team members at a deeper level will transform our ability to get the best out of them and so transform the management of the business.
  • Leadership and communication – are you a good leader? Do you have a clear vision for your business? Do you lead with self esteem and authenticity? When leaders have a clear vision that allows them to lead with self esteem and authenticity, staff find it easy to follow in the leader’s footsteps and less time needs to be taken up with management activity. True self esteem and authenticity are difficult unless we have true self awareness; all three of which are very rare commodities in today’s world.
  • Personal wellbeing and performance – do you create the right conditions to get the most out of your business’s most important asset? Running a successful business in today’s frantic, competitive world requires real clarity of thought; unfortunately most of us succumb to stress and even anxiety. It is scientifically proven that our efficiency drops easily by as much as 40% when we are stressed, and creative thinking (essential in order to stand above the rest!) gets completely stifled. We therefore need to understand what is causing our stress and anxiety and learn how to deal with it. In addition, we need to learn the ability to change our thinking, so that we can easily move to calm, clarity and creativity.

 

With a small staff and a large and diverse client list, close attention to our business at every stage is critical. Eddie has helped us to understand our growth strategy, key hires and introduced us to critical steps that have helped us to shape our business strategy going forward. He’s also a great guy, approachable, friendly and an excellent mentor for our personal growth. Eddie’s helped us enormously to advance towards our goals, and set ourselves goals for the future.

Heather Catchpole & Karen Taylor
Co-Founders, Refraction Media

 

Eddie has all the qualities of the perfect mentor. He is honest, discrete, self reflective, wise, inquisitive and he has a generous spirit. I discuss all my biggest business issues with Eddie and his guidance and support has sustained me through some tough challenges.

He brings a depth of wisdom to any situation, and he doesn’t just share his experience with you, he tells you why he did it and his understanding of why his approach worked or didn’t work. He makes the complex simple and breaks problems down to help focus on the real issues.

He’s helped me feel more in control and I’m putting things in place to be proactive rather than reactive and to work ‘on the business’ not ‘in the business’. Eddie inspires me to work smarter, and I feel positive and optimistic about the future direction of Brains.

Rachel Courtright
Managing Director, Brains

 

Eddie’s business and general experience has helped me in many ways. As a young executive and CEO, I have used Eddie as a sounding board for many issues and decisions. His calm broad level of knowledge across international boundaries has assisted me to deal with some very difficult situations. Eddie understands the needs of business and the balance required to maintain financial stability and customers satisfaction. I credit Eddie et al with assisting my development and helping me to rebuild the NSCA.

Adam Baldock
CEO & Managing Director, National Safety Council of Australia

 

 

How does retreat to Advance work?

Our retreats give every business owner the one thing they need to make their business a success: themselves. Turn off the noise and distraction and give the future of your business your full attention. Surrounded by inspiring, like-minded people and the support of experienced mentors to guide you through and keep you on track, you will solve the challenges that need to be surmounted to take your business to the next stage. Of course any process like this isn’t linear but the retreats are structured around seven progressions to create the optimal circumstances for innovative and actionable thinking that will change the future of your business.

  1. Outline: pre-arrival you’ll be sent a detailed questionnaire that will enable us to shape your retreat to your needs. Whether it’s growth, exit or resurrection, put into words if you’ve not already, the overall goal for the next stage of your business.
  2. Identify: perhaps you already know where it is you need to focus your energies to achieve your goal, perhaps not. Completing our identify framework during the first working session on arrival will allow you to spell out your thinking and clearly see where your attention is needed. The resulting document will give you a working plan for the retreat.
  3. Validate: dissect your goal and working plan with your mentor, and allow a critical eye to challenge you and ensure your thinking is sound. At this and any time during the retreat, that insight and advice is available to you on any area of your business maybe you feel less strong.
  4. Think: take this gift of time, with no distractions, no to-do lists, no meetings, to do the thinking that you never get to do, to see your business afresh and to plan out and begin working on what you need to do to meet your objective.
  5. Review: each day the mentors are available for review sessions to discuss what you’ve been working on, provide further insights, advice and to challenge you where necessary.
  6. Conclude: as the end of the retreat draws near so will your conclusions on your next steps. To ensure you capture all the work you’ve done during the retreat you’ll finalise a fully stated plan encapsulating what actions you need to take back to the ‘real world’.
  7. Implement: we all know we leave opportunities like this full of positivity and intention only to fall back into the same pressures of running the business every damn day. We really don’t want you to lose all your hard work – it actually kind of upsets us – so before you leave we’ll be scheduling follow-up sessions to keep you honest, and give you the support you may lack back home.

Throughout the retreat, we invite you to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss your challenges and be inspired. Enjoy the stimulating conversation and alternative perspectives around your business challenges and those of your peers. Healthy and hearty Tuscan cuisine provides the “brain-food” and backdrop for stimulating discussions over meal times. These discussions will be both free, guided (on pre-determined topics, as elected pre-retreat) and driven by you, for example presenting ideas to solicit feedback.

And if you think processes aren’t your thing, feel free to simply enjoy the peace, good company and mentoring opportunities to work on whatever aspect of your business you like. Or simply relax. We firmly believe that this will do your business a world of good too!

For more information and to discover what to expect visit the program outline for our next Retreat to Advance this coming October 2017.

Video: Retreat to Advance, October 2017

Why you need a rainmaker in your business

In an article on LinkedIn Pulse I explored the concept of what I call a ‘rainmaker’. The article received lots of views and some really interesting comments. Here you can find a summarised version with the key points or you can head over to LinkedIn to read the article and comments in full.

Recently two owners of a young start-up approached me for help. They were struggling; seriously struggling. These guys had tried to think of every eventuality with regard to their business, but the one thing they had not given sufficient thought was how they would sell this new service they were offering to the marketplace. Or rather, indeed, who would sell it.

For the record, this isn’t a problem that only applies to start-ups. I have seen many the mature business struggle for exactly the same reason.

These business owners who approached me had fallen into the trap, like so many others, of assuming that the service would sell itself. As such, they assumed that they could manage this aspect of the business themselves. And here in my opinion was their main mistake. Their skillsets were not that aligned with the traits of what I call a “rainmaker”. A rainmaker is someone who is uniquely skilled at driving new business/sales. So, here we had a business that was set up correctly, where the owners had done almost everything right, but there was just this one problem: there were no sales coming in. They did not have their rainmaker.

Those of you reading this who have been fortunate enough to work with a great rainmaker will understand when I say they are very rare. My great mentor Lionel told me that in fact when you come across a rainmaker often in fact you will not actually like them, because their characters can be very challenging. But if/when you do find one you need to hold onto them as they are most likely to make a significant difference to the success of your company.

Be aware, they may well not be able to undertake any other role in the company, they are often the type who don’t like to follow processes, they may make awful managers, they will most likely drive you crazy; but they do this one thing – and one thing better than anyone else – and that is drive new business.

In terms of seeking to hire a rainmaker it is challenging to define the traits to look for because they are so rare, but what follows are some characteristics that you might recognise, or want to look out for:

  1. They are individuals who do not respond well to being confined to the office – they like being out and about meeting new prospects.
  2. They don’t like being restricted by company protocol.
  3. Highly competitive is an understatement – they want to out-sell anyone else not just within the team, not just within the business, but within the industry.
  4. Coming second is not an option.
  5. Very little is off-limits in their quest to win a sale.
  6. While they can be difficult to work with, and may drive you crazy, they have a charisma that makes people like them.
  7. This is one of the main differences from your ordinary salesperson – prospects genuinely take to them and want to do business with them.
  8. They are extremely perceptive, particularly at reading their prospective customers – and once they’ve seen a ‘want-to-buy’ signal they seldom let go.
  9. Don’t expect them to manage the administration of their sales well – they just want to get onto the next prospect (unsurprisingly other colleagues, especially admin staff, can find them frustrating).
  10. They don’t like negativity or negative people around them – it sucks the energy from them, and they will avoid negativity wherever they can.
  11. They are typically very well connected – friends become prospects and prospects become friends in their expansive network.
  12. They like to do business at lunches, dinners and events – don’t be surprised if they run over your client entertainment budget.
  13. They tend to be able to talk their way out of any situation/have an answer for everything.
  14. While they are usually highly intelligent they can make total nonsense sound like the truth if needs must.
  15. They are loyal, but only to a degree – ultimately they know who the number one priority is.

I’ve been exceedingly fortunate to work with three great rainmakers during my time in business. One of them almost singularly kept a newspaper going against overwhelming competition. We were a small paper in the territory of a large (now huge) competitor, and wow did that annoy them. The battle went on for three plus years and the larger publisher simply could not fathom how each week we would come out with more sales than them. But really, at the bottom of it was this one person. Sure we had better product, but that wouldn’t really have mattered much against their might. However, what they did not have was a rainmaker. Whereas we did. And one of the best. Moreover, not only was he one the very best, he had built a team of other great sales people. Ultimately the competitor ended up closing their paper. They never did understand why we beat them every week. They believed money and size was sufficient to win, but they were wrong.

Not in all companies will it be as easy to see the impact of a rainmaker as in the example above, and every enterprise is different obviously. But when you consider your company’s needs, I believe you’ll be able to see where this role is – or is lacking – in your business. Then you can ask yourself: Are you in need of this person? Or if you have someone in this role, how are they performing? And if your company is struggling, or even just underperforming, could this be a key factor?

If they answer is yes then you need to find your rainmaker. Now not to be disheartening, I do have to let you know that this will not be easy. As I mentioned before I have only found three rainmakers in 40 years. But find one you must, and when you do you won’t believe the difference it will make to your business.

So whether you are a start-up, or heading up a mature business, give some thought to your rainmaker. Occasionally a product/service can sell itself, but particularly if you are competing in a tough market place then the rainmaker will most likely make all the difference.

If you could use some help getting the most out of your staff and developing your company why not contact me for a free discovery session to see if I’m a good fit to help you and your business.

What can young people bring your business?

In this article I explore what we can learn from the youth in our businesses. When the full-length version was published on LinkedIn Pulse it received more than 2000 views and some wonderful comments. Here you can find a summarised version with the key points or you might like to head over to LinkedIn to read the article in full.

In my early days as a manager, I believed staff should fall in with the way I wanted to do things. As I got older – and colleagues, younger – I realised this new generation would not change. Which meant I had to. From then on, I tried to never close my door, or my ears, to youth.

What we can learn from their enquiries, and their different worldview, is very beneficial for business. To think these days we devour business insights from the likes of Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs, but they were between just 16 and 21 years of age when starting their respective, and rather successful, businesses. Yes, they are indeed extraordinary cases, however, it does demonstrate what insight the young people in our enterprises could have to offer.

And trust me, when you do give young people in your business a platform to query and challenge, be prepared. Often you’ll find what they have to say is far from what you might expect.

In a business that I was once managing we were required to implement a major restructure where we would make more than 10% of the staff redundant. Believing the best way to handle the rumours about the restructure was head on, I called a meeting with all 200 employees. It was, of course, a very charged meeting but it went as well as possible considering. We responded to all the questions we had been expecting and were just about to close the meeting when a last hand was raised. It was a young man.

“I agree with what you are doing and it is long overdue,” he said. “Anyone that works here knows we are overpaid and underworked. My only surprise is that it’s only 10% going; I think could be more like 25%. If I can be of any help, then I’m happy to give you some further advice.”

Give these young people in your business a voice and it might just mean a significant difference for your company because they often view things from a completely alternative perspective.

So how you do take advantage of what the youth in your business has to offer and how do you shape their insights into tangible initiatives you can use in the development of your enterprise? My belief is that as we grow older (and hopefully wiser!) we have much to offer to these young people in return. To help such bright individuals flourish. To go beyond alternative perspectives and interesting ideas. If we pass our experience on we can help them shape those ideas into practical business solutions.

So open your mind to what the young employees in your company can offer you; and open your door to offer your experience in return.

If you enjoyed this, there’s a great example of how I nearly ignored youth to my peril here in the Rare Breed Insights section. If you’d like to explore how to apply these insights in your business, or are looking for sound business advice about any other challenge you’re currently facing, I’d love to help. Learn more about how our business retreats in Tuscany could help your business.

Building a culture of dedication

In this article I explore how creating a culture of dedication could have significant benefits for your business.

I am sure that any business owner/leader counts a great culture as one of the key factors in the success of their business. But what does a ‘great culture’ look like. While that may well be different for different businesses, I recently found myself wondering how many people think about whether a ‘great culture’ is a culture of dedication?

Should that go without saying? Of course we all want our employees to be dedicated. But have you stopped to ask yourself what dedication looks like, and just how you can foster it in your company? And if you could build a culture of dedication, exactly what difference would it make to your business?

I recently had to spend a few days in an NHS hospital in the UK. Those of you that are from these shores will know the huge stress the NHS is operating under.

While in hospital I watched how the doctors and nurses showed an amazing dedication to their patients, and I really do mean amazing. What I saw was a team of underpaid people who cared for their patients no matter what the circumstances. No matter how stressful it got, they never seemed to become annoyed and never once did I hear anyone complain. They simply got on with their work – shift work no less: working around the clock, 24:7. I left feeling so humble, knowing that I could never do what those nurses and doctors do. Let me say, they have left a mark on me that will stay with me for a long time.

Clearly since I never stop thinking about business, I got to thinking just what an impact this sort of dedication would be in any business. Imagine if you could create this sort of culture of dedication, where your employees come to work because they genuinely enjoy making your clients happy. Where after interacting with your company the client leaves thinking “wow, what service”. Now sure this is quite idealistic, but thinking it through opened my eyes to certain possibilities and pause to dig a little deeper into what we mean when we refer to a ‘great culture’. Like many business leaders, creating a great culture has always been a keen focus, but to witness such an example of a culture of dedication, I realised how much else would fall into place if one concentrated on this as a metric.

Clearly most roles in most organisations are quite different than the ‘calling’ of doctors and nurses but I thought about what factors could be relevant to inspire a similar dedication in other businesses. So here you have my thoughts on how a business leader might think about fostering a culture of dedication in their organisation.

You as a leader

It starts at the top. If you personally are not 100% dedicated to what you do, and the success of your company, then you have very little chance of inspiring dedication in your employees.

Recruitment

Clearly one of the easiest areas to look at is recruitment. It’s easier to hire the people with the right attitude than change bad attitudes in the ones you’ve got. During my time in the hospital I asked a senior nurse her thoughts on what created this culture of dedication. She confirmed what you might imagine: that it’s because they chose to work in an industry where you work for the love of what you do, not for the love of money. Therefore in recruiting for a culture of dedication you might say new staff members should be chosen not just for their skills, but on some more critical criteria:

  • Fulfillment: find people that just don’t like what they do, find people whose work genuinely fulfils them.
  • Alignment: that their beliefs/goals align with your company’s purpose, the reason that company exists.
  • More than money: find people who are inspired by the company and the role, not by they pay packet. If they want the position only because of the amount of money they can earn, then will dedication to the business ever be the reason for them being there?
  • Interpersonal skills: you want people that like dealing with people and have strong interpersonal skills. In order for the culture of dedication to have the desired effect of client satisfaction your staff need to be superior at dealing with people.
  • Flexibility: you want staff for whom ensuring the right result for the client is more important than being out the door the second their official workday ends.

Pride

The same nurse said secondly they all shared the desire to be rated as the best when compared other hospitals; that when their patients left they would say if you had to be in hospital then this hospital was the one to be in. The staff shared this common goal of therefore being the very best at what they do. It personally mattered to them. What could you as a business owner do to instill this sense of pride within your organisation?

  • Vision: make sure all employees are aware of the company’s overall ‘vision’ and believe in the company’s purpose.
  • Competition: build up a little (healthy) competition. Share KPIs with the staff and let them know how the company is doing against its competitors. As a side note, don’t be fearful about doing this even if your business isn’t near the top. Staff can still have immeasurable dedication to an ‘underdog’.
  • Celebrate: share your successes with your team.
  • Positive feedback: always let employees know when they are doing well.
  • Get them involved: ask your team for their ideas on how to improve client satisfaction. They are the ones working with them each and every day. Since they see the problems they are well placed to see the solutions. But in terms of pride, it’s the asking for their opinion that makes them feel involved.

Compassion and customer service

A culture of dedication is all good and well. But how can you make sure that the dedication your staff feels to their jobs and to the business is reflected in the service your clients feel they receive? I would suggest you need to look at how to build compassion into customer service:

  • Process review: go through your customer-service protocols with a fine toothcomb to see where opportunities exist to allow employees to demonstrate their dedication.
  • Allow a little freedom: if you’ve got the basic processes and protocols in place and you’ve hired/motivated the right team members, then allow them a little flexibility around these. Don’t enforce responses down to the word or else the genuine sense of your culture of dedication will never have the chance to shine through.
  • Service with a smile: make sure that service feels personal, that the first and last impression a client receives is feeling so very welcome. Ensure they receive a genuine sense that your employees want to help them and that nothing is too much trouble. You want them to feel that your business is a place they want to come back to, a place where you might even go so far to say that they feel among friends.
  • Focus on referrals: what if your no. 1 goal was that every client left feeling they needed to tell friends and family about their experience and an overwhelming desire to recommend your business?

As a side note, I would add that a business owner must ensure they are told when client complaints do occur. You can’t solve problems if the only news you hear is the good news.

So there you have my thoughts on building a culture of dedication that can hopefully apply to any business. To finish up I’ll leave you with a quote from John Strelecky (The Big Five for Life):

“If people can be successful doing things they don’t really care about, then they should be wildly successful at something that actually matters to them.”

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse. Visit LinkedIn to read the original article and the comments it received.

How’s the culture in your business? Could you benefit from a business advisor who can help show you exactly what needs to be done to take your leadership and business to the next level? Why not join our mentoring retreat in Tuscany this October?

The power of persuasion

I’ve alluded before to the rather interesting, though dubious, types of employment I had before I got a ‘proper’ job. So as a slight aside today I thought I’d share with you a funny story about the power of persuasion from when I was 16 years old and working for a guy who had a market stall on Petticoat Lane in London. The stall sold anything you wanted to buy, and plenty you didn’t want to buy until we’d convinced you that you did. Say what you will, the market-stall education I had certainly taught me more than a few things.

Anyway, one day the boss turned up with lorry full of ladies’ perfume. We opened a bottle. It was [insert expletive] awful. We tried to sell them, and failed. We often had our friends in the audience as we stood selling things, to make fake purchases to get the ball rolling. That normally got people buying stuff but not this time: even if you hadn’t bathed for a week you would smell better without this perfume.

I said to the boss that we would never sell these, ever. So we put them side as waste of money.

Four weeks later the boss told me to get the perfume out

We’re going to sell it all today,” he said

I was dubious. But after we set up and began to gather an audience, suddenly the boss brought out a well-known beauty magazine. As he opened it up, there – in the inside cover position – was a fabulous looking advertisement for our perfume; with a price tag five times more than what we wanted to sell it for before. (Remember at this time there were not many rules around what you could and could not do with advertising.)

Once he held up the magazine and the audience could see the perfume in this well-known publication, they felt the product had been validated. So then we began to sell:

“Normally X; yours for only X today,” we called.

We sold the lot, and for double what we’d originally planned to. We had a lot of very strange smelling customers over the following months.

Don’t underestimate youth

#Lesson 7: In this lesson, the day one entry-level employee was better than a whole team of senior execs.

I clearly remember Lionel once saying: “If you don’t listen to youth, then you are going deaf.” But it actually wasn’t until a few years later that his message about listening to young employees truly sank in.

As one gets older (and I definitely talk from experience here), one should become wiser, otherwise you have wasted a lot of years. However being wiser does not mean that you know it all, by any means. And young, inexperienced but very bright people may not know much yet but often they will know more than you expect. We just forget to ask them. Which I did once, but never since.

A fair few years on from my early days being mentored by Lionel we were holding a company conference, some two hours out of London. It was a great success and at the conference we announced a new project. We were moving into new sector, one we were sure had huge growth potential. But one area we were struggling with was a name for a club that was a key part of this project. We had put the challenge, linked to a financial incentive, to the executive team to think of a name, but as yet this hadn’t yielded any winning suggestions.

I was leaving this conference, and had just got in the car, when there was a knock at the window. I rolled down the window and standing there was a very young sales executive who had recently joined the company. “Mr Thomas,” she said. “If you are driving back to London could you give me lift?” I didn’t know what to say, other than yes.

As we got on our way she began talking about her life: why she joined us, her aspirations, how hard it was to get a job. At every interview she’d been told to come back when she had more experience. How the hell do you get experience, she said, if no one will give you a job in the first place? As she talked, I realised we had hired a very bright and dynamic young lady.

As we approached London she asked me whether she could ask a question and I said sure. “Why does this company only think new ideas can come from older, experienced managers,” she challenged. “Why is that?”

I asked her what she meant. She told me the whole company was talking about the new club and the executive’s bonus for whoever came up with the right name. “Well,” she said. “I have a name for the club.” I asked her to tell me, and so she did.

I said nothing for 10 minutes. This young lady had done what not one senior executive had. She had nailed it, and I think I was too embarrassed to admit it. I thought back to Lionel’s advice and how right he was on this occasion. The next day at the executive meeting I told the team, who unanimously agreed it was right. She won the prize and I learnt a lesson. Don’t ignore youth, if you do – then do so at your peril. Don’t ever get carried away thinking because you are older, senior, wiser, etc. that you know it all, because you don’t.

The following week we set up a new committee (a think tank) – the only criteria for being on that committee was that you had to be under 25 years old.

So open your ears, and your mind, and open yourself up to the potential that could be lying untapped in your business. Or you might find the enthusiasm and insights of youth fall on deaf ears and your business misses out because of it.

If you could use some help getting the most out of your staff and developing your company why not let me help you during our five-day mentoring retreat in Tuscany this October?

This is an article series based on lessons learned from my great mentor Lionel Morely Joel. Read the first article to understand the background and then dip in and out of the lessons as you please.

How well do you know your accounts?

Lesson #6: If you don’t know the key KPIs that drive your business – you don’t know your business!

In this lesson, why you need to know your accounts better than the accountants.

Even though I didn’t have much of a schooling I was always good at maths, I’m sure in no small part thanks to the market-stall education I received, where I needed to be very quick with figures. It was quite an education, and if you’re interested in a bit of a laugh you can read about one of my favourite stories here.

In any case, back to today’s lesson. After a few years under Lionel’s tutelage he thought that I should run the monthly management accounts meeting, which basically told us how the company was going and how each magazine was performing. Lionel would still chair the meeting but I was to run the agenda. At the first meeting under this new structure Lionel did something that he had never done before. He stopped the meeting mid-flow.

“Eddie,” he said. “I want to ask you some questions about this month’s report.”

He then went on to ask me 10 questions about the management accounts reports and specifically about the key KPIs of the business. Although I was good at maths and understood figures, I hadn’t spent much time digesting the reports and could only answer four of his questions correctly. He closed the meeting, calling it a waste of time. As I went to leave (quickly), I heard a soft “Eddie stay behind please.” (Here we go again, I thought.)

He explained that it took the accounts team a long time to provide us with those figures and that they were our lifeblood.

“They tell us where we have been, and where we are going. They are our road map,”he said. “And the best you could do was answer four out of the 10 questions I asked.”

And so he said that I must learn the key KPIs that made Newbourne profitable, and that I must go through the management accounts every month with these in mind. I had to go beyond just reading them. I must understand and question them. And never again ignore them. He provided sufficient stick to get me to do it: warning that at next month’s meeting I would again be asked 10 questions, and he expected me to get nine out of 10 right.

Luckily I did. And this one lesson, more than any other, has stood me in incredible stead for a career at the helm of businesses. From that day I have always scrutinised the monthly accounts; always made sure I understood the key KPIs that make a company profitable (normally there are only two to three really key ones).

Many times business leaders and executives undervalue the role the finance team play in a business. They spend days compiling figures so directors and managers have a real understanding of last month’s result (good or bad) and the trend for the year. They can provide insights and prescriptive information that is so critical to business planning. So when you think about your key players in your team don’t undervalue your finance team and the figures they provide you with. But equally don’t leave it all to them; you should know your business’s finances inside out and what stories these little figures are telling you. Even at the market stall we knew our key KPIs. Do you know yours?

If you could use some help getting to grips with the finances in your business why not let me help you during our five-day mentoring retreat in Tuscany this October?

This is an article series based on lessons learned from my great mentor Lionel Morely Joel. Read the first article to understand the background and then dip in and out of the lessons as you please. 

Next: How listening to your young employees will improve your business.

Have the courage to face the truth about your business

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to change course, even when you are in front.

In this article I discuss the dangers of complacency.

Over the years, there have been amazing success stories of companies who knew they needed to make changes in order to prosper. Not many of us know it but Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram evolved from apps that never gained traction in their previous incarnation. Nor that Suzuki’s origins were in looming and Nokia’s as a paper mill. There are just as many who didn’t. Blockbuster and Blackberry anyone?

Within our group of publications at Newbourne we had a publication called The Baby Book (not the most intriguing name), and it was a very successful publication. We distributed 650,000 copies to expectant mums through 250 UK hospitals. Uniquely at the time, we over-printed the front cover with the name of the hospital, and inside the front and back cover we inserted information specific to each hospital, such as visiting times. So to the expectant mum it looked like the publication was produced by their local hospital.

This was 1975 and no small task to personalise a book for 250 hospitals, but it worked really well and was extremely profitable. Moreover, this one publication generated more than 100,000 reader inquiries per annum, from mums asking for more details from advertisers. After five years we had a database of more than 500,000 names, which in turn allowed us to earn additional income from list broking (there were no data protection laws like today).

At the same time, the Midwives Association were very concerned about the amount of advertising material being made available to mums, so they were calling for more and more and restrictions to be put in place. One day Lionel called me into his office and said we needed to start looking for alternative distribution channels to reach mums. He believed within two years the hospital distribution of The Baby Book would be severely restricted if not stopped entirely.

“That won’t happen,” I disagreed. It was our most profitable title, we had good relationships with all the hospitals and the hospitals wanted the book so why change course?

Lionel insisted we start to plan for such an eventuality, so within the next two years we launched two new baby publications, with very different distribution channels. We now had our contingency in place, and of course (as so often happened), Lionel was right. The Midwives Association’s voice got louder and slowly eroded our distribution at hospitals, to such an extent that within three years only 100 hospitals were still taking personalised copies of The Baby Book.

The lesson was very simple. Just because you are in front it does not mean you are going to stay there, especially if circumstances beyond your control are looming in the background.

Thinking of print publishing more generally is another good example, this time where a whole industry failed to look ahead not just a single company. Through the newspaper industry ran “Rivers of Gold” (recruitment, real estate and classified advertising). Then websites started being launched, not by the publishers but independently. I remember a very well-known newspaper publisher saying to me that a recruitment website wouldn’t work. He thought it was a waste of time (how he regrets that statement now) and he was not alone. The Rivers of Gold were deep, many thought endless, and by the time they realised what was happening for many it was too late.

Custom publishing was no different. In 2009 at Edge (formerly Edge Custom Media), where I was CEO for seven years, we were doing really well, winning many new clients and all looked good. But it soon become apparent that custom publishing was going to be affected to the migration to online publishing just as much – or more – than mainstream publishing. So we decide to completely change direction and transform ourselves into a content-marketing agency.

“Why? When you are doing so well, winning all these new accounts. Why change, why reposition?” one of our major competitors asked me when we rebranded. But thank God we did. Edge made it through the transition and through the financial crisis, while many of our original peers were not so fortunate.

So what is it that separates those companies that evolve and prosper from the rest? I think author Steve Tobak puts it well:

“The truth is staring you right in the face. Every company I’ve watched go down the tubes in agonising slow motion – from Sun to Blackberry – had one thing in common: executives and directors living in denial. Don’t live in denial. Have the courage to face the truth and deal with reality.”

The world is changing at such fast pace, what is successful today can become irrelevant tomorrow. It’s more difficult to predict the future than ever before, but if you stick your head in the sand, one thing’s for sure you will get run over.

If you could use some help wrestling with challenges in your business why not join our mentoring retreat in Tuscany this October?

This is an article series based on lessons learned from my great mentor Lionel Morely Joel. Read the first article to understand the background and then dip in and out of the lessons as you please. 

Next: Why you need to know the finances better than your accountants.