Entrepreneurial ego

“A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.” – Herman Melville

One of the more benign legacies left by the Thatcher government was the raising of the profile of the entrepreneur. There is no doubt that the starting of new businesses is crucial to the health of the overall economy and that it requires a specific skillset that most people, me for one, don’t possess. However, like most things in business, it has somehow become distorted along the way. Driven by a combination of political spin, television game shows and the fact that all true entrepreneurs are naturally a bit of a chancer in the first place, that entirely appropriately raised profile has morphed into a something of a cult. Anyone who has successfully started a business (1) is now regarded as an expert in every field under the sun and called upon to bestow their opinion on us at every opportunity, regardless of whether they have any direct experience of the subject under discussion or not. As it happens Luke Johnson’s column in the FT on Wednesday 28th August (subscription required) is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about, but I want to focus on one those entrepreneurs who have been called in to advise the civil service by the current government. The previous administration hired proper industrialists like Sir Peter Gershon to advise them (although in fairness they also called upon the ludicrous John Birt and the showboating buffoon Digby Jones), but this lot have enlisted the assistance of a cohort of those whose main qualification seems to be self-promotion.

One of these entrepreneur ‘experts’ tweeted recently (and proudly it would seem) that the advice he had given to civil servants involved in procurement was that they should treat every pound they spend as if it were the last pound in their own pocket. And to me the shallowness, triteness and sheer imbecility of that advice sums up why seeking the input of people like this is pointless to the point of being counter-productive.

Firstly, it’s pompous, arrogant and patronising in the extreme to imply that those being addressed are unfamiliar with a concept (that of of spending money carefully) which the speaker alone has a special insight into. Secondly, the advice is completely vacuous. When the procurement executives are faced with a purchase requisition and think to themselves “that nice man said I should behave as if I only had a pound in my pocket” then what practical steps follow from that? I would suggest none whatsoever. It is an empty, meaningless phrase dreamed up only to sound good.

Thirdly, it’s intellectually unsound. It assumes that ‘last pounds in pockets’ are homogenous, whereas a moments reflection on the work of Abraham Maslow would indicate that this is not so. Consider a wealthy, successful man (possibly an entrepreneur even) who steps out of a nice restaurant late one night and walks towards his car. He sees a homeless man sitting on the pavement (2) and decides that a bit of self-actualisation is in order. He reaches into his pocket and finds that he only has a one pound coin, which he takes out and drops into the second man’s outstretched hand. The homeless man, who now also has just one pound in his pocket decides, in accordance with Maslow’s theory, that he would rather satisfy his physiological needs and uses it to buy some cheap cider. So which of these two are our procurement executives expected to emulate? To give the money away as charity, or to buy something that will bring illusory short term benefits but with a long term cost. That’s an essentially rhetorical question and all I will say is that if was a civil servant forced to listen to the type of sanctimonious nonsense proffered by the entrepreneur on Twitter then I’d take the White Lightning option every time.

(1) As I have written so many times that now even I am bored with it, in my opinion most of the success of most people is down to luck anyway

(2) If Leeds is anything to judge by, he will actually see quite a few

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Unintended consequences

“Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.” – Benjamin Franklin

I am a collector of things that go wrong within businesses – much more so than of things that go right. I suspect that’s because, in my experience, one can rarely repeat success (1), whereas failure has a habit of popping up again and again. And today I came across a classic example that I felt worth recording immediately.

I have been frequenting an independent coffee shop in central Leeds on and off for a couple of months; more so recently since the other one that I used to use a lot closed rather abruptly. Like most such places it has a loyalty card scheme: buy seven hot drinks and you get a regular size hot drink for free. Now I’m a large cappuccino man (and increasingly, with all this coffee, I am a large, cappuccino man) and the first time that I finished a card I was served by the owner who gave me a free regular drink and allowed me to upgrade to a large by paying the difference, all of which seemed reasonable to me.

Today, presenting my second completed loyalty card and in the absence of the owner, my attempt to do the same thing was met by the charming young ladies behind the till with a quick discussion in, I think, Polish and then they declined the extra and simply gave me the large drink instead of a regular. “It’s not worth our while.” one of them said when I asked why they hadn’t taken my money. I obviously enquired as to why and all became apparent. They are incentivised on the average amount rung up on the till – hence the constant suggestions of a brownie or a muffin to go with one’s drink – and therefore ringing up an amount so much less than the norm would cost them money. On which basis they refused to take it, thereby costing the owner and, presumably the designer of the scheme, money instead.

(1) In fact this was the subject of very first blog posting on 14th April 2013

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Networking for the interim manager

Having rested the creative juices for a short period I am minded to indulge myself by writing on a topic of little interest to anyone else. I have been networking – at least to the extent that one can during August – and, in consequence, reviewing its effectiveness as a tool. Now, I am not a natural networker; whilst I might not be a stereotypical accountant, neither am I completely at ease talking to people I don’t know let alone asking them to do something for me. However, the question I want to address is actually the issue of with whom to network.

Identifying who to talk to is difficult for a number of reasons:

  • Interim managers on assignment are, in my experience, mostly allochthonous. The person who may have a role for you is never anywhere near where you are.
  • Sponsors of interim management appointments are many and various, and can occur across the whole range of stakeholders: owners, managers, lenders, etc. You’d be surprised how often it is down to another interim already in place.
  • The requirement is often very short notice; clients seemingly unable to plan ahead even in cases as clear cut as cover for maternity leave. This means that virtually anyone you meet will be sitting there thinking, correctly, that they don’t currently have a requirement for what you’re selling.

So, given all that, why do I bother? Well, firstly, it can’t do any harm. It may be hubris on my part, but in my view no-one is going to be less likely to give me a role after having met me. If anyone has a different opinion then feel free to keep it to yourself (1). Secondly, it may, in an oblique way, actually do some good. Speaking to people from different organisations and backgrounds allows one to synthesise an overview of the general economy and of various sectors within it; names will be mentioned that either one didn’t know or one didn’t realise could be useful to know; and at the very least there will probably be a new LinkedIn connection. And, thirdly and to me most importantly, after overcoming my inherent shyness and reluctance I find the process turns out to be a source of energy and enthusiasm rather than a consumer of it. After a meeting spent explaining what I do and, in a suitably understated British manner, how good I am at doing it, I feel better about myself and more enthused about looking for the next assignment.

“Oh, let none think his labour is lost because the fruit does not immediately appear.” – John Wesley

(1) “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.” – Franklin P. Jones

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Sector experience

In his latest blog posting Simon Gough of Interim Partners asks, rhetorically, whether sector experience is important for interims when carrying out an assignment. I say rhetorically because he – and we – knew the answer in advance: interim managers think that it isn’t, but end clients think that it is. Having successfully carried out assignments in sectors as diverse as boiled sweets and sub-sea vehicles I share the consensus view of my peers. However, given that it is the clients who both hold the budgets and make the decisions, I realise that it doesn’t really matter what we think.

I don’t delude myself that I’ve had the opportunities to work across sectors due to any special qualities that I possess; it has more to do with the changing size and nature of the market. When I first became an interim manager there were fewer of us and, on occasion, clients had to accept someone from outside the sector. The market has grown, but the number of assignments has grown more slowly than those offering their services. When hiring interims today one is much more likely to be able to recruit someone who has the requisite sector experience and that’s almost certainly the way that those making the decision are going to go.

There are, however, perhaps three things that one can do:

Firstly, if one assumes that the client’s approach is predicated on the risk (to them personally as well as to their company) of hiring someone with no sector experience, then the best way to get past that is to highlight the risk of hiring an interim who hasn’t addressed the specific problem that they have. One minimises the sector issue by maximising the task issue.

Secondly, sector is a fairly vague term and I think that one should attempt to place both one’s own experience and the client’s business in as widely delineated areas as possible so that when one draws the (metaphorical) Venn diagram there is a large intersection.

Thirdly, we all need to bear in mind that if a ‘generalist’ muscled in on a sector in which we considered ourselves to be an expert then we would be somewhat put out. We should acknowledge the possibility that there is at least some validity in a requirement for sector knowledge. Identifying and highlighting our sector strengths can only help in getting us to the front of the queue.

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