How credible is your business plan?

All too often, when writing a business plan, you get too wrapped up in your vision of the company’s unquestionable success and you fail to follow some simple rules that investors will punish you for. Top of that list for many is whether that business plan is credible and is therefore trustworthy enough for people to lend you money or invest in you. They need to believe in you. So, before getting started, and once finished, take the time to ask yourself these three questions that will determine how credible your business plan is.

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Once upon a time, off the coast of China…

I had a “road to Damascus” moment.

First, you need to understand how I came to be on that road in the first place.

My parents had worked very hard to send me to a good school – at great personal cost, as they came from a working class background.

I was aware of the cost to my family of my schooling, so as a teenager I looked for ways to make myself financially independent. I had already decided to become an engineer, so I went looking for sponsorships for a degree, and then a future career.

I was selected to become an officer in Royal Navy, and then to become a University Cadet – one of a small number of each year’s trainees who attended a civilian university to get their degrees, whilst being paid a salary, and spending a year in the RN doing basic training with an operational deployment as a “gap year”. My gap year finished with six months in the Middle East, on a warship escorting tankers in and out of the Straits of Hormuz, learning about leadership and operations in a high profile, high stress scenario.

I spent three years at Cambridge enjoying student life and getting my Engineering degree before returning to the RN in 1992. It was a bit of a shock going from being a student to deploying for the Gulf War a month later! That deployment was for seven months and taught me lots of lessons about planning, risk and leadership. Being on a war footing showed how sometimes procedures and policies needed to be bent: balancing risks to personnel and machinery against the need to achieve operational aims.

I stayed in the RN doing various jobs; learning about project management, engineering operations, planning, and how seemingly minor events can have a disproportionate impact, sometimes thousands of miles away.

After thirteen years service, I was sat on a warship with nearly 1000 marines onboard, loitering off the coast of China as the UK handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese. We were there to provide additional backup to the police force, should there be large-scale civil unrest during the process.

Being a warship, the team onboard are always practising for when the unthinkable needs to happen: a shooting conflict breaks out.

We were doing a damage control exercise, where we simulated being hit by bombs or missiles that generated fires, smoke and system failure. My job was to lead the damage control function, particularly around the machinery that generated power, kept us moving, enabled us to fight fires etc. All the things that allowed us to deliver the command priorities: fight, move and float. It was a high pressure job controlling the efforts of around 100 people.

I suddenly realised that I didn’t believe in what I was doing any more, or in what the RN was trying to achieve. My next job was going to be leading a department of 60-80 engineers and technicians in a smaller ship that would be sent all over the world to do various jobs, some of them quite dangerous. I realised I couldn’t lead a team effectively if I couldn’t lead them with authenticity. The authenticity wasn’t there because I no longer believed in what I was being asked to do.

It took eighteen months from that point to resign, serve my twelve months’ notice period, and start a new job delivering ground breaking IT solutions to a large government department. Even now, more than fifteen years later, my contemporaries in the Royal Navy still think my resignation was a brave thing to do…

4 ways to stop good employees from leaving

One of the key roles of a leadership position is to retain and motivate your team to the best of your ability. Indeed, retention is a key metric that indicates the health of the organisation. If you believe you have a good team with a number of exceptional employees, ensuring that those individuals stay within your organisation should be one of your priorities: a high turnover of staff doesn’t portray the best image of your company, nor does it help with productivity in the long-run and replacing people costs money. In addition, any specialist knowledge or contacts the leavers have will leave with them – potentially to a competitor.

Here are a few top tips to prevent your best employees from leaving:

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Leadership lessons from Eddie Jones

It is that time of year when groups of men gather from all corners of Europe and come together to represent their countries by putting their bodies on the line: yes, the 6 Nations is here again. This tournament provides some fascinating insights in to leadership every year: how do you motivate people to give their best in an environment where there is real risk to their health? What are the leadership lessons that can be used in everyday scenarios?

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3 proven leadership lessons from sports coaches

When it comes to finding inspirational leadership within the massive sports arena, you need look no further than the coach. Sports stars are often well-rewarded for their efforts on the pitch but they still have to be motivated to put their bodies on the line – often with real risk of injury or death. The person that does this is the coach. This one-man miracle has the power to make or break a team of trained athletes. Typically, he or she becomes more than equal to the sum of the parts that make up the actual team. Here we discuss three leadership lessons from sporting greats that have proven time and time again to be worth their weight in sporting gold.

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Building a team to do something we have never done before….

“Change is constant and the pace is getting quicker” is the common wisdom and I haven’t seen anything that disproves it. This means that organisations and teams need to change and evolve constantly. As internal and external forces act on them or their area of operations change, they have to react. Often organisations need to do something new or different to get the organisation to grow, service new or different customers, deal with staff changes etc. etc. This cycle of change means that there needs to be a constant focus on improving operations and also building the team to make sure it is capable of delivering what is needed.

Sometimes the shift in focus is even bigger than that. New products, new services, new technology or new markets mean that the organisation needs to do things differently or do something new. So how do you build a team to do something that you have never done before?

As ever, sport provides some interesting parallels that we can use. Football is the obvious choice but I would like to look at the approach being taken to win the oldest sporting trophy in the world, one that we have never won before: the America’s Cup.

As in other team sports, sailing a yacht is very much a group activity that takes skill, practice, fitness and passion to succeed at. Overarching all of those things are teamwork and communications. It is perfectly possible for a better led, less fit but stronger team to beat one that has “better” people in it. That is not to say that other attempts to win the cup haven’t focused on teamwork. They have but they have started in a different place than the current team: they have recruited the most capable sailors possible and tried to build them in to a team.

Numerous times in my career I have heard or read job ads that talk about “we only hire the best”, “you need to be outstanding in your field”, “I want the best sales and marketing director!” etc. etc. And how many times have we known someone like that moving on quite quickly? Leaders underestimate the damage that can be caused by recruiting an extreme “alpha-male” ego in to an organisation. Yes, there will be some disruption whoever gets recruited as that is what happens in the team lifecycle. There will need to be some team building done in all cases but successful teams contain members who are willing to join in for the benefit of the organisation. However, “rock stars” often aren’t as there is little in it for them: they are utterly focused on getting what they need to do done – often to the detriment of others.

Sir Ben Ainsley, one of our most decorated Olympians, is choosing to do something different. He has realised that teamwork is vital so he has looked for sailors that are “good enough” or “fit enough” to work with but who also work well together. He has taken the approach that the whole team, including himself, are on a journey together and that they will all improve and succeed or fail together.

All the news from the team is here:

We will find out next year whether his team will finally bring the cup back to the UK after over 130 years of trying.

Bad News and Leadership – Part 2

Bad news girlIn the last blog article, I took at an example of best practice when bad news comes from within your team. However, bad news can also come from anywhere else. For example, it could be from external sources or the rest of the management team. Even changing business circumstances can (and should) make it obvious that action needs to be taken and change needs to happen. It doesn’t really matter what the nature of the change is, some will see it as bad news.

As before, you cannot avoid it and its potential impacts on your team. It is also highly unlikely that you are going to have all the answers at the outset. As always, honesty is the best policy. People will know when you are being cagey or hiding something. Being authentic as a leader is a vital quality that helps build loyalty and trust, particularly in times of uncertainty.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the bush telegraph in the office works very, very quickly. And on the back of very little information, some supposition and a whole lot of leaping to conclusions! This means that it is unlikely that you are likely to manage to keep things completely quiet. Therefore, communications and message management are going to become a key activities for you as events unfold.

As I said before, any change will be viewed as bad by someone in the team and you will need to explain what is going to happen. However, the key thing is the “why?” You must also describe the options you looked at, why the choice of that particular path was made and the benefits the change will bring. It is vitally important that your team appreciate that their leadership have explored all the options and made a rational decision, rather than one based on gut feel. It is also important that the team appreciate that the organisation is more important than any one member of it and that a fair solution to the issue has been sought.

Finally, you need to communicate all this:

  • use the most appropriate methods
  • present information in ways that all personalities can understand
  • be consistent with your message and be positive about the way forward

People look to their leadership for a sensible, rational way forward to a place that is better than where they are now. Your job is to communicate that vision and keep on communicating it. In fact, it isn’t possible to over-communicate about change, the rationale for it and where you are going as a team.


photo credit: Bad Girl via photopin (license)

Bad news and leadership – Part 1

Bad news is not the best thing in the world but as a leader but you do have to listen to it, deal with it, work with its implications, results and possibly take decisive action because of it. Over the next couple of blog articles I am going to look at aspects of how you can deal with different types of bad news as a leader. The first one of these is the type that can come from within your team or somewhere else in your organisation.

Picture the scene, and we have all been there: you are on the way to an important meeting or to do something else; your phone rings or someone approaches and you hear the words that mean that something potentially big is coming: “Hello, it is XXXX, have you got a couple of minutes?” Or “Are you aware of….”

The first thing to do in this scenario is get ready to listen. If someone is taking the (potentially brave) step of flagging something up to you, you owe it to them to listen and concentrate on what they are trying to tell you. This is one of those things that must be dealt with at the time it happens. You might have to shuffle your diary or change your plans to accommodate it, but you must find the time for it. If you don’t, then how valued do you think that person will feel? Even if you schedule a meeting later in the day with the person, the chances are the key message will be lost as the mood and motivation will have gone.

Part of getting ready for listening is getting the environment right. If the office is open-plan or the meeting happens on the shop floor, then the chances are that people won’t speak freely and the true problem won’t be identified. So, move somewhere with a bit of quiet and privacy and switch your phone to silent, or off, so you can focus on the person you are meeting with.

This may be a small issue that won’t take too much time or effort but also, it could be an “Enron” which could place the entire organisation in jeopardy but you won’t know until you get more information – lots more! So, before you start jumping to conclusions or planning solutions, get all the relevant information. Some personalities (in MBTI terms, ES’s and EN’s in particular) like to do their thinking “out loud” so won’t necessarily listen or gather all the data before they start speaking. This is a mistake in this scenario so give the person time and space to give you the whole story before coming to any conclusions. You may well find that you have to get information from other people or have to use some constructive questioning techniques to get to the root cause of what is going on.

The other key thing to find out is: what the person is hoping will happen as a result of the conversation. Obviously, some things are more possible/likely than others but you need to manage their expectations about the likely outcome at this early stage. If appropriate, you will also have to keep them updated as events unfold.

Finally, you need to promise some form of investigation or action to resolve the point(s) that have been raised to you. Sitting on it or ignoring it is not an option as it will lose both you and the organisation credibility. Taking action may harm you politically but if you are going to be an authentic leader, then you need to do something about it.

I know of a couple of organisations where a team flagged a particular circumstance that would have grave financial consequences to their leadership for 2 years before those circumstances actually happened. With a bit of analysis, planning and open communication, the organisations would have been in a far better shape to weather the financial storm that engulfed them. And the leadership of those organisations would be far more credible and supported in the future by those teams….

So, in summary:

  • Bad news can come from anywhere and you need to listen to all of it – particularly when it comes from within your organisation.
  • You may need to re-schedule or re-plan your day a result of spending time receiving it.
  • Listening is key before getting in to solutions/actions mode.
  • You then have to take action – ignoring it is not an option – even if it harms you politically.
  • Communications with key stakeholders, as ever, are key.

Changing team members to improve performance

Sport continues to provide some excellent team scenarios that all leaders can learn from. I have used football management as a source of inspiration before and there was more useful advice earlier this year. Sam Allardyce is the current manager of West Ham United FC. He was talking about the realism needed about expectations once major changes have been made to a squad. He used the example of making 9 changes to a group of players and the fact that it takes time to bed down the team. He was forthright about the fact that club owners view changing team members to be a magic bullet to improve results. Rightly, he said that it takes time to do the team building activities required to bring people together and raise performance to the level expected.

So what does that mean for leaders in business? As in football, in business team members need to feel valued and it takes time to build the mutual trust required for mutual reliance. The key thing is spending time together planning, training and testing so that everyone knows how people are going to react to scenarios and who best to use in given circumstances.

It also means that if there are changes to an established group – whether it is performing well or not – there needs to be a period of bedding in. Leaders need to invest in the team, both time and money, for development activities to reduce the time and lost performance that will be the impact of the changes. Even if a leader brings in people who are high performers to drive a step change in delivery, then it will still take time for the everyone to come together and find the new level.

A personal example of this: I used to the in the Royal Navy and the policy was for “trickle drafting” so a ship’s company was always gradually changing. This meant that things were always in a bit of flux in the team. It was only when the ship was deployed and the crew was static for 6 or so months that the team properly came together, aired the issues that needed to be raised and resolved, and learned to trust and rely on each other. The change in atmosphere when the ship returned to the UK and the team started to change again was marked and very rarely positive. It often took significant amounts of training and practice to return the ship to the state of performance it had before.

In summary: if you are changing your team, particularly to improve results, then do not expect progress to happen instantaneously. There is lots of work to be done to take the team to its new level.

Player motivation at the world cup – Part II

I found some of the over and under-achievement by various teams at the football world cup earlier this year fascinating. I am going to take a look at some of the issues that this raised, particularly around motivation, and also the impact on the management of teams in the UK Premiership.

As a non-football fan, I find the impact of teams such as Costa Rica incredible. It is a small country, who were fully behind their team and the players knew this. There didn’t appear to be any “rock stars” but there was a shared ethos, passion and team spirit that meant that meant that everyone wanted to raise their performance to avoid letting their team and their country down.

Let’s contrast that approach with those of Brazil or Portugal: both of these countries relied on superstars. This has some real risks: if the superstar is not playing at their best – everyone has off-days…. – then the whole team won’t get the results they want. Also, if they get injured or suspended, then the rest of the team need to raise their game which may not be that easy in the heat of a tournament. Another way this approach could cause problems is that the superstar can mask the shortfalls in performance of the rest of the team. Then, if they have an off day, the superstar can be working hard with no hope of getting the win they are looking for. This is very demotivating and also presents some physical risks around injury and fatigue.

So why is all this relevant to managers and leaders in organisations? Is your team heavily dependent on one key player who masks shortfalls in other team members? If they are having an off day, on holiday or even off sick, does the performance of your organisation sink? Will their motivation and performance dip if they feel they are not being supported by the rest? Another reason for this being important is that the reliance on one key individual or small group presents a real risk to the business: what happens if they decide to leave, or retire or are incapacitated long term? It is your job as the leader to look at the bigger picture and try and mitigate those obvious risks that could do the organisation damage at a later date.

There was an African side who, famously, had their appearance money flown to Brazil during the tournament. The incident raises a number of issues: is money really a suitable motivator for people to put their bodies on the line for their team or country. Bearing in mind the amount of money in football at the moment, and the massive amount that the stars are being paid then money really doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to them. This was really an issue of trust: the players didn’t really trust the parent associations to pay them what had been agreed to go to the tournament. Not a good way to encourage loyalty and high performance!

The issue of trust is a key one: you have to trust that your team are going to deliver for you and more importantly, they have to believe that you are going to deliver for them.

Finally, the Premiership season has just started again and there has been some discussion in the media about preparation and key team members’ readiness for the new campaign. Fatigue and injury before key activities and high pressure situations are not good things, so my question to you is: are there key people in your team that are permanently working under pressure? Who are so important that they are always busy and your whole team relies on them?

If there are, then what are you doing to provide them with the recovery time (and thanks) that they need to make sure that they are operating at peak performance when you really need them?