Five Lessons from Leicester 

May 3, 2016

Unless you are from another galaxy, or America, it’s unlikely that the David and Goliath story that is this season’s English Premier League has passed you by.

As such, I feel it is my duty to attempt what pretty much every other business commentator will be doing; make profound connections between sporting and business success.  I just hope you read mine before you are fed up with everyone else’s.


Obligatory picture of Leicester City football players teaching business a spurious lesson about something or other.

1 Take the team for a pizza for the slightest reason

Pundits have snorted at manager Claudio Ranieri’s motivational tool of taking his players out for a pizza when they finished a game without conceding a goal. How could such a pathetic reward motivate high earning sportsmen?

It’s not about the reward, it’s about celebrating small successes together, and importantly, spending time outside of the workplace getting to know each other. Seeing each other in a different way, learning to be around each other, learning to care for each other. That’s team-building.

2 Know your job and keep it simple

Leicester City are not a team made up of high flyers by top professional footballing standards. They are competent individuals at their level, no more. What’s important is that each of them knows his job, believes in his ability to do it well, understands how his role contributes to the whole, and gets on with what he is supposed to do.

At the point of winning the title Leicester City had the fourth best disciplinary record in the division. Maintaining discipline translates to maintaining individual focus in the world of work, not resisting the urge to gouge your competitors’ eyes out. When an employee maintains focus on their task they make fewer mistakes.

3 Minimise mistakes

If you can get your team members to do their job well, mistakes are minimised. A high number of mistakes leads failure, and no matter how talented your team is on the attack – innovating, selling, marketing – if you can’t get the basics of the operation right you’ll lose customers (or let in goals) faster than you can gain (score) them, and as everyone knows, customer acquisition costs about five times as much as customer retention. Leicester have conceded fewer goals than all but two teams in the division.

4 Minimise staff turnover

Leicester City have used fewer players than any other team during the Premiership campaign. Every time someone leaves or joins it causes disruption. Disruption means performance is compromised. Staff retention is absolutely crucial to the success of any team.

5 Don’t work too hard

Actually I have no idea whether Leicester’s training schedule was more or less arduous than that of other teams. I’m just chucking this in here because I want to.

Training too hard increases the chances of injury. In terms of business, working too hard reduces motivation and life balance. Being healthy is critical to performing well at work. Strings of late nights in the office are not good for the individual, the business or the customers. Balancing work with other activities; physical, social and intellectual, is good for business.


So, if you adopt some of these ideas for your team, who knows, maybe next year they will win all sorts of awards for their performance?

And then the following year they’ll probably be struggling to avoid relegation again.




Be Like a Curious Interim

December 14, 2015

One of the qualities that marks out a great interim consultant is their ability to understand the problem their new client is dealing with quickly and without fuss.

They come to the situation without the baggage of history and are therefore free from any emotion or relationship issues that might contaminate their judgement.  That’s not to say they are cold and unfeeling, just that they can be objective.


To do this they challenge the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude.  If they feel the problem has some sort of institutional component they can name it as such.

I wish it wasn’t only interims who did this.  How much more positive would it be if employers invited new starters to look objectively at their business once they are on the inside, and to ask questions about how things are done?

I’m not suggesting that the new recruit looks to criticise, nor that the business should be obliged to act on what is raised.  Neither am I saying that the new employee should come up with solutions or alternatives to whatever it is they have noticed.

I’m saying that a new pair of eyes and a free mind can ask innocent questions that encourage the business to think about what they do and why they do it that way.  If the outcome is to do no more than encourage the business to articulate out loud their reasons for certain behaviours then that is really very healthy.

As a counsellor I spend much of my time asking questions of my clients.  Not because I’m nosy, not because I know the answer and want the client to confirm it for me, and not because I believe there’s something to be fixed.  I ask questions to give my client the space to consider why they do what they do, what the underlying, unexamined narrative of that behaviour is, and how that behaviour serves them.

Companies and other employing organisations would surely benefit from a similar opportunity, but it can’t easily be done from within.  It requires a curious outsider, unaware of and therefore unaffected by the internal dynamics or history of the organisation to notice things that are odd, and to ask the innocent question “Why?”

Are you brave enough to ask permission to do this next time you start a new role?  More than that, are you brave enough, as an employer, to ask your new recruits to do it?

What we can learn from The Intern about work

October 12, 2015

Hollywood is not great when it comes to portraying the real world of business.  It tends to focus on extreme characters in extreme situations, as you’d expect.  Just occasionally, though, a movie tells a story that most of us with an interest in the world of work can enjoy, and even gain something from.

The Intern is one such film for me.

First of all, I love the idea of senior interns.  This idea taps into my concerns about how experience in the workplace is largely undervalued.  I’ve never heard of this actually happening except, I suppose, in the voluntary sector, but Robert De Niro’s character, Ben, demonstrates exactly what is lost when older employees are written off.  He brings calm and offers wisdom because he’s seen it all before and he’s not overwhelmed by change. To think that when you reach a certain again you are no longer capable of adapting has always seemed ludicrous to me. Some find change easier than others, some embrace it while others resist it, and it doesn’t matter how old you are.

Ben (Robert De Niro) and Jules (Anne Hathaway) learning from each other in The Intern.

Ben (Robert De Niro) and Jules (Anne Hathaway) learning from each other in The Intern.

If you are aware of any senior intern schemes I’d love to hear about it.  Please leave a comment.

Another point made by the film is that it’s not specific technical knowledge that is needed, even in a high-tech business.  Obviously, this depends on the role, but so many times have I read job descriptions asking for industry experience when clearly it is not required. Often it’s used as a tool to reduce the number of applications, but I would argue that it’s a bad way of doing so, because there’s something lost when organisation exclude those from outside their sector.  Inbreeding is not healthy.

However, the really important message I thought the film made was to do with the way women entrepreneurs, and for that we can assume all senior women executives, often feel they are making a sacrifice to fulfil their business dream.  What man would worry over his right to be committed to his work the way Jules (Anne Hathaway) does? The movie asks why women are even in a position where they question their choice to be the hard working mum with the stay-at-home husband.

Finally, another point the film makes that is relevant to everyone at work:  eat well, sleep well, exercise and make time for friends and family. That’s how to ensure you perform at your best at work.

I very much enjoyed The Intern and if none of this has persuaded you to see it, then I’ll just add that there’s a very nice neck massage scene too.

Why the best leaders are sometimes the least talented

August 6, 2015

The BBC have made a series of short films, #CEOSecrets, in which they ask Business leaders a very simple question: “What is the advice you wish you’d had when you started out?”

The three most frequently given answers were

a) surround yourself with the right people,

b) network all the time, and

c) get on with it!

The third is certainly true, but a bit trite so I won’t comment on that.

If you’ve known me for a while you will know how important I think networking is.  People who are out of work often find it difficult to network if they haven’t been active networkers during their career,  because they haven’t accumulated much social capital, and this makes it difficult to ask for help. That’s why I always encourage clients to make time to network when they are in work instead of burying themselves completely in the new job.  Networking is part of working. It’s how we become effective at work and is not simply done for personal benefit. If you don’t network you’re not doing your job properly.

The first point also interests me very much.  Of the senior business leaders and business owners I have met, the smart ones are those who openly admit to not knowing everything and who have carefully recruited people with complementary skills to run the show for them.  One even happily talks about bringing in much cleverer people than himself. These people claim not to be smart, but actually they are the smartest. Maybe not in terms of IQ, but certainly in terms of EQ.  In fact I’d argue that emotional intelligence is far more important for a business leader than IQ.

Contrast those leaders with entrepreneurs and senior managers who are either so insecure that they recruit people who will make them look clever, or are such control freaks that they do everything themselves. Either way the organisation will suffer.

Is it easy to be a “smart” leader as I have described?  No, is the short answer.  It takes self-awareness, humility and confidence.

  • Self-awareness to understand where the gaps lie between the capability you have and the capability the organisation needs.
  • Humility to know that it’s impossible to build a substantially sized business on your own.
  • Confidence to know that by doing all this you are not going to be considered a talentless waste of space but instead a leader of talent.

Interestingly for me as a counsellor as well as career coach, humility and confidence grow out of self-awareness.  When people understand themselves to a level at which they can acknowledge and accept their weaknesses, humility follows, and then so does personal confidence. Not only that, but of course knowing your weaknesses is the first step on the journey of managing them.

All of which ties up with another of the pieces of advice given by the CEOs questioned by the BBC:  Learn from your mistakes.

It’s not about the money, money, money.

May 16, 2015

At a panel discussion on the banking industry I attended a few months ago, someone asked if it was possible to attract talent to senior positions without the promise of high, guaranteed bonuses.  A senior HR executive from one of the major corporate banks and an academic both answered, quite confidently,  that they thought it was.  Bonuses, they agreed, could be much less than they currently are and banks would still attract top talent.  The academic even said that talented people are not particularly motivated by money, but by the cut and thrust of deal-making.  They want to be in the thick of big M&A activity.  It’s a myth that the banks need to pay big bucks in order to stop top talent from joining other industries.

I asked why the banks didn’t bring their bonuses to a level that the rest of society would find reasonable. The answer was that none of the big players had the guts to try it.  In other words, they were frightened of losing talent not to other sectors but to each other.  If one bank blinks the talent will not be interested in joining and eventually what talent they have will disappear.  If so, then there’s no question that the only way to deal with the matter is at the industry, if not, governmental level.

It has been proved many times that a strategy based around providing the best possible work experience is a more effective way to retain talent than paying the most.  Indeed it was proved just last week by my friends at Goodman Masson, the finance industry recruiters.  Their staff turnover level is well below 20% in an industry where average turnover exceeds 30%. A four point approach won Goodman Masson the coveted Great Place to Work award for Best Workplace in the medium size business category, and those four points are 1) Giving employees the tools and infrastructure to do their job well, 2) Giving them opportunities to develop professionally, 3) Paying them well and correctly, and 4) Giving them an environment they won’t want to leave. (Click here for the full report).

Note that the third point does not talk about excessively high pay, but it does suggest that Goodman Masson aim to be competitive with pay. They recognise that while remuneration is an important factor in staff retention, it’s not sustainable as the only tool in the box, because all it takes is for a competitor to offer more for the strategy to fall flat on its face. It’s the rest of the package that’s really important because that’s what creates the culture required that stops people wanting to leave.  You will never build engagement by throwing money at your staff.  In fact the more you throw at them the more they understand that you don’t care about them, but that you are simply buying them.  People like to feel loved.

Retention comes from engagement and commitment to the company.  It’s about creating an environment with shared values and where people appreciate that the company cares about them.

Now it may well be the case that bankers are somehow different to everyone else and are only interested in money, but that’s not my experience.  In my experience some bankers are perfectly decent and lovely people, and some are something that rhymes with “bankers”.  In other words, they’re pretty much like anyone else.

Can banks change? That’s not looking likely given that they are still a very long way from understanding that a business can stand for something more in the world than profit.  Goodman Masson stands for caring about its people.  Their priority is not about constantly demanding improved results from their staff. As a result of this employee engagement is high and guess what – performance is constantly on the up.

Twenty-somethings and the World of Work

April 16, 2015
“Can you help my child to move their career forward?” is a question I’m often asked.  My first response is to ask whether it’s the child or the parent who is worried.  It’s usually the parent who, understandably, is concerned that their child should start to climb the career ladder and is able to live independently as soon as possible.

If you’re a parent of one of those twenty-somethings, here are a few thoughts that may help you to manage your concerns.

The first thing to say is that it takes time for some people to decide what they want to do and are best suited to.  Don’t worry if your son or daughter spends the first few years of their working life trying different jobs.  this will help them  to work out where their strengths and interests lie.  Are they better suited to working with the public, a close set of colleagues or largely alone?  Do they like to be moving about or sitting behind a desk?  Can they sell? (I always recommend people try at least one job where they have to sell – it’s excellent training for all areas of work). Do they like the cut and thrust of business, or are they better suited to something that is related to social values?

Think of those first few years as a set of extended paid internships and by the end of it they will know themselves pretty well.  I like to think that in the future there will be far fewer people coming to see me around the age of 40 having realised that they have been unhappy for the best part of twenty years because they entered a career without knowing if it really was right for them.

Secondly,  the world of work is probably very different compared with when you started out.  There’s much less long-term careering nowadays.  The workplace is changing so rapidly that skills needs come and go almost overnight.  I think you’re going to see many more people who enter the job market today end up with upwards of four or five different careers behind them.  By the time they end their working life there’s a chance that some of their early jobs will be as obscure and obsolete to their grandchildren as a lamplighter is to us.  In other words, they might look like they are drifting from one thing to another, but the reality is that this is how many people will work in the future.

Which brings me on to my next thought: I don’t think the current generation entering the workforce think about work in the same way as we and our parents did.  Many are still motivated to achieve in a professional sense.  They are concerned about being able to enjoy a good quality of life and they worry about whether they will ever be able to own a property.   Nonetheless, a career (and life more generally) for the next generation will not be about climbing a ladder, but about gathering a range of fulfilling and challenging experiences.

One final thought.  Your children are going to be a long time working.  Much longer than us.  They are going to live longer, and if they retire at 60 or 65 they’re going to struggle on a pension plan that will need to stretch for perhaps 40 years.  They know that they are probably still going to be fit enough to work into their 80’s and they know they will probably need to.  Is it any wonder they’re not all champing at the bit to get started on their career now? In a sense they are bringing their retirement forward.  Instead of going on cruises at the end of their working life, they’re going to irrigate African villages at the beginning of it.

In conclusion, don’t worry that your child appears not to be engaging in their career they way you might expect them to do.  They are probably looking it through a different lens.  Their world of work is very different to yours, and the way they are approaching it probably looks strange to you, but not to them.

Put your phone down for a minute and read this please

December 13, 2014

Yes, I’m talking to you, sitting over there in the corner playing Candy Crush Saga.  Don’t think you haven’t been spotted.

I do feel sorry for Nigel Mills.  Sort of.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of readers of this newsletter have, at some time if not regularly, been bored in a meeting and decided to check their emails.  I would even go as far as to say that a few of you have played games when stuck in a meeting.

One of the problems of the modern world of work is that there are just too many meetings, and they go on far too long.  I was in a meeting this week and the convenor, only half joking, suggested that it would be over and done with a lot more quickly if he removed the chairs.  An idea I’ve heard suggested before and not a bad one.  

We’re obsessed with meetings, and they are usually not efficient.  Think about it.  Eight people in an hour long meeting.  That’s a working day right there, but they are not all working.  OK, there is a value in a group of people sharing ideas and bouncing off each other, but most meetings are not like that.  Most meetings are a series of one to one conversations where people go round the table reporting to the chair on something or other.  Do the rest of the participants really need to be there or can those reports be shared in some other way?  

Yet it’s more than just boredom that drives some people to their mobile phones.

There are many who express their sense of being ignored or undervalued by passive withdrawal, by which I mean they deliberately and obviously detach themselves from the group.  

I’m not saying that Nigel Mills falls into this category.  Maybe he really was bored during the committee session.  Nonetheless, to explain his behaviour as the result of boredom would certainly be the politicians way of handling it.

There can’t be many who would deny that they might find sitting through a tedious hearing as boring, so he’d attract the “he’s only human just like the rest of us” vote. It’s a much better claim to make than “Nobody was interested in what I had to say so I decided to draw attention to myself by playing with my phone”.  That response is only going to result in 60 million citizens clamouring for his resignation as yet another immoral, egotistical MP.

Whatever the real reason, he wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last because many, many meetings are unnecessary wastes of time.

But Candy Crush Saga?  Really?