Archive for September, 2009

Is your glass half-full or half empty?

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Despite the weather, I think this is a fantastic time of year – but not everyone agrees…

 

‘That’s it, summer’s over…’

‘Next bank holiday is Christmas day…’

‘The weather’s just going to get colder and wetter from now on…’

A group of mums I know, actually went out for a celebration ‘freedom-regained’ breakfast on the first day of term, celebrating that at last the kids were back at school

 

If you want to be pessimistic, that’s fine, but it doesn’t do for me. Because I trained as a farm manager back in nineteen hundred and frozen to death, I see this time of year as the start of something new and exciting.

 

In East Anglia, the cereal harvest is virtually complete, potatoes and onions are being lifted and the sugar beet won’t be long after that.  And next year’s crops are being sown, with diligent tractor-drivers turning the scruffy post-harvest patchwork into a neatly brushed landscape of ploughed and cultivated fields.  It’s the start of the new season and whilst many, like me, find it exciting, quite a few find it a little daunting!

 

Arable farmers have a tough time.  They spend all year planning, nurturing and investing in their crops, and then have a mad couple of months to try and collect the fruits of their labours.  It’s then a case of trying to sell this bounty for as high a price as possible

 

In my college days, we used to say that a farmer’s income was dictated by the quality of his land, influenced by the vagaries of international politics and the weather – and he can’t change any of them!  The bit we missed out was the farmer’s skill, and the quality of the help he got from agronomists and his other advisers.

 

Other industries are not so different.  Our profits are governed by the quality of our staff and our raw materials and the quality of our management.  I suppose the big difference is that we have more control over some of them.

 

With the farmer, once the seed is in the ground, the maximum yield potential has been set – his role from that point is to prevent external influences from reducing it too far: pests, diseases, hostile weather, nutrient imbalances and so on.

 

In other industries, at least we have the chance to change things during the whole year – we can train our staff, we can get help and advice for ourselves and we can improve the marketing of our products to our customers.

 

So yes, of course we must do the best with what we’ve got, but if we want to really achieve something, we also need to grasp the opportunities that come our way as well.

 

So, is your glass half-full or half-empty?  I do remember an engineer offering a third option, “It’s not that the glass is half-full or half-empty – you’re missing the point; obviously the glass was just made too big in the first place.”

Running a business is child’s play?

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Forget management training courses, maybe the best way to hone your business skills is to go on holiday with a young family?

A soggy summer in North Cornwall with two under-eights was a surprisingly enjoyable experience – not least because we British know how to cope with bad weather.  It’s ingrained into us after years of experience.   It was this experience gained from previous trips that made sure we took jumpers, coats and wellies on our beach holiday, and yes, we used them all.

I’m constantly trying to help my two little ‘uns get the most out of life – if I can save them going through some of the more embarrassing or painful lesions I learnt, then that’s got to be a good thing.  Although sometimes even my decades of experience leave me dumbstruck by my four and a half year-old, “Not four and a half, Daddy, four and three-quarters!”  Sorry.

‘Come on sweetheart, of course you need to wear your coat.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s raining!’

‘I don’t understand…’

‘Otherwise you’ll be wet and miserable and whine all the time.’

‘No, not why do I need to wear my coat, but why does God make it rain on holiday?’‘

Oh…’Even on matters of religious rhetoric, being a passive receiver of information just isn’t enough.  Understanding it and learning from it is what matters.  Learning is the key to everything – gaining that thing they call experience. The thing that sets humans apart from lesser life forms – the ability to observe a situation, learn from it and make behavioural changes based on your observations.  It’s this that makes us better at what we we’re doing, stops us making the same mistakes again and again, and ultimately makes us more efficient.

When I recruited staff, I always probed deeply into a candidate’s so-called ‘experience’.  Two hopefuls may have served the same time in a similar position, but the amount that they had learned, the experience that they had gained and therefore the contribution they might make to my business could be very different.  It depends on the individual, their attitudes and the support that they received from those around them.

The last part is very important.  We all need the help of others, like colleagues, friends, mentors, parents, partners and, dare I say, critics to provide us with the alternative viewpoints and opinions that we can’t get on our own.  The fresh pair of eyes, that different perspective can be critical to gaining experience, rather than just going through the motions.  Thinking about what we might learn now, in order to help us in the future.The kids never seem do that.  They live in a bubble of time that only exists in the present.  What happened in the past is largely forgotten – and as for the future, well anything farther ahead than half an hour is largely irrelevant – except for when that all-important birthday is, of course.

Sadly, we adults can’t live like that, and we certainly can’t run our businesses like that.In the business world, I’m finding a lot of owners and managers don’t always have the resources – time or staff – to be able to see the full picture and take time to learn from their experiences.  We’re often happy with how things are going now, nice and busy doing the daily work that brings in this quarter’s cash, but unable to seriously think where next year’s profits are actually going to come from.

This is where our friends and advisors are really important.  Their viewpoints, uncluttered by the daily details that are so important to us, often bring simplicity and clarity of thought.  If we listen to this and act on some of their observations, it may just save us from making the same mistakes again.  And you never know, we may just find our lives are richer in more ways than one.

There are plenty of self-help books and published information, but as we all keep telling our kids, there’s no substitute for listening to someone who’s either done it before, or who’s quickly able to spot the key issues within a situation. 

And the most important lesson I learnt this summer is that ice cream solves everything, even in the rain.  ‘You see Daddy, I think God needs to make it rain for the flowers, and in order to say sorry to us for the rainy days, he created ice cream too.’ 

If only everything in life were that simple.