Well, I’ve had a week off, and here we are in January.
I read that the first week in January is when everything goes wrong. Something to do with leaden skies, long nights and the comedown from Christmas.
So on the long drive back from the North West, between being appalled at what Spotify thought I liked listening to in 2019 and listening out for the telltale noises of Ziggy the Office Wonder Dog being about to barf in the back of the car, I gave some consideration to what on earth I was going to write in the first blog of the year. How could I set a jaunty, happy tone to make everyone head back to work with a spring in their step cheerily whistling “Ring of Fire”?
Thing is I’ve got lots of good stuff but am I going to put it in print?
I also have two decades worth of insights, experience and completed projects.
Am I going to put that into print?
Not unless we can figure out how you’re all going to pay me the royalties for all that know-how.
Then I thought, “There are a couple of insights that you can talk about…”
And then Ziggy covered the back of the Skoda with half-digested kibble, and I forgot all about it until now, and I’m in front of this blank screen reconstructing my ideas.
As I remember, the two insights were related. They are rather obvious, I suppose, but that doesn’t reduce their importance (to me at any rate).
So here goes:
Any idiot can cut costs. The genius in any form of business is leadership in making money, and that is a rare talent.
Everything I write is for an audience. You can’t and really shouldn’t try to be all things to all people.
The first one, then, saving money. It took me ages to understand this. My initial introduction to cost-cutting was in the early 90s when Nigel Lawson’s boom fizzled. It was when I suddenly discovered that even massive recruitment businesses (like the one I worked for) were capable of having balance sheets with huge numbers adding up to slightly less than nothing at all.
The business had to cut costs and improve cash flow to stay alive. And we did.
At the time was area manager of a group of sticky-floored offices spread across the North of England. I’d been brought up in sales so, getting out of trouble was all about working the phones, improving sales and getting customers to pay their bills on time.
Oh, for the non-cynical confidence of youth (I was 27).
So I got on with it.
Now, one thing I’d always noticed about the company was that it contained many people who didn’t like sales. They’d wait for the phone to ring but were lucky enough to be in parts of the UK serving sectors where it did ring because companies were desperate for people. Their, and in 1989 our, collective problems arose when all of a sudden, the phone didn’t ring.
You’d think wouldn’t you that if you’re in a bit of a tight corner, the first thing to do would be to remove people who can’t shift product and broadly speaking you’d be right. However, the best part of a decade’s worth of ever-increasing figures had made some of the more senior non-billing managers very influential and indispensable.
The fact was that not only couldn’t they market the business, but they detested the tedious business of sales. The clear and present danger they faced was that people would realise that they were useless. So what they did was to work with the board to reduce staff numbers by 20% across the company (you’ll understand that this generally didn’t include the non-performing senior management team).
What I found one miserable January morning in 1991 was that I had to get rid of 20% of my people no matter their performance. I wasn’t keen on the idea and although my ability to defend my troops was limited – I didn’t write the paychecks after all – I could at least invite senior (non-billing) management up to show me how to fire people (redundancy was expensive). And you know what? Those bastards enjoyed firing people.
They were terrible business developers and frankly awful people, but in cutting people from the business, they could regain their power in the organisation by merely facilitating a reduction in costs by “making difficult decisions”. So far as I know most of them never sold a thing for the next two years but they’d cut costs aggressively and picked up bonuses for doing it.
Dear reader, I quit.
About 18 months later.
Having seen it in one company, I started seeing it everywhere. Companies, it seemed to me, were wedded to cost-cutting and caution rather than calculated risks and improved sales. Non-frontline management often had massive power over the customer-facing elements of the business. It didn’t matter how well you knew your clients it seemed or how much they liked you in turn, but the admin people at the centre had the ear of the CEO and placed no value on relationships that produced decent margins over a long period.
To the second point: Everything I write is for an audience.
Well, the point is that if you’ve read this, you’re more than likely a regular on this site. It’s also probable that you and I see eye to eye on more than most. I’d like to believe that while we’re all in business to make money, we’re also in business because we enjoy it, like our clients and are pretty sure that we do a decent job. Because of this, we’d rather clean up dog sick from the back of our Skodas than mistreat a fellow worker. If someone stumbles across this stuff from a background of making everyone’s life more miserable than it should be by having “difficult conversations” with them and they don’t like it well, I’m okay with that.
If just one person gives someone a slightly better day today because they’ve been on this site then, despite the gloom, I’m happy.