David and I regularly exchange opinions and thoughts about business, leadership and management (and football). We have worked together in one of David’s ‘Towards the Perfect Business’ workshops aimed at small and medium sized businesses.
Although we don’t always agree, we always respect each other’s opinion and that’s what it is all about surely.
TREVOR: Hi David – tell us a bit about your career.
DAVID: Firstly Trevor, thank you for inviting me to participate, and to join in with the exalted company you keep, including US presidential candidates, UK ex-cabinet ministers and other luminaries. In case anyone is wondering why Trevor’s friends mostly live abroad and have never actually met him, I can reassure you that he is relatively normal - well, apart from … shh!
My working life started in the mid-sixties when I joined the Austin Motor Company, then part of the British Motor Corporation. I trained as an engineer although I spent most of my subsequent motor industry career in product and business planning and even had a couple of years based in the marketing department.
I was the last ever product planning manager for the original, classic Mini and was also product strategy manager for MG sports cars. I am immensely proud to have been involved with two of the most iconic British automotive brands.
Of course, the mid-sixties was a time when Mini Coopers dominated rallying and saloon car racing, so it was inevitable that many of us should get hooked by the motorsports bug. After a year or two of rallying I decided to try my hand at racing and bought a single-seater. This venture was entirely unsuccessful. We took the car to Silverstone for a couple of test sessions. Each time the engine blew up. Undaunted I entered my first race and the same thing happened, so I sold the car and went back to rallying.
On several occasions during my time as Mini product planning manager I got to talk to the legendary John Cooper of Mini Cooper and Formula One fame, and then a few years back I met Paddy Hopkirk whose 1964 Monte Carlo Rally victory was the first big win for a Mini Cooper. Paddy introduced himself thus, “I’m Paddy Hopkirk and I’m very old, but I’m still alive.”!
I have been enormously privileged to meet, and indeed work with, some amazing people over the years. I have also had the luck to drive a great many wonderful (and some not so wonderful) cars … and get paid for it!
TREVOR: I remember from when I was a kid and through to my late 20’s, car production was an enormous part of our UK economy. My Dad worked in the business. Nowadays by comparison we make very few cars in the UK. What went wrong and where do you place the blame?
DAVID: I don’t think that we have enough space here for a complete analysis of the failure of the UK motor industry. Of course, it is not just the car industry; many other large employers have disappeared from the UK economy, whether it be car manufacturing, shipbuilding, steel making, coal mining, they have all gone.
I am not convinced that the majority of people in the UK have woken up to the fact that the mass employers of unskilled or semi-skilled labour have disappeared and that new attitudes and skills are required for the 21st century. As you and I have discussed in the past Trevor, attitude is more important than qualifications. With the right attitude people can re-train and develop the skills required to be successful in a changing environment.
The government is aware of this and is trying to address it, but I am not sure that all of the civil servants involved in implementing new strategies have the flexibility of thinking or grasp of the urgency required to carry them through effectively.
Recently I read a comment that by the time the ‘authorities’ had accepted a new way of doing things and included it in the school curriculum, it was already out of date. I guess it goes back to John O’Leary’s thoughts on managers working from obsolete user manuals.
TREVOR: What were the greatest changes for you in the transition from working in a large organisation to becoming self-employed?
DAVID: I had to do everything myself, there was nobody to talk to and I didn’t get paid as much!
I think that probably reflects the experience of most people making the transition from being one of several thousand to being chairman and chief executive of themselves.
I recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece called ‘Bin the Business Plan’. It’s not that I don’t think it important to have a plan, it’s just that a row of numbers in a projected cashflow doesn’t often equate to reality. From what I can see of early stage businesses, they generally run 12 to 24 months behind plan. Part of this is because most of us are eternally optimistic about how quickly things can be made to happen. When you are all departments rolled into one there are never enough hours in the day. But at least the decision making process is simpler!
TREVOR: I know you are a great fan of Ricardo Semler and his fantastic success resulting from having complete faith in front line staff determining their own futures. Why then do so many organisations work in the opposite way to Semler’s ideas?
DAVID: Semler says that senior people from many organisations visit Semco to understand how they work, and then leave with the comment that it is very interesting but would never work in their business. I can well understand why they think that because his approach does seem bonkers at first sight!
I think that some of the things that Semler has done with Semco would be difficult to incorporate into a UK operation. Unfortunately the ever increasing legislative burden faced by UK business makes it much more risky to let the front line or anyone else sort things out for themselves. In addition, quality standards such as ISO 9001 like to see strict adoption of policies and procedures. All of which probably limits the appetite for Semler’s totally democratic (anarchic?) approach.
However, I imagine that the real problem is that it would require a great deal of hard work over many years to change attitudes throughout an organisation and to implement fully a Semco like structure. Having said that, I have come across companies that operate elements of Semler’s philosophy, although I think it is because it makes sense to them rather than because they have read his books.
TREVOR: Tell us about how you are developing your speaking skills, and do you have a few easy tips for those who struggle with public speaking?
DAVID: As you know Trevor, I am a member of a speakers’ club. Our aim is to help people to improve their speaking skills in a supportive environment. Over time members complete assignments covering different aspect of speaking. Each speech is assessed by another club member against set criteria. Although the emphasis is on what one does well, aspects that could be improved are pointed out.
I had made many presentations during my corporate life; nevertheless I have learned a great deal and hopefully improved as a result.
1) Practise, practise, practise, even if it is only giving a speech to the dog.
2) Don’t worry too much about the words, they are only 10% of the message, the rest is down to delivery.
3) Engage the audience by making eye contact (briefly) with every one of them – and keep doing it. To do this swing from the hips – if you swivel your head you’ll look as though you are watching a tennis match and if you just move your eyes you’ll look manic!
TREVOR: What plans do you have to develop your consulting and coaching business?
DAVID: As you have discovered Trevor, you have to get the message ‘out there’, so more writing (maybe I’ll eventually finish the book, which has been stalled around page 70 for rather a long time) and speaking whenever I get the opportunity. And if anyone would like my free monthly business newsletter emailed to them, just let me know. firstname.lastname@example.org
TREVOR: Finally David – how does it pain you to know that for the 20th consecutive season your beloved Liverpool football team will finish below Manchester United in the Premiership League Table? … Sorry couldn’t resist that one.
DAVID: It would be less painful if you didn’t keep crowing about Manchester United! But then I remind myself that United still haven’t won the English or European championships as many times as Liverpool, and that maybe next season we will come out on top once again!