We need to talk

Several times in recent weeks I’ve discussed with clients their issues where they have a fundamental difference of opinion with another party, whether a colleague, a supplier or a client.  It has struck me how much effort they invest in trying to change the situation, whilst resisting the somewhat obvious option of just discussing it with the other party.  Nationally, we have a major political issue that polarises opinion and is crying out for the powerful people to just sit down and talk it through to find a solution.

It can be too easy to take a dogmatic position (at work and on the issue of EU membership…) without opening up to consider the alternative point of view.  Sometimes it is hard to consider that alternative view because of the way it is advanced – if the other party is equally dogmatic, or aggressive, neither party will be open to explore alternative views.

With this polarisation of opinion and the sometimes-vitriolic presentation of views, I was reminded of the Westboro Baptists of Kansas.  Louis Theroux has done two excellent documentaries on the church, who have a somewhat fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian faith.  Remembering their story lead me to the fascinating example of Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the church in 2012 and now advocates empathy in dialogue.

In her excellent TED talk, which should be required viewing for anyone commenting on Brexit on social media, she sets out four simple rules for effective communication when there is a divergence of opinion:

  1. Assume good or neutral intent (she says don’t assume bad intent, but I prefer something without a double negative…)
  2. Ask questions (which reminds me of Stephen Covey’s “Seek first to understand”)
  3. Stay calm (in her language, “rightness doesn’t justify rudeness”…)
  4. Make the argument (our position may not be obvious and self-evident)

So, we could all challenge ourselves to talk more – rather than making assumptions about the other person, avoiding confrontation and/or prolonging issues that niggle.  If we step up and have those conversations, Megan Phelps-Roper gives some good ground rules for how to have them.

Where do you have a niggle in a relationship?  Where are you avoiding a conversation?

How could you initiate a proper, open dialogue with the other party?

What if you were to assume that they had good intent?

What questions could you ask to help you understand their position (not to convince them of yours)?

How will you stay calm and positive during the interaction?

Once you have understood their position, what is the core argument you want to convey to them?

Megan finishes with a very powerful message, coming from someone who previously peddled hate by picketing funerals: “The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person… We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us.”

Should all animals be equal?

As global leaders in business and politics gathered for their annual skiing holiday in Davos, Oxfam released a report suggesting that the 26 richest people in the world have equivalent wealth to the bottom half of the world’s population (almost 4 billion people).  There are some major questions about the veracity of the data in Oxfam’s study, but the principle is definitely true – we live in an unequal world.

Within developed countries, where even the poorest are better off than many in Africa or Asia, wealth and income inequality has been getting worse, and senior execs are paid hundreds of times what an average worker is paid.

Does that matter?  I spend a lot of time discussing with business managers how they motivate their people, as well as maintain profit margins.  I’m a business coach, not a priest, so it is not my role to moralise.  My personal politics mean I instinctively rail against such inequality, but I’ve yet to find a definitive answer as to why I think it is wrong.

Ignoring morality, there is some evidence that income inequality is bad for everyone, not just those missing out (see the excellent Ted Talk by Richard Wilkinson), but that doesn’t make it wrong.  Ignoring this political or social argument as well as the moral argument, is unequal distribution of profits between workers and managers good for business?

It seems logical that fair reward should follow fair contribution and that fairness doesn’t mean equality.  I have a client where all their admin staff are paid the same, get the same pay rise and the same bonus – regardless of their effort or contribution.  This is demotivating for hard workers and allows loafers to benefit from the industry of others.

Most companies seem to accept that pay rates differ according to contribution – market forces can mean corporate lawyers get paid more than employment lawyers, for example – and that more experienced people might get paid more than newly-qualified people.  Yet sometimes the rewards for very senior managers seem to far exceed such meritocratic or market-based differences.

Owner-managers take greater risk than employees – they do face the reality of not being paid whilst finding the cash to meet payroll for others.  They often also face the reality of having their family home at stake to support the business.  Perhaps that level of risk deserves a greater share of the reward?

I am sometimes amused by board-level discussions which move from agenda items on staff retention problems or lack of buy-in from team members who are lowly paid onto a discussion of the management retreat in Paris or a dividend to owners far in excess of the pay of their employees.

Of course, money alone doesn’t produce a loyal or motivated workforce and in most people it doesn’t significantly change behaviour.  As Dan Pink tells us in Drive, once people are paid enough to take money worries off the table, it ceases to be their primary motivator.

Personally, I am always curious that people work in Wetherspoons, Sports Direct or Topshop on minimum wage whilst the owners become enormously wealthy off the back of their labour.  Yet I guess that for some of those workers a minimum wage is better than no wage at all.  Would any of those businesses fare better if they shared the rewards more equally?

My aim in my musings in this blog is always to get you thinking.  I rarely try to provide THE answer, because there is rarely one answer that suits each of you.  Today I want you to think about how you share the rewards of your business, your team or your work. 

  • Are you fairly rewarded for the contribution you make?
  • Do you reward those you work with fairly?
  • What is fair?  Is it fair to split reward equally, or to distribute according to contribution, rarity, value-creation or some other metric?
  • Would changing how you share out the rewards change behaviour amongst your colleagues?
  • What non-monetary rewards might be more relevant to you or your team?
  • What will you change as a result of thinking through these issues?
  • How will you know those changes have improved things in your business?

I hope I have stimulated your thoughts on fair reward, remuneration and motivation and your own value and contribution.  At all times I guess we should remain aware that a third of the world’s population survive each day on less than the cost of a Starbucks.  If we can afford the Starbucks, we’re one of the lucky ones.

Are you a squirrel or a rat?

Has it ever occurred to you that a squirrel is just a rat with a fluffy tail?  Recently I had a long walk through woodland beside the Thames here in Oxfordshire, and saw dozens of squirrels busily laying down their winter stores.  As I walked I mused on how I would react if my path had been criss-crossed in the same way by another form of rodent – the rat.

Most of us find squirrels cute, and most of us are repelled by rats.  Yet, are they really that different?  Squirrels are seen as cute, rats are seen as pests and vermin.  Does the rat deserve this poor reputation, does the squirrel deserve the good one?

In the world of work, a similar dynamic can take place.  Companies, branded goods and even people can earn a certain reputation, and then it can stick for a long time.  We might see certain brands as desirable, or certain staff as promotion potential (both examples of squirrels with fluffy tails).  We might see other brands as unfashionable or undesirable, or other colleagues as “trouble” (both rats, to be feared and avoided).

What about you (either personally or your company)?  Are you a squirrell or a rat?  How do others see you/your brand?  What influences  that?  What is your equivalent of a fluffy tail?  What would make your customers, suppliers or team members see you as something better than a rat?

What about when you look at clients, customers or colleagues?  Do you see a squirrell or a rat?  Are you unfairly judging others – giving too much credit to those with fluffy tails and unduly recoiling from those without?  How can you be more open minded, to see both sides of the story?

Readers will know that my newsletters have two characteristics: obscure choices of topic (squirrels and rats? Obscure topic ticked!); and a focus on getting you to think about how you can be different as a result of reading the newsletter.  What can you take from my musings on rodents?

  • Honestly appraise how key stakeholders in your life, career or business are viewing you – squirrel  or rat?
  • When dealing with stakehodlers stop and reflect on how you have pigeon-holed them – are you seeing squirrels or rats?
  • If you are concerned that people are seeing you as a rat, not a cute squirrel, what would change that?
  • What actions can you take over Christmas to start to change those perceptions?
  • What habits can you develop in 2019 to keep you cute and fluffy, not scary and disease-ridden?
  • If you are a rat, and believe in Chinese philosophy, what can you do to be ready to make the most of 2020 being YOUR year?…

Little things make big things happen


Monday 26th November 2018 may prove to be a momentous day in my life. It happened to be my birthday, but that isn’t what made it potentially momentous. The most significant event on the day was when a US Immigration official at the embassy in London uttered four life-changing words: “Your Visa is approved”.

For thirty years I have dreamt of travelling coast-to-coast across America. Initially the subject of post-pub musings with my late father and more recently the focus of detailed planning and spreadsheeting, the dream has been steadily inching towards reality. The dream has morphed into visiting all 48 lower states in one trip – a journey of 14,000 miles and taking six months.

To make this big thing happen, lots of little things need to fall into place. And one of those is a ten year tourist visa, that allows you to visit for longer then three months in one trip – vital for our six-month odyssey.

Hence the momentous importance of those four words at the embassy. One more little thing that helps make the big thing happen.

Like much in my very enjoyable life, I owe a lot to the long-suffering Mrs Butler. With her we have researched, planned, scheduled and executed all that was required to secure the visa. We nearly stumbled at the last hurdle when the bus was delayed in traffic and we couldn’t run for the appointment because Mrs B is on crutches, but it all worked out and I hope you can sense I am overjoyed!

Achieving goals comes from a succession of little things that all add up to the big thing. When I see successful clients achieving their goals, it is always through lots of little decisions, and most importantly actions, that culminate in running a race, visiting a dream destination or selling their business.

When I see people and businesses struggling, it is often again because of the little things – choices made almost daily that culminate in lost sales prospects, unfulfilled customers, missed targets, unhappy staff or rudderless organisations. I accept that momentous bad things can knock us off our course (I have witnessed too many at close quarters not to appreciate that myself). However, we choose how we react to what life throws at us – and those little choices can help us overcome even significant challenges.

Are you aware of the little things that you choose to do and how they add up to big things?

What positive little things do you/could you do to help you move closer to that big goal?

What negative things do you do/could you stop that undermine your ability to succeed?

It will be 2021 before I make my trip round the USA, but I have done one more of the little things that will make it a reality.

As we left the embassy lifts, we saw an amazing quote from Robert Kennedy engraved in the lobby wall, from a speech he delivered in 1966, challenging apartheid. It merits quoting here:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others he sends forth a ripple of hope and… those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

What ripples of hope are you sending forth? What little things can you do today to make your dreams come true?

From being born in a council house to retiring early has been a long and often bendy path for me. But the big distance has been made of little steps. I’ve done it; my clients regularly do it. You can do it too. When you have a clearly defined goal, know the steps to get there and take the action you need to on a daily basis, amazing big things can happen.

Go on, get started.

Another Happy Customer!

There is a brilliant line in Fawlty Towers which always makes me smile – where Basil says “A happy customer – we should have him stuffed.”

I’m not advocating taxidermy on your customers, but it is nice to acknowledge when a client is happy, especially when they are happy to say so to others!  That’s why I am very grateful to Chris Branch, a very successful osteopath and a very inspirational guy, who recently sent this through:

“I have worked with James for five years now and I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the growth I have had in that time without him.

In writing this testimonial, I looked back at our first ever ‘goals board’ that we drew in our first meeting. We’ve smashed everything out the park! Life is entirely different from back then and I’m amazed at the change there’s been.

James has a very calm and logical approach which helps take away the fear in making big business decisions. He also has an uncanny ability of asking the right question at the right time, which helps to bring out answers you didn’t know were in you.

I would not hesitate in recommending him as a coach, I know he will accelerate your journey.”

If I had wanted to sum up the impact I have on clients, that penultimate paragraph would probably be it.  Thanks Chris!

If you want a bit of what Chris has experienced, call me now – the sooner we get started, the sooner you will feel the benefit!

60 Days to Change Your World

We now have about 60 days until the end of the year so now is the perfect time to be considering what you will do to finish 2018 in strong style and make the impact you want on your world.

Why does 60 days matter? Why is the end of the year important anyway? In some ways it isn’t. I could have picked 152 days or Valentine’s Day as the date that the period ended. The date isn’t the point. The existence of an ending is the point. A major influence on my productivity and time management thinking is Mark Forster, and he introduced me to the idea of “the end effect”.

In the week before you go on holiday, or before a major deadline, do you find that your productivity rockets – as you work hard to get so many tasks complete before that fixed deadline or a trip to the airport? How does that contrast to the first two weeks back from holiday, when it seems all your project deadlines are miles away, and progress seems slower?

I am constantly telling clients that the enemy of greatness is drift – the fact that so many projects can be done tomorrow, or next week – and so they get done much later than we might have hoped. Whether planning retirement, getting a business ready for sale or decorating the back bedroom, they all get left, because there was no deadline – and so no end effect.

Back to 60 days

For most of us the turn of the year is a noticeable event – festivities, mince pies, family, perhaps some time off work. At the very least, we have to learn to write 2019 every time we write a date! A perfect opportunity for setting up some end effects. And if we split those 60 days into manageable chunks, we have two clear 30 day challenges!

Now, the king of 30 day challenges is a reader of this blog, Chris. He is truly inspirational in taking up (or putting down) a range of activities – mental, physical and spiritual – for a period of 30 days to challenge his mind, his lifestyle and his physical limits. We can all learn from Chris. Thirty day challenges work.

What would your 60 day plan include? What could your 30 day challenges be? Don’t just pluck things out of thin air. Previous newsletters have encouraged you to think what you want from life – to have a bigger plan. I’ve also previously explained how that bigger plan can be broken into steps to get there.

So, your 30 day challenges can be to execute on some of those smaller steps to make your dream come true. And if you haven’t done the plan, or identified the chunks, there’s your first two 30 day challenges right there…

Other top tips for making a 60 day plan successful:

  • Write it down. On paper. This is far more powerful than it just being in your head, or on a phone/computer. Trust me.

  • Tell someone. Make yourself accountable. You can tell me if you wish. (I am good at keeping secrets.)

  • Keep focussed – don’t have 32 projects on the go. One or two themes will be far more productive.

  • Get started. Don’t fall into the trap of perfecting the plan and taking no action (a vice of mine). Do something today, and every day, that takes you forward.

  • Celebrate success, or redouble your efforts. As you make progress, notice the fact and enjoy it. If you fall behind, just keep going, don’t drop by the wayside.

Testimonial from a Perfect Client!

Last week I had the pleasure of spending the morning with Tracey and Sarah from Thewlis Graham Associates (I have their permission to name them).  In many ways, they were ideal clients – they were prepared, engaged, have an interesting business, and they brought biscuits…

They added to their perfection by volunteering to provide a testimonial – so that I can try and attract other perfect clients just like them.  If you know anyone…

Here’s what Sarah had to say:

We spent half a day with James to take a strategic look at the business and to think about positioning it going forward. James supported us beforehand by getting us to prepare thoroughly in terms of data collection and analysis. The actual session with him was hugely beneficial; he has a style and approach that makes you think and test out assumptions, but in a very supportive non-confrontational environment.  The outcome was that we gained clarity and vision that we can now build on.”

Sarah Thewlis, Thewlis Graham and Associates

At a networking event this morning, we had the discussion of whether planning was sexy – I was a firm advocate of the “Yes” vote!  But you can’t plan without the vision beforehand – and it was a pleasure to work with Sarah and Tracey on clarifying their vision last week.  More clients like that would be perfect!

Thinking Outside The Box

Who moved my cheese?

Recently I met a client in a local pub restaurant for a coaching session over lunch. The pub has a good reputation and is usually busy with the usual mix of business groups and silver surfers spending their final salary pensions. Being lunchtime the menu was a little shorter than for an evening, but there was still a nice choice. That was until the waitress advised us that three items on the menu were unavailable, because they contained cheddar and the delivery hadn’t arrived.

As this was explained to us, my client (a very successful local entrepreneur) and I glanced around the restaurant to see three or four waitresses stood with nothing to do (we were in early). Simultaneously we both thought through the situation. No cheddar. Spare staff. An enormous Sainsbury’s less than five minutes away. Surely this problem could be solved?

A few years ago I was with a group of clients dining at a restaurant in Victoria, central London. One of our group ordered a gin and tonic, only to be told they had sold out of tonic. Again, a handful of business owners collectively remembered the Tesco Express across the street as we came in. Surely this problem could be solved?

Blinkered Thinking

In both cases the issue probably wasn’t that the staff were particularly dim and that we had amazing insight. More likely, their group thinking was just blinkered and channelled into “the cheese/tonic comes from the supplier and so if they don’t deliver customers can’t have it”. There was a process for buying cheese and if that failed, the only thing to do was scrap a segment of the menu.

Similarly, the staff’s thinking was blinkered to be just that of the restaurant, not that of the customer. The restaurant knew that they had other menu options, or other drinks, available so where’s the problem? But the customer came in that day to have their needs fulfilled. And if that was for macaroni cheese, their experience (and therefore their total spend, gratuity, likelihood to return, Google Review and future referrals) was diminished. For the sake of a ten minute trip to Sainsbury’s, the customer, and thus ultimately the restaurant, loses out.

Perhaps the staff deserve greater credit – perhaps they considered it and thought that the cost of wholesale cheddar versus retail cheddar meant it was too expensive. They could be right. But it is still blinkered thinking. What profitability was lost by having disappointed customers? More than that lost by a day’s supply of cheddar? No one took off the blinkers and saw the bigger picture.

My own blinkered thinking leads me to make assumptions about the culture in the team running the pub. It would appear there was no lateral thinking – none of the waiting staff, each time they repeated the news of the cheddar shortage, thought outside the box and suggested to the landlord/chef that they nipped down the road. Without that sort of thinking, what sort of innovation and creativity are they missing out on?

What’s the equivalent of the missing cheddar for you? Where are you disappointing customers because you’re stuck in a process? Where is your thinking blinkered? How would you know?

And if you do know, how can you address it?

Taking The Blinkers Off

How might you encourage more lateral or innovative thinking in your business or life? My suggestions:

  • Continuously expose your thinking to new influences and challenge your orthodoxies. Read books, watch films, listen to podcasts or talk to people with ideas or views different to your own. Try to understand their viewpoint, not change it. Shake your brain cells a little bit!

  • Visit new places or see new cultures to get a different perspective on how things could be done. That could be different industries, different segments in your market or different geographies (there is quite a variation in the UK, you don’t have to go to the jungles of Laos to see difference).

  • A project management technique is to view your project, process or service from afar and ask “in what ways could this go wrong” – look for the gaps, vulnerabilities or holes in the project. This helps you strengthen the process, but also trains you (and your team’s) collective brains to think laterally.

  • Be a customer. Experience your service as a customer. Or experience a competitor’s service and see how it feels to be a customer. Unless you’re Dignitas , every business can benefit from having staff know what it feels like to be the buyer.

  • Have your customer journey assessed independently, so that you get direct feedback that challenges your blinkered thinking. If you’re in hospitality particularly, or any service business I highly recommend this (and recommend you talk to Janet at The Silent Customer).

  • Have an external coach who can bring perspective, ask challenging questions and deliberately test your assumptions, in an objective, unemotional and supportive way. As it happens, that’s what I do… Call me.

Trimming the Bramble Patch

I’ve had a few reminders of this metaphor in recent days, including actual cutting back the blackberry bushes on my allotment.

Every year I get a great crop from these bushes. And every year a minority of the bush branches become a problem. They grow rapidly, have vicious thorns, block the paths and bear no fruit whatsoever.


A bit like some people. They expend a lot of energy, sometimes with good intentions, but they are at best unproductive and at worst harmful.

What’s the solution? For the blackberry bushes the only solution is prompt, decisive action. If you delay they destroy the bramble patch in no time. If you only partially tackle the issue they come back more vigorously, more destructively and detract from the bountiful crop.

[Anyone sniggering about trimming bushes, keep it to yourself.  I’m aware of the innuendo…] 

On Saturday I was part of a team taking part in the Regatta for the Disabled (an annual event that I thoroughly recommend for families.  Even if you don’t “race” the event field has loads of attractions and it is for a great cause.  See http://www.regattaforthedisabled.org/).

One of our team members was very enthusiastic and expended huge amounts of effort in his attempt to power us to victory.  Sadly, his paddle technique needed work, and all he achieved was to enthusiastically scoop water into the boat, drenching the two people behind him.  Like an errant bramble, he needed some intensive training and coaching before the next race – otherwise he’d have been cut off at the stem!

This is not our team – I couldn’t be in the boat and photograph it at the same time…


I’d hazard a guess that in your work, your team or your business you have someone or something that reminds you of those problem brambles. How will you tackle them this week?


Business Relationships – a Marriage Made in Heaven?

Last month I had the pleasure of giving a brief talk to the Henley Business Partnership networking meeting in the gorgeous setting of Phyllis Court in Henley. The talk came just days after the long-suffering Mrs B and I had celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary, so I used the topic of long-lasting relationships as the theme. I thought I would share the ideas with you in this newsletter. In a ten minute talk, I focussed on three key lessons that businesses could take from a marriage that lasts:

It’s about BEING married, not GETTING married

In 1994, when Mrs B arrived (late, I feel compelled to mention) at the front of the church, weddings were much simpler. In 2018 it seems a major logistical exercise to organise invites, locations, outfits, favours, seating plans, first dances, speeches, hen and stag dos, rehearsals, foreign weddings, hotel venues, fancy lighting and so much more. A huge amount of planning, attention and money is invested in the big day. And then it seems people just expect the marriage to happen, with no work at all. Bev and I had a far simpler wedding to get married, and then focussed more attention on being married.

In business, we can invest a huge amount of resource in starting relationships – marketing campaigns, prospecting activity, special promotions, sales commissions and much more – but then those businesses seem to forget to focus on serving those clients – they’ve moved onto the next sale, rather than making the most of this one.

I have a client who has trebled their business in about five years. They have worked hard to win new business, but the core of their growth has been retaining 98% of their customers year-on-year, way above the industry average. Knowing that new customers this year will be customers for many years to come, if they serve those customers right, has given my client a winning formula. But customers don’t show loyalty without some work on my client’s part. They make sure they lead the market in customer service and provide the little extras that make the difference. That client trebled in size in five years, by placing emphasis on being with customers, not just getting customers. And by hiring a brilliant business coach, of course…

Remember your vows – for better or worse

In a long term relationship it is a question of when you hit a rough patch, not if. You can do all sorts of things to reduce the risk, but the likelihood is that there will be some “worse”, as well as some “better”. At times like that you need, as a couple, to put the current turbulence into the context of the overall relationship and do what is needed to stabilise the ship. Both parties have to bend and bow at different times to flex with their spouse’s needs. We’ve had better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness and health, and we’ve made sure we support each other until the calmer waters come back.

In business, mistakes happen. In long client relationships it is probable that someone will miss paying an invoice, or a supplier will mess up an order. If you’re the “wronged” party do you go off the deep end and demand all sorts of compensation, or do you realise an honest issue and work with the other party to resolve things sensibly? If you’ve screwed up, how do you make things better?

Another client reviews quality constantly, and their intent is to meet every order right first time, on time. But when they fall short, they see an opportunity to really impress a customer – by the way they work to put it right. The MD often says that an initially disappointed customer can become their best advocate. Is that true in your business? What do you need to change to make it so?

Have a vision for your future, together

Mrs B and I were early in our careers when we got married (in fact, I was still unemployed as it was a week after graduating!) and since then we have forged careers, changed careers, bought, renovated and sold homes, made decisions about having a family, planned lots of travelling and more recently really focussed on our forthcoming early retirement. Throughout our 24 years we have evolved our plan, but we’ve always had a plan – a reason to stay together and be excited about the future.

Do you have a shared vision with your colleagues in your business? Do you discuss with them what their aspirations and dreams are, and align them with your vision for the business? One client of mine saw a young staff member as a future leader of the business and had very high hopes for them. But they never discussed it with the individual, and the young staff member left to pursue other opportunities. Would they have stayed if the shared vision had been explained to them? We’ll never know. If you have key people you want to retain, develop and promote, talk to them about their future and have a vision together – give them a reason to stay. Don’t wake up one day and find a Dear John letter because you were inattentive…

In the discussion after my talk, a few of us indentified a further key ingredient in making a relationship (personal or business) work: luck. I accept that is a very important factor (Mrs B is SO lucky to have landed me…), but that is not really in your control. The three factors above are – and will help you make the most of any luck you do have.

My own reflections

As I reflect on my 24-year marriage I realise that the recipe for success is like so much in my life:

  • have a vision, translated into a plan

  • take daily actions to make the plan come true

  • leave the dish to simmer for a couple of decades

  • enjoy the rewards!

My coaching helps clients get similar things in place (and it doesn’t usually take decades) for their business, their relationships, their money or their life generally. I have a couple of vacancies for new clients at the moment, so if you’d like some of that recipe in your life, get in touch soon.