What’s The Point?

Don’t worry, I’m not questioning whether it is worth carrying on now that the country is potentially being lead off a cliff by BoJo and his Bullingdon friends!  Instead I am focussing on possibly the most common question I have asked in my coaching career.  In a whole range of situations, it is worth stopping and asking ourselves why we are here.

When you are holding an internal staff meeting, ask yourself what is it meant to achieve – what is its point?

When you are meeting a client or prospect, ask yourself what you want out of it – what is the point of talking to them today?

When you are ploughing through emails, updating your work social media or getting bogged down in administrative trivia, ask yourself what the purpose of each activity is – what is its point?

When you are poring over spreadsheets, generating voluminous management reports and over-analysing the data, ask yourself what value it is adding to the business – what’s the point of doing it?

When you are watching Love Island or box sets of Killing Eve, ask yourself whether it is taking you towards your life goals.  What’s the point of those hours on the sofa?

If you don’t know your life goals, how will you know the point of anything?

One of my business friends, Hayley Monks, is inspiring in many ways but especially so on this topic.  She has had a very successful career in the utility sector, managing big teams and bigger budgets.  When we talk about business meetings, what to do in certain conversations or how to move a project forward her first question is always along the lines of “what’s the point?”.  I am sure it is one of the factors in her success and impact.

Another business friend recently discussed with me the Japanese concept of Ikigai.  This is a Venn diagram of four circles representing the following:

  • What you love doing
  • What you are good at
  • What the world needs
  • What you can get paid for

The philosophy of Ikigai is that if you can find something where these four interests overlap, you will have found Ikigai (which roughly translates as “reason for living”).  There is some research which suggests that this leads to longer life.  As business owners, we should be looking for business ideas that achieve this, and we should, where possible, be looking for team members who can find Ikigai in their roles and careers in our businesses.

If we are going to do that, we are going to have to understand the answers to those four key questions:  what do we love; what are we good at; what does the world need and what can we get paid for (profitably).  If we truly know the answers, then we will have discovered what the point is.

And if we know what the point is, we will know how internal meetings, client interactions, email traffic, projects, spreadsheets and our leisure time all lead us towards it.

Then we just do the things that have a point, and don’t do the ones that don’t.  Simples.

So, where does Ikigai lie for you, and what’s your point?

When The Path Is Unclear

This morning I was hiking in Coquetdale, in the Northumberland National Park.  Whilst we were hiking across open heather moorland, there was a footpath.  But you wouldn’t have known it at first glance.  For much of our route the heather had grown closed over the path – we couldn’t see our feet or the path. 

When the path is unclear, we rely on waymarks.

As we hiked, I noticed some lessons that have parallels in our business lives:

  • It doesn’t matter if the immediate path is unclear, as long as you can see a waymark ahead.  When we couldn’t see our feet or the path, we had to rely on two things:
    • The occasional white-topped posts bearing the footpath arrows to give us our bearings; and
    • Faith that the trail was solid below the heather, so that we could put our foot down below the heather, out of sight.

Often in business the immediate path before us is unclear, so we rely on targets or key events in our business calendar as waymarkers.  We can’t always see that the steps we take today will take us to the goal, but if we keep moving forward we do know we will get there

  • The road to the top is rarely straight.  We were climbing to a cairn high in a ridge, but the route curved and chinked, following ridges and avoiding burns (the boggy bits).  In business we set linear plans and then can find that life takes us through some chinks and turns before we get there.  Staff, customers, competitors and ourselves are all complex parts of a large ecosystem, and the result of their interactions rarely provides a straight route to the top.  And this is fine, provided we are following our waymarkers.
  • Look up occasionally.  It is easy to get so intent on placing our feet carefully, so focussed on the immediate and the near-term that we fail to check we’re still on track for our waymarker.  It pays to look up occasionally and make sure.  And of course, it pays to take in the view from time to time.  At work we need to take time out of our busy days or weeks to make sure our activity is still taking us where we want to go, and to monitor progress and celebrate successes.
  • Beware false trails.  With a gazillion sheep in Northumberland, it is easy to deviate from the footpath and find you are just following a sheep trail through the heather.  Or a clear line through the heather looks like the path, and turns out to be a stream or bog.  We need to be able to recognise what is really taking us to our goal, and which is either leading away, or will transpire to be uncomfortable or dangerous terrain.  What do false trails look like in your business?
  • You walk faster near a waymark.  As we passed each white-topped post (and there were many) I noticed how we seemed to be more motivated and faster-paced, whereas when the way was unclear between posts, or we couldn’t see the next post in the distance, our progress was slower and more uncertain.  In business we need to make sure we, and our teams, have sufficient clear waymarks, at appropriate frequencies, to maintain momentum.  This is why I am a fan of daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly goals and targets.  It builds momentum.
  • Take small steps if the path is unclear.  When the heather was covering the trail, we couldn’t stride out like we could on the grassland.  We couldn’t be sure of a safe footing, and sometimes the bearing was unclear.  So we took sensible, smaller steps that kept us moving toward our goal, but didn’t place us in danger.  When the path is unclear in your business, what small steps will keep you moving forward, without undue risk?
  • Some things are harder when you’re small.  I noticed that it was hard work wading through the heather for miles at a time – with your shins are being continuously whacked.  When I commented on this to Mrs B I received some direct feedback that it is even harder when the heather is whacking your thighs.  We may each face the same challenges at work, but their impact will vary depending on our skills and attributes.  As leaders, we need to be open to the challenges our team is actually facing, and help them deal with them on their terms, not ours.  We may not fear presenting in public, or analysing a page of numbers, but a colleague might.
  • Don’t patronise.  I can tell you now that in the interests of team cohesion and a positive working environment, it isn’t wise to patronise an intelligent, independent woman just because she is a foot shorter than you…
  • Don’t multi-task.  Either keep on hiking to maintain progress, or stop to take notes on your phone for a blog that has just occurred to you.  Don’t try the two at the same time.  That’s how you step in a boggy bit and end up with a boot covered in mud.  At least I hope it was mud, there were a lot of sheep on that hill…

We reached our first objective and were rewarded with stunning views for miles in all directions.  We then achieved the secondary goal, and were rewarded with a pint of quality bitter, brewed on-site in a village pub.  I hope you can find a way to keep moving forward when your path is unclear, and will enjoy similar rewards when you reach your objective.

The Winner Takes It All – or do they?

It’s not just about winning, nor is it just about taking part.  So, what is it all about?

Long-term readers will know I am a fan of Liverpool Football Club, and have had somewhat of a journey in my forty years of following them.  Some success early on, but somewhat of a drought, in terms of a league title, for 29 years.

This season has been an exciting time as a Liverpool fan.  The team have played with style, suffered only one league defeat all season and have accumulated enough points to have won the league in 116 of the 119 years of the League (Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson won 13 Premier Leagues and never scored as many points).  However, Liverpool finished behind an even-better Manchester City and there are no prizes for second place.

Tyson Gay is the joint second-fastest 100m sprinter in history.  On 16th August 2009 Gay ran the 100m in 9.71 seconds – a personal best for him and, at the time, the third fastest time in history.  Even now, ten years later, only two other men have run faster than 9.71s.  Unfortunately for Gay, one of them is Usain Bolt, who finished the same race in 9.58s, setting a new World Record.  Gay ran a phenomenal race, but didn’t win.

Whether Liverpool, Tyson Gay, or any of us in our personal or business lives, sometimes we take part, break records with our effort, style and output but we still come second.  In sales, sport and business the winner often doesn’t take it all (thanks Abba for yet another blog title by the way). 

Urban myths suggest that modern children are protected from the winner-takes-all mentality and instead are rewarded just for taking part.  This seems wrong too.  Liverpool FC, Tyson Gay and me in a sales pitch last month didn’t just take part.  We gave our best, pushed our limits and set a new bar for performance.

That is what it is all about.  Success comes not only from winning, not just from taking part, but primarily from taking part to the best of our ability at the time.  Few readers of this newsletter are elite sports people, but in their daily lives they can:

  • Push for the win – however that is traditionally defined;
  • Always give their best – leave nothing “on the pitch” in any endeavour; and
  • Go for the win by always pushing to do one’s best – set personal records or reflect the best given current capabilities.

If you do this, you may sometimes come second, but you will always have cause to consider yourself a champion.

Let It Go

At Butler Towers, the last few months have been dominated by somewhat of a saga with dental pain.  A significant event within the saga was a wisdom tooth extraction, which is not something I would wish to repeat in a hurry.  In the painkiller-induced stupor afterwards my mind started wandering to how my errant tooth was an interesting metaphor for a pattern of behaviour most of us follow.

My tooth harboured an infection – something that slowly and perniciously was causing me harm.  The obvious solution was to remove the tooth, which I didn’t need in any way, and remove the source of the harm.  Yet my body was firmly attached to the tooth, and really didn’t give it up without a struggle.  The tooth had no use, was actually harming me, but my body couldn’t let it go.

Sound familiar?  Are there things in your work or personal life that serve no purpose and/or cause you harm, but that you won’t let it go?  How much pain is that causing?  What sort of harmful things do we hold onto?

Harmful relationships: many of us hold onto harmful relationships longer than we should or could.  These could be with staff, clients, suppliers or people in our personal life.  Which harmful relationships could you let go?

Harmful habits: similarly, we’re prone to hold onto harmful habits – distractions such as social media, insufficient sleep, consuming to excess toxins such as alcohol or caffeine, or even just holding on to tasks that others in the business could be doing.  Which harmful habits could you let go?

Harmful things: we are also able to hold on to way too much stuff.  What is cluttering your world – whether it be physical items in your home or office that cloud your personal space or products or services that make your offering to customers confused?  Which harmful things could you let go?

As I negotiated my wisdom tooth “journey” I noted a handful of steps – which you could adapt to help you let go of some of the things identified above:

  1. Recognise the harm – I easily spotted my toothache, but are you fully aware of the harm some relationships, habits or things are causing you?
  2. Treat the issue, if that is possible – I tried two courses of antibiotics before conceding that the tooth really had to go.  How can you address the harm you are facing, without resorting to removal?
  3. Use a pro – I turned to my trusted dentist, whereas you might want to turn to an HR adviser, a business coach (ahem, I can recommend one…) or an employment lawyer to deal with your harm.
  4. Anaesthetise – twice we tried stuff on the tooth without adequate pain relief, and twice I whimpered.  What work can you do to protect yourself from unnecessary pain in the process?
  5. Give it a good hard yank, and keep going until your done – my dentist needed a lie down by the time my tooth was out.  Make sure you show similar determination to see through the unpleasantness and allow for recovery.
  6. Medicate afterwards – I needed more painkillers and antibiotics for some time after the extraction and you, your colleagues, your clients will need tender loving care until the wounds are healed.

Please, just remember that the pain now is much less than the pain if left untreated.  Let it go.

I hope you can identify some things that are harmful but that you are still holding on to, and you find a way to let them go.  If you need further inspiration, there is always Princess Elsa:

Let it go, let it go

Can’t hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door

Which reminds me of another tooth extraction when I was a child…

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!

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!