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Cash, continuity, collaboration and community: 21-point starter list for maintaining our business during Covid-19 crisis

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2020 at 5:24 pm

THESE are immensely challenging days with enormous pressures on everyone. Our thoughts are with you in the weeks and months ahead. We have been giving some initial thought to what are useful tactical and strategic pointers for businesses and organisations who are undertaking priority setting.

These are by no means comprehensive, and not a replacement for your own specialist advisers and consultants, but may add to your own action planning. Do please continue to seek professional (including legal) advice from those who know your business area well. Some points are painfully obvious but under duress the very obvious can be missed.

Leading is messy and you will want to flex actions here to suit your situation. But many within your network are looking for those who will lead at this time, and our encouragement is to lean into planning sooner than later. Expect criticism for leading. Try to listen to critics even when they wound. They are often the people who care:

  • You and your family’s health and well-being are the first concern. Before you approach major decisions reflect on when and where is the best time and place to open what is a combination of tactical (survival) and strategic decisions (sustained recovery). Be aware of your own state of mind and its ability to calmly engage in action planning.
  • Sustainability is rooted in a deep analysis of ‘the now’. Any effort to make sense of the present moves towards a potential successful recovery. This current problem is likely to be complex so extended dialogue suits as a methodology. Asking broadly ‘what is the situation I’m facing?’, ‘where am I at now?’, ‘what is the issue I’m trying to address?’ are critical questions that expose the assumptions beneath what you believe is happening. Getting to these assumptions is vital. It is like standing on the highest hill you can find. Who, why, what, where, when and how questions may feature in testing assumptions. Some around you are very ‘action orientated’. Action and reflection need their balance here.
  • Who else should be alongside to balance, question and push back on thinking shaped by the pressure of events? Give them permission to question.
  • Government is currently revising its advice for businesses. Visit their online sites to check the latest statements. These are changing by the hour, and are by no means refined yet. Their actions are unprecedented and will have a significant impact on your risk planning.
  • It is an important time to sit down as business leaders/owners and consider re-forecasting cash flows. Business stops when cash runs out.
  • It is wise to hold extended dialogue with advisers and consider different possible outcomes. This is not a science but relies a lot on your existing business knowledge and ability to be honest about assessment.
  • Consider all your sources of potential cash.
  • Review your lending arrangements, and consider the potential for adjusting those terms.
  • Importantly talk to your lenders and get a feel for their willingness to adjust arrangements. Listen also to their advice but be prepared to be assertive where you feel you have the right to expect contractual flexibility.
  • Hold talks with all your stakeholders. Now is the time to bring your network into confidence and invite dialogue.
  • Regular engagement with your customers will reveal not just their short-term intentions but their willingness to be served in other ways.
  • This includes talking to landlords, suppliers and investors. At this stage you are inviting their understanding and engagement.
  • Employees are nervous currently and you must take great care in communication with them. Professional advice here is possibly the most keenly needed.
  • Remain in regular contact with stakeholders to invite their continued support. This will retain their belief that you are doing all that is necessary to protect the business.
  • Assess which suppliers are vulnerable themselves and anticipate their potential withdrawal from the supply chain.
  • Simultaneously be in contact with alternative suppliers and markets. Although this is a shock the discoveries you make under extremis could be healthy for the business. Under pressure consider the ‘model of your business’ and what elements can be transferred to other forms of trading activity. What non-core activities that don’t add real value and absorb precious energy should be jettisoned?
  • Channels to market: what services and products can reach existing markets in new ways?
  • What services and products can be developed to meet new needs that have emerged in the current crisis? And so on.
  • Keep a daily written record of activity that tracks your actions and the actions of others.
  • You may wish to record personal reflections about yourself as this can be very helpful to your continued well-being. Refer to these notes regularly to keep a semblance of continuity and coherency at a time of stress.
  • Continue to build community around yourself as your personal support network. Consider social media to alert supporters to your needs.

This is a worrying time so where you can hold open space dialogue to consider new and creative solutions generated by your network try to do so. We may be prone to decisive and urgent action in the normal course of trading activity. Is this a time to adjust your style and technique of leadership, to allow for broader more reflective conversations? At this stage no idea is a bad idea. Be open to the new suggestions.

Maintain your own well-being by sharing your anxieties with family and friends. Your business needs you well and motivated to fight in a measured fashion. And of course continue to be referent to legal advice especially given that much of your activity has contractual obligations.

Asking questions of people, especially asking them to clarify what they mean, and why they said what they said explores the logic behind their statements: ‘I hear that, now walk me through your arguments!’ If they are authentic they will have a coherent and plausible response.

Every sincere good wish as you formulate early plans. And of course these are evolving so be prepared to expose them to wide scrutiny. Many voices speaking into ‘the now’ balance sometimes the lone dominant or strident voices. Even when that voice seems convinced.

This is far from perfect. Many of you could improve on this initial thinking. Do not hesitate to make suggestions: stephen.gibbs@cumbria.ac.uk. Forgive me if I cannot add all remarks offered.

Dr Steve Gibbs, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Leadership at the Institute of Business, Industry and Leadership, University of Cumbria http://www.cumbria.ac.uk

Avoiding organisational burnout whilst increasing your profits: through balancing leadership and management

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2019 at 10:20 am

ONE very successful CEO said to me that every now and then he enters his office, shuts the door, drops the blind and does nothing all day and then goes home.

As shocking as that is to a workforce who can’t do that, or can’t do it as easily, the truth is that often when a leader leaves well alone the organisation he or she is responsible for ‘gets on with the job’. That particular CEO has been known to arrive on the shop floor and do the opposite, which he regrets later. He says he can’t help himself. It relieves his stress. But not the company’s.

Good management then can be a beautiful thing. And leadership can be very costly. But good managers are sometimes as rare as a completely dry day in Cumbria. When you have one cherish them. As good management remains the zone of efficient profits, effective communication, service quality, sustainable change and settled human relations.

I say this because organisations, from businesses to churches, last only 30-40 years on average. An organisation is born, grows, plateaus, and either grows again or declines and dies. And leader-founders whose drive is the source of the ‘birth phase’ are prone to throttling it at the plateau stage: ‘The seeds of demise are frequently sown during periods of success’. But what I term ‘the small town leader or entrepreneur’ can learn early to delegate daily operations to their staff. And sometimes this simplified but not simplistic truism remains ‘the art of leadership’. And who better to leave it alone to other than: the gifted manager. Who should be rewarded for their profit potential.

When I say leadership is costly I mean that as an organisation grows, both in scale and value, it’s able to produce more from less. And this is the moment when leadership must give way and enable management systems and practices, as boring as that is. And humans need boredom as unrelenting novelty is damaging (note the often failed but fashionable ‘change programmes’).

When a family firm employs its first agent (manager) it buys the manager’s ‘general management’ skillset. The General Manager takes the passion (blood, toil etc) for the organisation’s mission and converts it into a set of processes that gradually reduce the need to interrupt the leader (who periodically should be up the mountain top surveying the surrounding landscape). It allows decision-making to turn from the leader-founder out towards procedures and their managers, and then further to the administrators, who are diligent bureaucrats, and likewise often beautiful creatures.

The Western world in its relative success is run by faithful bureaucrats. During the now faltering Arab Spring one protestor spray-painted on a wall: “We need institutions!”. Evolution is less brutal than revolution. The French Revolution still rolls on of course. As Macron is finding. It’s fashionable to knock bureaucracies. But business success is reliant on its state’s institutional efficiencies. From banking to taxation. And business leadership is reliant on instituting its core values through good policies and systems.

The leader delegates to management, management to administration. And the world goes round. The firm expands its capacity. You all know this but it is worth rehearsing as 96% of the UK’s businesses are micro-businesses. And most want to grow. And relying on the first stage rocket fuel of leadership or entrepreneurial spirit is a costly exercise.

What management has sometimes been able to do in its 100 history is re-capture the core values of a functioning human society. When it doesn’t ‘managerialism’ arises. This is where systems serve themselves not the mission. Of course much of our organic society was ripped up by industrialisation and urbanisation which gave rise to the ‘modern society’. And management as a profession is in some self-reflection. Is it an exercise in modern progress (modernity = building a free society via capital owning individualists) or aiding ancient institutions (tradition = restoring an ordered, natured pastoral society based on solidarity between the generations). This is a paradox for later discussion.

Of course currently we want both: ancient and modern. A loving home, supported by ancient institutions within a law-abiding safe society, but with the freedom to escape via technology. We probably can’t have both in their fullness which the Brexit debate has discovered.

So, leaders then are required to establish good governance frameworks. They either hand over decision-making authority to appointed managers or potentially restrict their organisation’s longevity. The American corporation boomed in the early 20th century in large part to their exemplary ability to delegate responsibility as part of the impressive American management ethos. For professional management is very much the vision of the American corporation. Britain, renowned for its inventive spirit, struggled to form an egalitarian society and engage its workforce in adaptation. Its social fabric tore in the 1970s as it recognised too late its economic model was long dead.

In response, British management has followed its American counterparts into business school classrooms to place the art and craft of practice alongside the science of organisational study. British managers have over the decades begun to discuss ‘strategy’ and ‘leadership’ through the lens of the theoretical as well as the lens of experience and pragmatism. All lenses are needed to compete.

What this academic contribution won’t do is limit the impulses of leaders to either have the arrows of decision making pointing in towards them or out towards the members of the organisation. The role of the leader-founder is to recognise their consciousness might be 100 feet wide and their colleagues’ consciousness 50, but once you combine and collaborate with colleagues’ thinking it forms a much greater whole.

If our bi-weekly refuse collection relied on an entrepreneur’s ability to manage it we will have the streets piled high. Human society needs ritualised practices that require institutionalisation of the organisation. As dull as that sounds. But this is where the tension between leadership and management lies. My own ritual of teeth cleaning every morning and evening is done in an unconscious back of brain fug of unthinkingness. Such ability to pass front of brain activity to the rear (I know that’s not scientific) means human energy is conserved and my frontal lobes can get to work on new thinking. And so the organisation that constantly has to think and discuss its regular activity will burn out. Often because of a leader’s need to be at the centre of activity is a deeply personal one. The leader who recognises their role is a servant of the wider good will happily give away responsibility all day long. Usually to the grey-suited general manager. Who are beautiful things.

First published for University of Cumbria: https://www.cumbria.ac.uk/blog/articles/avoiding-organisational-burnout-whilst-increasing-your-profits-through-balancing-leadership-and-management.php

Where will The North find its authority?: In the soft power (Nordpolitik) of British institutions

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2019 at 2:33 pm

AUTHORITY is not what it once was. In 1950s Britain it was located within social hierarchies, collectivised industries and nation-based politics. Efforts to distribute that power via popular culture were successful. My four older sisters took to Sixties culture in various forms. Our Edwardian, war-time and now late parents looked on mainly in bemusement, remaining at a safe distance. Having obeyed social convention, duty and family they assumed these pillars were a sound basis to govern. The seeds of a New Modern Civilisation planted in the early 1800s bloomed colourfully in the 1960s. A warfare generation climbed out of austerity into full employment. The new National Health Service distributed the pill. And mothers gathered less in church halls to share the burden of child-rearing. The nation-state gradually took on its welfare role. Sub-urban developments drained mass inner-city housing projects and council estates.

Continuing to dive deep into this debate: Britain flattened its social ranks and shed its remaining communitarian culture in an expanded middle-class vision of ‘cosmopolitan living’. Socialism was  dealt Thatcher’s coup de grace: home ownership plus privatisation of collectivised industries. Authority then went into capital owning organisations who could meet the needs of the hyper-individual. And into the hands of the consumer, whose growing discretionary spend would shape government policy. Neo-liberalism celebrated the liberation of capital. Capital had gone mobile. The moral argument from neo-liberals was people would buy justice for themselves. A socialism by the back door. Capital had come out of bank vaults into Joe Public’s purse, and she will decide where it goes. Those on the margins would surely follow suit?

Authority drew its new power from distributed capital. Liquid capital in the form of Coca Colonisation brought down the Berlin Wall. Levi Jeans proving themselves seductive to Soviet citizens trapped in bread queues ended the nuclear arms race. With the end of the Cold War globalisation could accelarate the power of organisations unabated. This second Great Transformation was a new game with new rules. Brexit further revealed how the ‘nation state’ has lost its authority to direct its affairs. Authority was spread across global actors and Brexit is attempting to gather up the marbles.

Nordpolitik meets Ostpolitik agenda: Tempting to recall Willy Brandt (left) and Willi Stoph in Erfurt 1970, the first encounter of a Federal Chancellor with his East German counterpart, an early step in the de-escalation of the Cold War. Re-unifying around the symbol of the nation-state appears inevitable. It is the preferred arena to debate our collective will and identity. Northernness offers a growing symbolism for the re-reunified nation known as the United Kingdom. Northernness (Nordpolitik) appears to be a counter-power to the cosmopolitan-vision of a global-citizenry whose place is unknown, and identity is homogenised. A citizen of nowhere-ville?
Nordpolitik meets Ostpolitik agenda: Tempting to recall Willy Brandt (left) and Willi Stoph in Erfurt 1970, the first encounter of a Federal Chancellor with his East German counterpart, an early step in the de-escalation of the Cold War. Re-unifying around the symbol of the nation-state appears inevitable. It is the preferred arena to debate our collective will and identity. Northernness offers a growing symbolism for the re-reunified nation known as the United Kingdom. Northernness (Nordpolitik) appears to be a counter-power to the cosmopolitan-vision of a global-citizenry whose place is unknown, and identity is homogenised. A citizen of nowhere-ville?

Not good news for Old Labour Left. Their international socialism is not the rip tide against resurgent nationalism. Their efforts along with the reactionary Right were to give voice to those who have not found a place in a ‘cosmopolitan vision’ of Britain. Their appeal is to nation-based political power. Just as politics has lost much authority. Workers in the North of England face uncertainty as global capital will seek new sources of cheap labour in the open markets of India or Eastern Europe. It is maybe no comfort that wealthy European welfare states are facing the same dilemma. The increasingly global citizen is unable and unwilling to move as fast as global capital. The newly won authority of the cosmopolitan world citizen, freed from social convention by capital and home ownership, is facing a more precarious future than their socially constrained collectivised forebears.

But just as The North is enjoying new social freedoms through capital ownership its economic balance is about to be rocked. The EU was a bulwark against aspects of global power, enabling its wealthier welfare members to retain their bloc power against rampant globalisation. As The North of Britain now looks to nation-state-power to develop its strategies rather than EU power it is asking where it will sit in the new post-Brexit world.

The London-Brussels nexus did well for London. It sits atop the globe as one of the most dynamic cities for global business. When the EU thought Britain it frequently saw London. Its transport and finance infrastructure is impressive. Talented jobless young southern Europeans flooded London. In one sense they were departing Europe as much as coming to London. The Anglo-Spheric Britain and America share joint capitals in London and Washington DC. Both centres retained the desire to distribute risk to its citizens in a way that is at odds with the European Project. The EU has found itself in a No-Man’s Land ideologically. Its desire to lower nation-stateness of its citizens to create a bulwark against globalisation and American neo-liberalism has floundered by becoming a supra-nation-state. It has unwittingly proven that nation-states are persistent and enduring. More importantly institutions are not being swept aside by globalisation. Formed over centuries institutions are enduring. And it is where citizens turn in the face transnational corporate power.

This is the curious outworking of the cosmopolitan vision. It turns out it was not a vision after all. It was an amorphous notion with no real handrails. As party-political membership plummeted from the Sixties (membership was often a symbol of social ranking) membership of societies such as The National Trust have rocketed. These now treasured institutions are lightning rods for the hyper-individual as they collectivise around national priorities. And these institutions lobby nation-states to focus on their value-based priorities. As the green movement in Europe indicates, rowing back from the hyper-notion of a global cosmopolitan citizen, there is the rise of a newly conscious conserving citizen.

Despite fogey Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq.’s re-heated 50s patrician shtick, there is a new admiration for British institutions. As Corbyn similarly re-heats class struggle there is an emergent movement in The North. Educated vocal leaders recognise the power of British institutions, from the church to enduring social structures. The archetypal Young Person walking into a cathedral and asking ‘so, where did this come from?’ might be overplayed but you get the image.

What global capital seems unable to overpower then are non-modern institutions. It is of course trying hard to measure institutions by commercial economics. But global capital’s hard power when measured against institutional soft power is interesting. If the resurgent nation-state is anything, it is a collection of institutions as first agents. Politicians are largely lawmakers. However, institutions operationalise new legislation. And what are British institutions? They are traditional social hierarchies. Despite modern liberal politicians’ efforts British institutions have resisted efforts to modernise. Largely as ‘modern institution’ is a contradiction in terms. To institutionalise is to withdraw from economic measurement in large part.

If plastic capitalism and junk culture have become synonymous with a homogeneous global culture then the reaction is felt in The North by those who choose to stay and build a future. If a cynical South has imbibed a nowhere society where there are no patterns of identity The North has retained its social frameworks. The North as a public sphere offers an important dialectic between its heritage and future. Something almost unheard of in The South. Where there are no dialectics of identity.

Where students pre-austerity imagined working three days a week, playing in the band on Thursday, five-a-side on Friday austerity Britain has refocused education on its economic role. Where a global citizen imagined their lives in the abstractness of a global cosmos the combined effects of obscene property prices and low-waged economy have induced a serious interest in nation-based politics and a search for power. There is anger in the air for those who see their parent’s sacrifices and property-owning prosperity as an aberration. A willingness to re-invent politics at grassroots level via a Northern Leadership that has found legitimacy and entitlement through a reflexive spirit is more than a hopeful wish, it is a growing reality. What I mean by reflexive is the ability to enter the debate armed with the same power of reason and self-awareness as the traditional British Brahmin. It is curious to hear Mockney accents of Tony Blair, George Osborne and David Cameron, even Prince Harry, as they try to mash together their Standard Southern Dialects and Received Pronunciations with regional South East dialects, not without a hint of African-American Vernacular. This search for authenticity by those without Northern Heritage is curious. The social history of The North offers its own authority. Having established a distinct cultural position it has successfully challenged the dominance of The South as a de facto national centre of gravity. The direction of travel is north politically and financially.

As the frenetic attachment to global economic measures falters, there is the return to traditional notions of domestic policy and nation state governance. Britain PLC will not be able to divert its attention from domestic politics through the vision of a European federalism paying back at some point. The fruit of funding Greek super-highways is now unlikely to be seen. As attention turns to the North-South economic and social contract, symbolised by the wobbly nature of High Speed rail projects and Northern Powerhouse (note the hyperbole), there will be a pressure to turn dolls house projects into a more serious debate. And probably only a Northern Spirit can successfully speak about the Future Shape of Britain and its institutions. It is our turn. This is the era of Nordpolitik and the underlying symbols of Northernness informing institutional power. The good news is that symbols themselves are not subject to the dramaturgy of the media. Symbols grow and fade without human intervention. They are the root of institutional power as institutions form round their immanence. Global capital will bend, as do markets, to the power of homo economicus’s preference for ‘a good life’.