“It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”

Inspirational stuff from Sylvester Stallone in the 2006 film about the fictional pugilist Rocky Balboa. I suspect that there’s a few of you out there who feel a bit punch drunk and in need of inspiration right now.

But of course, it’s not just you that needs inspiration.

In his book “Will it make the boat go faster” Olympic gold medallist Ben Hunt-Davis highlights how “Bold, extravagant goals fire our imagination and kindle our desire”. The simplicity of those goals creates a focus to do whatever it takes.

They can also fire the imagination and desire of our team if (and most importantly) there is something in it for them. Because if there isn’t anything in it for them, then you are simply trying to inspire your team to lose so that you can win. They’ll soon work that out!

In some ways, the early stages of the pandemic created a simple focus. It certainly had that effect at A4G. Two weeks before lockdown I wrote a weekend piece to my team entitled “no time for divas”. At that point when we were all starting to feel like extras in a surreal Hollywood disaster movie.

But the focus became very simple. Survival for as many of our clients as possible. It was a scary 11 days until the cavalry arrived on 20th March in the form of furloughing, CBILs loans, VAT deferrals and all the rest.

Whilst the ability to help our clients was transformed by those announcements, our focus didn’t change. The emails we sent out, the way we prioritised our work, the way we organised our team were based on the same simple goal.

To help the team individually we asked them to think about three key qualities:

  • Flexibility – in terms of hours and what work they did and the order that they did it
  • Connectivity – so they could do their work and communicate with colleagues and clients
  • Responsibility – for doing whatever was required

But it was still with that same simple goal in mind.

I’m always proud of my team even when there isn’t a global crisis, but they went off the scale in those first few weeks. Some very old heads emerged on some very young shoulders. Some very wise heads worked out how to do what needed to be done for our clients and business whilst acting as full-time teachers to their kids!

But it was obvious in hindsight that everyone would step up. Everyone understood the goals and bought into them. Those goals were much simpler than in normal times when they had to worry about all sorts of conflicting aims and influences.

Because whilst normal life is not as exciting as an Olympic final or a pandemic, it’s actually a lot more complicated.

“You need to get more sales!” “You need to get more work done for customers!”

“But I can’t do both Boss!”

A few years ago, a friend of A4G, Steve Backley who knows a thing or two about Olympic finals, did a really good presentation to my team about goal setting and explained that dealing with conflicting goals often requires us to create a hierarchy of values.

You start by identifying what one thing would over-ride absolutely everything else. That one thing might not be your biggest priority but it’s something without which there is no business.

At Disney this would be safety. If their parks are unsafe, no-one will visit. Game over.

The next thing for Disney is “show”

Note that making a profit hasn’t appeared yet!

What that means in practice is that if the actor playing Mickey Mouse has to remove his costume to protect someone from injury he will do so, even if it upsets some of their very small guests.

After “show” Disney would start to move into some more complicated goals which are necessary to create a successful business and deliver profits for shareholders.

One way of creating goals that you can share with your team is using the SMART acronym which is widely attributed to Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives. Whilst SMART has come to mean different things to different people, each goal should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time based.

Do the objectives you set your team tick all of the above?

As the level of detail that you are communicating to your team increases your challenge is to get that balance right between simple goals that everyone understands and detailed plans that require a lot more explaining.

Some leaders are better at the inspirational simple stuff and some are better at the detail.

Think about our own Prime Minister’s speech on 23rd March which was widely lauded and ended with the words “And therefore I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives”. Everyone got it. Everyone did their bit. We were all in it together.

But as lockdown was eased, the message got more complicated. The PM’s speech on 10th May was criticised for its confusing and seemingly contradictory message and mocked by Matt Lucas’s impersonation which ended with the line “If you can work from home, go to work. Don’t go to work. Go outside. Don’t go outside. And then we will or won’t, something or other.”

Suddenly it all became a bit confusing and soon it seemed like we weren’t all in this together any more.

So should you go for simple objectives that are easily understood or detailed plans?

If you look at top flight football, you would be drawn to the conclusion that managers who look after the detail are the most successful. At the end of the 2019 Cup Final, the manager of Manchester City was seen with his arm around England player Raheem Sterling pointing to various areas of the pitch where he felt his player had made mistakes and could improve.

I guess that’s the sort of thing that a good manager does when his team has lost.

But City hadn’t lost. They’d just won six-nil (SIX NIL!) to become the first team to win all three English trophies in one season and Sterling had scored a hat-trick. That’s attention to detail!

It’s also one way of communicating goals, one to one, in person.

But it’s also quite time-consuming if you have a big team. And there’s no guarantee that they will listen to you. Sometimes people hear what they want to hear.

So, you probably need to communicate in a written form as well. Written communication has its dangers too, especially if it’s not one of your strengths. But there are plenty of ways you can keep in touch. Find a way that suits your strengths. Regular emails, social media, business plans, WhatsApp. Whatever works for you!

Our experience is that of all the ten vital ingredients, communicating goals is the biggest weakness for owner-0managed businesses. Most businesses have very little in the way of a documented strategy available to everyone.

As managing partner, I do a weekly email which is my way of communicating goals across the entire business. These are designed to get everybody in the firm thinking and to influence them with ideas.

I don’t know if everyone reads these and how much of it sinks in, but it achieves two purposes in that it helps me with my vision and purpose and also communicates that across to my colleagues.

If you want to get something done you need to have a detailed plan with clear action points, the people that are going to act upon it and dates when it should be done.

Now is probably time for the detail. Now is probably the time to communicate the plan. Don’t hide anything from employees. The next 12 months is not going to be easy. You may need to lower everyone’s expectations for the future but inspire them with your plan for how your business will get through this.

But don’t forget that you need to have a simple message that everyone can fall back on when they are under pressure as well. A simple goal that becomes the cornerstone of the business even if the country experiences the dreaded “second wave”. As that real pugilist Mike Tyson said in a famous post-fight interview “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

Let’s hope Coronavirus doesn’t punch us in the face again when the clocks change and the temperature drops in a few months’ time. But if it does, detailed plans will have to give way to simple ones again. “That’s how winning is done” as Rocky would say.

And with that thought I’ll leave you to ponder how best to communicate both the simple and detailed objectives to your team as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

Have a good weekend.

Contact me today!

Malcolm Palmer


Managing Partner

01474 853856

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