In his latest Business School column, serial entrepreneur, CBE, Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship and Fellow at King’s College London, Stefan Allesch-Taylor, shares his own experience leading troubled businesses – and the unusual decision that made all the difference.
In early 2009, after the near apocalyptic meltdown of the UK’s – and indeed the world’s – financial system, I incurred the wrath of my partners and shareholders. By way of background, at the time I was in my mid-thirties and the CEO and Chair of a number of financial services businesses. Seemingly very good ones – until they weren’t. It’s hard to describe those days. For those of us who knew the truth of what was happening reasonably early on, it was, frankly, unbelievable. I’ve since tried to describe it the best I can as ‘a world where Tuesday doesn’t follow Monday anymore’.
I was tasked with trying to save an asset management firm, investment bank and insurance company and I was also involved in the Lloyds takeover of HBOS (on the side of those who felt it was a very bad idea). Every single day was a war zone of stress and, in many ways, psychological torture, waiting for terrible news that would affect not just me but hundreds of staff. What made it incredibly hard was that it was not a crash per se; it was a ‘Black Swan’ event where assets weren’t simply failing (what goes up always comes down at some point) but instead a buckling of the entire capitalist system for some and complete breakdown for many others. Barclays, Lloyds, HBOS, RBS and others were all bust. For context, the Government took on over $3 trillion of liabilities underwriting the banks and the entire annual UK GDP was actually less than that in 2008. It felt like the end of the world as we knew it….
Of course, the banking crisis was a sneeze from which many other sectors caught a cold. I mention this because, while many sectors will now be moving along post-lockdown, very few will be firing on all the cylinders they were before the pandemic hit. For those entrepreneurs in the UK striving to survive, and especially for those trying to grow in this period of intense uncertainty, I suspect you’ll be working every second you’re not asleep – and you’re not asleep a lot. You’ll be micromanaging and focusing, and you’ll think time not spent on your business is time wasted.
And, no, this isn’t the part where I tell you to do something patronising like, ‘take time to smell the roses, or think of your work life balance, or do yoga….’ You have Gwyneth Paltrow’s website for that sort of thing. No, my suggestion to a) avoid burnout and b) do something that will actually help your business, will seem incredibly counter-intuitive.
It’s no cliché to say that sometimes you have to step back from a problem. You also have to give possible solutions time to take root. Patience is a strange bedfellow for highly reactive (as opposed to proactive) business decision making – but without it you could accidentally kill your best idea in the cradle. So, what will hone your mind and give you clarity of thought?
Let’s be honest, most of us are much better at solving other people’s problems than our own – a lesson I learned back in 2009. Why did I incur the wrath of my partners and shareholders then? Because I took on responsibilities outside the immediate companies I was tasked with helping.
I knew that if I didn’t engage outside the bubble of my own direct challenges, if I didn’t engage in actions that wouldn’t affect me financially and reputationally, then my decision making would become more desperate and less balanced. I would cease to look at business problems clinically or on their own merit and they would automatically become an extension of my (personal) problems. I wouldn’t be able to offer the best of me, or my skill set, and you won’t either.
In the midst of the crisis I joined two charity boards, one in trouble and one a start-up. I also joined two commercial boards, one a public company and one a private company. I cannot tell you how much these appointments helped me see my own challenges in a more constructive light – even if initially my partners thought I had lost the plot. I learned how to deal with potentially catastrophic challenges by working as a team member on boards in which, as I had no economic gain or loss, I could consider the solution independently of personal consequence. Working on these gave me a sense of job satisfaction and crucial morale boosts at very low ebbs of feeling, frankly, useless. They were also not as time consuming as they may look. All you need is to spend an hour or two a week thinking about something that isn’t your business. It will allow you to step back but still be in problem solving mode.
It doesn’t matter what you choose to do – although I think charity and social impact give a greater depth of experience if you haven’t engaged with them before and both those sectors really need you now. So, while you feel you can barely cope with the 24/7 job you have now, go and get another ‘job’. It’s going to help you see yours in a clearer light and you never know, you might be able to change the world for the better too.
Looking for more business advice? Here’s how to communicate in times of crisis…
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