July 3rd, 2015
In May of this year, mch: positive impact celebrated its 10th anniversary. Here are some reflections from the last 10 years, which I hope prove useful in your work:
1. Little Things Count
This box of staples was part of mch’s first stationary order back in 2005. I remember looking at it and thinking;
‘Will this box of staples last longer than the company?’
Over the following 10 years, I have been reminded of this question every time I refill my stapler and at various times it has triggered strong feelings of optimism, contentment and resolve.
Little things count. They count in so many ways. I have received very public displays of gratitude, but a very simple and heart felt; ‘Thank you’ from an individual often stays with me longer. In client feedback, it is the little things that are often cited: providing an additional idea or an unexpected resource.
Incidentally, from the original 5,000 staples there are now a little over a 100 left, so the company is set to outlast the original order!
2. Big Things Count Too. The Benefits of Perspective
When founding an organisation, there’s a risk of associating yourself too closely with your ‘creation’. Fortunately, a drive down the Monash Freeway in Melbourne prepared me for such a scenario.
The drive occurred when I was working at the management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company, several years before founding mch. I was working with one other person who was considerably older and more experienced than me. The work required driving to different locations around Melbourne and as we’d established a good rapport, our conversations broadened beyond just the task at hand. It was during such a conversation that I remember receiving the following advice;
“Never associate yourself too closely with any particular work; as one way or another it will come to an end…and when it does you need to be able to answer the question, ‘What am I now?’”
My colleague took his own advice very much to heart, answering the common dinner party question; ‘So what do you do?’ along the lines of; “I’m a husband and a father. I love watching football and travelling to remote wineries……”
Such advice has stayed with me and despite the investment required in starting, developing and maintaining a business, I have always tried to invest more in the things that really matter: relationships, my health, my community. Indeed such advice is largely responsible for why I work a four day week.
3. Prepare for the Worst
Back in 2005, while considering whether to start mch, I was still strongly influenced by the management and leadership training I received while at McKinsey & Company. McKinsey prides itself on its analysis, and while at the firm I developed countless scenario plans for clients detailing the worst case, likely case and best case associated with a potential decision they were considering.
Consequently, I conducted a scenario plan for mch. With a growing set of responsibilities (mortgage payments etc) I paid particular attention to the worst case scenario. Such analysis ‘stress tested’ my enthusiasm for starting the company. It also gave me resolve, as the analysis suggested I could withstand a terrible/worst case scenario year. This is just as well, as I have had a terrible year (largely due to the global financial crisis). One silver lining was that my income during the terrible year was very close to my prediction, which at least showed my analytical skills were up to scratch!
4. Enjoy the Lulls
Being busy is sometimes very difficult to avoid: I have very little control over when a client needs my training and mentoring services. Once the busyness stops, there can be an inclination to try and remain busy: a prevailing view across many spheres of work is that ‘busy is good’. Being ‘manically busy’ seems to be a badge of honour in many workplaces.
I have tried a counter approach, by embracing and enjoying lulls in work. This often requires conscious effort. For example, during the ‘terrible year’ I mentioned above, one of the best things I did was to take a full month off work. I took the view that rather than busying myself looking for work that wasn’t there, it was best to go on holiday. Now there were moments on holiday when I did worry, but in the main I returned to work refreshed and ready to tackle what remained a difficult environment.
5. Intuition is Underrated
I am very lucky in that I choose who I work with. As a result, I’ve genuinely enjoyed the vast, vast majority of my client engagements. However, there have been two or three that have not been enjoyable. On reflection, a common feature of these engagements was that although I could rationalise why they were worthwhile, they just did not feel right.
Following intuition requires faith and courage, as it entails ‘knowing without knowing why’. This can appear a flimsy basis upon which to make a decision, but I have found it to be just as accurate as the more rationale methods of decision making. I believe I am in good company on this reflection, as to quote Albert Einstein;
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
6. Quality is Favourable to Quantity
Despite the ‘terrible year’ outlined above, I’ve had more good years than bad ones. So much so, that there were times when expanding mch was considered. To this end, recruitment, rather than partnership arrangements, was considered the only guarantee that quality and the mch way of doing things would be preserved. Unfortunately, the chances of finding a suitably qualified individual, who was prepared to work for considerably less than they could earn elsewhere, made successful recruitment so unlikely that it was not attempted.
Consequently, mch is an organisation where small and simple takes priority over growth and profit.
7. Regardless of Size and Sector, there are Universal Aspects of Good Practice
While mch may not follow the perceived wisdom of continually seeking growth and economies of scale, some of our working practices are akin to those adopted my large multinationals. For example, mch produces an annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. CSR involves operating in a manner that meets the expectations society has of business. Within the context of CSR, I monitor our client, supplier, employee, community and environmental impact. Despite only having a single full time employee, mch also devotes considerable time to strategic planning. I consider such practices to be a key contributor to the company’s sustainability.
8. Balance is Key
I am a great believer in plans. I also believe that significant parts of work (and life in general) are so complicated that detailed plans are futile and it is impossible to know if outcomes were actually determined by decisions. Consequently, I find it’s best when plans are balanced with reflecting on experience and iterated through experimentation. I also think iterating plans should be balanced with holding on to high level objectives and values.
Interestingly, upon reviewing the previous seven reflections, I see balance is a central theme to many of them.
9. Practicality and Individuality Trumps Arbitrary Norms
As my business has developed, I’ve continually seen the importance of tuning into practical and individual circumstances.
“I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew, their names are ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘When’ and ‘How’ and ‘Where’ and ‘Who’”.
This is an extract from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Consistently, I find this quote more effective for considering strategy/making plans than complex frameworks from management journals, business schools or top-tier consultancy firms. On numerous occasions, time, money and other resources have been saved by focussing on these ‘W’ questions e.g. By exploring ‘When’ a client has realised that while laudable, now just isn’t the right time to embark upon a training programme. Such practical issues are often more insightful than standard approaches to strategic planning.
Tuning into the individual can also challenge arbitrary norms. Take for example a mentoring session. How long should a session last? Many mentors (and indeed practitioners in a variety of fields) stipulate a specific time e.g. 45 minutes, or an hour. In my experience though, such an arbitrary figure does not always fit with how long a mentee needs; which is why mch does not set such a time. Of course there does need to be certain limits, and some mentees respond well to a focused period of time….here comes that word balance again…but starting without a prescribed time limit can offer the freedom to think freely and deeply.
10. There is no 10th reflection!
In keeping with reflection number nine, why should there be 10 reflections just because it arbitrarily fits with mch’s 10th anniversary? Hopefully you’ve found nine to be enough!View comments >
July 17th, 2014
mch received some great quotes for its recent e-newsletter competition.
Congratulations to Steph Ley of The Children’s Society whose favourite quote was first out of the hat:
“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.”
Steph wins a copy of mch’s resource of the quarter, Gravitas, by Caroline Goyder.View comments >
July 18th, 2013
Like many firms, mch tenders for some training and consultancy opportunities. The tender process often follows that of a typical job application: a written application and then (if mch is short-listed) an interview. At such interviews it is common for attention to turn to my own background, rather than just the company’s experience. At this point, I can invariably tell the unprepared interviewers: those looking at my CV for the first time. The ‘tell’ is often a raised eyebrow (surprise) or a furrowing of the brow (confusion).
I can appreciate such reactions as I’ve not taken the most direct route to running a staff development company for the charitable sector. Occasionally the interviewer pays me the compliment of being blunt:
“How does a PhD chemist end up studying Diplomacy and Trade, then work for McKinsey; only to become Chief Executive of an Aboriginal football and netball club?”
There isn’t always time to give a full answer to this question and I don’t always feel it’s appropriate to do so. However, it’s a perfectly reasonable question and I believe mch’s blog is an appropriate place to provide the full answer.
Essentially, from an early age I’ve considered myself very lucky. Lucky to have a loving family, lucky to have a home, lucky that I never went hungry, lucky to be born in a place where I had a right to free education. To quote the industrialist John D. Rockefeller; “every right implies a responsibility” and in addition to a sense of responsibility, I felt a genuine desire to do something positive with the skills and insights that I was lucky enough to be learning.
At the age of 17, it was time to decide whether to go to university, and if so, what to study. At the time, my best subject was chemistry and so I thought that through developing medicines, my desire to have a positive impact could be satisfied. So I went off to university to study Chemistry and gained a master’s degree and PhD in the subject. After seven years a decision had to be made:
- Do I continue down the pure research (academic) route of drug discovery?
- Do I move into the more commercial world of the pharmaceutical industry?
- Do I think again?
With option one; while I could manage a laboratory, I didn’t think I had the academic ‘horsepower’ to discover anything that would one day find itself onto a pharmacist’s shelf. Furthermore, intellect did not guarantee success – I knew plenty of outstanding chemists who ended their careers with no major discovery to their names. Even if you were successful, you had to be very patient, as it could be many years before your discovery actually became a medicine.
With option two; I knew I would miss the loss of autonomy – I would become a small cog within a massive machine. Consequently, option three made the most sense and after some soul-searching the short list was either:
- Working in government (perhaps the diplomatic service or international development)
- Working in the charitable sector
Having a PhD in Organic Chemistry was unlikely to be much use to either and in an attempt to narrow it down to just one option; I studied for a Master in Diplomacy and Trade. I chose the course and institution because many of the other students were diplomats from developing countries, or were MPs/civil servants in local, state or national government. The course achieved its primary goal, as I graduated knowing that I wanted to pursue opportunities in the charitable rather than governmental sector. Essentially I was ‘turned off’ by the slowness of government and the adversarial, point scoring approach to working. While I saw some outstanding pieces of work in government, it also troubled me how often mediocre work was accepted.
At this stage, I was a ‘career student’ and a growing number of degree certificates was unlikely to be attractive to a typical charity. I write ‘typical charity’ as I did not have a strong calling to any particular charitable cause. Instead I felt that I could have the greatest positive impact through general management and leadership of an organisation. Consequently, I needed a fast track to gaining the management and leadership skills to be useful in the charitable sector. The solution was to work for a firm such as McKinsey. In a short period of time I gained a good understanding of what makes organisations successful. McKinsey also had the budget to provide professional development opportunities that no charity could match.
With the help of a mentor, I left McKinsey as soon as I felt that I could have a positive impact with a charitable organisation. Through a mixture of persistence, chance and naïve enthusiasm on my part and desperation on theirs, I became Chief Executive of Rumbalara Football and Netball Club. So began two of the most challenging and rewarding years of my professional career.
For personal reasons, I did not extend my visa to continue working at Rumbalara and returned to the UK. Although the UK has no Aboriginal football clubs, I knew I still wanted to work within the charitable sector. For a number of reasons, I founded mch rather than finding a management/leadership role within the sector. The two main reasons were:
I felt that mch made the best use of my experience and skills and thus I could have the greatest positive impact through mch.
- Having decided I wanted to become a father, I felt mch would give me a greater sense of autonomy to control my workload. In turn, this would give me the time and energy to hopefully have a positive impact on the most important job I have: being a dad.
Upon founding mch an initial priority was to develop a ‘brand’ and the associated website and other marketing materials. This was not something I was looking forward to. Given my lack of creativity, I’d need some help and previous encounters with marketing ‘experts’ had left me with the impression that a passion for fonts, colours and nebulous phrases was crucial to marketing success. To my surprise, the first (and only) marketing specialist I met did not start with talk of fonts and colours. Instead he simply asked why I had founded mch. After verbalising what I have written above, he asked a few more practical questions and then stated he had enough information to propose an initial brand for mch. Rather surprised (and pleased) that not a single reference had been made to fonts or colours; I awaited the proposal with interest. Today’s brand is essentially what was outlined in the initial proposal back in 2005. When I asked the expert how he had come to choose the simple ‘plus sign’ logo and the ‘Positive Impact’ strapline, he stated that (unbeknownst to me) I had used the term ‘positive impact’ several times to describe why I had founded mch. Since having a positive impact was a very personal desire, he had combined the positive symbols and wording with my initials MCH.
And that is why I founded mch and why the strapline is ‘Positive Impact’!View comments >
May 10th, 2012
In a blog post earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of the ‘Elevator Pitch’ - the ability to explain what your organisation does (and why it is important) in just a few seconds.
Are there benefits in being even more concise? Can your organisation be summarised in just a few words, rather than a few sentances?
mch believes there is value in trying to be more concise. To this end, we continually ask all our clients to nominate just three words which they believe best describes mch. We have summarised all these words in a word cloud, which can be viewed below. In essence we have found it very useful in finding out how we are perceived by those that really matter - our clients.View comments >