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Karren Brady: Business Champion

To British readers, Karren Brady will be a familiar face and name. But she ascribes her achievements as a business person to a set of ten simple “Rules for Success’ that are commendably ‘obvious’. There is nothing academic or theoretical about them; they set out in simple terms the basic requirements to succeed in business, and that is what this blog is about.

Karren Brady Short Biography

Karren Brady was born in 1969 and grew up in North London, attending private schools. Skipping college, she joined ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi as a trainee before moving to London radio broadcaster LC, as an advertising executive. There, she snagged a major account with one of her father’s business contacts, David Sullivan – then proprietor of the Daily and Sunday Sport newspapers. This started an association with Sullivan and his business partner, David Gold, that continues  today.

Brady moved to Sullivan’s Sport Newspapers business and was appointed a director at the age of 20. There, she saw that football club Birmingham was up for sale and persuaded her boss to buy the club and to let her run it as Managing Director. When he did both in 1993, she acquired the soubriquet of First Lady of Football. She successfully turned around the business from being in receivership to being highly successful – allowing its owners, Gold and Sullivan, to sell it for over £80 million in 2009.

The owners went on to buy a 50 per cent share in the club West Ham United in 2010, and become its co-chairmen. They appointed Brady as Vice-Chairman. There, she has led a turnaround in its fortunes and a successful bid to move from its old home to the London Olympic Stadium.

Brady has held and continues to hold a range of non-executive directorships. She champions business, entrepreneurship and women in business, also being a vocal advocate for mentoring of women and young people. She is equally active as a brand ambassador for some big names and as a charity contributor.

Brady has written six books, the most recent of which is Strong Woman: The Truth About Getting To The Top (2013). This is one of two that are autobiographical. Two are business advice books and two are novels. She became more famous still after an appearance as a guest interviewer on BBC television’s UK version of The Apprentice (hosted by Alan Sugar), later going on to take a permanent role in the show, from season 6.

She also has a strong political drive, being welcomed into the UK Conservative Party and appearing at their conference on a couple of occasions, before being appointed as the government’s Small Business Ambassador in 2013. A year later, she was named as a life peer and became Baroness Brady of Knightsbridge.

Karren Brady’s Business Advice

Unlike many subjects of Pocketblog, Lady Brady makes it easy for us to access what she believes to be the secrets of her business success. She has written a short Kindle book called ‘Karren Brady’s 10 Rules for Success‘. This follows a more personal, earlier book, ‘Playing to Win: 10 Steps to Achieving Your Goals‘ (2004).

Brady’s ten rules will not surprise any reader of Pocketblog. They are simple and obvious. But that does not negate their value. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it is important to (Rule 1) Work Hard. Brady does this herself and expects it of her staff. Why should we think that the oversupply of get rich quick self help advice can really achieve anything for anyone except the authors? If you want something, you need to put in the graft.

It would be easy (but an unreasonable re-use of Brady’s ideas) to list her ten rules. So instead, I want to select my personal top three, and explain why I think they are the most valuable to Pocketblog readers.

Rule 5: Take a reality check

Brady uses this rule to positively reinforce your potential. Rather than saying: ‘get real: you don’t really have what it takes’, she uses it to point out that, especially for women, we have real resources and talents, even if they are not in the obvious places. What Brady seems to say is: ‘get real, you do have what it takes’.

But it’s not all sweetness and light: reality can be tough. You need to address your weaknesses and fix things that aren’t working before you can move upwards. This, she points out, is hard and can make you unpopular. But that is sometimes the price you will need to pay, if you want to achieve something of value, and therefore, you need to start by being realistic about yourself, and honest with yourself.

Rule 8: Know how to Negotiate

Business is all about one negotiation after another. It seems unsurprising that someone as highly regarded by Lord Sugar as Brady is, like him places a premium on negotiating skills. She sees it as a ritual combat, to be conducted fairly and without personal rancour. Brady gives this advice:

‘The first rule of negotiation is to work out what you’re prepared to accept in advance and stick to it. No one ever starts where they want to finish.’

The alternative is to think: ‘I have to have that at any price’. If you think that, you will end up paying a dreadful price. There’s always an alternative option to reach the same goal.

If you take this approach, you will know when to say no and walk away, avoiding an outcome you will later regret. This may make you a tough negotiator, but remember that it should not be personal. But it is about persuasion. You need to create a personal contact, to figure out what the other person wants and how you can give it to them, while getting what you want.

Rule 9: Grasp the bottom line

You don’t need an MBA to know the importance of profitability in business, but Brady takes the idea of a forensic focus on every last penny or cent of expenditure to the utmost limit. It is a philosophy that tracks back to the proverb:

‘Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’

Brady describes this as a ‘small-business mentality’ and betrays a possible alternative reality where, instead of being a salaried business leader, she might have been a successful entrepreneur with a string of her own businesses to her name. That would have been interesting.

 

 

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Alan Sugar: Street Smart

While not quite the classic ‘rags to riches’ story, Alan Sugar is a genuine example of the trope of a smart, hard working street trader, who makes it to the big time. And what a big time it is. The Sunday Times Rich List rates him as a Sterling billionaire. It’s easy to feel we know Alan Sugar, through his successful appearances on the UK version of The Apprentice. I suspect that what we see on screen, however, is a character: part Alan Sugar, and part the creation of the shows directors, producers and editors.

Alan Sugar

Short Biography

Alan Michael Sugar was born in 1947 and grew up in Hackney, in East London. His father worked in the East End garment industry, as did my grandmother. After leaving school at 16, Sugar spent a short time in the Civil Service, before investing £50 of his savings in a van and some electrical goods to sell from it.

Sugar was an adept street trader and gradually moved up the value chain to wholesaling and import, founding his first company, Amstrad (AMS Trading), in 1968. But Sugar realised he would only find the big profit in manufacturing. The business he understood best was consumer electronics, so Amstrad’s first manufacturing venture was record turntables. This was the first of many examples of Sugar finding ways to reduce manufacturing costs substantially, so he could out-compete rivals on price.

The 1980s were great years for Sugar and Amstrad, starting in 1980 with its flotation on the London Stock Exchange. The company grew rapidly and launched its first computer in 1984. Although outcompeted by Apple, Commodore and the BBC Micro, it did sell well domestically, as did the following year’s business-oriented word processor. The 1980s ended with the launch of Amstrad’s first satellite TV receiver dish – a line that was to be extremely profitable, with the growth of satellite broadcasting by Sky, BSB, and later, the merged BSkyB. The 1990s were more troubling for Amstrad, which suffered a number of commercial setbacks.

I cannot help wondering if Sugar ‘took his eye off the ball’ in the 1990s, because this was the time too, that he bought and chaired the Premier League football Club Tottenham Hotspur (1991-2001). He later described this period as a waste of his life, and it was certainly a fractious time at the club.

In 2007, Sugar cleared house, selling off Amstrad to business partners BSkyB and his final stake in Tottenham Hotspur.

In 2000, Sugar was knighted “for services to the Home Computer and Electronics Industry” and became Sir Alan Sugar, and then in 2009, was enobled as Baron Sugar of Clapton, to take up a place in Gordon Brown’s Labour Government, sitting in the House of Lords. In 2015, Sugar resigned the Labour Whip, saying that the party’s policies had drifted too far in a direction away from the needs of British business.

Amstrad is also a serious philanthropist, donating substantial funds and time to care and arts organisations. He has written four books too, of which the most important and best selling is his autobiography, What You See Is What You Get. And, of course, he is best known in the UK for his appearance in every series of BBC TV’s The Apprentice.

Business Lessons from Lord Sugar

Much has been written on this – including by me, in a series of blogs drawing lessons from episodes of The Apprentice over a number of years. So let’s keep it simple. Here are five important lessons for managers and business people to bear in mind.

Lesson 1: Character is Destiny

Whether you like or loathe the image he portrays in public, Sugar cleaves firmly to his own principles and business values. If I had to assess ‘the real Alan Sugar’ – and bear in mind, I have no privileged knowledge here – I would speculate that he is someone who has deep respect for people who can demonstrate their capabilities and expertise at the highest level, and has no time for people who have little ability. Anyone who tries to make up for their shortcomings through ingratiation or deception will incur his wrath.

I suspect trusting his closest allies and advisors profoundly has been important in building his success, but his blunt, no nonsense, and occasionally abrasive style has created detractors. His management style has been criticised, as has his attitude to women at work.

Lesson 2: Spot the Next Big Thing… then move quickly

Computers, word processors, TV satellite dishes, email, PDAs, satellite TV receivers… Sugar was in on the ground floor of all of these. At each stage, he used the knowledge and skills gained in earlier ventures to move quickly and seize market share. He also has a strong insight into customer desires and behaviours, which is critical in commercial decision-making. Not all his ventures have been hugely successful, but in business, it is the cumulative success that matters. Indeed, not all his customer predictions have been sound either: he famously predicted the demise of the iPod within a year. Whoops.

Lesson 3: Out-compete ruthlessly

Sugar’s primary competitive strategy is to out-compete on price. Take early stage technology that has started to stabilise, and find a way to manufacture and ship it at vastly reduced costs. The Amstrad computer was reportedly designed on an airline napkin, on a flight from Japan (where he’d seen early computers on sale) and Hong Kong, where he had business contacts that could help with manufacturing.

Lesson 4: Roll with the Punches

Sugar is a great example of business resilience. Not every venture was a success and he has had difficult times in his commercial life. Maybe a stable family life (40+ years of marriage) helped, but I suspect his personal resilience is also down to his character. Expect set backs, take them on the chin, learn from them, and come back fighting.

Lesson 5: Learn how to Negotiate well

I don’t know what Lord Sugar’s negotiating secrets would be – or even if they are anything more than consistent and ruthless application of sound basic principles. But it is certain that he is able to secure every last ounce out of a deal and is scathing of people who ‘leave money on the table’ in a negotiation.

For more on Negotiation, see:

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The Apprentice and Five Levels of Leadership


One of the most compelling critiques of contemporary business leadership is Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great in which he defines five levels of business leadership.

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Level 1 Leaders

… are Highly Capable people who make ‘productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits.’

Level 2 Leaders

… are Contributing Team Members who contribute ‘individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting.’

Level 3 Leaders

… are Competent Managers who ‘organize people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.’

Level 4 Leaders

… are Effective Leaders who ‘catalyse commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.’

Level 5 Leaders

… are Executives who ‘build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.’

Personal Humility and Professional Will

Collins’ ‘paradoxical blend’ is not something we see in many Apprentice candidates. In fact most are at pains to describe themselves as charismatic, ruthless and ambitious.

Curiously, Level 5 Leaders are charismatic – but in a very different way. Their calm humility exudes a sense of wisdom and self control. They are ruthlessly determined, it is true, but with a commitment to integrity that means they take great trouble to be fair. And their ambition is not for themselves, but for their business.

Diligence and Details

Level 5 leaders are able to wrestle at length with the details, see through the gloss to the truth and work hard – relentlessly even – to build a business of lasting value. Their outward modesty – few were well known outside their industry – belied a ruthless advocacy for their business.

Built to Last’ was Collins’ earlier book (with Jerry Porras) about what made some companies great.

Collins concludes that each of the ‘good-to-great’ companies he studied was led by a Level 5 leader, but none of the less-successful companies he compared them with were.

The Apprentice: what level of leadership?

Until the Apprentice, one might have characterised Lord Sugar as a Level 5 Leader, but now he courts limelight in a way that Level 5 Leaders never would. Arguably though, he has built his business empire and created a property portfolio that meets all of his material needs and more, so it’s time to have fun.

But what message is he, through the needs of a prime-time TV reality show, sending to young business people? What levels of leadership do we see week after week?

I Leap to the Show’s Defence

Who knows how this series will end? But let’s step back a year and look at how the last series ended.

imageLast season’s winner (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone still working through their over-full video collection) was Stella English. Far from the fluffy charisma bunny, Stella was accused by some peers as dull. But she knew how to focus on the business issues and – uncharacteristically for Apprentice candidates – could manage a team.

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Stella left school with no qualifications, but flourished in a Japanese bank that cannot possibly favour gobby managers with no substance and, interestingly, described herself as ‘like a dog with a bone. I can’t let go.’

Maybe Lord Sugar recognises the value of Level 5 Leadership after all.

That said…

Ellie Reed - The Apprentice Series 7As the voice-over and Lord S keep reminding viewers, this series is different. He is looking for an entrepreneur: not a manager. So he let calm and steady Ellie Reed (‘I’m just a nice person really, but I have got a dark side if somebody treats me badly’) go, alongside Level 0 Poseur Vincent.

Let’s keep watching.

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Management Pocketbooks the Candidates might Enjoy
… or just benefit from!

… hey! Maybe the people who get signed up for Series 8 should buy the whole DVD of 50 top Pocketbooks!

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More Apprentice?

We know that The Apprentice is not watched by everyone interested in management, so we won’t let the series take over your Pocketblog. If you are a fan, please do check out my own blog, where I aim to draw a management lesson from each episode, on the morning after.

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