Looking out for rainclouds

Renowned business mentor John Bittleston has had a business career spanning 60 years. In his latest article he discusses the challenges facing SMEs, and explains why managers need to learn disobedience and improve their forecasting skills.

What makes a good mentor?

Good mentors like to affirm, develop and help others progress towards their goals. ‘Positivity’ is a clumsy word but it describes the drive everyone needs if they are not to fall into a trough of indifference. Inevitably, however, many matters come to a mentor because she or he is seen as the first line of defence in tackling problems. Both companies and individuals fail to forecast robustly enough to anticipate a coming difficulty. Companies, in particular, are prone to letting things get out of hand. By the time the rot is exposed much damage has been done.

What are the biggest challenges facing SMEs?

Every small company has a resource shortage. Whether it is cash flow, lack of good staff, not enough clout with customers to get them to pay on time, inadequate funds for R&D or simply too few hours in the day, SME’s lack the muscles of a bigger company.

This is not all bad. Big companies often have massive waste, interdepartmental squabbles, a tendency not to share or – even worse – to dump unwanted work on the most junior person then fire them for not doing it right. Multinational companies are tanks rolling across the battlefield. They can crush anything in their way, and that includes potential customers and timely reaction to threats and opportunities. Not everything big is good.

My Drill Sergeant said: “Don’t drive a tank until you’ve learnt where the controls are.” But size matters and SME’s that cannot methodically use outside resources will become overwhelmed by procedures, regulations and increasingly fickle customers. Loyalty – remember that? – went out when people began to be treated like last week’s newspapers.  Regulation became an industry with competing departments often insisting on rules that contradict themselves.

Any thinking banker will tell you he will be fired by the regulator, not by his employer. The impossible doesn’t take longer; it takes jobs.

Underlying the SMEs’ lack of resources is the implicit cartel of big business. I worked for a big milling and baking business many years ago. The Monopolies Commission brought a case against the Managing Directors and the three biggest milling and baking companies in the UK for “fixing” bread prices. Bread is to Europe what rice is to Asia – huge markets with unbelievably big volumes. Charges were laid, the case heard and the defendants found guilty.

The fine to the individuals and the companies were derisory – just a nod in the direction of justice. In his summing up the judge declared that the three companies could not alter prices independently. They were to give notice to each other of intended price increases or the balance of the market would be upset with consequential loss of jobs and disruption of capital assets. “But,” the judge added, “they must not tell each other about their planned price increases over dinner. It had to be done by memo.”

All businesses are caught between efficiency created by competition and order required to let employees lead reasonably stable lives. Too much of either leaves volatility that disrupts life more than is desirable.

What advice do you have for those starting out on their career?

We need to train courageous managers as well as smart ones. You will be bombarded by training, case histories, processes, templates, directions, rules, regulations. In the end what matters is your standard. We answer to one person in this world, whatever anyone tells you. That is the person we look at in the mirror every morning. Over the years our image changes. Those changes are wrought by how much we have developed our personal standards. They cannot be perfect; if we let them slip too much it shows. We are the best critics of how we look.

Two other aspects of career development are woefully neglected. The first is our ability to think imaginatively and creatively. We are presented with far too many solutions today. Here’s a salutary story. A young child was finding maths difficult. Her parents engaged a private tutor, a brilliant man who had devoted his life to teaching maths. He educated this young lady by interesting her and getting her to see maths as a puzzle not a chore. He taught her wonderful shortcuts to doing maths. When she came to write her exam she got every single answer right – and was failed for not doing the sums the way the education authority has said children should do them. Unbelievable? It’s true.

The good news is that this child will become very successful in life and will be celebrating long after the education authority’s idiocy has been forgotten.

All young managers setting out on their career path need to know when to disobey. Disobedience is not a whimsical choice, it is a necessary common-sense correction of ridiculous rules. Learning when to disobey is the most important subject not taught by any university or college.

There is also an almost total lack of teaching the fundamentals of forecasting. Every manager is employed to forecast. Most are employed to do little else. Each decision is about its consequences. Therefore every decision must be based on a forecast of those consequences. We cannot always forecast correctly but if we don’t try we will never improve. Often find yourself in the rain without an umbrella? You need a quick programme of Better Forecasting.

Standards and creative thinking for better forecasting are the greatest lessons I have learnt in my 60 years in business. As we always say, forecast the little things correctly and your big forecasts will be right, too.

John Bittleston is Founder Mentor and Chairman of Terrific Mentors, based in Singapore.

Last updated:
27 February 2019