Friday, October 30, 2015

Getting stuff done - a week of substance, over and style

If you get the chance go and look around one of the Youth Zones in the North West. You can't just drop in, these are safe places for young people. But go and talk to the volunteers and fundraisers about the outcomes of the work they do, but also how humbling and personally beneficial it has been to everyone who has been involved.

I spent the morning at the Bolton Lads and Girls Club with Nick Hopkinson (pictured), who is a real force of nature. An entrepreneur, adventurer and fund raiser, he spends 80 per cent of his time "messing about and raising money" travelling the world while doing so and shining a great amount of light into this part of Bolton.


I'll be writing this up for Onside magazine, which I produce for my client Seneca, a business with real substance, incredible reach and deep humility amongst its team members. This was demonstrated in spades two weekends ago when a gang of them romped through Delamere Forest together in the Hellrunner half marathon, raising a chunk of money for the Bolton club. These exercises work on so many levels, yes, the funds for the kids of Bolton, but also the togetherness and greater sense of mission that doing something this engenders.

This connection to the values of a charity is particularly important at a time when Kids Co is being pored over and charities have undoubtedly suffered reputational damage through aggressive fund raising, high salaries and a lack of accountability.


We went to see the new James Bond film on Monday. It was a rare full family outing to something we could all enjoy. Two things stood out. One was the fact that SPECTRE is like a James Bond Greatest Hits tour. The whole band back together for a huge rally for the true fans. The opening scene with skull masks was a top hat tipped towards Live and Let Die, and so it flowed. Secondly, I was struck by how dominant Daniel Craig was in every single shot. He was styled, choreographed, poised and dressed like each scene was a commercial or a pop video. His walk, his every look was an exercise in making the job of his successor an impossible one.

One of my own obsessions is with classic British clothing brands - John Smedley, Clarks, Loakes and the one that was featured in the film to luxurious effect, Sunspel. I love the well made crafted simplicity of their shirts and underwear. They produced the boxer shorts that Nick Kamen wore in the famous Levis laundrette commercial in the 1980s and changed how men dressed down below.


This week has mostly been about getting over the crushing disappointment of the derby day defeat in the East Lancashire t'classico to Burnley. It's never good to lose a game like this, but all we can really do is remind ourselves for those thirty odd years when we were dominant we had a league title, a cup and two promotions to show for it. I can't imagine how unbearable that must have been for them. There is absolutely no danger that our claret cousins will achieve anything like that level of success. We just have to savour the memories.

Finally, we did a Discuss nuclear debate on Thursday this week at the Science Festival and an event in Liverpool to read from my book and sign a few copies. It was great to meet so many new faces, but also made me all the more determined to link everything that I do with something worthwhile. I'm going to start by donating all profits from sales of 40 by 40 to the OnSide charity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The harder you work, the luckier you get - thoughts on Rovers v Burnley

I genuinely, honestly don't know if Burnley work any harder on the training ground than Blackburn Rovers. But I genuinely honestly can think of no other reason for the result I've watched today. Man for man, player for player, we had a definite edge. Big players put in some big performances. Grant Hanley was faultless. Jordan Rhodes did everything but score, indeed at set plays he's often our best defender.

But Burnley were far more cohesive, far more organised and therefore were always clear about what they needed to do to win, or draw.

And that old maxim, the harder you work, the luckier you get. They had the luck today. One chance, one goal, one opportunity. They didn't need to do much more. We did and we couldn't.

Two years on from Gary Bowyer's appointment I still have no notion of the kind of side we are. We're dependent on the rub of the green, a shining performance from a "black swan" player - like Tom Lawrence, for instance - or a snuffling out of the opposition's danger men. But Burnley had a strategy, we just have tactics and tricks. 1-0 down and we're happy to play it along the back six and lob it back to a keeper who isn't even that good at lumping it forward.

It could have been different today, sport always can, but this game is too important to us to be just another game that we dust ourselves down and bounce back from. It defines us. It defines them. And right now they are a solid, unremarkable, well organised side capable of winning a derby game and sending their fans home happy. They will go on and finish higher than we will.

Fair play to the ref today. Not a popular view I'm sure, but so many bookings are stupid and unnecessary. His judgement was to downplay everything. He got to 70 minutes without getting a card out and thought he'd see it to the end.

Where does this Rovers side go from here? I genuinely, honestly don't know.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Why challenge is so important in everything you do

I've been thinking a lot about the importance of challenge this week. I've had an induction for a new board I'm joining where constructive questioning and challenging of executive directors is not only encouraged but actively expected. This hasn't always been the case in cultures where I've worked before.

In any walk of life, it must be impossible to achieve anything if you have to make all the decisions yourself, but are then surrounded by "yes men" who tell you what you want to hear. New ideas and new thinking on any subject can help to refresh decision making and bring a confidence to any organisation.

Tristram Hunt first floated the idea of "algorithm politics" at the debate I held in September on the new politics. You can watch a video of his speech here.

He continued the theme in a talk at the University of Sheffield last week. "Google’s skill at offering you what it knows you like is now directing you towards what you want to hear, from people like you."

We have algorithms driving Facebook and Twitter that point us towards more and more people we agree with and like. We are herded towards those with whom we agree. This fuels a cycle of validation.

Jeremy Corbyn has created the veneer of being inclusive with his parliamentary party because he has no choice. The talent pool is so shallow on the left he's had to give jobs to poor calibre ranters like Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, but is still forced to work with whoever will serve. In his own team he is less pluralistic, Seamus Milne is the latest appointee, but others in his ranks like Simon Fletcher and Andrew Fisher are brutal faction fighters who are there to consolidate, validate and enforce. Not to challenge. That's not on the agenda.

Flesh on the bones of history

I started this week as I started last with an evening at the Manchester Literature Festival listening to authors I've heard of, but never read anything by. Admittedly, they are both Labour grandees, but Robert Harris and Melvyn Bragg have both written recent works that attempt to put flesh on the bones of history. Harris by completing his Roman trilogy and Bragg with a novel about the Peasants revolt of 1381.

I haven't truly embraced the spirit of historical fiction (or Game of Thrones, yet) but it strikes me that we apply much of our own interpretations of history through the lens of modern life and morality. Melvyn Bragg was asked how on earth he can construct a character based on how someone will think and feel 750 years ago. But he has, and wasn't this the very basis of our greatest ever historical fiction writer, William Shakespeare?

Chinese state visit 

So Manchester is receiving the Chinese leader today, which I'm genuinely pleased about. But it comes at a time when the strains of globalisation and fetishisation of the Chinese success story are being felt, especially on Teeside. The social costs of a loss of our steel industry and the technical weaknesses to our infrastructure from inferior product are high prices to pay.

It's also important that as we respect the culture and history of our visitors we don't forget our own traditions too. Protest, mutuality, respect and democracy. There will be protests against the human rights record of the Chinese government, rightly, I just hope it can be done with dignity and without spitting and rape threats.

The nuclear question

I genuinely haven't made up my mind about nuclear power. Next week we're hosting a debate as part of the Science Festival  which might help. Tickets have been shifting fairly briskly and we're close to a sell out with just a week to go.

A few years ago, when I was pondering what to do next, I became very excited by the possibilities of curiosity and debate. Bringing people together to explore new ideas and bring original thinkers to a stage to lead a sharing of knowledge and query.

It was on a wet night in August 2011 listening to Tristram Hunt telling a packed audience at the People's History Museum about Peterloo that the idea that is now Discuss started to form. I was also excited by some of the libertarian free thinking displayed by an author called Douglas Carswell, who challenged conventions on politics and community organisation.

I hope we've been true to that mission and I hope we have been able to encourage more critical thinking. Now that is an idea worth fighting for.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Howard Kendall dared us to dream

Howard Kendall was Blackburn Rovers manager when we hit rock bottom. A 3-0 home defeat by Rotherham United in 1979 left us at the bottom end of the then Third Division. Fast forward to the 2nd of May 1981 and that morning, aged 14,  I set off on my own on the train to Eastville stadium Bristol, home of another Rovers, as we dared to dream of a promotion to the top flight.

It wasn't to be, football is full of such highs and lows and false dawns. Howard Kendall made me fundamentally shift my view of what it meant to be a Blackburn Rovers supporter. From that dismal September Saturday to the brink of something special. It was one of those amazing, reach for the stars times.

The football supporting life I bought into was safe, unthreatening and lacking any real ambition. It was part of something traditional and grounded, rather than modern and aspirational and successful. That promotion season and then the possibilities of a second surge the year after changed all that. He dared us to dream.

It was against Derby County in the play off semi final in 1991 where all that existential suffering and angst came to the fore again as we slumped to 2-0 after 20 minutes. What are we? Why are we? What is this curse that stops us reaching to that next level. Amazingly, incredibly, we won 4-2. It was the most emotional I've ever been at Ewood ever.

A minute's applause for Howard Kendall before last night's decent draw with the Rams doesn't come close to conveying what he did for the club. Read Jim Wilkinson's pain staking and brutally honest fans' account for what it meant, but take it from me, without Howard Kendall, there would not have been a Blackburn Rovers that Jack Walker could have deemed worth 'saving'. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A bad result in a bad place. MK Dons away.

I only came to Stadium MK because it was a new ground and so it had all the ingredients for a dismal afternoon, tucked away at the top deck in a flat pack stadium (next to IKEA) against the wierd soulless shapeless thing that is MK Dons.
I said when I bought the tickets that it felt a bit like I'm crossing a picket line at Parkside colliery circa 1985 while eating a Cape orange.

If the experience wasn't weird enough in this futuristic new town with its roundabouts, boulevards and no visible centre, the game was one to forget. Getting Henley sent off after ten minutes and going one down from the penalty that followed made it hard enough, but apart from a couple of brief spells that came to nothing it just wasn't our day.

A brief word on Rovers fans. Spotted at least three sets of grown men squaring up to each other as frustration took hold. Not big or clever. Is this normal on an away trip?

Bring on Derby, get over this quickly.

As a ground, it's alright as far as the sight lines and seating comfort goes, but it was half empty and devoid of atmosphere. Still, number 80 chalked off in my punk 92 and 68 in the total 92 and ground number 141. Happily, I need never to come here again.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The best business speaker I've ever seen is...

Kevin Roberts on stage (pic by Neil Price)
I get asked a lot who the best speaker I’ve ever worked with is. There are so many ways to answer that. Who works best in a small room doesn’t always light up an auditorium. A funny, wise and informative conference presenter can fall spectacularly as an after dinner performer – and I’ve seen Wayne Hemingway do both.

So obviously, it depends. But for emotion, danger, connection, wisdom, inspiration and, yes, entertainment the answer is Kevin Roberts, author of Lovemarks, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, head coach at Publicis and, like me, he left Lancaster Royal Grammar School in a state of disgrace.

I saw him again this week for the first time in ‘too long’. He was doing the keynote address at the Annual Hotel Conference in Manchester, curated by my old chum Chris Eddlestone, the self-styled Earl of East Lancashire. What struck me more than anything was his edge, an urgency to understand, keep up, interpret and act. But also to seek and maintain a higher purpose to whatever it is you do. He started by talking about millenials, the globally mobile digital natives – in particular how the hotels industry needs to think very carefully about what they want and need in the age of Airbnb. But, the algorithm can read the lines but only we can read between them and deliver emotional connections.

His talks are always full of visuals, names, quotes and bursts of inspiration. This is the Age of the Idea, he said, and the biggest one of them all right now is disruption. Kevin took a lifelong love of rugby from his time at our school (I didn’t). And I remember an evening at the Town Hall in 2004 where he invited his mate Sean Fitzpatrick to teach the first XV the Haka as part of a bawdy night of fundraising for a planned tour of Argentina. Raising money for privileged children, I think I called it at the time.

The mysticism of the All Blacks – the Haka is a part of that – does rather irritate me, just as Barcelona’s ‘more than a club’ creates the aura of semi-religious purity it so frequently fails to live up to. But if you’re going to do something well, then why not do it in such fine and grand style. I liked

Kevin’s comment about the England Rugby team’s purpose and ideal was to win the World Cup on home soil.

The All Blacks is to be the best rugby team that ever played the game. Wow. That’s really powerful. So he’s dead right when he says that no opposition is ever more intimidating than the legacy.

There’s also a dressing room “all for one” culture of humility that doesn’t tolerate dickheads. Kevin said that a Kevin Pietersen would never have been an All Black. So why the war dance then chaps? A dose of Kevin is always a good part of any day, week, year. Truly, the best there is.

It got me thinking about the old school. I wasn’t happy at school and have been an avowed opponent of the selective system all my life, up to, during and after, my own experience of its harmful effects not just on me, but on my friends and family who “failed” their 11 plus, scarring them for life. The bright lads from tough backgrounds who got through, but who seemed to drop out and drift away from the culture of cold showers, Latin, housemasters, Big School, prefects and rugby. 

As I said on BBC Radio Manchester this morning, I’m disappointed that selective state grammar schools are making a comeback. I am all in favour of improving schools and improving the life chances of our brightest and best. But the flip side of this elitism in state education is too cruel and a massive distraction from the important project of raising standards across the board.

The problem with so much of our debate on all aspects of education is that it's fuelled by anecdote, gut feel and, frankly, picking the evidence to suit your prejudice. I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that grammar schools contribute to social mobility, higher earnings or leave anything positive in a community for the 90 per cent who don't pass the entrance exam.

So, for what it's worth, the fact that Kevin Roberts and I went to the same school and have taken the paths we have taken in life has absolutely nothing at all to say to the debate about the future of education in this country. But he is a bloody good speaker and whatever they teach you at Lancaster, it isn't that.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Wembley dream over for @hydeunited

When I was a kid, I have a memory that a headline in the Lancaster Guardian, following an early exit by Lancaster City in a preliminary qualifying round of the FA Cup, was Wembley Dream Over For Dolly Blues. So, to see the faces on the players of Hyde United today after a frankly ludicrous 2-1 home defeat to Northwich Victoria you'd have thought that's what they'd been denied too.

I don't think I've seen as one-sided a second half as we did today. Hyde threw everything forward and would have emerged winners from this re-arranged tie if there was any natural justice. The young goalie mistimed collecting a long back pass for the first and was bundled into his own net under a rough challege for the winner.

It was Non-League Day today, where fans of league clubs are encouraged to support their local teams. As it was a replayed game (Northwich had played an ineligible player in the original game) then it was only £8 for me and kid4. Sadly there were only 250 others on for a decent game. But the opportunity of a cup run is such a lifeline for players at this level. How they must dream of getting drawn at home in the First round proper to Sheffield United or some other team with a big away following.

A couple of seasons ago, at the depths of my disdain for the Venky's disastrous reign at Blackburn Rovers, I had a bit of a Non-League Season. I caught Hyde on an upward bounce and enjoyed it, even contemplating doing an away trip before sense took hold. It was familiar and robust again today; the Shed was in decent potty mouthed voice and we laughed a lot, even at the predictable cry of "Ref! Get him offf! He could have killed him!" 

We're sticking with Rovers, but Hyde feels like an old local pub that we pop back to. It's also something different that we can enjoy without any real emotional connection or commitment to. I do enjoy these experiences and am still keen to chalk off my Greater Manchester stadiums - Curzon Ashton, FC United and Man City's new bowl on the campus beckon. I also keep pondering doing a season following the FA Cup - starting at the nearest game to our house at the earliest possible stage and seeing how far I could do. Sadly, like the quest to do the 92 it's just not practical with the kids at the age they are and everything else that needs doing. 

So, today, for me the Wembley dream was very much over. For Hyde, it's back to the business of a long trip to Whitby Town for a league game on Wednesday night.

Friday, October 09, 2015

An afternoon with rogue trader Nick Leeson

I did an event in London this week with Nick Leeson, the “rogue trader” who broke Barings Bank in 1995. It was an absolutely fascinating encounter. He spoke candidly and purposefully to an audience of financial specialists about what happened to him and how it could have been avoided, but also where risk is managed now.

It was a fine end to a very hard working and productive conference organised by the Manchester-based financial technology (Fintech) business AccessPay. If I took three things from the event it was these: Cash is still king, knowledge is power and disruption is everywhere.

Just as my research earlier this year for the ICAEW on the changing role of accountants found, there is a platform shift in human behaviour that requires a far more nimble way of accessing information and accessing services and products. New ways of doing business are challenging these relationships every bit as Netflix and Uber are disrupting entertainment and taxis.

But as Nick Leeson’s talk demonstrated there is a human being at the centre of this digital world, hopefully making rational decisions and managed sufficiently within a complex system to mitigate against undue risk. When he joined me for a Question and Answer session we broadened the conversation to look at scandals like Enron and Volkswagen and how they can be prevented.

As I arrived at the Barbican Centre at 7.45 that morning I had an inkling we were in for a good day when I saw a queue of people in sleeping bags at the front desk waiting to get in. I never knew Global Treasury services and communications protocols in the banking industry were so popular. Turns out they were actually there for the sale of tickets for Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Coincidentally, the previous day in London had been a board meeting for mine and Benedict’s old seat of learning, the University of Manchester. Our Alumni Advisory board had met at the Wellcome Trust, where we followed up with an open meeting for Manchester Alumni. We heard from General Secretary of the Students’ Union, Naa Acquah. In addition, Hian Seng Teng, President of the Alumni Association in Singapore and is extremely active across Asia, working with his counterparts in Hong Kong and mainland China, and also with the Alliance Manchester Business School’s Global Centres in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It was a great occasion and really cemented my view that the experience of Manchester is an exceptional one.

It was the second event this year where I’ve shared a stage with a real person who has had a major film made about them. The first was Frank Abagnale, who was played by Leonardo di Caprio in Catch me if you Can. Nick was of course played by Euan Macgregor in Rogue Trader.

I’m going for the treble now – anyone know if Jordan Belfort is available? Or can I count Graeme Hawley as Roger Cashmore?

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Best Rovers performance for years

Twenty three years ago this weekend I saw one of the most complete Blackburn Rovers performances I've ever seen. A 7-1 demolition of league leaders Norwich City gave a glimpse of the awesomeness of Alan Shearer but also the well-drilled team Kenny Dalglish had assembled.

Seriously, today we were that good again. Alright, so it's a division lower but you can only ever play what's in front of you. I simply can't fault a single player. Not every pass came off, but for sheer work rate, risk taking and bursts of sublime skill we were on our A game today.

I'm never that interested in who the opposition are, but I'm told Ipswich are much fancied. That they have a striker called Darryl Murphy who scores for fun. Well he must spent so much time in Grant Hanley's pocket I never noticed him. 

The only downers on a great day at Ewood were the crashing of the turnstile system which meant we missed kick off and the rumbling of our secret car park in Lower Darwen (pic, above). But this was some silver lining today. Feels like we've got our Rovers back.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Wolfsburg fans, Tory delegates - welcome to Manchester

I've been to a number of events this week where the role of sport in developing a sense of place has been rather profoundly highlighted.

I also met my old pal David Parkin this week, the founder of The Business Desk and the go-to business journalist in Yorkshire in the last decade. He and I both support Championship football teams. Where we differ however is that the city I work in has the top two in the Premiership, while Leeds United still appear stuck in the Championship wilderness with an eccentric and erratic owner.

On Wednesday this week Manchester was full of German supporters. There is indisputable evidence that the momentum of Greater Manchester is helped by the brand reinforcement of its success in sport. The same is true over in Yorkshire as the Tour de France last year ably demonstrated.

We talked about a piece in the Telegraph last Saturday where Gary Neville laid down the charge that the demise of Northern clubs in football is a symptom of the economic dominance and alure of an ever powerful London. Top players are turning down Liverpool and Newcastle in favour of Arsenal, Crystal Palace and even Bournemouth. You could realistically see Newcastle and Sunderland drop out and be replaced by Brighton and Reading. This is bad news on so many levels.

More locally, we have a situation down the road in Woodley where a very popular sports facility has grown and grown. This should be welcomed, but as access to it is via a residential housing estate it is resented. What should have been a welcome addition to a local community has become a blight causing traffic chaos and deep resentment. I was asked to go to a very angry public meeting on Thursday night to support local residents who had a number of questions for councillors and officers about their attempts to address this dreadful situation.

It's a classic case of poor forward planning. Why build something if you don't expect it to succeed? And what will the price of that success be? And how could it add to the sense of place and pride?

Finally, it's Conservative Party conference in Manchester next week. Roads will be closed - even more than usual. There will be snipers on the roofs, there will be a large protest march on Sunday and there are stickers on lamposts urging a week of action to "Take Back Manchester".

I was deeply ashamed to read the guidance given to Tory delegates to hide their ID. Some might say this is hype to demonise the protestors. I rather suspect it's common sense advice. Either way it saddens me. They clearly don't want to risk a delegate getting a punch on the nose, or worse. It's the kind of advice you get when you go to Millwall. Is that what Manchester city centre has become for visitors to our city? I do hope not.

For what's it worth, whether you're a Wolsburg supporter, a caravan club member or a Tory Party delegate you are welcome in Manchester.