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Listen To Your Workforce

14 December 2017

You need to listen to yourworkers. Because your workers on the front line generally know the problems youwill face - long, long before you are aware of them.

I remember working out a restrictive covenant in 2001 when my then boss Angela had suffered enough of me (she would suffer me again, at least once).Restrictive covenants, to the uninitiated, are where you can’t work in a certain sector (in my case recruitment) for a certain period. In this case,Angela and I came to an agreement based upon me taking a few grand and keeping the company car for a bit. In return, I couldn’t work in recruitment for a year. The most obvious joke here is that I have never actually worked in recruitment, but clearly even messing about and falling asleep after a big lunch was still seen as a threat, so I agreed to a restrictive covenant.

I still needed to eat in this period so had to get a job (I know, imagine how I felt) and this is where I managed to land THE WORST JOB I HAVE EVER HAD (TWJIHEH)

To give you some idea, I once worked for £3.25 an hour in a job that involved getting two buses in winter to the Argos Distribution Centre in Castleford. I had to arrive before 7am to wash up in the staff canteen, where I was bullied and berated by a woman who would have frightened a police horse. This is only one example of a lifetime of very hit-and-miss employment experiences. This was still a better job than TWJIHEH.

TWJIHEH was Field Sales Account Executive selling advertising space for the Yellow Pages or “Yell” as it now called itself. For anyone under thirty, the Yellow Pages was a huge primary coloured telephone directory for businesses to advertise their services. It sat in the cupboard in the bottom of the stairs and (depending upon where you lived) was usually about four inches thick.

My job entailed driving around Bath/Somerset/Wiltshire trying to sell bigger, more colourful adverts, to various disinterested small business owners. All of my customers were fanatically obsessed with giving Yellow Pages as little money as possible.   It was hard work and the management team were utter lunatics. I've spent 20 years in recruitment, it takes a lot for me to call someone a lunatic. This lot were next level.

And this is where the title of this blog comes in. You need to listen to your workers. Because your workers, on the front line, generally know the problems you will face long,long before you (yes, you) are aware of them.

In this case, on any given month, we would go to the monthly sales meetings and as group report back our (dwindling) 2001 sales figures. The frustrated,apoplectic management would implore us to WORK HARDER and shout WHY ARE YOU NOT AS GOOD AS WE WERE WHEN WE DID YOUR JOB WE WERE AMAZING. (By the way, I call this style of leadership “The Roy Keane School of Management” it's very popular across UK Sales Teams).

It was extremely rare for them to ask us what we thought might make the company more profitable or critically what we thought the problem might be. When we were asked we would usually say the same thing:

“You know that thing called “the internet”? Well, it’s catching on. It appears to betaking our market”.

Rather than listen, they would (this is the truth) say “THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A YELLOW PAGES” before casually adding that they had the internet covered by pointing to our own internet offering “YELL.com”, a rather ugly form of the Yellow Pages online.

In the year 2000, Yell made operating profits of £210m on sales of £778m.

Life comes at you fast.

By 2009 Yell was making a billion in losses. It wasn't making a billion in losses because I didn't sell enough crappy adverts to builders in Cirencester. Nor was this just about the internet. It was also investments in other useless, defunct businesses.

The last I heard Yell had rebranded themselves as a stupid made-up word which itself had gone into administration, with debts of over £2.3bn.

Would listening to their workers have helped? Quite possibly. In 2001 when their sales team were telling them the problem, they were still making huge profits - profits that could have been invested into a new online world. With that kind of money they could have been the new Linked In. The new AirBnb. The new Uber.

Instead they will always be (to me) The Worst Job I Have Ever Had. A company who never listened to it’s workers.

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