And the winner is: the awards industry

First published in the Financial Times on 28th January 2014.

It is easy to be snobbish about business accolades – until you receive one yourself

These days I seem to spend a lot of my time judging. I don’t mean sitting in a court presiding over legal cases: I mean helping to choose who gets various business awards.

There’s the FT’s Boldness in Business awards; the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year awards; the Startup Awards; EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year Awards – and those are just the recent ones in which I’ve participated.

How are decisions reached? For the better organised affairs there has been plenty of in-depth research beforehand, which is then sifted and debated thoroughly by the judges. Do we get it right? That depends on how much effort is expended, and whether the experts possess wisdom.

In every set of trade awards there are sponsors and promoters who have agendas. They want winners who will turn up to the event itself; who will be media-friendly; who will not fall from grace the moment they win; and who haven’t already received too many accolades. But finding worthy new names is hard.
There used to be a suspicion that any corporate leader or company that won an award was cursed – it was a loud signal to sell the shares. But there are so many awards now, any high achiever is sure to receive a few – and their reputations can’t all fall apart the moment they win.

The worst judging panels are those with a bully as the chair. It poisons the process and the result ends up a fix, or a row. The best groups are those where the considerations are done with humour, a lack of prejudice and loose rather than rigid rules about how decisions are reached. Of course everyone turns up with their particular preferences, networks and biases. But usually elegant solutions are found if the judges are good enough.

I must believe in the concept of awards, because I backed a venture specialising in it – the Food Awards Company, run by Caroline Kenyon. So far she has invented the Food Photographer of the Year and World Bread Awards, with others on the way. It seems that demand is endless among directors to congratulate each other over their victories. And why not? Awards are terrific for PR purposes, are a marvellous excuse for a shindig, and can boost management morale no end.

For some years I’ve been involved with Superbrands and Fasttrack, which publish league tables of the strongest brands and best private firms respectively. Although these are not awarding organisations, the principle is the same: congratulating superior performance. The offerings from both companies remain as popular as ever.

Some complain there are too many prizes in modern life, and that the proliferation of trophies dilutes the whole idea of being honoured by one’s peers. However, industries such as the restaurant and food sector have a long way to go before they indulge in the orgies of mutual back-slapping that infest show business. I have attended the Baftas (for television and film), and the Oliviers (for theatre) and witnessed all the hyperbole and self-importance. Nevertheless, both events are highly effective publicity machines, thanks to the power of celebrity.

It is easy to be snobbish about such froth – until you receive an accolade. And then one’s sneers curiously melt away, to be replaced by a feeling that such recognition was entirely deserved.

Moreover, I have met entrepreneurs whose profiles and self-confidence have soared since winning a prestigious award. However, there are occasions when even one’s own vanity questions a particular award – such as the time I was named Best Dressed Businessman of the Year. As my wife might say, are they sure?

The common perception is that all bosses are purely motivated by money. But the power of awards proves otherwise. It is astonishing how happy even the biggest names become with such baubles.

In Britain, the ultimate gong is one granted through the official honours system. Supposedly these cannot be bought, but are mostly bestowed for outstanding achievements in public life – not business. This is precisely why lots of top entrepreneurs and executives want them so much: to demonstrate that they are more than just wealthy capitalists.