First published in the Sunday Times on 18th October 2015.
I’ve been reading a new memoir called They Told Me Not To Take That Job, by Reynold Levy. It describes how the author turned around the Lincoln Centre in New York, one of the world’s great arts institutions. And the brilliant title felt very resonant to me: I have lost count of the number of times in my career I’ve been advised not to do things.
When I was offered the job of chairing Channel 4, plenty of wiseacres said: “Why do that?” When we decided to take Patisserie Valerie public last year, lots of experts told me: “That’s a bad idea.” When I first starting writing a weekly newspaper column about business, colleagues said I would regret it. When I got involved in Pizza Express, sceptics told me that the restaurant trade was awful and the pizza fad was dead.
Virtually every important strategic move I’ve made has been accompanied by someone saying that it was ill-advised, from giving up medicine to leaving a job in the City, to forming the private equity business Risk Capital Partners.
The world is full of critics who sit on the side lines and make discouraging comments. An early trial any company founder must endure is the whispered warning from friends, colleagues and family that saps their confidence. But lots of entrepreneurs are driven by a desire to prove the detractors wrong. “I’ll show them” is the defiant phrase that best sums up their ambition.
There are always sensible-sounding reasons to say no to any bold deed in life. All significant steps — taking a job, starting a business, moving abroad, getting married — carry risks. But one’s worst fears are invariably overblown. And most of the worries we fret about are inconsequential in the long run. Prior to running a New York cultural institution, Levy was president of the International Rescue Committee, and dealt with wars and depravity in troubled places such as Kosovo. The rivalries, clashing egos, parochialism and threats faced by the Lincoln Centre seemed rather trivial compared to the life-and-death matters he had experienced in his previous job.
I’m convinced that those who want to make a mark in the world must have a bias for action, and a real sense of urgency. That means a propensity to say yes — especially towards the wilder adventures on offer. It does not necessarily mean being impetuous, or doing no preparation before taking the leap. But it does meaning seizing opportunities — even if those around you counsel against it. A tendency to over-intellectualise can be fatal to any proprietor who wants to build a big business in a hurry. Unfortunately, in an age when the precautionary principle dominates, and annual reports groan with pages and pages of health warnings of every conceivable kind, it is much easier to let the status quo prevail and forget any innovative endeavour.
Most entrepreneurs are by nature poor at taking advice. While that is a weakness, perhaps it is a better fault than the tendency to procrastinate ad nauseam, now seen in many organisations . Look at how Richard Desmond, the maverick media tycoon, seized control of Channel 5. He snatched it up for £100m while his many rivals dithered. Desmond placed a huge personal bet and won, trusting his instincts. He rapidly turned around the business and sold it four years later for £460m to a US media conglomerate. Desmond’s willingness to trust his own judgment and act upon it delivered a remarkable profit, which made the competition look stupid.
All manner of large organisations purport to be entrepreneurial, and insist that their management embraces a risk-taking mentality. For the most part, this is bogus. I give speeches to executives from big companies, and I see bright people suffocating from cultures riven with defensiveness and risk aversion, where group-think dominates and endless committees kill any exciting initiatives. These managers may be paid well, enjoy nice perks, and get to play with big train sets, but most are trapped by managing decline, battling against bureaucracy and office politics. I would rather back my hunches with my own modest wagers, experiencing real highs and lows rather than pretend ones.
If you work for yourself you must learn to rely upon yourself, and have confidence in your decisions. I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Even if there are hazards and setbacks, life is more fun and fulfilling if you control your own destiny.