The best advice I ever received? “Never forget that it can be hard to distinguish between a rising market and a genius.” You’ve probably never heard of the man who told me that: a New Zealander called Sir John Buchanan (though he never insisted on the title) who was finance director of BP in its heyday.
He was semi-retired when I met him, at one of those business mentor breakfasts. As you can imagine, such events are not normally my thing. Yet it was about ten years ago, about this time of year, and the Mole batteries felt like they needed recharging. The same, to be fair, could be said of Mole Graphics. The sales director at the time said I was having a mid-life crisis - but only, I think, because he’d had a spectacular one two years before and wanted some company. What I really needed was a break, but we were too busy. When the invite landed on my desk, it made a nice change from the usual irrelevant offers, customer complaints and letters from suppliers who, by pure happenstance, were regretfully announcing they were all increasing their prices by the same amount. I thought I’d give it a go, at £150 it didn’t seem too steep.
The event itself was at an anonymous business hotel in London. I wasn’t expecting much but Buchanan was quietly brilliant. No high flown rhetoric, just observations that drew on experience. I remember other pieces of his advice too - never sell something you can’t understand and realise whatever you incentivise is probably what you’re gonna get. And then, when someone mentioned the global recession caused by the credit crunch, he smiled and made that remark about rising markets and geniuses.
I often think of that observation, especially at the moment, with the media full of apocalyptic economic predictions. I’m not saying that every good company survives. Some decent businesses are just unlucky. Yet Buchanan’s words of wisdom do, at least, suggest you should focus on the stuff you can control - and make that work as well as possible. You can take comfort in the fact that many of your loudest, brashest, dodgiest competitors will come to the painful realisation that they never were a genius - as long as you remember that you probably aren’t either.