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Darren A. Smith: “Buy your team into what you are trying to do”

Buy your team into what you are trying to do. They will help. Plus, as a leader it shows humility, which is always a good thing because, well, you don’t know it all, and that’s ok. Continuously improve. Ask for feedback. A simple benchmark — How is my delegation? 4/10, and then 4 weeks later, ask again. As part […]

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Buy your team into what you are trying to do. They will help. Plus, as a leader it shows humility, which is always a good thing because, well, you don’t know it all, and that’s ok.

Continuously improve. Ask for feedback. A simple benchmark — How is my delegation? 4/10, and then 4 weeks later, ask again.


As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darren A. Smith.

‘Don’t run’. That was Darren’s first experience of delegation. It was his Dad and they were unloading the weekly food shop from the car boot to the house. The 12 stitches in Darren’s left hand are testament to why you should not run holding a glass bottle and the importance of powerful words, like ‘run’. Darren is the CEO of Making Business Matter (MBM) — A soft skills training provider and an avid student of human behaviour.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/1cc01257c43e25c68442c15f3d778d6e


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

A gang of 14-year old boys were huddled around me in the playground. Sniggering. Joking. Handing over their money. I’d found a sports bag 2-days ago on the way home from school, dumped in a field. When I opened it, I was surprised. Rammed full of ‘Gentleman’s magazines’ — if you know what I mean. What was a 14-year old boy to do? I took them to school to sell them for 10p each. This was my first taste of being an entrepreneur and I loved it. Sadly, the venture was limited. I’d also learnt about supply and demand. There was no more supply, even though I had stimulated demand.

‘Do you use bottled water?’. The year is 1989. I am fresh out of senior school and starting my first, maybe second, business — Depending on whether selling magazines at school is defined as a business. Unfortunately, this is not a Richard Branson story. I am sad to say. More of a guy that never gives up and is still yet to make his fortune. I had seen an advert in a paper to sell water filters — A pyramid selling type of affair. I was 16. Having the door slammed in your face 50 times a day at that age, or any age, really does toughen you up. Six months later, and with my face looking like a front door, I decided college was the way forward. A 2-year business course — ‘That is what is needed’. I thought.

I emerged from college a more rounded individual, had made a lot of friends, and knew a bit more about business. I placed my first advert in the paper. Send me all your pictures that you have in the loft, in shoeboxes, and squirrelled away, and I’ll put them into albums for you, for a cost. A nice idea. The part I missed was that no-one would send their treasured memories through the post. Maybe someone might still respond to that advert from 1991? ‘Great idea — here’s all my treasured possessions young man and a fat cheque’. Maybe not.

My Dad had worked all his life in a supermarket. From selling rabbits outside the store to becoming a Regional Director. An Eastend London lad done well. Incidentally, moving-house, as he got promoted took a strange turn when we moved from Essex — an area known for its unusual accent, to Oxford — One known for the Queen’s English. The first day in an Oxford school at 11 years old, you’d think that the school would have provided a translator to help the other kids understand me! Anyway, back to the supermarket. Not wanting to work in a store, I applied to be a buyer at head office. It didn’t dawn on me that if I got the job, the 4-hour round-trip commute I had just done, might become a permanent fixture. It did. For 15-years I stood on the train to London for 4 hours a day!

After re-applying for my own job 8 times (Supermarkets are not really people focused) I chose to start out on my own. When I say, I chose, I meant that my wife, Gayle, said, ‘I’ve had enough of this. Take the day off sick and figure out what you want to do’.

I had achieved a great responsibility, both in leading a huge team and managing over £1bn of goods. I thought my business knowledge had grown significantly, but nothing prepared me for what was about to happen as a start-up…

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I didn’t once think of giving up. I thought of doing over a 10,000 times!

My daughter had just been born and I had left a secure job with a great package, company car — The whole works. To start ‘Making Meetings Matter’. I had seen that meetings were ineffective — nothing changes even 30 years on. MMM was a minute-taking business. My third attempt at business. My business plan was an impressive 84 pages. Complete rubbish. There was nothing I hadn’t considered. Yet, it was doomed from the start. College had taught me some theory. The supermarket had taught me to negotiate and be a corporate businessperson. But I had learnt nothing about starting a business to make it a success. Limited resources, limited time, and the magnifying glass was on me at every step.

Not dissuaded, I continued.

I remember it being December and working from the garage. It was so cold that I was wearing a coat and gloves whilst trying to type at my laptop. This was 6 months after I’d left the well-paid job. Money was running tight. I’d gone from not being able to fit the numbers on a calculator, to only having to use my hands, and maybe occasionally, toes, to calculate the sales, profit, and margin. There was only one thing to do…

I asked the bank for a loan for ‘windows and a conservatory — home improvements’. We used the money to pay the mortgage and to live. I’d not recommend it.

In the same week my Mum and Dad came to visit us. All four of us were writing addresses for a mail-out to over 2,000 businesses offering the minute-taking business. A reply came a few days later in the form of a very official envelope. I was so excited. Then I opened the letter — We were being sued. Oh! The mail-out was designed to look like an internal memo of a company, at an attempt to be intriguing. Someone had been completely taken in by it. I question their IQ, but they were intelligent enough to get a solicitor to sue us. That was the first time I cried. Was small business this hard?

It took a lot of groveling, negotiating, and persuasion that my intentions were innocent. They finally yielded on the agreement that I, or MMM, never darkened their door again.

Stubbornness. Determination. Being like a Jack Russell is a calling. It’s a strength and a weakness. Sometimes the right thing to do is to give up. To stop. Sometimes it’s not. The JR’s never do. I didn’t. Unfortunately, at the expense, of family, friends, physical health, and mental health. There has to be consequences to being relentless. I continued…

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Remember that I mentioned the water filtering business? Selling it door to door. Well, it wasn’t an absolute disaster. Someone actually bought one. Yes, it surprised me too. ‘We’d like to buy the ‘20S’. This was the under-the-sink product. Imagine a 2 litre Coke size bottle fitting under the sink and filtering your tap water so that the water you drank was purer. Like having Evian on-tap. Aha — the patter returns. My first sale!

Being the smart individual that I thought I was, I didn’t need a plumber to fit these things. I’d seen a video. Remember there was no YouTube back then — This is the 90’s. It was a cassette of a plumber fitting these things. 1.5 hours of Ron the plumber sharing his experience. Any minute I expected a buxom woman to walk-in on Ron. Sadly, it was just a boring plumbing video.

‘Yes, Mr. Hammersmith, I’ll be round on Saturday morning to fit your 20S. Should take about 45-minutes’. All arranged. I’d borrowed some tools from my Dad, forced myself to read the instructions (most unlike me), and was ready to conclude my first sale.

Basically, you clamp this tap-like thing onto the pipe under the sink, to make the flow go through the filter and then out of the tap on the sink above. I’d taken out all the household cleaning products, drawers, and other paraphernalia to give me the very best chance of installing the 20S well and in under 45 minutes. Tools laid out. Instructions clear. Ready to rock and roll. Plus, they’d made me a cup of tea — nice people. Though that was to change.

Surprisingly it went well. The water was not bouncing off of the ceiling and the kitchen roll was showing no signs of leakage when I wrapped it around the fitted bits, as Ron had showed me on the cassette. My god — I’d actually done it. Proud was not the word. I was about to remove my underpants to now wear them outside of my trousers. Though professionalism stopped me.

Before I put everything back, I asked Mr. Hammersmith to take a look. He filled-up a glass with water. Drank it. Remarked at the purity and thanked me. ‘So, I’ll just tidy-up, put everything back and then ask you for payment. Be about 5 minutes. Ok?’. My first payment — I had a vision of buying myself a tracksuit top later to celebrate. I lifted up the drawer and slid it onto the rail things and pushed it back. Donk! Tried again. Something was stopping the drawer from sliding back. I bent down to take a look. The clamped-on tap thingy was in the way. <Insert many, many, many swear words>.

I had to pay for a plumber to fix what I could not. Plus, give-away the product for free. I was severely out of pocket.

My take-away? I am to DIY what Houdini was to glass blowing. Realize your limitations. Accept them. Capitalize on your strengths. Accept that most triumphs come from a team effort, and don’t try to cut corners because they’ll always bite you in the bum.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are like any other training company. This was the ‘punch in the face’ moment I had 10 years ago. We were doing the same stuff as everyone else. 1-day training courses that achieved diddly squat. The person to thank for this enlightenment? Richard White.

You might remember that I was in the garage working with gloves on, shivering and struggling to sell MMM. In sheer desperation I went onto a website looking for sales tips. Richard found me there, and he became my sales coach for 14 years. Don’t get me wrong, I hated it. Every Tuesday night at 9pm for an hour (He was doing it for free, so he chose the time and I fitted-in). He asked me all the questions I did not want to answer. I loved and hated that man in equal measure. Sadly, two years ago, he took his own life (Home troubles) — I loved that man for all that he did for me. RIP Mr. White.

One of the things Richard asked me to do, was to open 4 tabs on my computer browser. Now on each one open up your website and 3 competitors. I did. Intrigued, but I trusted him. Then he said, ‘Go to each one and put your hand over the logo — what do you notice?’. My reply, ‘They all say the same sh1t’. Hoorah, I was right. Oh no, I was right!!!

He asked me why people would buy training. We explored it for a while and the penny dropped even louder. The last decade saw the birth of ‘Sticky Learning ®’. A unique training method. Its birth came from that moment and then grew as we asked people what irritated them about training. HR Managers, Learning & Development Managers, and Training Officers told us 3 things, in amongst their huge frustration on the topic:

  • People come back from training, tell us that it was great, and then do nothing different.
  • We have no idea how to justify what we have spent on training.
  • The trainers don’t know supermarkets and the world of retailing. They have no clue.

We aimed to meet their needs and have tried every day since. Making Business Matter (MBM) focuses on a very narrow client base — suppliers to UK supermarkets. Of which there about 10,000 and of those about 2,5000 that spend a decent amount on training. I believe the guru’s call this hyper-specialization. Plus, we stopped selling 1-day training courses because they achieve zero behavioral change and we started selling programmes of training that include ‘spaced repetition’. The sort of thing you did when learning to drive. A lesson once a week, with spaces in between. In addition, we created a 5-level evaluation called the ‘Chain of Evidence’.

Sticky Learning ® and the Chain of Evidence ® was born. We have never looked back! For all other training companies, they fight on price. A race to the bottom. We don’t.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

There is a great 30-second video on YouTube of a woman that has built a vegetable chopping machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2u8E-4YVANU Basically, it’s rubbish and she built it for a laugh. The carrots aren’t chopped properly, and the machine is slow and ineffective.

Why am I telling you this? Bear with me…

As a start-up, some weeks I worked over 100 hours per week. It was crazy. My children were small and there is a reason I got a nickname at the time of ‘The Lodger’.

Most people have a time management system. Cue a snigger. Yes, you do. It gets you to work, to meetings and you do a good job. Here’s the rub:

Your time management system is like the carrot chopping machine. Ineffective. If it were your ineffective carrot chopping machine would you ‘fix it’ by running it longer? Of course, you wouldn’t.

Penny dropped? It did for me. Hours are not the answer. Fix your machine first.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

It was like a door had been opened. I’d always been fascinated by behavior, how we think and what makes us tick. I read Napoleon Hill’s book, ‘Think and Grow Rich’ at the age of 16 and I was hooked. If you have not read it, please do.

The next dose of inspiration came in the form of a speaker. At every Sainsbury’s (UK Supermarket chain) annual conference, a guest speaker would do their thing on stage. This time, for me, it was different. Jack Black (not the actor) was strutting up and down stage sharing his mental fitness programme. Telling great stories and inspiring everyone. I was hooked. A Scotsman with a desire to share a way to think yourself successful, and he shared it like a pastor in the deep South of the States — Evangelical-like.

From 1998 I would join Mindstore to go and see Jack on stage every year at my own expense. Sometimes twice a year. What I came to realize was that what Jack was sharing was no different to other motivation speakers who knew that belief, expectation and desire (BED) were essential to success. I just liked the way the Jack spoke and shared his version, and did it through really engaging stories. This was to spark my love for storytelling. Hopefully you can tell ☺

In 2003 I had decided to leave Sainsbury’s and set-up on my own. I needed Jack more than ever. I went to Glasgow to see him and he announced that he would be launching ‘retreats’. Week-long intimate gatherings. His first, a trial was in 2 months and 20 lucky people could attend from this crowd of 10,000, a and for free. They just need to write to Mindstore and say why.

I wrote in. I got rejected but I knew I was going because I had ‘programmed it’ — A Mindstore way of thinking to get what you want. A week later Mindstore wrote and said that they had made a mistake — I was to attend. <Here’s my surprised face> Arriving at the Buddhist retreat was everything I had wanted it to be. Then we were told — ‘No outside contact’. My son was 3 weeks old. I was allowed to call my wife. Happy, she was not. See you in a week!

What happened on the retreat cannot be shared. Suffice to say that finding my spirit animal was just one of many moments that I will treasure to the grave. Plus, hugging Jack Black a lot through the retreat was not something 30-something year old British males do — or at least I thought they didn’t. That changed.

Last year I had dragonflies tattooed on my back. #justsaying

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?

The simple answer is ‘your ceiling’. You set your ceiling at the hours you work, and your capability within those hours. If you want to be a self-employed plumber then your success/earnings are set by 40 hours per week, or you could do more hours. Either way it is hours worked x the rate you can charge.

Knowledge workers are a little different, but the principal still applies. Of course, you can always work more hours, and that will get you so far, and increasing your capability will take you a bit further. Leading and managing people is where success really lies.

It’s a simple choice. Do you do as others do, work more hours and hope you climb the greasy ladder? Or do you continually learn and begin to manage & lead? If it is the latter, then you cannot lead & manage unless you can delegate. Obviously, there are more qualities required than just delegation, to be a great leader & manager. Though delegation is a key one.

Delegate well and raise your ceiling.

Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?

There are 3 reasons why people struggle to delegate. This is what they think:

  • ‘I can do it better myself, so why bother delegating?’.
  • ‘Delegating takes too long. I need to get it done now’.
  • ‘When I delegate, they do it wrongly any way. So, what’s the point?’.

These 3 reasons mean that people do not delegate, or if they do, they prove to themselves that delegating does not work by unintentionally giving poor briefs so that people fail. Theory tested and conclude ‘I’ll do it myself’.

In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?

Change is hard. Changing behaviors is very hard. Not impossible. Just hard. In my 18-years’ experience of helping people to achieve behavioral change, I see people answer the question above by explaining the reasons why. But people get the reason why. They are not stupid. An intellectual discussion is not needed because they agree. ‘You are preaching to the converted’, as my old boss used to say. It’s changing habits is where the focus needs to be. Habits are hard to break and hard to form. If they weren’t, we’d all be going to the gym!

BJ Fogg is a professor at Stanford University. I consider him to be the grandfather of ‘habits’, His pioneering research into habits is essential when it comes to changing behaviours. In his model: https://behaviormodel.org you can see that forming habits is about three things:

  1. Do I know how to do it — this is ability.
  2. Do I want to do it — this is motivation.
  3. How do I prompt myself to do it — trigger/prompt/reminder.

Let’s begin with the first, ability. In my opinion the situational leadership model is perfect, just too complex. I’ve seen many people love it and struggle to implement it. A bit like a favourite pair of old jeans — you like them, but can’t bring yourself to throw them away, and haven’t got the desire to get them mended either. They just sit there nagging in the back of your brain — the Situational Leadership model.

I turn to Stephen Covey’s habit #2 — begin with the end in mind. He tells a wonderful story about delegating to his son. He asks his son to take a look at the yard of his neighbour and describe it — ‘Clean, no rubbish, mown lawn, no dog poop, and garden toys away’. Then he asks him to describe theirs. The boy says, ‘Well it’s a mess Dad’. Stephen bites his tongue and then says, ‘Well, I want it to look like that and if you do there’s $20 in it for you’. Covey delegates to his son Shaun on results.

So, the take-away for ability is to delegate on results. ‘I need a PowerPoint deck of 12 slides, rich in colour, easy to read graphs, that answers the client’s question of — why use us — and I need the first draft by Monday at 6pm. Please tell me what you need to do’. The last part is very important to check understanding by them telling you what they need to do, to ensure they ‘got it’. Then ask, ‘What questions do you have?’. Note the use of an open question — Not, ‘Do you have any questions?’. The latter will yield no questions. In my experience everyone has heard of open questions and can wax lyrical about them. In practice, they don’t use them.

The second part of BJ Fogg’s habit model is motivation. Basically, the line manager knows that they need to make a choice. Either get good at this delegation thing and reach higher, or don’t, reach less, and forever be frustrated with your people. Doomed to a life of moaning about why your team aren’t good enough.

The third is the prompt. The best prompt? Tell your team. Share with them what you are doing and ask them to help you to delegate better. It’s that simple.

Remember that it takes 21 times to form a habit.

Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Listen to Stephen Covey’s Habit #2 — Begin with the end in mind. Not only are all the habits a powerful tool for life, but habit 2 is a great way to see how easy it can be to delegate.
  2. Understand BJ Fogg’s model for forming habits. Again, it will help with so many things in life. Want to go to the gym and don’t? You’ll understand why.
  3. Nick Kolenda is an amazing person for helping us understand the world around us. In his new guide: https://www.nickkolenda.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/IRTB-Audiobook-PDF.pdf he shares an insight on how to change our diary to get us to the gym — fascinating.
  4. Buy your team into what you are trying to do. They will help. Plus, as a leader it shows humility, which is always a good thing because, well, you don’t know it all, and that’s ok.
  5. Continuously improve. Ask for feedback. A simple benchmark — How is my delegation? 4/10, and then 4 weeks later, ask again.

<My five things video, as mentioned on your last page: https://youtu.be/6QkqkCTRMA0 >

One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?

It is true and so many of these sayings are born from seeing it actually happen. The flaw in the thinking is that we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We want to believe that we are the best person, so we poorly brief and wait for the inevitable poor result.

We prove it every day by giving poor explanations of what we want. Getting frustrated and quietly being pleased that we were the best person.

Getting good at delegating is the first step. There is a second step…

This is the more challenging part: Coaching. You’ve heard the phrase about feeding a man a fish:

‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’

The next stage after delegating effectively is to coach. Google completed a study called ‘Project Oxygen’. They analysed over 10,000 documents about people performance. From appraisals to reviews to studies. Their findings were damming about line managers:

What is the one skill that line managers need most? Coaching.

What is the one skill that line managers are worst at? Coaching.

Coaching is the next level of delegation. Coach your team, rather than tell your team, and your ceiling will be the same as when Charlie Bucket gets into the elevator with Willy Wonka, at the end of the film.

Want to know more? Start with a pack of coaching cards. Only £5. https://www.makingbusinessmatter.co.uk/product/grow-coaching-cards/

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Lovely question!

The ‘Just One More’ Movement.

Inspired by the film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’. A soldier that refused to carry a weapon due to his religious beliefs, yet wanted to serve, so he decided to be a medic in the Second World War. A true story. Desmond Doss saved over 75 soldiers and received the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot. As he saved each soldier he was motivated by his god and kept saying, ‘Please Lord, help me get just one more’.

From the heroes of yesteryear to the biggest challenge we face today — our environment. We need to move beyond just leaving the beach having collected the rubbish we took, but also going one step beyond. Simply, by grabbing one other piece of litter that was not ours. If everyone did the same — just one more — not only would we clear the beaches, but we might save — just one more — turtle, seabird, or dolphin from trying to live inside a plastic bag.

#justonemore.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Please follow the articles I write on our blog: https://www.makingbusinessmatter.co.uk/blog and also the articles of other great writers.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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