EOW Reflections: It’s good to talk

The standout for me this week was the willingness of Paul, a speaker on a panel I chaired at Construction Week on Wednesday, to talk about what happened when his business failed a couple of years ago. The construction entrepreneur was searingly honest. The result was an audience fully engaged and hanging on his every word. The other two panel members were brilliant too.

Sessions at these big commercial shows are always a bit hit and miss. Before kick-off we all agreed that as panel members we’d sometimes outnumbered the audience, and that as speakers we’d all been in the position that we’d had so few audience members we’d taken their phone numbers and called them back later.

This was completely different. There were a good number of people waiting when I started the session and as the 45 minutes passed people added on. Because there were a good number listening to what the panel and Paul in particular had to say, others lingered and then stayed. By the end there were people standing in the corridor and everyone stayed until the end. It’s the power of real-life experience that engages an audience.

Without going into the detail Paul’s business struggled during the pandemic. He said he’d underestimated how quiet the construction sector would be. There were several times when he was on the verge of throwing in the towel and then something else came up to save them for a bit longer, until the next dip. He had to keep is people insulated for the reality of what was going on. Can you imagine how isolating that must be. But he didn’t want to worry his people, his family and others around him. When the end came it was a bereavement.

And then everyone is angry: suppliers are angry about not getting paid and they can’t pay their own suppliers or employees; customers are angry because you can’t fulfil their orders; employees are angry because you are letting them go after years of loyal service. Everyone else is angry because you tried to shield them from the realities and didn’t share and ask for help.

Two years on Paul has been grappling with the administration process, taking stock and working out what to do next. I think there’s a job for him to do on the speaking circuit: tell it how it is. We hear from people who criticise firms for going under, causing mayhem along the supply chain and then starting up again. There will be people who just shut up shop, leave others to shoulder the losses, and start again with a clean sheet, a new name and an untroubled conscience. For each one of those I suspect there are dozens of people like Paul who are constantly asking themselves what did I do wrong, how could I have done better, what is the right thing to do in future.

The clear lesson for me is that we need to talk, talk about what’s going on and talk about it early. Talk to others who work in the same industry, to any trade bodies you are a member of, to experts and professionals and family and friends. You can’t always see options from your isolation, and you need to come out of the safety of your isolation to be able to see the horizon. We’re always hearing how sharing, partnership working and collaboration are key to business success but they all start with talking. You can have all the business qualifications in the world but none of them teach you to talk.

I wonder how many on Wednesday morning left that panel session with Paul’s experiences ringing in their ears, thinking ‘that all resonates with me and I need to talk’. Once you’ve started talking there will be no stopping you.

And if you’re having problems getting paid by a business customer, talk to us.