Know when to walk away, know when to run

Oli Barrett is making his list of business opportunities to hold, fold, and walk away from. Are you ready for 2014?

The way to make a bandstand, is to take away the chairs. And the way to kill a circus, is to go for the juggler. Yes, the season of Christmas crackers is upon us. Although for some, every month is as good excuse as any to share a terrible joke.

Speaking of great lines, it may have been Winston Churchill who told us to “never, never, never give up”. But it was W.C Fields (himself a juggler, incidentally) who I think came closer when he said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

Indeed, it was Kenny Rogers who pointed out that one has to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run”. And if I can stretch the country lyrics to breaking point by quoting the Dixie Chicks (and I think that I can)… “There’s your trouble.”

Some people just don’t know when to fold ‘em. How differently life might have turned out, had we called it quits with people or projects a few months, or maybe even years sooner. However half-full our glass, surely we don’t believe that every relationship and every business is worth ploughing on with, whatever the weather? As we settle down for the festive break, which of our own activities is the gift which will keep on giving? And which is the turkey?

For years, at the end of December, I used to write myself a document, listing all of the big meetings I’d had during the previous twelve months. I would list people and projects and found it to be a useful exercise as I took time to pause and ponder.

One thing struck me, time and again. Every time a project hadn’t worked out, or a conversation had led to nothing, I would look at the piece of paper, shake my head and say “I could have predicted that”.

Now, you may say that this is little more than smug hindsight, and you may be right. However I remain convinced that, in many cases, I (and you) could and should have known that there simply wasn’t enough of the right kind of energy in a meeting to make it worth pursuing. It certainly inspired me to follow my instinct.


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Nobody likes a name-dropper. The whole act of inserting a well-known person into a conversation is brash, self-indulgent and thoroughly un-British, isn’t it?

I was thinking about this recently, when I met the Queen. Who was extremely well, thank you for asking. Not a lot of people (with the possible exception of Sir Michael Caine) know, that Her Majesty has a very specific method for drawing certain conversations to a close.

As she is conducting investitures (and bear in mind she has a long line of people to get through), there comes a point in the exchange when something beautifully elegant, simple and final happens.  The Royal glove is extended to shake hands. That’s it. Like the most regal buzzer in a Royal game show, the conversation is over. The individual must step back, bow, and depart. If only all meetings could be that simple, you may well be thinking.

Assuming you are relatively polite, not the Queen and nevertheless British, you will need to find other methods of extracting yourself from difficult conversations. My preferred solution is still the speed-network.

Three minutes of highly-charged chatter tend to be more than enough to discover which people you would like to carry on speaking with later, and which, to their great relief, you are going to let go.

Having now hosted hundreds of these events, I’ve had relatively few negative reactions. The worst I can remember was at a gathering of philanthropists. With their great wealth, came a strong ability to speak their mind. I asked one particular chap (I later discovered him to be worth a cool £250m) how he was finding the experience. “In a word, TERRIBLE”, came the reply.

Another gent (who quite literally has a bank named after him) heard my introduction to speed-networking, let out a loud sigh, and walked out. He was clearly not a Kenny Rogers fan.

As another year draws to an end, you may be preparing to say goodbye to someone or something. You may also be about to meet the person who will change your life. As is traditional, I would encourage you to make a list. Check it twice if you have to. Write down the people you have met this year, and have a proper think about the role they might play in next year’s adventures.

I have no particularly smart advice to offer on which cards to hold in 2014, and which to fold. If I have learned one thing, it is to work with people I really, really like. That, in the season of goodwill, seems like a good place to start. And that, as I bid you a refreshing break, is a good place to end.

Oli Barrett MBE, is a founder of Cospa , the co-sponsorship agency that helps to create and deliver social action projects, such as Tenner, Missions, Build-It, and Speed Mentoring. He is also a founder of StartUp Britain and can be found on Twitter.

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