Mike Tobin: What I wish I'd known when I started

Nov 06 issue

Remember, it’s survival of the fittest
I first became a managing director at the ripe age of 22, so I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my time since then, such as trying to manage by force and take control of everything, being a jack-of-all-trades and lacking focus. But I don’t believe in ‘strategy’, it’s an outdated concept. I think you need to be more flexible and dynamic than that. I say plan for the vision and never make a decision until the moment you have to. Situations are always subject to change and you can’t follow one single strategy again and again. Wasn’t it Einstein that said: ‘If you keep doing the same thing but expect different results, you’re insane!’ Success is a journey, not a destination.

If you make plans in concrete and worry about following them to the letter, you won’t be prepared for the challenges that arise. The ones you haven’t thought about, that’s what should concern you. Ask yourself, ‘am I adaptable enough?’ As Darwin would put it, only the most adaptable survive.

Don’t play cards with me!
Luck has played its hand in my career a number of times. For example, I was working for a company called Tricard Systems. We made super servers, not that I knew what one was at the time or had ever seen one. I was sitting in my flat in Paris – we didn’t have an office then – looking through the Yellow Pages trying to find someone to sell these things to. I came across JP Morgan and dialled the number expecting to get bounced about the phone system before I spoke to anyone who could make a buying decision. Someone answered and it happened to be the Vice President! We ended up having an argument, with him saying that he didn’t want to talk to me, but eventually he agreed to an appointment.
When I finally went to see him, he told me that he’d done a bit of research into our company and that they were actually looking to buy super servers in the near future. He’d only agreed to see me to get rid of me, but it turned out to be a very lucrative deal.

Stand out and spark interest
I think that illustrates why forging relationships – and I suppose persistence – can be more important than anything else. You’ve got to grab customers’ attention and then keep them interested, which is why I became a member of the Magic Circle. I learnt a few tricks with the intention of keeping a group of people who barely spoke English awake during one presentation I had lined up. The closest they’d come to data server technology was the company fax machine and I could see their eyes glazing over, so I pulled a few rabbits from hats and made a few things disappear – it really perked them up and got them listening.

Regret nothing
I’ve always tried to approach things with an open mind. I manage with the belief that there are no bad people: everyone is perfect for something. It’s just a case of pointing them in the right direction and you’ll find that good people don’t need managing at all. I say surround yourself with people that are better than you, and give everyone respect, and they’ll respect themselves and you. If I’ve got an ethos it’s that: respect. Respect difference, hurt nobody and regret nothing.
There’s nothing worse than thinking: ‘Oh, I wish I’d done that when I had the chance.’ Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winner, said something once on that subject. He was being asked why he put himself through it even when he wasn’t totally fit and he said: ‘Pain is temporary, regret lasts forever.’ I can relate to that.