Most business book authors aren’t professional writers. Martin Norbury failed his English O-level twice, but he knew that he had a story to tell that mattered. In this week’s conversation he reveals how he went about turning the stuff in his head into a brilliantly readable book – from interviews with clients to interviews with himself to a supersmart process of consciously catching himself ‘doing the right stuff’ as he works with his clients to scale their businesses.
And you’ll never look at Fridays the same way again once you’ve heard his story.
I Don’t Work Fridays site: http://www.idontworkfridays.com/
Martin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/martinjnorbury
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s lovely to be here today with Martin Norbury, who has experienced business from all angles, from small-time entrepreneur to SME business owner, and also onto senior executive in a multimillion pound corporation, and all in the space of just 10 years. He’s now a business turnaround specialist and mentor at all of these levels, and he’s known as The Scalability Coach, his scale model, S-C-A-L-E, is used across more than 50 industries, and he’s the author of I Don’t Work Fridays – Proven Strategies to Scale Your Business and Not Be a Slave to It.
He was also a judge at The Business Book Awards, so it’s nice to be catching up with him again, and obviously he doesn’t work Fridays. He’s just been telling me doesn’t cook Fridays, either, which is nice. Welcome to the show, Martin.
Martin Norbury: Oh, thank you very much for the invite. I’m really, really honoured to be here.
Alison Jones: Tell us about the Friday thing. Why don’t you work Fridays and what do you do instead?
Martin Norbury: Okay, a long story short, but when I’d sort of gone into the corporate life and ended up being a CEO in a PLC, as you can imagine, my working week wasn’t just Monday to Friday, it was Monday to Sunday, generally, starting at 7 and finishing at 8, 9, 10, sometimes later, and, in 2010, we were expecting our first child, and it was all exciting. I had a big contract I was about to sign, but, unfortunately, at the birth, we lost our daughter at the time, and so it shook me. Obviously, it shook Jackie, my wife, as well.
We didn’t quite know where to go from there, but we regrouped and we sort of carried on going, and within a few months … well, actually nearly a year later, we found we were expecting twins, and one of the things I decided to do there and then was not be a slave to the corporate machine, and actually wanted to sit and enjoy them, because I think in one of my moments of anger, which you go through, obviously, when you lose someone so close, I said, “Well, it’s a good job she didn’t survive anyway, because I’d never have seen her,” because I was just working stupid hours.
I made a commitment to not do that. When the twins were born in October ’11, I’d structured our business, then, because I’d left in 2010 the corporate life, set my own business up, and I structured our business that originally I didn’t work Mondays, so I could spend Saturday, Sunday, Monday with our family, and the twins and everything else, but Monday felt really weird, because by the time you got back to work on a Tuesday, it was Wednesday, and then you felt like you’d lost the week.
So I just re-engineered it and said, “I’m not going to work Fridays,” and I’ve spent pretty much most of that time since not working. First five years, spending all the time with the kids until they went to school, and now Jackie and I do things, so I don’t cook Fridays. Lunch club was on a Friday, obviously. Next week we’re off to the Chelsea Flower Show, so we always look at doing things together, or I’ve done my football coaching badges. I’m going to do a face painting course on a Friday at some point, because the kids love face painting, so I thought, “Why not? I’ll do that.” I’m learning to fly my drone on a Friday, so it’s all about choosing to take time out of the business, and choosing to do something with your time rather than just work.
Alison Jones: Yes, and I love how you do such purposeful things with it, and, I mean, what can you say? I know Louise’s death has been such a huge … It changed your approach to life and work in general, and it’s incredible what you’ve brought out of that. It does remind you that you have to look up, don’t you, and take the right perspective on work. It’s just work.
Martin Norbury: It is just work, and the sad thing about it is we had to wait for a tragedy to change us, and what we realized with our business, coaching other business owners, primarily couples, husband and wife teams or family businesses, that they might not have that tragedy, and then they get to the end of their lives, and they’ve lost out on so much.
: For me, it’s all about a perspective of the life-work balance, but there is a balance. You know, we have a really successful business, we do what we want, we choose how we use our time, and we do that with our clients as well, and that’s why our clients come to us, really, is they like our story. They feel it’s potentially in them where they could go too far the other way on the balance side of it, and they don’t want to, or they’ve gone too far and they want a little bit of life back again.
Every day, I see couples, business owners, changing. You know, not working Fridays or doing something else, and quite a few don’t do Fridays now, and it just makes me feel really proud, and yes, we had to lose Lou for us to realize that. I don’t want them to have to have the same realization in life.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and of course that story is … you know, it stops you in your tracks. It’s so powerful, and what I noticed is in your book, you know, I Don’t Work Fridays, you draw on your own life. I mean, obviously there’s that core story, but there’s other things, like your time as a dancer as a young man or boy, and you draw out of those illustrations in the lessons of scaling a business. You do it very well, but it’s a flipping hard thing to pull off, because often you can come across as self-indulgence, self-absorbed. A, how did you pull it off, and B, why did you decide to take that approach, and how did you keep it focused on the reader rather than you?
Martin Norbury: Yeah, well, thanks for that, because we do get quite a bit of feedback saying it isn’t self-indulgent, it isn’t egotistical, and I think when you’re writing about that sort of topic, it’s difficult to find that balance. Basically, people suggested I wrote a book because some of the things I’d said at either keynote speeches or something like that, and a friend of mine, a key called Daniel Priestly, I know you know quite well, part of his programme…
Alison Jones: He recommended you on the show, of course.
Martin Norbury: Absolutely, yeah, so part of his programme is actually publishing a book. I joined his programme to do that, and Lucy, who also I know quite well, who’s the founder of The Business Book Awards, she said, “Don’t write a book about yourself.” I’m like, okay, but the book is about my journey of discovering this scale model, from when I was, like you say, a ballroom, Latin-American dancer from a two-left-footed six-year-old, to, at 15, becoming one of the top potential junior dancers in the world, basically.
I wanted to understand, and it was someone that said, “You’ve got a way of looking at things.” I wanted to understand how I got from one to the other. Someone actually interviewed me, and it was them that discovered that I have this innate process in my head from my dancing, and then I went into being a bit of a magician, then I went to do cocktail flair courses and things like that, but everything came back to these four or five key things that I did, and it was then looking at the businesses, and this was only in 2011 when this came out, so I’d had most of my business life at that point, that I realized that all the decisions I’ve made came from this understanding of scaling not just the business, but how you learn and develop, relearn, get better, perfect it, and get better and so on, and that’s where it came from.
I couldn’t write it as just a Q and A session or something. I wanted to bring out stories that people read, and they go, “Oh, I get that. That’s happened in my life,” and then they could go away and apply that to the way they ran their business or whatever else they were doing as well.
Alison Jones: You tell the stories as straight stories, but then you kind of come back and revisit them through the lens of the model, don’t you, which I thought was neat.
Martin Norbury: Yeah, very much. The whole book … Actually, it starts off when I’m just trying to put a multi-hundred million pound deal together, and I’m just driving up to finalize it, and it starts off from there, and then everything, going back through my dancing and how dancing … There’s things like lessons learned in the book. You know, how did that apply. If I used the scale model to that, how’s it apply?
The first part of the book is actually the journey, and then I actually reveal the scale model and what it is, and then we take a fictitious company, and then give it examples that are like a microcosm of most businesses, and work out how the scale model would apply and what you do, and I think the three layers of that, people understand how you can apply the scale model. We have had people read the book, apply it, and then contact us and said, “I can’t believe reading a book has had an impact on my business to the level it’s had,” which is great, and that’s where most of our clients really come from, is people that have read the book and get it.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Brilliant, and those three elements, you know, your personal story, your journey, but the model, the methodology, if you like, and the case studies, the application bit. A lot of writers struggle – I know I did – a lot of writers struggle with how you bring those together, so I was just interested to just pull that out, and show how you took that really deliberate approach, and as you say, it is. It’s like layers, isn’t it? You tell the story, and you’ve got the foundation, and you understand where you’re coming from. Then there’s the methodology, and then you see it worked out in practice. I mean, was it very, very conscious, that structuring?
Martin Norbury: Yeah, it really was in those three sections. The first bit was … and we tried to make it light and entertaining and funny, so the first bit is, I suppose in some ways, a little bit of a novel, a little bit of a, you know, this is a guy, and this is what he’s done, without really revealing a huge amount about what the model is, and I know some people have trashed me on Amazon, saying, “What a useless book,” but they probably didn’t get past that bit.
Alison Jones: That’s the risk isn’t it?
Martin Norbury: Because it’s quite personal, and then it gets to the bit where we lose Lou, and then it’s discovering what I do next, and it’s the bit when we talk about… I’m in a mastermind group where people are all sat round the table, and I’ve been there four months, I think it is, and one of the ladies who runs quite a successful business but is stuck at a certain point, she asks a question, and I just give her my insight based on what I knew as a CEO and an entrepreneur, and she turns around, and just looked at me, and said, “You know, it’s really good having you here, because you’re like my scalability coach.” I’m thinking, “Okay, why’s that then?” She said, “Well, you’ve got an understanding of my business more than I have an understanding of my business because of what you’ve gone through.”
It just stuck in my head, and it came round to my session, and at my session I said, “I want to explore that a bit more,” because actually at that point I was running a couple of franchise businesses. Wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do, but bearing in mind we’d lost Lou, and I just wanted to do stuff that … I know it sounds bad, but I wanted to do stuff I didn’t have to think a lot, so I bought franchise business where I just followed their processes and did what they asked me to. This mastermind was to try and get me out of that, in some ways.
It was suggested that I was interviewed, and it was Carol who interviewed me, started off the interview. She sat about four hours. Said, “What did you do as a child?” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” I answered the question, and from that answering, realized that how we’re nurture, brought up, obviously impacts our lives. I’ve always understood that, but that really ingrained it, so the second part of the book was all about revealing that model, and then I think what happened is light bulb moments went off in that second part of the book because everybody who had read the stories now linked the model back to those stories, and then of course then I explained it more in detail.
Alison Jones: It gives a sort of emotional grounding to the theory, doesn’t it?
Martin Norbury: Yes.
Alison Jones: That is fascinating, and it’s also, yes, it’s a really good example of the power of narrative, as well, is that we all carry around these stories of our lives, but actually looking at them critically like that and overlaying the patterns is a really powerful thing to do. One of the real benefits of writing a book, isn’t it?
Martin Norbury: Well, it is, and at school, the lessons I did really well at were the ones where the teacher used narrative and stories to teach rather than wrote on the board you have to learn it, and I found that if I tell a story of a situation, and it’s got a meaning behind it, like, you know, the classic Aesop Fables and all these sorts of things, then people get it a lot quicker than if I just went through a business model.
Alison Jones: Yeah, exactly. It’s how we’re wired, isn’t it?
Martin Norbury: Right. A story, and then link it back.
Alison Jones: Yeah. When you were judging at The Business Book Awards, obviously you had to think what you were looking for in other people’s books, what made them stand out for you, so what did you come up with? What makes a great business book, in your opinion?
Martin Norbury: Yeah, that’s a really … because I was a bit nervous. You know, I was invited to be on this panel, and then the panel decided that I was going be the sort of head judge. I’m like, okay, but the people…
Alison Jones: Everybody else took a step back.
Martin Norbury: You know, the people next to me I’m sure had passed their English language O level. I failed mine twice. I had to take it a third time, and it was O levels then, but … My writing style, I was really nervous about it. I thought, “Well, let’s focus on your strengths rather than the writing style or that side of it.” I focused on a book that captured my imagination, that was fresh. A book that was simple to understand. Obviously it was by an authoritarian, someone who’d worked in their space and really mastered it as well, but one I could take it and apply it, and I think that’s what I was really looking for. Of course I was looking for stories and a bit of humour and stuff along those lines, and the book that we chose as our category winner ended up being the actual winner of the whole competition, which was brilliant, and I noticed that in the bar in the evening, chatting to him quite a bit as well, which was brilliant.
Alison Jones: Yeah, that was Campbell Macpherson’s The Change Catalyst, of course, and Campbell’s been on the show as well. He was very, very pleased with that. Terrific book, and very much, again, very much story-based.
Martin Norbury: Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes. Brilliant. Tell me what writing … I mean, as you say, you’re not a natural writer.
Martin Norbury: No.
Alison Jones: You’re not somebody who kind of came out of school obviously bound for a career in journalism, you know? How do you do it? What’s your routine? What gets you started, what keeps you going, you know, what tools and systems do you use? What does it look like when you write?
Martin Norbury: Yeah, so I had a little bit of help obviously through Lucy and Dan Priestly when they came up with their system, but I always knew I had, from being interviewed and people telling me, I had something in my head, and what I had to do was get it out. For me, I had to catch myself doing the stuff that I was doing.
One of the things I made the decision to do was when I joined the programme and knew I had to write the book – and it doesn’t actually take as long as people think, it took me a year to get it out, but I’ll explain that in a minute – what I thought was, “Right, I’m now going to go and see all of my clients.” I’ve got generally 20 clients. That’s our full lid that we take, and whilst I was out seeing them, every little bit that linked into my scale model that was a real nugget or something that I knew, I’d just make a little note of, and by the end of it, I had an understanding of how I would tell that story.
I’m currently in the middle of my second book, and that’s exactly what I’m doing at the moment, is I’m just going out there and catching my little nuggets, which are going to be sort of the chapters, and then building a story around those chapters, really. Again, similar type of way. Obviously I won’t be telling my story again, but I will be telling a story of a fictitious company, and how it goes, and how this person helped it, along those lines, because I love those type of books. I love the … I can’t remember the guy’s name now… oh, Patrick Lencioni’s style of writing, which is all fable-based, but with a real meaning, and then at the end of it, how to do that.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Martin Norbury: That’s what I do, is I just catch myself doing the right stuff. I then decide on a title really quickly, and then I spend three months capturing everything I do in the field, doing what I’m doing. I also get someone to interview me again, at the end.
Alison Jones: That’s a great tip.
Martin Norbury: Before I Don’t Work Fridays came out, I used a guy called Martin Gladdish, who’s like a book coach-type person, and I just used to sit talking to him about all my ideas, and we used to then work out how that would form, but talking out loud makes you think, “Actually, that was a really bad thing to think of. I won’t put that in there,” whereas when you try and write it, you get caught up with your own head. I always think having someone to bounce ideas off is really, really useful.
Alison Jones: Yes. I know a lot of us think as we talk, don’t we, so it’s a good way of holding the thought.
Martin Norbury: Yes, very much.
Alison Jones: Yeah, brilliant. When you say you catch those nuggets when you’re out in the field, do you literally just leave yourself a voice memo on your phone? What do you actually use to catch that? Do you have a notebook?
Martin Norbury: No, as part of our business we have a pad that we capture information based on those five key areas of the scale model, and we just write down certain things at certain points, but on another sheet of paper, which I have by the side of it, if something comes up that I know is something that I do intuitively, it works really well, it becomes a real part of my understanding of a business, I just make a note of it on that separate piece of paper, and then every week, I put those into a bigger document, and then when I’ve got to about 20 or 30 of them, I see if there are any overlap, and if they’re not, I normally narrow that down to about 12 or 13, and that’s it.
The next book is about … it’s called I Don’t Work, and it’s not I Don’t Work, but it’s called I Don’t Work Because the Business Does, and it’s 12 questions that every business knows the answer to, but the business owners don’t know the questions to ask it.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I love that.
Martin Norbury: That’s what I’m coming out with, and that’s the next idea of the book, because basically, a business does have all the answers, but business owners are trying to find the answers, but actually they just need to know what the questions are first of all.
Alison Jones: Yes, fascinating, and it’s really interesting to get that insight into actually how you do it. I love that idea of just being almost like a reflective practitioner. That’s really what you’re talking about, isn’t it?
Martin Norbury: Yeah, pretty much.
Alison Jones: Yeah. That’s brilliant. Obviously that’s a great tip, and especially the interviewing one, as well. That’s brilliant. I always ask people, what would be your one best tip? If there’s somebody listening to this show who is in the middle of writing their first book, you know, what would you want to tell them?
Martin Norbury: Yeah. Routine is key. The first book, I reserved 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday till about 9 o’clock in the morning, when all the family are up and round the breakfast table, exclusively to just book day. That was it. Exactly what I’d do, and I just did it every Saturday morning for that period of time, and I got into a real habit of doing it, and I looked forward to it, and it was my time, and everything along those lines. The other thing I always do, and it is a bit … I don’t know anyone else that does this, but I get the design of the front cover done first thing.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Martin Norbury: I spend money and get the front cover design, because I know what it’s going to be about, and then I have that front cover staring at me on my phone, on my computer, everywhere I go, the front cover is staring at me, which basically means to say that I’ve now got to write the book, because it is…
Alison Jones: It’s real. It’s happening.
Martin Norbury: Absolutely, and I did that exactly with I Don’t Work Fridays, and once then when you open the box and the book is staring at you, that’s even more magical because you’ve been working with that cover for so long, it’s now actually appeared with 180-odd pages behind it, which is great.
Alison Jones: It’s so interesting, that. We do that in the bootcamp as well. I tell people, you know, even if it’s not going to be the final one, if you can start thinking about your cover, because of course, the thing is, you know, I publish books reasonably quickly, four months from delivery of the manuscript to publication, but you really want to get the cover going before that, because you can’t talk to people about it meaningfully until you can show it to them, and then they know it’s a real thing, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s there.
Martin Norbury: Absolutely. Yes, and it just drives you on because you just feel a little bit, I don’t know, a little bit … You know, our own personal integrity is one of the hardest things to keep on. We won’t let clients down, we won’t let friends and family down, but we’ll always let ourselves down because of other things. For me, having that sort of staring at me is quite an important part of the process.
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting. Do you know Gretchen Rubin’s framework, The Four Tendencies?
Martin Norbury: No.
Alison Jones: Oh, this is brilliant. Bec Evans taught me this, but basically there are four types of people in the world, and most of us are upholders, so we’ll do something that we promised someone else to do or for somebody else’s benefit. No, sorry, most of us are obligers, that’s right. The whole point of it. Very few of us are upholders, and the upholders commit to themselves to do something and will do it, and they’re quite a rare breed. What you have to do is trick yourself into obliging yourself because you promised it somehow, some tangible sort of evidence of it. Yeah, really clever.
Martin Norbury: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that is it, because we will always let ourselves down, and go, “Oh, actually, no, I won’t hit that target this month. It doesn’t matter. I’m doing pretty well.” Complacency sets in, and then at some point we go, “Oh, I wish I’d have done that now.” For me, I am a Gemini anyway, but I am two people, and I commit to doing stuff for myself, and the other person then holds me to it.
Alison Jones: Yes. Brilliant. Oh, well, I’m Gemini as well. I hadn’t thought of that. I could use myself as my accountability buddy. Brilliant.
Martin Norbury: There you go.
Alison Jones: I love that. Now, who do you recommend – and of course you’re here because Daniel Priestly recommended you, so this is a wonderful sort of pay it forward chain – who do you recommend that I invite as a guest onto the show, so someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books?
Martin Norbury: Okay. Well, someone I met a while ago, so one of the franchises I bought into was a leadership management programme, and I met this character on this programme, and he did a few little keynote talks and things like that, and I went to one of them, and it just got me really, really thinking. Some of the stories he told were really incredible, and we lost a bit of touch, and then we gained it again recently through classic social media and so on, but a guy called Phil Jones, and Phil’s written three really quite big books now, I think called Exactly How to Sell, Exactly What to Say, and Exactly Where to Start. Obviously there’s a theme there, but he does a lot of talking.
He’s on the circuit a lot in America, actually. He was on I think a big American news channel recently, but again, his simplicity, the way he looks at things, is really refreshing, and he just makes … I think that’s why the books are “exactly”, because he just makes it really easy for you to be able to take certain ideas, implement them, and get the benefit. I haven’t obviously spoken to him about it, because I didn’t know, but I’d really recommend him, and if you want a sort of contact, I’ll definitely put you in touch with him.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Yes, please do. I love that. It’s so smart, having that little phrase that you can repeat across different books. It’s almost making a series, isn’t it? It’s really smart.
Martin Norbury: Yes, well, very much.
Alison Jones: Sort of a brand, yes. I like that a lot. Good. Alright, well, we’ll do a pincer movement on Phil, and we’ll get him on the show. That’d be great. Thank you. I also ask people. I mean, obviously everybody should go and read I Don’t Work Fridays, obviously, but apart from that, what business book do you recommend that everybody listening to this show should read if they haven’t already?
Martin Norbury: Okay. Again, that’s quite a tricky one. My current favourite book, even though it’s probably been out about a year now, is something called Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
Alison Jones: Matthew Syed, of course, yeah. I haven’t read that yet.
Martin Norbury: Brilliant, and it’s because I picked it up to read it, and normally within a few chapters it’s something that will captivate me, but it was so close to my philosophy on how you learn lessons in your business, which propels you to not make the same mistakes and go forward again, and his book is all about the medical industry and the aviation industry, and how one industry has made huge leaps forward in safety and everything else, and the other one has actually lagged behind a little bit, and it does follow a story through a poor lady who went in for a basic operation who died on an operating theatre, and how, if they’d applied the thinking, the black box thinking of the airline industry, that potentially would never, ever have happened again. It’s just amazing.
It’s all about my philosophy of scale, it’s creating the right environment, it’s giving people the right tools, it’s getting out their way, but with this real underlying concept of lessons learned. I definitely recommend that, and then just two authors. Jim Collins, because he’s just brilliant. Good to Great, Great by Choice, those unbelievable books. Real research, real energy in the books, and real excitement.
Alison Jones: Yeah, they’re proper chewy, aren’t they?
Martin Norbury: Yeah, and a guy called Charles Duhigg.
Alison Jones: Yes. Yep.
Martin Norbury: His books, again. Storytelling, but he tells a story and then applies it, tells a story. I think, you know, this is where I got obviously some of the ideas from for I Don’t Work Fridays and I Don’t Work. It’s the storytelling apply that really, really works for me.
Alison Jones: Yeah, brilliant, and it’s a great example, isn’t it? You know, it’s good stuff in, good stuff out, isn’t it? If you’re reading good business books, you’ve got a much better chance of writing a half-decent one as well. Fantastic.
Martin Norbury: Very much.
Alison Jones: Yes. Martin, if people want to find out more about you and more about I Don’t Work Fridays, where should they go?
Martin Norbury: Well, they can go to idontworkfriday.com. It goes actually to our website, which is all about our business and everything else, but it’s actually our book page on our website, so if they go there, there’s sort of chapters they can download. There’s all sorts of things in there which they can see, and we write a story pretty much every week on a Tuesday, and they can sign up to that as well, and that just goes out. There’s no selling on it, it’s just pure value-type driven stories. We never sell on those things.
Alison Jones: Just because you love writing stories now that you’ve got the habit.
Martin Norbury: Yes, very much. Every Tuesday, 10:15, it goes out, yeah.
Alison Jones: There’s real power in consistency, isn’t there, and in just keeping that writing muscle going.
Martin Norbury: Yeah, and you know, this is what I … When I first start work with a client, I do tell them the story, and I say everybody watches an X Factor or a Britain’s Got Talent or a Strictly, and so what you realize, especially with Strictly and X Factor, is on the Saturday, they have no idea what they’re going to be doing the next week, and on the following Saturday, they’re dancing or singing in front of six or seven million people, and putting on a pretty good show. Well, most people. How do they do that? What do they do?
I tell them how you would do that. You don’t, from day one, go out and put all the costumes on, put the music on, and do all the steps, you just get into a routine. You just walk through the steps, basically, first of all, and you keep … On your own, even. You don’t even go out with a partner, and then slowly but surely, that routine builds and builds and builds and builds, so in seven days, they go from a two-left-footed, not knowing how to do a cha-cha, to throwing a girl or a bloke around the stage and getting a round of applause, and that’s all what I Don’t Work Fridays is about, really. It’s how to go from a complete beginner, even in a business or whatever, to becoming an expert in what you do, really.
Alison Jones: And flinging your partners around the stage. I love it. What a great metaphor.
Martin Norbury: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Wonderful. It was such fun talking to you, Martin. That was brilliant. Thank you so much.
Martin Norbury: No, thank you so much. Really enjoyed it.