Throughout my book, I don’t work Fridays, I share my personal journey and discovery of scale. A major part of my sub-conscious scale was my discovery on the dancefloor – which demonstrates how powerful scale is in everyday life.
My first true contact with rules and process started with ballroom dancing (long before it was strictly fashionable). It was 1975 and I was just seven years old – an impressionable age where the very last thing that you would want to be was ‘different’.
For me it was just one of those difficult things which came really easy. I knew it was hard by the reaction of most of the other students in the class to the continual, repetitive nature of learning the steps, breaking down each movement and perfecting its intricacies, over and over and over again, but I found that it was highly addictive and easy.
I would only become the best through guidance, discipline, routine and hard work.
I carried on dancing until I was fifteen years old, and while my introduction to it had been a result of happenstance fuelled by an untapped appetite, the way I became one of the best was a long way from serendipity.
My favourite dance was the Cha-Cha-Cha, overflowing with its colourful Latin flavours, but defined by the energy and steady beat of its repeating steps and stylish flair. I loved the performance but became obsessed with practicing the moves over and over again until I had achieved perfection. In direct contrast to my increasingly unlikely chance of a football career, dance put me in total control of my potential. Whereas the thrill of kicking a ball around the playground lay in its uncertainty and ever-changing positions and possibilities, dance was totally predictable. It still delivered the greatest buzz of energy, adrenaline and excitement that my short life had ever known but it was ordered, it had a plan, and I was perfecting my part.
Although I didn’t know it at the time (I was just having fun) I had stumbled across the world-beating power of setting up a system, laying out a path to success, and repeating it over and over again until it was flawless.
Looking back, I can see that this process of learning the basic steps of ballroom dancing and understanding the fundamental movements required was setting me up to become a very good dancer. It was like I was becoming familiar with the basic rules of the game and putting myself in a place where I could control them.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy being a dancer at that age, in those days (just ask Billy Elliot), but like so many of the most valuable things in life, the cost was incomparable to the benefits. I chose not to tell my friends at school; so it became my secret double-life, I was good at it, and it was filling my veins with confidence. Not just in terms of the sheer thrill of being on the dance floor, or the pure joy of performing a perfect routine or winning a competition, but because the people who I trusted around me were impressed. This, I was later to discover, was also an important factor in my development of the scale philosophy – the need for feedback and appreciation. A report in the local paper, declaring my victory in a major dance competition soon spoiled my dance anonymity, especially when the headmaster spotted the article and highlighted it to the entire school one assembly. It’s those sort of experiences that toughen you up in life.
At one of our local party dances, a senior figure in the dancing world at the time (long before he was praising celebrities on national TV for floating across the dance floor like butter on a crumpet), a man by the name of Len Goodman, was visiting the dance club as an adjudicator and mentioned to my local dance schoolteacher (Bill Phillips) that he could see some potential. He suggested getting me a permanent partner, an outfit, some better dance shoes and entering me into some competitions. So Martin and Julie (my new dance partner) became the next stage of my dance journey. It wasn’t too long after that, Bill set his sights on a pretty big target for us. The 8-to-10 Cha-Cha-Cha was being held in Bognor Regis in the spring of 1977, at which Bill was invited to present the trophy to the winners. Bill had set his sights on getting us ready to enter and win the most prestigious title available for our age group.
Fortunately, Julie shared my passion for following the system that we were being taught and the congruency of our work ethic was delivering the result that we, and Bill, desired. The mirror became our best friend, and we learned not only how to dance better but to listen to our teacher’s corrections. We practiced as they slowly pointed our technique towards perfection. Over and over and over again, going through the steps, converting expert tuition into muscle memory and what the plan dictated, into the reality that the mirror reflected. It was hard work, but I loved it. At times I just wanted to move on to something else, but I knew that what I was doing would get me the result that I coveted more than anything else in the world at that time. We had lessons and/or practiced every day, including weekends.
My passion had found the process to set it up for the end goal – and I had absolute clarity about the way that Julie and I would get there.
When you get to the top level in dance, the medals are decided based on performance, flair and precision – getting the basics right is a given. Today in business we might refer to that as marginal gains, USPs or differentiators, which make one company, stand apart from its competition, but too many companies fail because they are obsessed with the extras and stop paying attention to the basics. It is as if they are trying to finish the journey too early and reach their peak before they have steadied the ship. They stop paying attention to the basic functions of the business and the people that are at the heart of it – their employees. As many dancers have found to their detriment over the years, a lack of attention to the basics can result in a short and largely unsuccessful career – it is no different for a business.
You see it is the basics that give a business its strength. It is the regular monitoring or gradual improvement of the fundamental processes, which provide its efficiency and profitability. Only when people know what the correct process looks like, and there is a way of tracking that this pattern is followed, can the business start to grow safely. Only then can it truly start to realise its potential.
It is the perfecting of the basics which becomes the foundation for a world championship dance routine. The endless hours of rehearsing and correcting the intricacies of each step until you know what perfect ‘feels’ like are irreplaceable. Then, when it comes to adding the finesse, and focusing on the performance it really is very easy. 100% has become the most natural thing in the world, a level at which you can perform with ease and without fail. Setting up the foundation principles correctly makes all the difference in the push for excellence. So from that systematic mastery of the technique, Julie and I were able to add our own style, personality and flair to our championship routine.
And that is how we won the 8-to-10 Cha-Cha-Cha in April 1977.
Investor | Business Mentor at Advocate | Author of I don’t work Fridays