The magnificent obsession

Obsessiveness plays a big part in momentum management. You can build a successful company, one that gives you a very good lifestyle, by working very hard for a few years. But if you are really going to blast your way through, being obsessed is probably essential.

You can spot these highly driven business people – you can see it in their eyes, their approach. It’s the same with sports people who are big winners. These people are obsessed – often self-obsessed. You may not want to go to dinner with them, but who cares! The key question is: are they winners? Let’s be clear about this: we are not talking about well-balanced people here – they can self-destruct in a number of ways, but it’s from their ranks that the vast number of winners come.

Steve Redgrave looks a normal guy. Well, I guarantee you he’s not. He competed in a killer sport for four consecutive Olympics and won each time. The vast majority of Olympians quit after one gold and one Olympics: two is exceptional. When everything – and everyone – is telling you to stop and just lie back and enjoy it, but you keep going for three more Olympics, you must be stubborn and driven beyond belief. But his record is unlikely to ever be matched.

Fixation 4U
How about John Cauldwell, the billionaire boss of Phones 4U? You can’t help feeling that an alpha male is a wimp in his eyes. I pitied the journalist, Damien Whitworth, who last autumn wanted to spend a day with him. They started with a 14-mile journey into work and he said: ‘For this tycoon, even the commute to work is a take-no-prisoners, adrenalin-fuelled demonstration of macho drive. And once he’s behind his desk, he moves up a couple of gears.’

Passions, fervours and facinations
I recognise this personality and, in my own way, I’ve shown a variety of obsessions. I remember when I’d left school at 16, I finally realised, with the promptings of my dad, that I would never make a footballer, but I could be a decent runner. I quickly became No 2 at my local club, Guildford and Godalming AC, but I couldn’t get in front of the No 1, Robin Harwood. Finally, in the County Cross Country Championships over an extremely hilly course, I found myself fourth coming to the end of the first (of two) laps. The trouble was, this was a huge hill and I went from fourth to 19th by the time I got to the top and amongst those who swept past me was Harwood. Not only was I not going to run for Surrey, he was!

I remember going home devastated. I obviously had a serious weakness at running up hills that needed rectifying. For months afterwards, I came home from work and in the dark winter months, flogged myself up the steepest hills I could find, hating every moment of it, but chanting with every stride, ‘Har-wood, Har-wood…’

Primitive, obsessive stuff, but not only did I become our number one, but as a by-product I was running for the county soon after.

Childhood horrors
One can talk about very successful business people being obsessive, but the really interesting point is why they are so. Nearly always, you find they have a chip on their shoulder and they are shaped by something unfortunate that happened when they were younger and which has left an indelible scar on them.

Often it is due to an unhappy childhood: Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, had a father who always treated him with ‘a chilling lack of consideration’. Frank Packer devoted up to 20 hours a day to business and his two young sons paid the price ‘with an unhappy childhood’. Australia’s most prestigious private school, Geelong, gave Packer a cold welcome for his lack of polish and his academic shortcomings.

Lord Hanson, chairman of Hanson Trust, the conglomerate that shook up British industry in the 70s and 80s, suffered the uncertainty of seeing his father’s haulage business go bust. Clive Cowdery, founder of Resolution Life, was one of five born to a single parent mum and he still doesn’t know his dad. Sidney Frank, American billionaire tycoon, ‘born into an impecunious family’ had to leave after only one year at Rhode Island University as ‘he could not afford to keep up the fees.’

David Gold, the property multi-millionaire and co-owner of Birmingham City, had a miserable childhood – impoverished, sexually abused by his mother’s stepbrother, beaten at school for being Jewish and cold-shouldered by his father’s family.

Small company chips
But it isn’t just the giants of the business world: an extraordinarily high proportion of entrepreneurs of much smaller businesses have had something happen to them in their formative stages, that has left its mark. The Sunday Times series of ‘How I Made It’ reveals case after case:

  • Martyn Dawes of Coffee Nation was adopted when he was only six weeks old and was driven by uncertainty about his origins.
  • Mohn Caulcutt, founder of Watermark, had his father die when aged 17, forcing him to abandon thoughts of university.
  • Peter Wellings, founder of Custom West Shutters, had his father leave home when he was five; at seven he was sent to boarding school and at 11 his mother died of cancer, leaving him to be brought up by his grandparents.
  • Chey Garland, of Garland Call Centres, had to look after her younger brother and sister while her parents were at work. ‘As a child I never felt I was noticed. I never felt that I achieved anything, so proving myself is something that is important to me.’

Are happy people failures?
I remember explaining this extraordinary incidence of unhappy childhoods among successful entrepreneurs to an audience last autumn. At question time, a woman stood up and asked me despairingly, ‘What about those of us with a happy childhood, do we have no chance of being a success?’

I don’t know, but how many charming, well-balanced people do you know who’ve succeeded in a major way? It isn’t just business people or sportsmen and women. What about the musician who practices four hours a day every day? That’s obsessive.

Keeping a lid on your zeal
However, all entrepreneurs have to be highly self-critical – because they don’t wait for others to judge them, they stay well ahead. So if you are one of these obsessives, you have to be aware that you may be a very poor team player.

You may not notice or consider the other members of the team. This will hold you back hugely because to really succeed, you need to be hiring, leading and then empowering a really great team. If you have lousy interpersonal skills, bring in a partner who is good at this and let them nag you so that you go round the office and say ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’ when it’s called for.

So, with Momentum Management it’s good to be obsessive, but somehow you need to keep it under control.

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

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