David Downs in England – please wait in line

The English love a good queue. I managed to experience a good number of them over the past week in a very busy London, and was surprised to see how content the locals were to stand in line – for theatre tickets, for drinks at a bar, for food, for the underground… anything.

I suspect it’s a core part of their culture and perhaps even genetic makeup that pre-disposes them to gathering in groups, one behind another. It’s what made the Empire great!  I was standing in an airline queue waiting to get on a flight, and a young mum with a baby in arms was being escorted to the front of queue by the helpful airline staff – she was mortified… ‘sorry,’ she exclaimed to me as she was shown to the front of the line ‘this feels so un-British!’.

Quite a contrast to the chaos and noise of Brazil last week, but a great reminder that cultures change markedly when you travel, and it’s up to the visitor to adjust. 

I’ve been in London for a series of work events around the Rugby World Cup. Now, I know what you are thinking, how is that work? Well sport and business mix well, and in my day job our team in London are using the fantastic spotlight that is the World Cup, and the focus on New Zealand as the favourites, to get publicity, connections and deals for New Zealand businesses.  This ‘leveraging’ of sports events is an important part of how a small company, from a small country like New Zealand can stand out from the rest of the companies in the market trying to sell their products and services to UK businesses.

And the British businesses are lining up to be involved (see, there they go again). We have about 25 events in London where we are inviting New Zealand companies to bring their UK customers along – helped by our association with the All Blacks (cool) and another major asset NZ has in London – New Zealand House. If you’ve ever spent time in the UK pulling pints on your OE, you might have heard of this place. It’s simultaneously known as one of the ugliest buildings in central London, and the one with by far the best view.


One can forgive the 1950’s soviet-esque vibe of the outside of the building when you are on the top floor looking out over Westminster, and it’s the perfect place for kiwi companies to show off their products to a bunch of prospective buyers. From the 19th floor there are views down onto Trafalgar Square, up to Piccadilly Circus (not a clown in sight), Buckingham Palace and further out to Big Ben, the Shard and the Gherkin. (London has such cool names for buildings. We really missed a trick when we named the Sky Tower. How much cooler would it have been to have ‘the Hypodermic Needle’ in central Auckland...)


I’ve been to London many times, but never with the weather as good, the vibe so electric and the place buzzing as it is now. It’s not just the rugby (although it will be interesting to see if the mood changes if the English get knocked out of their own tournament); the business environment in the UK is positive at the moment. Deals are being done. Kiwi companies based there tell me they are winning business and that UK companies are upbeat about the future. Yes, there’s uncertainty over Europe, and concern about refugees and immigration, and always the spectre of security scares – but seemingly the English are upbeat, as long as they can get milk and sugar at the rugby, warm beer at the bar, and a good queue for both.


At one of the events I was at, the All Blacks’ Manager Darren Shand gave a breakfast audience a powerful talk on how the business of sport, and the sport of business come together, with examples of how he thinks about managing a high performing organisation like our national side.


Fundamentally, it’s the same dynamics as in business – people, competition, planning and dealing with change. He even uses some of the same business book models as the people in the audience used – ‘Good to Great’, ‘Five dysfunctions of a team’. Darren gave us an example of how he’d managed to get the inherent competitiveness of the ABs to turn a negative into a positive: the day before, their team bus got stuck in traffic. Rather than spend 2.5 hours crawling through London back to the hotel, he gave each of the team £10 each and told them it was a race back to the hotel. Some got back in under 60 minutes, and instead of everyone being bored sitting on the bus, they were all happy and had a sense of achievement.  L + C = P, Darren told us. Leadership, plus Culture, will lead to Performance. This was a great example of both – although I suspect to get back in under an hour, Dan Carter’s winning team probably jumped a few queues. How terribly un-British – but then, we’re not, are we?