Monthly Archives: July 2011

This sporting life

As I set off on my usual healthy trek across the moors today, I was trying to take my mind off the dire debt situation facing the West.  BOHICA, as an ex-colleague of mine used to say. The politicians can’t blame the bankers this time; oh, no, they’ve done it all themselves creating one giant Ponzi scheme after another, all over the West.  We even have National Insurance– the biggest con trick yet. OK, no doom and gloom today, let’s have a few sporting anecdotes.  From me?  The man who never follows sport?  Ah, well, I haven’t been successful in business without knowing how to please the customers.  This was particularly true when I was involved in consumer goods and had very large budgets to spend.  In achieving brand building, awareness and image, I have found sports sponsorship to be highly effective and have met many famous stars.  It didn’t usually lead me to build lasting business or personal relationships, though as I never usually found sporting ‘personalities’ to have one!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons

Take one very famous English cricketer, known, loved and revered throughout the land.  Some years back we had engaged the services of the England cricket team for an appearance at an exhibition. Our sporting legend (let’s call him Hero) bounded onto our stand and was soon deep in conversation with a colleague and I on matters commercial.  Shortly, a very nice lady with an eager little lad in tow came up and humbly introduced herself to Hero, impressed upon him the adulation she and her lad had for him asking very politely for an autograph.  Hero turned and contemptuously and graphically told them how to depart his presence.  No sooner than Hero had uttered these soothing pleasantries than a press photographer hove into view; he then underwent what can only be described as a transformation.  Switching on a beatific smile, he grabbed our still horrified lady and her little lad in each hand, stepped in front of the photographer, hugged them to him and beamed at the camera.  Shots taken, photographer exiting the scene, Hero literally shoved his two admirers away.  Nice guy.

A sporting chance

However, one genuinely warm and wonderful character was the Formula One driver Alan Jones with whom we managed a personal sponsorship deal in 1979 for the prime position on his helmet (for a 3 year period).  The following year, driving a Williams, Alan struck gold for us, finishing 13 points ahead of Nelson Piquet to win the F1 Drivers Championship.  We had asked Alan to appear at an event in Harrogate to meet some of our dealers.  Now at the time Alan lived in Ealing, West London and the event was in Harrogate.  When Alan arrived, I greeted him and asked if he had had a good trip.  “Yeah, pretty good drive”, he said in his wonderful Aussie accent “Two hours 15 minutes, door to door”.  You can check the maths but I made that an average of 95.5 mph over 215 miles.  For the petrolheads amongst you, Alan was driving the Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9, which was a popular choice for F1 drivers that year.

Image courtesy C1 Owners club

We pulled off a major publicity coup that same year by signing up probably the most historically famous British motor racing star of all time to return to the sport, driving one of the two cars we were sponsoring in a well known motorsport series.  Even before he had turned a wheel in a race we made a humongous return on our investment by having a press launch with our legend (we’ll call him Gearknob).  We  gave each of the press and TV stations footage and stills of him driving the cars.  It made every news programme at peak time that night, every daily newspaper the next day plus every motoring magazine – result!  However, when the season started a few weeks later, things went rapidly downhill as Gearknob firmly staked his claim to the last position every race.  He complained that the car wasn’t on form, it was down on power or under steered chronically.  It was the same at testing sessions.  Our team manager (a famous ex-works Porsche driver) would take the car straight out and get very close to a lap record.  Gearknob was a legend but this was a disaster.  A mystery; until I happened to start looking at discarded footage from the cameras we had mounted inside his car for the publicity film.  A typical downshift gear change was taking Gearknob around 4 or 5 seconds!  When our number 1 driver made a downshift, you could miss the whole thing in the blink of an eye.  Either he had slowed dramatically or motor racing was a lot more leisurely in Gearknob’s day!

Image courtesy of Target Vacations

Finally, I planned a lavish overseas conference a year or so later and engaged the services of the events division of one of the major global advertising agencies.  As luck had it the account director assigned to my project was an extremely competent (and very attractive) young lady.  Well after some long planning sessions, a few lunches and the odd dinner we became firm friends.  Not that friendly, mind!  You see, having become chums, Account Director poured out her heart to me, one evening working late on the final details.  It seemed she had a chronic issue in her life – let’s just say it was a very bad and recurring case of a certain debilitating (and contagious) medical problem that, er, cramped her style.  So, the relationship stayed simply professional.  Meanwhile, we had engaged the services of a very well known personality whose TV talk show was massive at the time.  I never really took to Talkshow as he only ever seemed to want to talk about sport and I found him a bore.  However, on the weekend in question, the dealers loved him, lapping up every one of the sporting anecdotes he had to offer.  Great success.  Late into the night, the last satisfied customers evicted from the bar, I started to make a move towards my bed.  Rounding the corner from the lift, I heard giggling and saw Talkshow, clutching a bottle of champagne in one hand and Account Director in the other, slipping into her room.  You know, whenever I see Talkshow on the TV even now, I can’t help wondering……

Never a dull moment in sport!

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The hands-on heroes

It’s a curious thing that at the corporate level there’s a quality in managers that is lauded, applauded and sought, seemingly over and above all others.   Whether it’s the talk in the board room or the good old HR department, and certainly among the omnipresent recruitment consultants, this is a quality we just seem to have to have in our line managers and directors.  However, after all the decades of research, theory and business school teaching on the subject of leadership, it’s a technique I haven’t seen sound evidence for. It’s not that I haven’t seen countless exponents of this technique; in fact it’s fairly ubiquitous.  So, what is this priceless, sought after quality?

Image courtesy of Tom Martin's Healing Hands

It’s the ‘hands-on’ manager.  A close relative to the ‘just do it’ manager, the ‘hands-on’ manager leads from the front; no problem is too small for our man; no evidence is strong enough to refute her instant, overriding decision.  A quality seemingly prized higher than virtue among maidens, so many job advertisements now list this ‘hands-on’ characteristic as an essential requirement.  Viewed with as much reverence as their polar opposite is derided, you can hear these managers talked about with the same kind of enthusiasm as the sporting hero.  These ‘hands-on’ types, we are told, hit the ground running, lead from the front, get stuck in and don’t drop the ball.

However, I’ve yet to see an ultimately successful outcome from this particular style. Oh, they have their successes, shallow though they might be, before they are off to the next role leaving a residual wake of unresolved causes insidiously metastasizing through the organisation. And, as we’ve seen, they certainly have their followers, even those left deep in the doo-doo when our hero has moved on.  There’s something appealing about instant action from a superior when you don’t like sticking your own head over the parapet.   Freed from risk and the requirement for thought, the troops get busy doing stuff until the next hands-on boss is appointed to make all the decisions.

Now, of course, there’s a continuum from our hands-on hero all the way back to those who rarely issue forth from their offices except to hold safe and nonthreatening meetings which then require the careful scripting of many pages of copious notes.  Lord, save me from these too! So, is there a compromise?  Of, course.  Walking the job is a sound part of good leadership.  Being there and being seen is critical for a leader.  But a good leader doesn’t attempt to solve all or any problems with an instant edict.  How is a team member supposed to learn when all decisions are made from above?   When all decisions are made to treat the symptoms and not the underlying causes?

Evidence based management will permit the correct solutions and lead to the desired outcome.  Performance based management systems, often focused upon narrow results and a plethora of targets, can lead to the short term fixes and unintended consequences that we see so often in our public services.  So how does evidence based management work?  I was fortunate to have an extensive training in quality improvement, research and systems analysis methods.  Application of these techniques taught me that trying to solve a problem without finding the root cause(s) was futile; that attempting a solution without exhaustively establishing and testing alternative solutions was mistaken.  Moreover it taught me that, if you picked the right team and ensured they had the same training, problems became so much easier to solve and they didn’t reoccur.

The final piece of the jigsaw came with the techniques of coaching.  Essential to successful coaching is the questioning process that leads the coached to own their problem and to uncover the most efficacious method of solving it.  Blending the rigorous techniques of quality improvement with a focused, ownership based, coaching style can provide a manager with the tools to lead with involvement whilst developing strong and successful team members.

So, are you a hands-on hero?  Or do you let your people be the heroes they can and should be.

The business of morality

The current media hysteria over the News of the World, politicians and the Murdoch empire seems to crystallise around the subjects of morality and power.  What are politicians prepared to do to get and stay elected?  What are business people prepared to do to achieve power and success? These issues and the stories filling our media at present, voyeuristic as they are, bring some unpleasant memories flooding back.

Image courtesy of US Coast Guard

Now, if I’m brutally honest, I’m probably not the whitest soul on this earth but I rate my past transgressions as relatively minor and, as far as I know, ones that didn’t harm others.  In fact I like to think that I haven’t knowingly ever achieved something by consciously harming another (and note that I use these words not as a lawyer turned politician but as a layman).  Yes, I’ve known politicians, famous sporting heroes and ‘celebrities’ but perhaps I wasn’t sufficiently interested enough in them to create any leverage for myself. The tale I’m about to relate demonstrates (to me) the lengths a person will go to in pursuit of their own ends.

            Many years back I lost my first wife after a long and tragic illness that caused her great suffering and my family enormous grief.  This loss changed me forever in so many ways and so, some years later when I heard a colleague’s wife was suffering from the same cruel disease, I felt spontaneously driven to write to him.  I let him know of my concern for them both and offered an understanding ear if he ever felt the need to talk. Now at the time I was working for a major international corporation and my colleague (let’s call him Marcus) was both older and more senior than me.  Very shortly afterwards, I got a call from Marcus’s secretary to fix a date for us to have dinner on his forthcoming visit to theUK.

            We talked late into the night while Marcus poured out his soul to me and thanked me for my concern for them both.  It wasn’t long after that I heard the sad news that his wife had finally passed away.  I wrote again but it was some time before we met as I was running theUK operation while Marcus was one of the senior team based in our European headquarters.  A year or so later, I again received a call from Marcus’s secretary inviting me for dinner on his next visit.  Business concluded on the day of his visit, I drove Marcus to his hotel.  As the sun was shining brightly on that fine summer evening, we decided to take a walk along the river that ran by the country hotel I had chosen.  Once more Marcus talked; he talked of the pain of his wife’s suffering and death; he talked of the slow repair of his inner self and a returning belief in the joys of living.  And then he shared with me his love for a new woman in his life, how they met, what she meant to him and how they would spend their life together.  I was pleased for him.

            A year or so later I moved to our European headquarters in a senior staff role, one of the same team as Marcus and reporting directly to our president.  A week or so after I arrived, I was sitting in my office late one evening mulling over the situation I had encountered and, feeling more than a little lost; I was missing my old team and loyal support group.  Suddenly, my door burst open and Marcus charged in; with no pleasantries or even common courtesies, he launched into a vitriolic attack on me, my function and my new team.  Equally abruptly, he left and never again exchanged a friendly word with me.  I was mystified at the time because the substance of the attack was laughable and demonstrated a gross lack of understanding of the subject at issue.

            Getting immersed into my new role over the new few months, I was determined to analyse the underlying causes of the problem I had been given as a priority to solve in my new role.  The biggest assistance I received was, strangely enough, from the members of a team that reported to Marcus; they were bright, they were helpful and they were very frustrated that the extremely expensive IT investment in the system they ran was being ignored.  As I learnt more of the workings of the European operation it became clear that, under the bonus system that prevailed at the time for senior executives, Marcus would be gaining indirectly from the problems that existed (both financially and reputationally).  Putting right the causes of the problem I identified admittedly would have taken much effort and could have affected Marcus adversely in the short term but would have had an enormously beneficial financial effect upon the entire business. On the morning of the presentation of my findings to the entire European management group, Marcus decided (or conspired) to play golf with our president thereby ensuring they both missed my presentation.  The next day he issued an edict to his team that they were not to cooperate with me in any way.

            One man’s greed and ego had damaged an entire business; I could live with the effects upon me (as it led to my career taking a very positive turn as I shortly thereafter left corporate life) but I have often reflected how one man could be so duplicitous.  He could have worked with me and even taken the credit for the solution but no, he had to fight in the dirtiest manner to preserve the short-term status quo.  Businesses (and democracies) allow people in positions of power to exercise the most dubious ethics and morality and permit them to flourish.   Do you think this is correct?  Have you encountered problems such as these?

If you would like to find where you stand on a broad range of moral issues we face in our modern life, go to http://www.moralcompass.org/

A plumber with a business plan

I had a nasty surprise this week when I discovered that my heating system had sprung a leak spreading a rich, rusty coloured stain across the kitchen ceiling.  The more pleasing aspect was that my wife managed to charm a plumber out at 6.00pm (the cost was something else).  Two other surprises followed in quick succession; the first being the plumber himself, all 6’8” in his stockinged feet and a passable stand-in for Charles Bronson in his prime.  I quickly decided I had better get my wife out of the house so I was able to deal with this situation in the appropriate man to man manner.  Chatting over the cup of tea that I made for our hero in the afterglow of well remedied leak (before I got the bill), he mentioned his business plan.

Image courtesy of inetgiant.co.uk

Now business plans are two a penny these days, even tv wannabees have business plans.  However, Charles really did have a plan and I listened, fascinated, as he told me the tale.  A qualified heating engineer, it seems that he had been made redundant by British Gas back in the 90’s.  His long term goal, he explained, was to get to where he was today, specialising solely in heating system servicing and repair.  Charles had started out on the first phase of his plan working as a sub-contractor to local builders whilst he attempted to build a clientele as a general plumber.  He quickly gave up the contracted work after he found out the hard way just how mendacious and untrustworthy builders were.  Now at this point, I would have asked more of the details of his swot analysis, as I felt sure that he had overlooked his one significant differential strength – his sheer size!  Surely, he could have faced down any builder?  However, it seems that our Charles must have been deeply religious or something, judging by his intent gaze, so I didn’t pursue that line.

Bathroom, kitchen and heating system installations were the next phase in our intrepid plumber’s business plan, which were all in turn quietly but firmly ditched as he got closer to his goal of servicing and repair only.  When the bill was extended to me, I began to see the logic in our man’s plan.  Call-out work was clearly very profitable!  He also had very little in the way of materials to purchase.  A very nice little business or a job?

Despite a clear and single minded commitment to his business plan, Charles had however, either by omission or commission, neglected to prepare his business for an eventual sale.  Despite having a very scalable business model, that he could have sold at retirement time, as a complete business, he had in fact just bought himself a job over the years, albeit a nice little earner.  The most our Charles could expect from his business at retirement is from the sale of his customer list (at least with his model he does have repeat business).

Planning to make yourself dispensable is the best advice for any new business owner; in fact, the very first business plan you write should include when and how you intend to exit from your business.  There are entrepreneurs whose skills are so specialised that they can never delegate but these are few and far between.  If you genuinely fall into this category, or if you really can’t face managing others and fighting employment red tape, then make sure that you build a very good personal pension.

Oh, and make sure that you play to your strengths; I certainly paid up with a smile.

So you think we have it hard?

We all lead such busy lives these days and tend to think that we are unique in the stresses and tensions we have to suffer.  I’ve had my fair share of stress (and the associates ulcers and worse) during my business career.  I’ve also known the nagging fear and dread as one of the baby-boomers who grew up under the shadow of the relentless spread of nuclear weapons.  I still vividly remember those 13 days in October 1962 when Kennedy and Khrushchev went eyeball to eyeball over the Soviet missiles in Cuba.  I held my breath with the rest of the world whilst we waited to see who would blink first.  With the memories of countless, hypnotic newsreels of the awful mushrooming clouds crowding into my mind every waking minute, I could only think ‘I haven’t had my time yet’.

   I never knew either of my grandfathers but it was always Joseph my father’s father who held most fascination for me as a youngster.  This was probably because I had heard that, as a soldier, he went first through the Boer War and then ‘died of his wounds in the first World War’.  Sadly, my knowledge of my paternal grandfather never went beyond those simple facts for much of my life until I had to clear out my mother’s house shortly before she died.  I then discovered a small treasure trove of photographs, letters and all sorts of documents, amongst which was more information about the elusive Joseph.

It seems that Joseph was born on 27th February 1877 in Athy, County Kildare and was the 6th child to Joseph and Ellen Armstrong.  Joseph (junior) followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a blacksmith and on his 20th birthday in 1897 enlisted in the British army (Ordnance Corps) for 7 years plus 5 reserve.  Two years later he was shipped to South Africa .  During his time in the Cape, Joseph received decorations and ‘mentions in despatches’ on two occasions and was ultimately awarded the DCM (at this time the highest award for ‘other ranks’).  Although not an infantryman, he saw service in some of the most notable clashes of the war and was finally disembarked home on 28th August 1904 after 5 years active service.

In 1906 Joseph married my paternal grandmother, Winifred.  The photograph above shows him in the same year as a member of the sergeants’ mess at Aldershot barracks, looking calmly and confidently into the camera, a man mature beyond his 29 years who had already seen much of the horrors of war.  A year later in 1907 my father John Joseph was born, followed by a sister and brother in the next few years.  Although an Irish national, Joseph had served his country, survived and was probably looking forward to the comforts of marriage and the fruits of a future civilian life.  This was not to be.

1914 came and Joseph was once more called to war in the service of his country.  There is a gap in his army records but a British Forces address records him as being in Salonika,Greece at some point in this period.  The records next show his discharge in August 1916, after service of 19 years and 156 days as ‘Being no longer physically fit for war service’.  Joseph had attained the rank of Staff Quartermaster Sergeant, left with a commendation from his commanding officer recording his ‘ cheerfulness and willingness under all circumstances being an excellent example to the men under his command’.  Last month I discovered the final piece of the jigsaw with a copy of his death certificate obtained after a long internet search.  A peaceful and fruitful civilian future was not for Joseph it seems; he died eleven months later of TB and toxaemia at the age of 41 years.

I have lived as a member of a privileged generation that (on this side of the Atlantic) have never had to answer the call to arms and never had to endure the horrors of war as a civilian living in our cities during ‘The Blitz’ of the second world War.  Yes, I have lived with the threat of these things in the 60’s; I have lived instead with the comfort of the welfare state, with protected human rights, endless (personal) credit on tap, bountiful theories on leadership, teamwork and management to guide me.  However, the worries and challenges of my business and personal life seem petty in comparison to my grandfather’s.

Joseph was not a giant of a man in a physical sense; his army records indicating a height of only 5’ 5½”.  He was only ever ‘other ranks’ but he knew how to lead his men and tend for the horses and mules of his company.  He must also have been a good and reliable follower to the officers who commanded him while he lived with the constant, gut churning fear of death ferrying munitions and supplies to the front line in countless, futile actions in ‘the war to end all wars’.  He paid the ultimate price for his service to his country.  I never knew my grandfather but I like to think of him now as the quiet, calm, confident man gazing out from that photograph of 1906 and think that I would have liked him.

RIP Joseph; you had a hard life.