Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Leadership Lessons Close to Home

It is fascinating to see articles examining the leadership lessons of the Chilean Mining Disaster (or triumph) so soon after its successful conclusion and I notice that there’s an hour devoted to it on Channel 4 tomorrow night. Along with the film of the events, the book deals and (the probable) appearance on Oprah in due course, there is certainly something about it that draws us to it. It was after all the triumph of human endeavour over disaster. But to suggest that we can learn from the leadership of President Pinera and shift leader Luis Urzua before the whole story has emerged is I think going a little too far. As the different accounts emerge, then we will be able to look at how people reacted under pressure, how different agencies co-operated together, and how everyone seems to have been united by a common purpose, but I think there’s a much more relevant example for us closer to home.

Last year, Jaguar announced that it was to shut one of its three plants in the UK, with the corresponding loss of skills and experience to say nothing of the knock on effect in local communities. But the incoming management agreed to listen to other views (lesson number 1) and this month agreed not only to reverse their earlier decision but also to centre Jaguar R&D on the UK. Additionally they have awarded a 5% pay deal to the workforce - how many of us would jump at such an award in the current economic climate? A remarkable turn around! The lessons are there for us all, and are particularly applicable to the Public Sector after the CSR announcement last week.

So how was it achieved? Well first and foremost the incoming management team agreed to listen to other ideas. They didn’t shut themselves away, come up with the solution and then impose it. Secondly, they engaged the workforce and asked what they could do in terms of cost savings, different working practice and greater efficiency. Thirdly, the management, workforce, unions and local MPs all worked collaboratively – with a common purpose in mind. What I find remarkable was that the Union was UNITE – the same Union that is involved in the long running and acrimonious dispute with BA. It just shows that once sides are drawn, it becomes inceasingly difficult to find common ground.

The lesson for Public Sector leaders is clear. Faced with some really difficult decisions, don’t shut yourself away and forget “The Buck Stops Here” mentality. Present the situation to your employees and ask for ideas. Don’t approach it like a disaster, but look at it as an opportunity to tap into all the potential ideas that abound in your organisation. Provide an opportunity and you’ll never cease to be surprised by those closest to the action.

Simon Hollington is a Director of Leading Edge Personal Development Ltd (, a company formed to release potential and improve performance. He can be contacted at or 07811 332280

To Grow or not to Grow? That is the Leadership Question!

You’ve heard the cry. “Recession is upon us, cut training, cut marketing, cut people, save money! Batten down the hatches and we’ll somehow survive this storm.” You just might, but will you be ready to take advantage of the upturn? Sadly not. A recent survey of 500 senior managers showed that 70% feared that they would not have the necessary skills to take advantage of the upturn, yet training budgets are under pressure.  The old wives tale of “train people and they’ll just leave for our competitors” seems increasingly to hold sway once again, along with “we don’t need to spend money, they’ll just be glad to have a job”.
So should leaders spend money on development during difficult times? How can you justify it when the pressure is on? Isn’t is right to cut back when finances are tight? All good questions to which the answers are: yes; difficult but do you need to: and yes and no!

Let’s look at the first question in more detail: should leaders spend money on development during difficult times? Ask a financier and the answer’s more likely to be no; ask someone from HR or L&D and the answer will be yes. Of course (you’ll say) HR & L&D people are bound to say yes because they are simply feathering their own nest. Perhaps some do but dig deeper and the real answer emerges. The real worth of any company lies in its people. Glib phrase but true. What will enable companies to weather this (and any other) storm are the people in it. Great product but poorly motivated people might mean you retain your customers in the short term but certainly not long term. Given that the conservative estimate of hiring someone in from outside is 150% of their base salary, why would you not want to save money and develop people from within?

A recent survey by Aon Consulting indicates that 47% of staff intend to look for alternative employment this year, a figure only topped by Ireland (49.4%) in Western Europe. In the current difficult economic times, employers are increasingly looking to save money by cutting down on salaries, benefits and pension options, and the results are (seemingly) increased dissatisfaction. But if you have top performers (and why wouldn’t you?) then your competitors will know who they are, and the more enlightened will look to use any dissatisfaction as a reason to poach them.

Interestingly some 70% of graduates said that development was more important to them than salary which says that they are looking for more than straight remuneration, and the same is true of those who are well passed the graduate stage – if of course you have the right people in your organisation. What motivates the top performers (by-and-large – though there are some who are only motivated by bonuses!) is their ability to grow, develop, be stretched, and take on new challenges. If you don’t provide that opportunity, then the moment there’s an opportunity elsewhere that does provide these elements, they’ll be off. If someone leaves, then you’ll need to spend all that money recruiting another, and if you are not able to demonstrate those opportunities to the new person, they won’t want to join you! So while it might be difficult to justify, it is right to continue to train, to grow and develop, if for no other reason than it’s cheaper in the long run!

Simon Hollington is a Director of Leading Edge Personal Development Ltd (, a company formed to release potential and improve performance. He can be contacted at or 07811 332280

Friday, 8 October 2010

We All Have a Responsibility for Leadership

So the outgoing HR Director of RBS (Neil Roden) says that HR was not at fault for anything that happened at RBS. To quote a recent interview, he says:

"I can't see what HR could have done. Lack of money was not an HR issue, the portfolios our businesses kept was not an HR issue; none of them were. I wasn't running the bank - the CEO makes decisions, not me. There's a debate here about what HR can reasonably be held accountable for. People think HR runs companies. I say, stop getting carried away; HR is a support function, no more or less important than sales or IT. HR critics are way ahead of themselves; they need to get back inside their box."

What a complete abdication of leadership! So HR doesn't run the business (I agree) but how does he then account for another comment in the interview in which he says"

"the HR team has been doing an average of one business reorganisation a week for the past 18 months - new talent management and executive development processes"

If the HR function isn't the soul and conscience of the business then it is a waste of money. All the accounts I've read suggests that there was a culture of sycophancy at the top and that Fred the Shred bullied those who didn't agree with him. That's exactly the time that HR  - and particularly the HR Director -should have stood up and acted.

But let's not suggest that simply because HR has a privileged position in an organisation that it is only they who have a responsibility to challenge. We all have a leadership responsibility, whether just for ourselves, our immediate team or for the wider business interests. It may not be easy to challenge, but if we don't we are in effect condoning what is happening. When things are going well it is very easy (and tempting) to overlook those little things that go wrong but which don't have a significant impact. But that's exactly the time we should be challenging them - in the right way of course - because if we don't challenge them when they first happen, they become part of the institution and the culture, and then when the going gets tough, it is even harder to challenge because people will simply say - well we've always done that and no-one has complained before. Difficult conversations and bad news don't get any better by leaving them, and everyone has a responsibility to raise them as they happen. It is after all part of our responsibility as leaders - all of us.

Simon Hollington is a Director of Leading Edge Personal Development Ltd (, a company formed to release potential and improve performance. He can be contacted at or 07811 332280

Thursday, 7 October 2010

It's a Privilidge to be a Leader

Some time ago I spoke to a long standing colleague who had recently moved into a new role in a different organisation. His first few months had been difficult to say the least. A few weeks into his new role he was told by his head office to cut costs and headcount in the face of the economic downturn. So instead of looking forward to developing his new business and taking it forward, he became known as the hatchet man brought in by head office to ruin a once successful business.

“That’s the privilege of being a leader” I said. “I’m not sure being a leader is a privilege at the moment!” was his reply, and our conversation started me thinking. Leadership has three principal components: power; accountability; and responsibility - the latter being nowhere more important than when dealing with people. In this aspect, the privilege of leadership really comes to the fore.

The starting point perhaps is to go back to a (sadly) not untypical approach to leadership. Back in 1960, Douglas McGreggor suggested that people were either Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X people came to work and tried to do as little as possible. They therefore had to be controlled, measured and almost forced to work! On the other hand Theory Y people naturally sought to be the best they could be and therefore just needed to be guided. Of course it’s all rubbish (well in my opinion at least!) because people don’t fit into neat little boxes – though sadly leaders often treat people as though they do. There is a business leader called Randy McGurk who runs a chain of fast food restaurants in the South West of the USA. His approach is the “2% Jerk Factor”. Believing that since the vast majority of his team of assorted cooks, waitresses, and cleaners want to do a good job, he therefore reasons that he should base his approach around them, not the 2% of his team who were “jerks”. His experience is that if he treats people well, they respond accordingly, thus disproving Theory X/Y. Incidentally he has also found that the 2% of jerks didn’t last very long because his other employees quickly make it clear what is expected and the so called jerks either fit in or leave. That means that there is little need to resort to complicated and prescriptive performance management policies and procedures! Incidentally, Nordstrom (the upmarket chain of departmental stores in USA can fit their entire employee handbook onto less than one page. Their approach is simple – “Use Your Best Judgement”. If you care to look at their share price and shareholder return it outperforms the S&P Index significantly. Richard Branson has a similar view. In this month’s HR magazine he says “"I’m happy to say I’ve never read a book on HR theory or people management. Our guiding principle is this: give individuals the tools they need, outline some parameters to work within, and then just let them get on and do their stuff." So the bottom line is that if a leader treats all his employees as Theory X they will appear to be exactly that because we all get what we focus on. So my belief is that there’s no such thing as Theory X/Y people, only Theory X/Y leaders.

So where does the privilege come in? Well – if we go back to the responsibility that comes with leadership, then the greatest responsibility that a leader has is for people. Ah yes, but what about bottom line profit? Yes of course that is a leader’s responsibility as well, but he or she doesn’t actually produce any bottom line profit. Leaders guide, direct, command, produce policies and make deals, but hardly ever produce hard cash. It is the employees who actually do that. So leaders need people if they want to increase bottom line profit, or growth, or shareholder return. Without talented people to deliver what the customers need, a leader’s efforts will achieve nothing. The greatest responsibility – and therefore privilege - a leader can be given is for other people. There’s a well known campaign that goes along the lines of “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” and so it is with people. Employees have to endure the good and bad times and a leader’s prime responsibility is to ensure they are engaged, have the tools, skills and freedom to give of their best (Theory Y) and are then supported so they can perform to the best of their ability. In good times and bad – indeed especially in bad times - if employees feel that they are supported they will continually surprise and delight leaders with their talents and efforts.

There‘s a simple formula in terms of performance.

Performance = Potential + Support – Interference

A leader’s responsibility is to maximise the support and minimise the interference. At times it may seem like a thankless task as my colleague found last year, but it goes with the territory. Being given the privilege of guiding, directing, liberating, and at times controlling the work destiny of others is the greatest privilege a leader can be afforded. Perhaps we should all remember that privilege!

Simon Hollington is a Director of Leading Edge Personal Development Ltd ( , a company formed to release potential and improve performance. He can be contacted at or 07811 332280