Monday, 25 January 2010

“We need to change our culture” said the Chairman

You’d be right to be sceptical if told this. Because, just as certainly as if you were born a stroppy sort of “take me as you find me” person, truculence is in your genes, in your DNA – like it or not.

So it is with an organisation in which culture is not to be moved around like furniture. Nonetheless three people in as many weeks have told me their company needs to change its culture, failing to understand this equates to a DNA transplant.

For instance changing from outward going to thoughtful.
Or from arrogant to caring.
Or from caring about the bottom line to caring about your people.

It can’t be done and so it shouldn’t be tried.

The great brands like Coke, Heinz, McDonalds, Google are what they are and when they try to be anything different their magic dissolves before you just like sherbet. Healthy McDonalds? Away with you – what people like is that taste, that speed, that price and that staggering consistency. McDonalds when, in the recent past, it tried to be a purveyor of healthy salads, looked like a particularly reluctant cross-dresser.

Brands and companies have cultures built over time. They have memories, triumphs and failure built into that culture recipe and you can’t subtract those ingredients at will. This is their DNA.
Define the two or three characteristics which best define you and build on them.

Success is about being the best you or a bigger you.

The day Goldman Sachs pretends it is soft and cuddly will be the day it dies.
The day Apple acts just as a trendy brand, ditto.

So the big question is not 'what do you want to be?' but 'what are you now?' What are you now and how can you build on this?

And a makeover for a brand or company, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do, is not the same as a culture transplant which will usually prove fatal.

Be proud of your cultural DNA don’t mess with it.

Monday, 18 January 2010

“They intoxicate themselves with work so they don’t see how they really are”.

Aldous Huxley said this and it’s been a topic of curiosity throughout history – people who seem busier than they are or need to be; people who are martyrs to work.

So my advice for 2010: relax, think more, don’t get frenzied and give yourself time and space. Find time to smell the claret (I prefer claret to roses which are the things Ringo Starr asked us to smell.) And we’ve been shown recently how snow has had this peculiar effect of slowing everything down and muffling noise …nature’s way, perhaps, of showing us how to solve problems. Slowly and quietly.

But most big companies busy themselves producing documents or decks of slides so detailed, so turgid and so long they act on one’s head rather as a mallet does. If only Fred Goodwin had been made to read the information pack on ABN Amro there’s a fighting chance he might have said after struggling through the first ten pages “you know what - I can’t be bothered. Let’s go out to lunch instead”. (And by the way going back to my blog on rehabilitation of January 3rd, my observations have borne fruit and the self same knight has picked up a job at RMJM, the 5th biggest architectural business in the world.)

If “busy” is the only mode of existence, we are in trouble because “busy” is treadmill stuff – doing things for appearance’s sake; more style than substance,

Laidback and thoughtful is a lot better. Laidback, thoughtful and effective like Gerry Robinson was, the one time superstar boss of Granada; a man never known to let work spoil his work-life balance.

The best comment I heard recently was from an ex colleague of mine who remarked how struck he was by the fact that so many of these busy people were, in fact, plain lazy; that they rushed around but didn’t really know their stuff. Too lazy to care; too busy to do the basics.

Here’s a story of focus.

They test new Secretaries of State do Civil Servants. The red box test puts them on their mettle. Ken Clarke, then in Health or wherever, got ten red boxes on his first day. He asked for the most important one and said that one would have to do and that would they get their act together in future because less is more.

And then you can spend more time using your brain (what Woody Allen described as his “second favourite organ”) and less time ticking boxes (red ones or otherwise.)

Because, just one really important box will do fine.

Friday, 8 January 2010

"What's the difference between a supermarket trolley and a non executive director?

Whilst both hold a vast quantity of food and drink, only the trolley has a mind of its own” (T.P. Blenkin)

T.P. Blenkin appears to be a Yorkshireman who is a cricket nut and given the excitement of the Third Test in South Africa this week that puts him in my good books but it’s this great aphorism that makes his reputation because, like a great Shane Warne leg break, it leaves those of us who’ve served as NEDs groping sightlessly.

In many respects being a non executive or a Trustee is a mug’s game. You don’t have the time or the proximity to the action really to smell what’s going on. You apply your best critical judgement but are also trying to motivate those in the front line to do better and feel good about themselves.

It’s a critical balance between being too nice and too nasty. I’ve seen NEDs apply the “I put their feet to the fire” principle and turn a competent executive into a quivering wreck. But NEDs at various banks and struggling companies like ITV or BA must wonder what hit them recently. Was that moderate remuneration worth that loss of reputation?

So I anticipate a new breed of Rottweiler non execs. and a consequent growing pressure on executives to justify virtually all they do. And I don’t see too much food and drink for anyone.
It’ll be just a basket with under five items most of which will be energy drinks to keep them awake so they're able to read all those documents.

“Mind of my own…I’ll show ‘em…Gentlemen. I’d like to revisit our strategy again just to be sure it still stands up to inquisition given changing market conditions”.


Sunday, 3 January 2010

The growing practice of rehabilitation

First it was Peter Mandelson, now Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, whom Times columnist Anne Treneman beautifully described on his repatriation from the EU and his astonishing revival as a leading politician thus:

“Mandy did not walk into the House of Lords so much as slide… he looked uncommonly solemn, his thin lips set in a wavy line above the huge collar of floppy ermine (he was born to wear ermine)…as he reached out a languid hand for the Bible, it all seemed rather fey. Or coy, even. ‘I Peter Lord Mandelson’, he began, his voice as clear as a bell. He ended the oath by saying ‘so help me God’. Poor God. I am not sure He wants to be dragged into this particular oath. Indeed I’m not sure that Mandy would ever need the help of the Almighty for he can now, surely, just look in the mirror.”

Then Andy Hornby who became CEO at Boots after a sticky time leading HBOS, the banking group that collapsed into the arms of Lloyd’s who in turn staggered under the weight of HBOS’ problems. Our history is full of people who’ve done wrong or hit the steep face of misfortune and who’ve bounced back. Jeffrey Archer (prison for perjury), Jonathan Aitken (Ditto), Richard Nixon (second time round he got impeached but today is regarded as having been an impressive statesman), Sir Philip Green (remember Amber Day), Piers Morgan (fired from the Mirror), Kate Moss (naughty nose) and Amy Winehouse (doesn’t have wine in her name for nothing).

Who’s next? Fred Goodwin? Richard Fuld? Fabio Briatore? Dean Richards?

Somehow I think these guys still have a lot to offer and we ought to be using their painful learning to our advantage rather than just shunning them.

Failure is a great teacher – none better.