Friday, 1 May 2009


Today's topic is Teamwork. Rather appropriate as a rather prominent team is getting a few dissenters in its midst.

I am, of course, referring to the Government and it gives us just a little view on a specific sort of team. The crux to politics is to create a vision, work out a path to the vision, set some milestones and hard evidence of progress and, most importantly, make sure everyone is 100% bought in.

The Government itself comprises of a few inner teams and works a bit like a set of Russian dolls - there are teams within teams. Theoretically The Big Team is made up of like-minded individuals who have qualified via being elected (ok so Mandelson, Myners etc are exceptions), but ancillary to that are the mobilised cohorts of back room officials who are party workers - they are the finance engine and bidders for the Team to ensure the Big Team stays in the game. Then there are the third parties - the apparatus of Civil Servants and whatnot who are associated with the team but may not be part of it in the same way. In the animal kingdom they would coincide with worker ants but in reality they have agendas of their own. They need to be controlled.

Finally, there are the mercenaries. The agents who advise, mentor, coach and control the 'marketing' via analysing the opinions, then controlling the output so that the Team messages are carefully worded to appeal to popular opinion. They also shape policy which theoretically plots the route to the vision.

It is not unlike business where there are many dynamics and influences. Lots of things are going on but it is key to share the same goals, control partners and suppliers, and get the messaging right to maximise appeal in terms of brand loyalty.


In business, the resources at hand need to be aligned so that all parts of the business are working to the common goals and therefore every £ expended on any resource is a £ spent in trying to achieve the goals. If any £ is not spent the right way, then a) the organisation is not getting the right return on investment and b) there is a risk that the end goals will not be achieved.

Here is two examples of lack of alignment and 'unjoined up thinking'.

- Aviva

I know I have harped on about this but here is a salutary lesson in lack of alignment. At the heart of every team there are stakeholders - they can be party workers or voters as well as Ministers and MPs in Government, in business they can be staff, customers and, of course, shareholders. This latter group was where Aviva went wrong.

The scene is that we are in a recession and the key goal for every business is to make sure it survives and does not suffer badly at the hands of the market conditions. Every penny to be spent must be accounted for and return on investment is paramount as costs are to be saved - this would make the shareholders' returns not diminish so badly. And remember, they are the people who supply the capital to the company.

Whatever may have been said at Board Meetings and AGMs seems to have passed the executive team by - they forgot out the aims of the shareholders, they forgot about the aims of the stakeholders like staff and started to spend no less than £117m on rebranding Norwich Union who they had taken over so that it was recognised as Aviva. It was high brow, in your face, opulent marketing at a time when all resources should have been focused and aligned on protecting cash and profit.

The result was disaster. Aviva's UK profits plummeted, over 30% was wiped off the share value, limiting its prospects of raising new capital and, worst of all, 1,900 staff had to lose their jobs. Down below, in the engine room of the organisation, there were thousands of people who worked hard to keep the Norwich Union business doing what it does best, service its customers. At the top, the executives got side tracked from the real agenda and wasted £millions which furthered the business not one iota except that the mercenaries told them their brand awareness had been raised. But at what price?

1,900 people at an average cost to the business of, say, £50k would mean around £95m of cost was stripped out. Given that over the last 12 months Aviva spent some £117m on this rebranding exercise, all those jobs could have been saved.

- The Government

The last 2 years have seen the Government lurch from crisis to crisis and then to unmitigated disaster. To some extent, these are extraordinary times although many would argue, including me, that they are times brought upon us by the Government. But let's leave that for now. One of the most crucial things in all teams, is that in a dire crisis, you must share common goals and communicate superbly. It is so vital to buy-in everyone so that they do not get disillusioned, demotivated and, worst of all, feel no longer part of the team or disenfranchised.

Amidst all the economic crisises, the Government has been able to depend on its internal support to a great extent because people have forgiven each other that this is a 'global crisis' and therefore it is important to 'muck in' and look as though everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet even if there was some doubt.

But when common values and decency are set aside because of cost, just after some £300bn has been spent on saving the skins of a few people who nearly bankrupted us through their greed, the Government risked the support of even its most ardent believers in their team when they tried to defeat Nick Clegg's Bill on the future of Gurkhas in this country.

It was hard for the leadership to see what the problem was - the total cost if all retired Gurkhas wanted to live in Britain would be around £1.4bn. Big money. But what price do you put on the lives of a race of people who live a long way from here who are so committed to standing for what we believe in that they would die for each and every one of us? They were not mercenaries, they are loyal, British subjects who see more honour in us than anywhere else on earth. Yet the Government would rather pay £millions per week to faceless advisers who tell them to put more and more taxpayers' money at risk. They are prepared to see billionaires walk across our city earning fortunes and pay no tax, but hey are not prepared to pay for people who have earned 26 Victoria Crosses in saving our freedom.

The forces of the team lost their alignment this week and it was lost because of difference in fundamental values. All great teams have one thing in common - they believe in the same fundamental things or values. Labour once stood for common people and in their heyday they might have seen the cause of the Gurkhas as not just worthy, but of no consequence even discussing. We owe them much more than money.

It extends beyond the Gurkhas - all soldiers who are coming home maimed and disabled due to their wounds have forfeited the rest of the lives for our sake. Families have lost loved ones in the recent conflicts. We all owe it to them for fighting wars we asked them to fight. There should be no questions asked about money. You cannot buy a life back, but we can look after those left behind.

Broken Teams

Teams break most often when the leadership loses touch with its members. Don't use The Apprentice as your role models for teams - the cunning little participants have so much determination to stab the people around them that they can never function in teams because they cannot be trusted. But look at great sporting teams and you see a common theme of leadership whether it be Manchester United or the Lions of 97 or England winning the RWC.

Aviva's leadership lost all connection with its staff and shareholders and in doing so ruined the company - the public failure to their staff will cost them more in brand loyalty and they will forever associated with 'big ego, small thinking'. The Government lost touch with two major parts of the team - their executives and workers, but most crucially, the voters. This week senior former ministers (Clarke and Bunkett) and one serving minister (Blears) came out and publicly criticised the leadership for losing touch with stakeholders.

It serves as a seminal lesson to all would be leaders. Never, ever, take your team members for granted.

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