Thursday, 16 July 2009

A Few Honest Words

'A few honest words were spoken,' said John Smits, the South African Rugby Captain when asked about his side's second half performance to beat the British & Irish Lions in the 2nd Test at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria recently.

He was referring to what his team did at half time when they had been comprehensively taken apart by a stunning Lions performance in the first half. They sat down and talked honestly to one another about their performances. For all the training and experience these guys had in winning the World Cup together, they changed their game profoundly by doing just doing a simple thing like talking to come back and win the game. Egos were forgotten. There were no prima donnas there despite the roll call of famous names - they collectively and individually took the criticism and made a commitment to one another to put it right. The results were spectacular.

That's what makes good teams become great - the ability to analyse themselves honestly and collectively agree to put it right. Smits had captained his side on no less than 56 occasions previously and he did not need to berate them - they knew that they had let themselves and their team down.

Fast forward to England's cricket team who pulled off an amazing draw in the First Ashes Test at Sofia Gardens, Cardiff last week and everyone is pussy-footing around the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss. You can imagine what was being said - but for one bad shot KP would have scored a 100 while Strauss unlucky despite being guilty of a poor shot and poor captaincy. They will not change anything - they will just play the same and likely get beaten by an ordinary Australian side, not a patch on the 'Incredibles' of 2005.

From Sports To Business

It's a common held belief that charismatic, bigger than life characters lead businesses best. The most prolific companies, in our eyes, are those led by people who are household names, like Virgin or Ryan Air. If you read Jim Collins' book which maps out those companies that sustain greatness from being good, then you will see that often it is the most understated leaders who make companies truly great - and they are not afraid to have superb people around them. While Ryan Air debates whether it should have standing passengers and just stools to strap onto for landing in order to cram more people in with scant regard for comfort or safety perhaps their minds should be turning more to how they can make air travel more green and safe as record numbers of planes fall out of the sky this year.

'A few honest words..'.

It seems a simple remedy but regardless of who the people are in the team, no matter how experienced, no matter how good they think they are, no matter what their past deeds have been, if they cannot face honest words from others then they will ultimately walk into a failure.

Recent History

I would say that when the dust settles on what has been the most tumultuous times in business since The Depression, there will be many leaders who will finally limp out from their cowering positions hoping the worst is passed. These are the people who could not face honest words or straight facts and ran their companies into disastrous positions and then handed the whole lot to cost cutters to try and rescue the business. Many leaders cannot take criticism from their peers and certainly not from their staff - they see it as an affront but most have that unshakable belief that only they know best.

These are the people who walked their businesses into the mess. Take a look at Willie Walsh at BA. He has presided over a business that has gone from record profits to record losses in a single year. Yet common sense would say that premium customers would desert the business if there was a recession - no more Vodafone middle managers cramming Club Europe for one hour hops to Dusseldorf or Accenture Consultants going First Class to the US for a one hour meeting. The problem with BA was that their whole business was propped up by the profit they made at the front of the plane. When that diminished, they had no contingency plan to adjust the business as the low price airlines cut them to pieces. And here's the really stupid factor - they actually INCREASED their prices through the crisis and instigated more rigid rules about changing flights, taking away vital flexibility for travelling business people. Immediately, people like myself, swapped allegiance to other airlines and travelled with those who had the most flexible policy for the price - and I found it was just about every other airline.

'A few honest words.....'.

Leadership And Honesty

We talk a lot about honesty, particularly when it comes to Political leadership where there seems to be so little these days, yet we cling to their every word and believe most of the claptrap they come out with. Very few at the top accept the opinion of others unless it has a bearing on their popularity. Gordon Brown, as a for instance, truly believes he is an economic genius despite the disastrous outcome of his policies and he's hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past even before we have cleared the current crisis.

When you look at the facts about the wars we are fighting, as we tackle two separate and major engagements we are actively subtracting from our military resources and axing regiments, while we now know that not only equipment was woefully inadequate for the kind of warfare our troops faced, we now have to borrow helicopters from our allies.

A few honest words......

In business, it is absolutely critical to be able to engage with leadership and discuss ideas and thoughts. Specifically, in times of crisis, the last thing that firms should be doing is ignoring what its own employees know and can do rather than just cutting them to pieces - particularly when it was the leadership that led the company into the state it is in. Communication and the ability to talk openly and honestly to management at all levels is critical in all businesses.

What this recession has exposed is a layer of poor managers in business who rarely engage with their workforce and even more rarely take honest criticism and advice. We have also seen the role of the non-executive director being exposed for what it is. It seems to be a circuit of jollies for a preciously small band who butterfly-hop from firm to firm earning fat fees but having zero responsibility. It is time that Governance in companies was taken far more seriously and this needs to be a source of 'Honest words' into the executives that run companies.

British business and politics has a lot to learn from this crisis and we all need to take the opportunity it has provided us with. Honest words need to be spoken in business and leaders need to understand that they have a duty of diligence in their risk taking to their employees so it is as well to be more open and honest with them in the future.

It will take a long time to restore the reputation of British business - a lot longer to restore the reputations of the list of failed leaders.

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