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Nobody Ever Gives You The Bad News

by Guest Writter
Andy Sargent, Pack Up Your Troubles: A “Kitbag of Leadership Skills for Busy Managers”

Being a CEO may not be the loneliest job in the world but it certainly competes. When I was advising the Chairman and CEO of a multi national trading corporation, he once said rather wistfully: “You know what the trouble is: everyone wants to give you good news and that’s usual. But it’s worse than that because the so called good news is based on what they think “good” looks like. So what happens when they don’t really know?”

Good question.

He was trying to introduce a new Customer Care programme. The organisation was being run by six regional chief executives, a group of “robber barons”, very powerful, macho, unattractive, all multi millionaires in their own right, thanks to bonuses and share options.

They competed with each other to tell their good news about increasing penetration and market share. The atmosphere in the Boardroom veered from aggressive to febrile. They clamoured for his attention, but only when the topic for discussion was what they wanted to talk about. They thought they were pretty good at customer care, so it came as a shock when they found out that the company’s image in the market place (unflattering) was only matched by the views of its staff on what it was like to be an employee. (“Nobody likes us; nobody trusts us; nobody cares”).

The only person who believed this was the CEO. Was this, he asked, why our housekeeping, pilfering, and staff turnover were so bad? If nobody liked us or respected us, no wonder our service quality and image was so lousy. The only factor in our favour was size. We could exert enormous economies of scale, drive down prices, and bully suppliers. But our omissions were hammering the cost base and undermining the share price.

When he put it like that, his team changed its attitude very quickly. Clearly their idea of “good” was a bit different from his.

I won’t say the name of this organisation, although you would certainly recognise it. But in my experience the same kinds of lesson apply more often than CEOs would like. There’s always the danger of a leadership vacuum. And the solutions start at the top.

As a young man, making my way as best I could, I went to work for a big management training provider. By this time, I’d spent a few years running a benefits office in the East End of London, and had moved from there to work in HR for a large food and logistics combine. In this last place, senior executives were apt to dispatch directives about how lesser beings should mind their assets.

One of the owners, for whom I frequently hired chauffeurs, once sent for me to reprimand me for hiring two accountants who’d been educated in a university of which he didn’t approve. Somebody else issued a checklist of people who should not be hired. (It was a long time ago). Words like “engagement” or “empowerment” or “involvement” would have been foreign to them. They were to me too, but something didn’t seem right, so I moved on.

My new job involved leading training courses called “Effective Management for Supervisors”, not a thrilling title, but good for content, which was heavily slanted towards the human side of management. I spent a couple of years training well intentioned men (almost always men), who’d been appointed for their technical skill, or seniority, but hardly ever for their ability to lead, motivate or inspire their teams. I did this in just about every sector: manufacturing, service, retail and public.

The people I trained were largely good people. They might not have been charismatic. (How many everyday managers and supervisors are?) But they responded readily to the simplicity of repeatable leadership skills and drills: how to define the task, build the team and support the individual. They loved the idea of defining standards of performance and behaviour, setting targets, briefing and engaging their teams. It was all so bloody obvious to them. Why had nobody told them before?

They would listen patiently for a while, but sooner or later, someone would say: ”Why don’t you come and tell our bosses about all this. The reason we don’t do it is because they don’t!”

And they had a point. It was obvious that their own managers had been appointed for exactly the same reasons. Of course you had to be technically credible to start off with. But what then?  How did you explain and negotiate changes? How did you deal with conflict? How did you manage the union steward?

For leadership teams, success lies in getting people to do things differently, and better. For that to happen, leaders have to be on the same page, committed to the same things: Quality, Time, Cost, Safety, and the well being of employees.

But these in turn demand collective focus, communication skills, and the enthusiastic acceptance of the fact that all of this is your job. You can’t rely on someone else to inspect or audit quality into the product or service, any more than you can rely on the HR specialist to manage the staff.

Leadership can be taught and needs to be. Productivity problems won’t get solved just by demanding more investment in technology.

What seems patently obvious at the top will not be universally true. The “robber barons” I described earlier were numerate, able, technically proficient, and tough. Not bad qualifications. But even if focused on the right objectives and they wouldn’t have known how to deliver them unless through threats and bribes, never the answer.

The CEO I told you about wasn’t asking the right questions. But at least he was big enough to heed to the answers when I asked them for him.

Try the leadership quiz at www.puytlead.com or email Andy.sargent01@gmail.com


About the Author

Andy Sargent is a consultant specialising in business transformation. He writes on leadership in business. He believes the solutions are simple and says “there is nothing new”!

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