Tag Archives: Leadership

Can the Olympics Boost British Business?

Olympic Judo London 2012 (2 of 98)

London 2012  (Photo credit: Martin Hesketh)

An interesting phenomenon has hit Britain over the past 2 weeks – the traditional British reserve has been replaced with enthusiasm and a sense of national pride I’ve not seen here before. What’s more – the normally omnipresent negativity about almost everything (not just the weather!) has been quietened to a large extent.

This gives me great hope. Can we draw on this new-found upbeat attitude and start to pull the country out of its recession?

After all, markets are driven at least as much by sentiment as anything else, and a positive sentiment among the people here will inevitably lead to a strong upturn.

So, what lessons have we learnt this month?

Firstly, and very importantly for the future, that competition is healthy after all. For far too long here, and in some other countries, governments have discouraged competition on the basis that it is unfair to those less able. Hence the ludicrous situation of school children, for example, progressing through school regardless of whether they pass or fail their exams, and exam pass marks being lowered, too – the reason we have such huge numbers of school leavers who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. And then wonder why they cannot find, or keep, a job.

Secondly, celebrate success. It seems to me that the news services focus on the negative, and ignore the positive. With the Olympics they were even starting to be accused of jingoism, such was the positive tone of the UK TV services! I realise that disasters sell more newspapers and TV viewship of news channels increases, but it really is not necessary to focus on the negative / bad news about everything all the time. Hopefully, the record viewership and readership during the Olympics will show that good news also sells… And there is good news on the business front – not just bad. There are many success stories, large and small, from Jaguar-LandRover’s expansion to over 300 000 new businesses starting this year – some of which will become the market-leaders of the future (there’s an interesting correlation with market-leaders having more often than not started in periods of recession/downturn).

Thirdly, sport is good for everyone. Britain is already one of the most obese nations on earth and the costs of this in both human and monetary terms are massive. By making sports compulsory for school children – a minimum of three afternoons a week would be good – they develop habits that will stand them in good stead throughout life. It not only reduces the issues associated with obesity, but encourages both team spirit and competition – two things that are critical for overall success in life.

Fourthly, a sense of national identity and community, and pride in this, is good – look at the great work done by the army of volunteers! It really is time for the “Great” to be put back into Britain in the minds of its people. It turns out that not only is Britain third overall in the medals table, but has the best ratio of the all-important Gold medals to GDP of any country (50% better than the next closest) and one of the best ratios in terms of population size, too.

We’ve a unique opportunity to take these lessons and move forward strongly. To move away from a grey society where competition is bad, winning isn’t important and there’s no pride as a consequence. The results will be not only good for business, but a stronger, healthier and happier society, too.

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Early Birds Make the Best Decisions

Board Meeting.

Image via Wikipedia

A fascinating piece by John Tierney in the NY Times explored the concept of “Decision Fatigue,” concluding that people faced with making a number of decisions do so less well as the day wears on.

In studies with Roy Baumeister, a clear correlation was shown between the quality of decisions made at a point in time and the number/difficulty of decisions subjects had been required to make beforehand.

These studies explain the anomalies in, for example, parole being granted to prisoners by a parole board – those whose applications were heard at the start of the day, or immediately following a break for nourishment, were considerably more likely to succeed that those whose applications were heard at the end of a session, or just before a break.

Car salesmen were able to increase the value of the options taken with vehicles simply by altering the order in which the options were presented: once decision fatigue started to come into play, the buyers were more inclined to simply go with the recommended/default choice, even when it was more expensive and, potentially, less suitable for their needs.

Supermarkets have long had their ‘impulse racks’ at the checkout counters, but the real reasons these work has only recently been understood – shoppers are fatigued from all the decision-making during the shopping process and so are less able to rationally decide against a tempting treat when this is put in front of them.

What transpires from the studies is that the process of decision making depletes glucose levels in the brain and that this affects the way the brain works. In essence, some areas of the brain will work better for longer: the reward centre area continues to function well, while that controlling impulses weakens. So, our buyer who has been through a number of decisions in deciding on options for the new car will look at fewer and fewer factors in coming to a decision and be more prone to impulse – for example, “those leather seats look great.”

Interestingly, it was shown that replenishment of the glucose levels quickly restored decision-making ability, so if our buyer chewed on some sweets during the process he/she might well save some money. Of course, using sweet substances for instant glucose replenishment is just a temporary solution as the glucose derived from sugar is quickly used up – that from complex carbohydrates and proteins providing a steadier supply over time – but it certainly can help in tough situations.

If you need a decision from your boss, choose your time carefully, and maybe soften him/her up with a piece of chocolate at the start of the meeting so the glucose can be absorbed before asking for a decision, unless of course the decision you want is one that does not require change to an existing situation – in which case low glucose levels will favour the status quo.

The bottom line seems to be that you should make your biggest decisions at the start of the day (assuming you have breakfast, of course!) or after a healthy meal. In board and management meetings where there are many decisions to be taken, ensure the participants are suitably nourished and their glucose levels are maintained. As the article recommended – don’t make decisions on restructuring the business at 4pm…

 

Communication in the Information Age

Note: the plate says - "The quick brown f...

Image via Wikipedia

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 heralded the start of mass communication – for the first time, text could be reproduced quickly and inexpensively for a large audience. Of course, very few people could read in those days and many authorities were against it, fearing the impact of mass uncontrolled communication on their rule, so it took a few hundred years for this to spread.

The introduction of broadcast radio from 1920 started to spread information even more quickly and widely, marking a significant jump in the speed of communication.

But it was the Information Age which has really accelerated global communication.  Widely accepted to have started in the 1970s with the advent of the microprocessor, it took the introduction of the Internet Browser in the early 1990s for the Information Age to really become as integral to life as it is today.

And yet, it seems, the Information Age is just a quicker way to spread the same sort of information as before. Certainly our main sources of news seemed to have missed the point – news bulletins rely on “sound bites” or their video equivalents to relay information with the result that this is often inaccurate or, at best, unbalanced. Newspapers, too, have not really worked out how to embrace the digital age fully – you either get print (almost as in 1440, albeit more quickly), or the same articles available online, missing the opportunity to have summaries of stories and the ability to drill down for more information.

This is the key – we’re bombarded with information from multiple channels but have not developed the tools to effectively sift it. Long messages are often ignored as we don’t have time for them, while short messages are frequently taken out of context missing the real point that was being made. What’s needed is the ability to capture the essence of a point in a short burst and then enable people to get more information as they require it – almost an inside-out onion, with successive layers giving more and more detail.

Twitter is a great example of the modern communication paradigm – 140 characters to get the basic message across, including a link to more detail, which you can access if you wish. That more detailed message, in turn, could have links to other sources for even more information, and so on…

Nowhere, perhaps, is this communication problem more evident than in politics. There’s no argument with the fact that the UK, like many other countries globally, has woefully overspent and has to completely revisit its bloated public sector spending (how can a majority of the workforce be civil servants – effectively paid for by the minority?).  And yet it, like so many others, is facing widespread revolt at the prospect – look at the pension reform issue, for example…

Why?

Primarily because the government is incapable of effective communication. White papers, government statements and debates are far too long and not suitable for the news media or the viewing/listening/reading public, so people simply don’t understand the issues. I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are decent, willing to work hard to get ahead and happy to help those less fortunate (but NOT those that are not prepared to help themselves).

But, for as long as governments cannot get the message out in a way that the media can carry without distortion and people can understand in just seconds, they will be unable to implement the changes that are needed, worsening the financial state of their countries, prolonging the agony and the economic downturn.

It’s time to turn traditional communication on its head and embrace “the 140 character world.”

Capitalism – What the Future Holds

Wall Street

Image by Mirka23 via Flickr

The world is in a state of flux.

With the economic downturn lingering far longer than most people expected, governments are under growing pressure to kick-start economies. However, a growing number of countries with looming debt crises and a consequent unwillingness or inability of governments to spend more money hampers this.  And, as the northern hemisphere weather warms up, we can expect to see growing numbers of demonstrations by people wanting jobs or, at least, a reduction in job cuts.

All of which leads to the question – is the capitalist system doomed?

I don’t believe for a moment that this is the case – history shows that capitalism is the most effective way for countries and people to grow their wealth – but I do think we’re going to see some far-reaching changes.

Back in September 2009, I suggested in my post, “The Perils of Quarteritis” that the short-term thinking so prevalent in recent years had contributed significantly to the crash, and that businesses would move to a longer-term, more strategic model.

The March 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review has a wonderful paper, “Capitalism for the Long Term,” by Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company where documents his findings from 18 months of research and hundreds of meetings with business and government leaders. In this paper, Barton makes 3 points to support his conclusion that capitalism must survive, but that it needs to change, too:

  1. A return to longer-term thinking by companies, investors and politicians alike – he refers to this as “The Tyranny of Short-Termism” (my version was Quarteritis).
  2. That there is no difference between serving the interests of shareholders and of stakeholders – in spite of a more recent belief that serving stakeholders made shareholders poorer, managing for long-term value growth benefits not only stakeholders and society but shareholders, too.
  3. Company executives and boards need to act more like owners, not temporary care-takers – as by doing so they will naturally look to the long-term and so benefit the company, its shareholders, its stakeholders and society as a whole.

Basically, it all comes down to taking a longer-term view of business (as well as the economy, in the case of government) and a consequent change in leadership style, too – see my post of November 2009, “Leadership for the New Business World.”

This longer-term thinking and more inclusive leadership approach will ultimately be to the benefit of all – investors, executives, employees and society as a whole.

What do you think?

Update (31Mar11): Read the Leadership Interview with James Quigley of Deloittes, just out at N2growth.com – leadership is about trust and looking to long-term sustainability.

Can Mergers & Acquisitions be More Successful?

Board meeting room

Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that although many companies, and almost all large ones, grow through mergers and acquisitions, most of these result in a decline in overall value, rather than the envisaged increase?

In the lead-up to such activity – the “engagement period” if you like – shareholders are shown clearly the benefits that the merger or acquisition will bring: lower overall costs, great (combined) market share, stronger sales teams, more experienced management in the combined entity, and so on. All of which is supposed to lead to greater overall value for the shareholders – a case of the proverbial 1+1 resulting in a good deal more than 2.

The reality is, far too often, startlingly different with 1+1 adding up to a good deal less than 2. In other words, significant shareholder value is lost in the process.

Naturally, there are many reasons for this decline in value – most commonly those resulting from a attempt to merge two very different corporate cultures and the consequent fall-out. And much of this happens in the board room.

I’ve seen many cases of incompatible cultures clashing in boardrooms, although I’m fortunate to have avoided this first-hand. Too often, the newly constituted board in an M&A situation will have directors drawn from the two companies proportionate to the value of each part in the transaction and so the acquirer will seek to dominate the acquiree, even when the reason for the acquisition (as is often the case) is that the latter has qualities the former believes is missing from its own company. The result is the departure of the very expertise being acquired and the consequent drop in overall value.

It seems to me that there is one reasonably simple way to increase the likelihood of success – and that is to increase the size of the overall board with the appointment of further Independent Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) when companies are undertaking mergers and acquisitions.

The Corporate Governance Code states “Except for smaller companies, at least half the Board, excluding the Chairman, should comprise Non-Executive Directors determined by the Board to be independent. A smaller company should have at least two independent Non-Executive Directors.”  But how many companies actually carry this through?

Should this strong recommendation not be even more strictly adhered to during the M&A process? Bringing a substantial body of independent, experienced NEDs to a board can reduce the level of infighting and help to ensure that the talent/expertise being acquired stays in the transaction.

As we see the global economy slowly recovering, we can expect to see a strong increase in M&A activity as companies seek to assure their future positions while values are still relatively low. This is the time for boards of companies – large and small alike – to become more independent.

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BAA Humbug – The short- and long-term effects of greed and ineptitude

BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

Image via yfrog: BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

I’m going to try not to make this too much of a rant, but I’m both extremely disappointed and annoyed – not for me personally (thankfully I wasn’t directly affected), but for the thousands of people who’ve had their holiday plans, reunions and Christmas spoilt through a combination of woeful ineptitude and greed.

And, I think, there’s a real danger of this ineptitude and greed having long-term effects that are several orders of magnitude more serious for the country as a whole.

I’m talking here, for those of you who’ve not yet guessed, about BAA and Heathrow.

How can a company entrusted with managing the world’s busiest international airport be so unprepared for winter? It’s certainly not through lack of money – BAA is on track for an operating income of nearly £1 billion this year, and yet their total expenditure on preparing for snow and winter conditions this year was just £500 000…  (an amount the board has just allowed to be increased to £10 million – still only 1% of their operating profit!). In my view this is a typical case of short-term profit focus, at the expense of long-term sustainability (see my post: The Perils of Quarteritis).

It’s not as if they didn’t have warning. The first cold snap hit at the end of November and there were already warnings that heavy snow and icy conditions could be expected for the rest of the year. Granted, by then it was probably too late to have been able to source much new equipment in time (although they should have learned a lesson from January & February), but they put no contingency plans in place at all.

What about a deal with farmers nearby to use their tractors and grading equipment in an emergency? What about stockpiling grit, salt, glycol, etc.? Then they compounded things by turning down offers of help to clear the runways and taxiways from the military.

And, on top of this, they apparently gave out poor information to airlines such as BA which could have operated more flights than they did, and so reduce the backlog somewhat.

So, this corporate greed and ineptitude directly ruined the holidays for thousands of people, apart from costing hard-pressed airlines a good deal of money (can they sue BAA?)…

But the long-term effects could be even more serious. With some 30 million people a year visiting Britain, annual tourism expenditure of some £90 billion and almost 8% of jobs supported by tourism, this is a vital sector of the economy. However, the unreliability of British airports – especially one as important as Heathrow – is bound to make travellers think twice about using Britain as a stopover point, or even as a destination.

And airports in the Middle East such as Dubai and Qatar are eager to take these passengers. For example, Dubai is already the 4th busiest international airport in the world, with huge expansion already underway, and one of the youngest fleets in the world (and a flexible one, as Emirates was apparently able to put on 3 extra flights a day to clear their backlog once Heathrow reopened).

The impact of a diversion of disgruntled passengers from Heathrow to Dubai, for example, would have an enormous impact on Britain and on the struggling BA.

BAA needs to wake up, stop being so greedy and to accept proper responsibility for its role in running strategically important airports – or it needs to be replaced by a company that will do so, and quickly.

What do you think – should the company, its leadership, or both be replaced?

Whither the Welfare State?

Sea wall and railway
Image via Wikipedia

Or should that be “wither” as it’s clearly time to change the model dramatically – a model which was developed after the last war, in a very different world?

As Dr Adrian Rogers quite famously put it, “You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the industrious out of it. You don’t multiply wealth by dividing it. Government cannot give anything to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else. Whenever somebody receives something without working for it, somebody else has to work for it without receiving. The worst thing that can happen to a nation is for half of the people to get the idea they don’t have to work because somebody else will work for them, and the other half to get the idea that it does no good to work because they don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labour.”

Having only moved to England a few weeks ago, I find it’s interesting to listen to what people here are saying about the “welfare state” issues, particularly at the moment when it’s clear that the new government has no chance but to make some dramatic changes to the way things have been done in the past 13 years of Labour Party rule.

But it seems that it’s not just the country that Labour has brought to the edge of bankruptcy: former Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair, John Prescott, has told us that the Labour Party itself is in danger of bankruptcy, with debts of some £20M ($30M) through a combination of over-spending and poor accounting: ironically making the announcement on the day that Tony Blair’s new investment bank was being registered… At least the party was consistent with its approach to finance, even if the former Prime Minister seems to have profited most handsomely from his time in office.

However, I digress. The basic issue, as Dr Rogers so succinctly put it, is that Governments can’t just create money magically, but can only redistribute money from one part of society to another, and the more that people want to take, the more that others are forced to give.

Few people doubt that societies should help those within them that are unable to fend for themselves – this compassion, after all, is what is supposed to make us human – but the question today is how much help should be given and to whom. I find it astonishing, for example, that there are families in England who have not worked at all for three generations, and simply live off benefits. Others, who receive free housing, believe it should be their right to pass these houses onto other family members. Girls find that being a single parent is a profitable enterprise, and start to have babies at a very young age, then turn to the state for housing and benefits, and are able to live comfortably without working. The list of abuses to the system is endless…

Clearly this is wrong. We should protect those unable to work for reasons of frailty, but those who are healthy should have a defined maximum period – say 6 months – on “free” benefits and then should start “earning their keep.” If they can’t find a paying job within that period, the welfare authorities should have them working for the society that is housing and feeding them – there is so much that needs to be done, from infrastructure development and maintenance to helping the elderly and the sick (hospital porters, for example), and would provide benefits in return for such work. This would not only help motivate them to find more steady (and, perhaps, comfortable) work, but reduce the costs of running local authorities as much of the work could be done by those on benefits.

What do you think – should benefits be given without restriction, or should recipients who are able to do so be obliged to “earn” their benefits, and help the society that is providing them in return?

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