Fallback strategies make for good governance. Or do they?

January 23, 2008

_42974117_stormtroopers_66pic.jpgThere have been several examples of fallback thinking in our UK leadership stories recently, including cases at The Royal Mail, The Treasury, and most recently at Liverpool Football club. We examine why developing a fallback strategy may be a matter of creative leadership

Every Military leader learns of the benefits of a fallback strategy. Lao Tse wrote of the merits of providing a fallback strategy for a defeated enemy, a golden bridge permitting an enemy to retreat thus avoiding the possible lose-lose outcomes of follow-up actions.

Business School cases are taught with a vocabulary of risk management, which is way of elevating fallback thinking to a management philosophy.

Engineers are familiar with the lugubrious message which passes for Murphy’s law, or Sod’s law (‘what might go wrong will go wrong’; ‘toast always falls with the buttered-side down and hitting the carpet’). Awareness helps them bear in mind what might be also called the worse case scenario.

So fallback thinking is always a good thing?

I am very much in favour of fallback thinking, but would like to explore its consequences a little more deeply.

Let’s agree that leaders benefit from facing up to unpleasant possibilities. It was the failure to face such realities that prompted Bob Woodward to label his work on the Bush Administration as an examination of a State of Denial. That example indicates the well-known human tendency to escapism, which can have serious consequences for leaders of all kinds. The Tavistock School and Clinic developed a whole social scientific model on such behaviours, which are related to the more popular concept Groupthink.

Then what’s the problem?

Real-life examples show that theory often fails to anticipate all the problems facing leaders in action. The most recent example is the case at Liverpool Football club and its American Owners.

Tony Barrett of the Liverpool Echo [Jan 14th 2008] broke the story.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett held a secret meeting with Jurgen Klinsmann to line him up as the next manager of Liverpool FC. Hicks today insisted the talks would not have resulted in the immediate dismissal of Rafael Benitez and that Klinsmann was only “an insurance policy.”
He told the [LIVERPOOL] ECHO: “We attempted to negotiate an option, as an insurance policy, to have him become manager if Rafa left for Real Madrid or other clubs that were rumoured in the UK press … Or in case our communication spiralled out of control for some reason.”

Sensible? I leave readers to decide. There was general consensus elsewhere by football commentators that the action had made things worse, and had undermined the position of the incumbent manager.

Then there’s the case of The Post Office, facing enormous challenges of change, and headed by a dynamic Chairman. Last year he was linked with stories of transferring his attentions to the possibility of becoming the new Chairman at Sainsburys. The government (at the time of Tony Blair’s premiership) drew up a fallback plan.

Robert Peston reported from unnamed sources that

The Government has appointed head hunters to find a new chairman. The search for a deputy chairman is regarded by some in government as insurance in case Mr Leighton decides to quit early. He is frustrated by ministers’ reluctance to transfer 20% of the business to Royal Mail staff.
“Allan Leighton is always threatening to resign and one day it might just happen” said a government source.

Insurance again.

I noted at the time

Suppose this is a game of three dimensional chess? Allen Leighton is leading the Government forces in a battle to implement its wishes. Those nasty forces resisting his attacks are led by the Union leaders. Leighton wants more help from the Government. He becomes powerful enough to be dangerous. What if he threatens to resign at the most telling moment to devote more time to other business interests? He has been associated with stories of his interest in acquiring Sainsbury’s for several years (and it seems the stories are coming to the boil again this month) … This is why it’s three dimensional chess.

Then there’s another recent story, concerning The Treasury’s fall back strategy of nationalizing Northern Rock. I argued that it was another example of a game of political chess.

… Mr Darling does not want to nationalize Northern Rock. Neither do the shareholders. But if The Chancellor can convince enough shareholders that he might be forced into a nationalization by their further opposition, it may help avoid the outcome none of the main players really wants.

Creative leadership issues

These recent cases suggest that leadership stories can be read and deconstructed in terms of the actions of those at the heart of the story to achieve goals, which might include actions to block the goals of others. In the vocabulary of creative leadership
the complex strategic ‘map’ can be explored as a series of desired actions or how to do’ statements. This will vary among stakeholders.

If we are examining the possible actions for the principals or owners, (be it Liverpool Football club or The Post Office) possible goals (How to ..) might be

‘How to protect my interests, if the leader quits’
Or ‘How to develop ‘insurance’ if the leader’ quits
Or ‘How to keep the leader in place’
Or ‘How to increase chances of a smooth leadership transition’
Or ‘How to have a back-up position’
Or ‘How to show [ ] that we are not bluffing.

The creative leader (according to this kind of approach) ‘searches widely and chooses wisely’. Searching widely avoids the trap of being locked into preconceptions. Choosing wisely commits to less obvious ideas and actions discovered in the search process.


Royal Mail: Lions led by donkeys?

July 12, 2007

lions_donk_haig_cartoon.jpgA second one-day strike at Royal Mail is announced for Friday 13th of July. Letters are exchanged between the Union and Management. In that curious way of industrial disputes, the letters seem intended to avoid constructive dialog. The battle looks more and more like the Somme, or perhaps Little Big Horn and General Custer’s last stand.

Events at Royal Mail grind forward, painfully slowly. Billy Hayes and Dave Ward are in there somewhere battling for the Union side, Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier also somewhere for ‘Management’.

Sometimes the general shape of a battle-field has old warriors reminiscing of past triumphs and disasters. Two historic possibilities occur to me, one from The First World War, and one from the early days of American History.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I do not have first-hand experience of either, although my father survived the Somme, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He rarely talked about it. There were no real survivors. Poets and military historians give us a picture of the bloody futility of it all.

Appeals to Patriotism

The first world war was a war of patriotic slogans, sometimes wrapped up in the noble ancient language of the ruling class.. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori… Lions led by donkeys. Two or three generations later and there is cultural residue, a nagging awareness in Great Britain, going back to Dr Johnson’s maxim that patriotic rhetoric is the last resort of the scoundrel.

While patriotism remains more desirable and contested ground in the USA, two American journalists are worth mentioning for a modern gloss.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, at entry for patriotism, The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, p. 323 (1946, reprinted 1973).

H. L. Mencken added this to Johnson’s dictum: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.”—The World, New York City, November 7, 1926, p. 3E.

Lions led by Donkeys

Historians argue over the origins of the term. Alan Clark wrote a book which helped popularize the expression. A reviewer noted:

The title comes from the German view of the English soldiers who charged into their machine guns and barbed wire: “Lions led by donkeys.” The donkeys were the professional officers of the British army which was destroyed in those battles, officers who were unable to adapt to the awful technology that changed the face of war forever

Back to the Royal Mail dispute

From the outside, events since the last one-day strike are baffling. Maybe they are as baffling on the inside as the battle orders were to the front-line troops on the Somme, or to General Custer’s men.

As the troops hunker down for the next planned push, the generals exchange letters. The tone of the letters is that of civilized beings engaged in diplomatic speak. Dear Allen, Dear Dave they begin.

But are the generals struggling and ‘unable to adapt to the awful technology’?

There is no alternative

Royal Mail claims it needs a billion pounds for the new technology, rather than meeting payclaims they compute as roughly the billion pounds for modernisation. There is no alternative. Or is there? It seems cruel to quote words associated with Margaret Thatcher, a general who waged war with another great Union two decades ago.

Today we have a new generation of political leaders. Dave the toff an open admirer of Tony Blair trying to drag the conservatives to a safe place for their political survival. Gord of the clunking fist is busy recruiting talented capitalist heroes to advise him.

Maybe the outcome will eventually attract more political attention. But for the moment, Dave and Gordon are united in their silence over the Royal Mail dispute. The BBC is curiously uninterested. The business has not yet cast any leader in a particularly heroic light. Creative leadership is at a premium.


The Postal Strike and the Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse

June 29, 2007

222px-duerer-apocalypse.png

The twenty-four hour postal strike in the UK is the type of ‘little local difficulty’ large enough to require an immediate response from a new political leader. Even with his formidable energy, Gordon Brown could do without confronting an industrial dispute so soon into his leadership. There are echoes of the Airbus conflicts that captured the attention of Nicholas Sarcozy in the first week of his Presidency.

Why strike? Why now?

The strike, which began at 3 am on Friday June 29th 2007, involved some 130,000 members of the Communication Workers Union who have issued the following statement

The CWU’s Negotiating Team met with the Royal Mail’s Chief Executive Adam Crozier, and his Senior Management Team yesterday. The CWU reiterated to Royal Mail that it was prepared to reach an agreement that would move forward both the Union and Royal Mail’s position … The CWU impressed upon the company that there was no possibility of Royal Mail management successfully transforming the business unless both parties could reach an agreement that galvanises the workforce too. During the course of the meeting the Union set out its position and expressed its genuine concern about Royal Mail’s business plan and how it would result in a spiral of decline for the company, and the workforce … The CWU reminded Royal Mail that the Union was not alone in severely criticising Royal Mail’s business plan. A recent all-party Select Committee criticised Royal Mail’s leadership for lacking vision.

Chief Executive Adam Crozier, responded by rehashing all of his previous statements and refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Union.

The strike on Friday 29th June 2007, will go ahead.

Technology and jobs

The old debate about technology and jobs continues. Innovation accompanies creative destruction, like Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse. Maybe ultimately the job losses are compensated elsewhere. Which is no consolation to threatened workers. The perceived grievances of Royal Mail workers are easy to identify. As with Airbus, competitive pressures have triggered plans to reduce costs which threaten jobs.

The Royal Mail leadership team

Royal Mail has a high profile leadership team within the UK business world. Chairman Allan Leighton has been persistently linked with stories of his intention to head a lucrative buy-out initiative. In an earlier post I noted:

Allan Leighton has an appetite for self-publicity, as inspection of the Royal Mail website reveals. He presents himself as a dynamic (and somewhat terrifying) leader. In public he attempts to soften the image by implying he is very much one of a team, operating closely with CEO Adam Crozier.

Their styles remind me of an earlier high-profile double act, Lord King and Colin Marshall at British Airways. The pugnacious King had also been confronted with an ailing BA facing vigorous competition. Like Leighton, King presided over job cuts on a similar scale, and had serious internal morale issues and Union conflicts. Colin Marshall, like Adam Crozier, had a more urbane style.

Since his arrival, the Royal Mail has cut 30,000 jobs, shut thousands of post offices, and moved away from record annual losses that had reached £1bn. The various changes have been forced through against considerable opposition internally and externally.

The changes have not resolved the fundamental problems of the corporation which remains in dire financial circumstances. It recently announced that the gap in its pension funds would be tackled by ending the corporation’s final wage pension scheme, another unwelcome move and one described as unilateral bullying by its Union leaders.

Amazon and The Economist on-line

In preparing this post, I held off from ordering a book from that well-known e-business Amazon. It could wait. Co-incidentally, Amazon could not wait for a better deal from The Royal Mail, and has recently switched a lucrative contract away. If the management’s resolve needed stiffening, that would have done the trick.

Yesterday, those nice people from The Economist sent me an email. It apologized for any inconvenience caused by today’s postal strike, pointing out that I am eligible as a subscriber to access their on-line version, if I can’t wait for the delayed delivery through the Royal Mail.

Globalization as economic apocalypse

Royal Mail employees, like the rest of us, are facing an economic apocalypse. The current wisdom of the tribe is that we are seeing consequences of globalization. My examples illustrate some of the threats and opportunities cropping up, as the horsemen of the apocalypse gallop about, and technological changes sweep the countryside.

Card-carrying optimists hold to the view that the human spirit, creativity and morally-grounded leadership will help us through the crisis.


Sainsburys: A good leader in a bad place?

March 19, 2007

Predators advance on UK retailer J Sainsbury. The Private Equity army is on the march again. Commentators are already comparing the coming battle to the famous Green/Rose contests for Marks & Spencers. But who is playing the Philip Green role? Will Justin King star as Stuart Rose? Will leaders be seen as making any difference, or will the financials decide the ultimate fate of the retailer?

The City is expecting imminent news of a takeover bid for the retailer Sainsbury’s. Trading levels in its shares have been at roughly triple last year’s average levels over the last six weeks. Names such as KKR (if not Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) are becoming more familiar, even to folk who are not regular readers of financial blogs or pink newspapers. The UK takeover watchdog has set a deadline of April 13th for a formal bid by a consortium of four such financial hunters including KKR.

The BBC’s business editor Robert Peston is blogger and super-sleuth. He was ahead of the journalistic pack over the proposed Cadburys split earlier this week. And he takes an interesting line of the current Sainsbury story, finding parallels with Philip Green’s abortive bid for Marks & Spencers.

He points out that Green’s bid was heavily influenced by the M&S pension funding arrangements. The same now applies to any bid for Sainsbury’s. Peston shows that the critical pre-battle negotiations may be between the Private Equity consortium and the company’s pension fund trustees. He shows that the figures involved could be enough to hike the offer price beyond acceptable risk-limits, within a bid which would load debt on the company against its realizable (‘strippable’) assets. The point is a cogent one.

The Sainsbury story

John James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann opened a grocery story in Drury Lane London in 1869, and founded a dynasty which was to become the UK’s leading grocers

For much of the twentieth century Sainsbury’s was the market leader. Much of the credit in the years of growth occurred under the leadership of John Sainsbury. Its subsequent misfortunes took place under subsequent leadership, including his nephew David, and Peter Davis. Lord David was to quit industry retaining his political and charitable interests.

The decline of the group in the 1990s was during the spectacular ascent of Tesco. Then in 2003 it also dropped behind the Walmart-backed Asda, a marker that probably contributed to the boardroom moves in 2004 which saw the arrival of CEO Justin King, and Chairman Philip Hampton. Since their arrival, the company has initiated a range of moves to reverse its decline,

Justifying Justin

Leadership theorists (there are a still a few around) still acknowledge that there are uncertainties over how, when and to what degree a leader makes a difference in any specific situation. This justifies interest in new leadership stories, and in the search for comparisons with earlier cases. In the battles for Marks and Spencers, the story was as much as a clash of leadership wills as of financial ratios. M&S acted by bringing in a leader to help the company fight off the bid.

Sainsbury’s acted to bring in a strong leadership team in 2004 (or anyway, to replace a team considered to have been off the pace). Comparisons between Justin King and Stuart Rose were, perhaps, inevitable. Terms such as dynamic, youthful, able, well-qualified, appear in press reports. He ticked his CV boxes even including time spent at M&S, in his previous appointment, where he had been Director of Food. Since arriving at Sainsbury’s he has been active and visible in efforts to strengthen the company’s market position.

You can look at the progress of the company in two different ways. The company has reported modest but repeated growth in quarterly sales. Significant improvements have been made in logistics. Customers appear to like the affirmation of the company’s interests in supporting a healthy and ethical lifestyle.

But the killer facts remain. The supermarket chain that had held the number one position in the UK has dropped far behind beyond the mighty Tesco, and has failed to close the gap on second place to Asda. Even on his appointment, there were takeover rumours surrounding Sainsbury’s future. Allan Leighton, the current Royal Mail chairman was particularly mentioned. Coincidentally, Leighton was King’s mentor during their time at Asda. The rumours resurfaced recently.

On being a good leader in a bad place

In a leadership story, the company can’t play the move of switching from Justin King. Indeed we can make the case that Justin King was already brought in to Sainsbury in 2004, in a Rose-type move to protect the company from predators. Nor is it obvious what he might do to change the course of events once a bid has been made.

The King may rest uneasy, but on this analysis, it may be seen as a case of a good leader being stuck in a bad place.


Dynamism means dangerous. Battle Royal at the Royal Mail

February 10, 2007

Royal Mail

Allan Leighton, high profile leader of Royal Mail, seems likely to have his ambitious schemes blocked for turning round the company. He seems to be turning his attention to other challenges, while the Government is actively seeking his successor through a firm of headhunters. As a leader, Mr Leighton seems to be demonstrating the principle that dynamism means dangerous.

Update

The post is followed up with a report on events around the subsequent one-day strike in June 2007

The original post

Mr. Leighton is credited with turning round Royal Mail since becoming chairman in 2002. Since his arrival, the Royal Mail has cut 30,000 jobs, shut thousands of post offices, and moved away from record annual losses that had reached £1bn. The various changes have been forced through against considerable opposition internally and externally.

The changes have not resolved the fundamental problems of the corporation which remains in dire financial circumstances. It recently announced that the gap in its pension funds would be tackled by ending the corporation’s final wage pension scheme, another move described as unilateral bullying by its Union leaders.

Power to the workers – or another capitalist wheeze?
Further changes are likely to be needed. To achieve them, the Royal Mail board has been making the case for a share incentive scheme as a motivational lever. This was opposed by the Government. The scheme would have been difficult to implement for various reasons (How to assess share value when the company is technically still a bit of a financial basket case?). There was also ideological opposition from ‘old’ Labour MPs who saw the scheme not so much as akin to a shift towards the John Lewis partnership’s set up, as a shift toward privatization. Whatever, the scheme was turned down. At which point, the resourceful Mr. Leighton came up with the idea of phantom shares.

The Leighton-Crozier show

Allan Leighton has an appetite for self-publicity as inspection of the Royal Mail website reveals. He presents himself as a dynamic (and somewhat terrifying) leader. In public he attempts to soften the image by implying he is very much one of a team, operating closely with CEO Adam Crozier.

The styles of the two reminds me of an earlier high profile double act, Lord King and Colin Marshall at British Airways. The pugnacious King had also been confronted with an ailing BA facing vigorous competition. Like Leighton, King presided over job cuts on a similar scale, and had serious internal morale issues and Union conflicts. Colin Marshall, like Adam Crozier, had a more urbane style.

The rewards of forceful leadership

Royal Mail has a leader with ideas, and vision. So we might expect him to be appreciated by his masters, ultimately The Government. So what happens? He suffers the fate of many dynamic leaders. Robert Peston, the BBC’s Business Editor, claims that the Government has hired headhunters to find a successor to Allan Leighton

Dynamism means dangerous.

Suppose this is a game of three dimensional chess? Allen Leighton is leading the Government forces in a battle to implement its wishes. Those nasty forces resisting his attacks are led by the Union leaders. Leighton wants more help from the Government. He becomes powerful enough to be dangerous. What if he threatens to resign at the most telling moment to devote more time to other business interests? He has been associated with stories of his interest in acquiring Sainsbury’s for several years (and it seems the stories are coming to the boil again this month).

This is why it’s three dimensional chess.

As Chairman, Allan Leighton is not a full-time operational leader controlled by the Government. He has other and extensive business interests. At the time of writing, he has been the subject of increasing speculation that he has been active in takeover moves for the retailer Sainsburys, and would be interested in a major role in the acquired company.

Even in two dimensional Chess, according to the Nimzowitch principle, the threat is more dangerous than its execution. And that, I suggest, is why even a powerful leader is always battling on several fronts, which in a rather complex way why we get the leaders we deserve, in this case through the ballot box and then through the hired guns of our elected representatives.


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