Tata bags Corus. Think Tesco, think Unilever

January 31, 2007
Jamsetji Tata

Jamsetji Tata


Eighteen months after the original post of January 2007, Tata has acquired more global visibility through its acquisitions policy [Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford] and the launch of ‘the world’s cheapest car’.

The original post follows:

Indian company Tata Steel has won the battle to buy its Anglo-Dutch rival Corus. But what’s Tata like? In scale, Tata’s impact on the Indian economy at present can be likened to Tesco’s in the UK. But in other ways the company’s historic leadership and culture are better compared with those associated with the global conglomerate Unilever.

After a long running battle between rival suitors, The Ango-Dutch steel-maker Corus has been bought by the Indian company, Tata [January 2007]. Corus is itself a relatively unfamiliar name in the UK, in comparison with the historic British Steel organisation. This to some degree reflects Tata’s unobtrusive move to the centre of attention as a global player.

So what’s Tata really like?

Business travellers in India are quickly made aware of the country’s industrial success stories. Close to the top of everyone’s list is the Tata group. Visitors to Mumbai learn of the origins of Tata, perhaps first through ‘the other Taj Mahal’, the luxury hotel built by Jamsetji Tata, the founder of today’s corporate giant. They will perhaps be driven (definitely not drive!) in a company car, perhaps one such as the Indica better known in the UK as the City Rover. The will be unlikely to leave without being tempted into acquiring a Titan watch, another success story for Tata. They will learn how a familiar ‘British’ product, Tetley tea has been acquired by Tata Tea. They may also visit Jamshedpur, the model town founded by Jamsteji Tata, and the centre of Tata’s world-class steel operations. The town itself is an obvious parallel with the social vision of William Hesketh Lever, founder of Unilever, at Port Sunlight, on Merseyside.

The Tata dynasty

Jamsteji was to found not just a company, but a dynasty. Both sons (Sir Dorab and Sir Dorab) were to progress the company, and establish huge trusts). Later, JRD Tata (a son to a relation to the pioneering line of the family, and his French wife) founded Air India. He had progressed from his start as an apprentice, to lead the company over five decades.

The era had also seen the impact of another industry giant, in the romantic figure of Nathan Tata who had been adapted by Lady Tata after spending his early years in an orphanage. Through a combination of ability and more than a modicum of charm and charisma he was to become a major national figure and diplomat, sporting administrator as well as a business leader.

Today there is still a Tata at the head of the group. Ratan N Tata is a Cornell and Harvard graduate and continues the family’s involvement in the social as well as the economic well-being of the country. Unsurprisingly, he is a Tata ‘lifer’, having joined in 1962 and seen through his time the transformation of the company into a global player.

Tata and Unilever compared

An immediate comparison, based on scale can be made with Tesco, for its national impact, with its £1 of £8 in consumer spend passing through its UK tills. Tata contributes nearly 3% of India’s GNP. However, I am more taken by its similarities with Unilever. For example, Unilever employs more than 206,000 people and had a worldwide revenue of US$50 billion; Tata claims 2,46,000 people and revenues of $22 billion

The obvious product link is between Tata tea, now owners of Tetley’s. Unilever’s Lipton is still the leading brand internationally. However, for me, the link is not so much in products as in culture.

Unilever was also founded by a pioneer who started a dynasty. William Hesketh Lever (Lord Lever) created a model village, Port Sunlight, which still can be found a walking distance from the soap ‘manufactury’, and Unilever’s modern research laboratories. The Leverhulme research trust is one of the nation’s greatest philanthropic institutions; Tata’s trusts are as significant for India.
Assessment of corporate culture is a tricky business, and coming under increasingly scrutiny from campaigns promoted through the internet. However, Unilever and Tata have both largely escaped the vituperation heaped on other global giants.

Through my observations and contacts with both companies, employees and managers reflect a healthy culture.

Their leaders have at critical times followed a sense of ‘duty to history’
akin to fifth-level leadership principles and also to servant leadership.

By and large, this has protected the company from the damage that can be caused by Mandrill management

Students of leadership may find it constructive to reflect on the patterns of leadership found in Tata and Unilever in achieving ‘built to last’ companies.


Waterhole warriors and mandrill management in British Airways truce

January 30, 2007

According to a Ghanaian saying, when the big beasts arrive at the waterhole, it’s time for the mice to hide. Yesterday, the leaders of British Airways and the Transport and General Union moved their troops to the waterhole. It seemed a case of Mandrill management. But the body language of the leaders had already signalled their intentions of reaching a bloodless truce.


The strike of Cabin Crew at British Airways scheduled for today was called off yesterday after last-ditch negotiations by corporate and Union leaders. The drama reminded me of something a colleague from Ghana was fond of saying about industrial conflicts, that when the big beasts arrive at the waterhole, it’s time for the mice to hide.

Waterhole behaviors and Mandrill Management

Why should a Ghanaian maxim about jungle beats throw light on the current industrial relations battle at British Airways? The metaphor suggests that in times of conflict we may see patterns of human behaviour reflective our deeper instructs for fight/flight.

The process has even been described colourfully as Mandrill management.

This variety of ape, famous for its red nose, turns out to be one of the biggest bullies in the simian world. Mandrills are creatures dedicated to the cult of the Alpha Male. They spend their lives climbing to the top of the group hierarchy and, once there, behave abominably. Bottoms are flashed, willies waved, rivals clobbered and females impregnated with abandon.

Waterhole behaviours tend to be ritualistic. There may be some baring of teeth by the alpha-males, but more often than not the conflicts are resolved peaceably. For the alpha males, a temporary truce is the preferred outcome.

If we are to take the analogy further, we might note that the ritualistic nature of the conflict also preserves the superiority of the leaders over their own followers. In this instance, as a pitched battle seemed likely, the leaders took their place at the head of their respective armies, replacing their deputies.

At this stage, the language (speech acts as the social scientist would call them) of each leader was that of respect. They met to parley, not fight. And parley they did. Yet, the ritual has its own demands. The waterhole rituals can not be abandoned too swiftly. Why? Because that would leave open the opportunity of another wannabe leader stepping up to challenge not just the enemy without, but as importantly, the position of alpha-male in his own troop.

The key points agreed by BA

In practice, the outcome of such a stand-off will be couched in win-win terms. Concessions are reported, even if they had not figured highly in earlier stages of the conflict, making it difficult foe either side to claim total victory.

For example, the current dispute has been described as being about excessive sickness days by BA cabin crew (BA version), and bullying of crew to work even when they were sick (Union version, and an accusation of Mandrill management methods at BA). The agreement yesterday indicated that

BA and the union have also agreed on the implementation of the current sick leave policy, introduced 18 months ago, whereby staff have to explain to managers why they were off sick .. The T&G says it is now happy that the policy will be implemented fairly, and that staff will not feel obliged to go to work if they are sick.

That wasn’t Mandrill Management

The wider issues of concern between BA and the T&G union have been ‘resolved’ with plenty of scope (it seems to me) for future renewal of hostilities. A pay deal for two years has been agreed. Company efforts at addressing a major pensions fund deficit have been ‘noted’. Cabin crew team leaders are to be reduced from four to three on the largest planes of the fleet.

Overall, the outcome is adequately complex to defeat efforts at establishing winners or losers. Try as we might, we can hardy make sense of what happened ‘at the waterhole’ as essentially down to two leaders engaged in Mandrill management. The complexity of the agreement suggests extended and thoughtful effort by wider teams dealing with matters requiring high levels of experience and professional knowledge.

But there might still be a culture of confrontation

So congratulations are in order to the leaders who snatched at least a temporary respite from all-out conflict. Nevertheless, we can understand the reasoning behind the BBC observation that

BA also has to continue to deal with what some analysts see as an ongoing environment of worker militancy.

The content of the negotiations might demonstrate creative problem-solving. Nevertheless, the implicit messages are of Mandrill Management embedded in the perceived culture of alleged bullying of cabin crew to work when sick. Willie Walsh and Tony Woodley both won their present leadership positions with track records as tough confrontational leaders.
Which suggests that the truce at the waterhole may still only be a prelude to more serious battles.

What sort of leader do you need?

January 29, 2007

More often than not, project teams appear to have little say in the appointment of a team leader. However, in practice, leadership gets shared around more than is immediately obvious. This is at the heart of distributed leadership, sometimes called superleadership. Paradoxically, it may also be connected to the operating of so-called leaderless groups.

A question to for project team members. Are you expecting too much from your leader? A message to team leaders: do you appreciate how delegating some leadership responsibilities can improve team performance and well-being? These possibilities have been discussed for many years, although they have been tested in practice in only a minority of project teams.

Nobody’s perfect, but a team may be.

Many years ago an influential article entitled Nobody’s perfect, but a team may be helped popularise the idea that the success of a team requires a range of roles. The article concentrated on Meredith Belbin’s team roles, which are still highly regarded in leadership development programmes internationally.

From the beginning, Belbin’s roles included that of two types of leader behaviours, roughly speaking that of a directive task oriented one, and that of a more enabling style. This could have (but generally didn’t) point to the possibility of shared or distributed leadership. This was reached later with the idea of Superleadership


Superleadership or distributed leadership is rooted in the concept that ‘no one person can effectively lead in all circumstances that a team might encounter’. The popularizers of the concept were Charles Manz and Henry Sims, Jr who have updated their ideas in The New SuperLeadership.

The New SuperLeadership critically reviews traditional leadership styles, vividly illustrating the drawbacks of each: the “Strong Man” whose reliance on fear-based compliance smothers initiative; the “Transactor” who promotes a narrow “what’s in it for me?” mentality; and the “Visionary Hero” whose powerful personality inspires commitment but inadvertently discourages independent thinking. By bringing out the leader in every employee, SuperLeadership enables leaders to avoid these pitfalls and develop an enthusiastic, innovative and energized workforce.

Christo Nel’s treatment

Christo Nel of Stellenbosch University updates the idea that leadership can and should be a more distributed set of activities.

What about leaderless groups?

This is a poorly understood concept. It is a valuable exercise to consider how a leaderless group might operate. There is some appeal, particularly for those who have suffered working for leaders from hell. A few years ago there was enthusiasm for the concept of the leadership group, particularly within public sector organizations, where issues of leadership bullying and diversity were emerging.

My own experience is that an absence of leadership is at last as much a problem as domineering and buying leadership. Furthermore, the concepts of distributed leadership can be seen by traditionalists as the ‘abdication’ of leadership to produce a leaderless group.

In preparing for this post I came across a nice introductory document on leadership groups. Closer inspection of it suggests it’s less about leadership groups than about the various facets of team and distributed leadership.

Many questions remain

I am aware that I have covered only one line of thought on team leadership. I would value to chance to learn of different perspectives or problems suggested to leaders and members of project groups, and from anyone who has been studying team leadership.

The Leaders we Deserve: Is John Reid really so incompetent?

January 28, 2007

The Home Secretary Dr John Reid has replaced Tony Blair as the prime target for negative political stories of someone who is egregiously bungling his duties. Is John Reid really so incompetent? Are we fortunate to be part of a democracy in which there can be such robust criticism of our leaders? Or are we seeing the emergence of a culture in which apparent increased freedom of expression blanks out access to more thoughtful analysis in a torrent of simplistic rhetoric?

In an earlier post it was suggested that John Reid’s political honeymoon had come to an end. Reflecting further has helped me become more aware of the mostly simplistic treatment within the flood of stories about John Reid and his personal competence.

This weekend, The Sun offered a cartoon-like representation of John Reid as the head of a Frankensteinian monster, which has a space where a brain should be. This follows an earlier representation in the same newspaper of an unpopular England football manager with a turnip for a head. No prizes for guessing what image was provided in more recent times, when the team had a Swedish manager.

The Sun’s campaigns can, arguably, be seen as in the spirit of the grotesque and hugely popular cartoons in the tradition of Gilray , or the social commentary of Hogarth

It’s the Sun wot does it, innit?

The Sun has its own justification for the content and style of the paper. Unlike politicians, it can claim to win the popular vote every morning of the week. Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco made much the same point recently when asked whether there would be a Tesco party for voters at the next election.

A case can be made that The Sun may influence the voting intentions of a considerable number of people at the general election, and that Rupert Murdock may have a further influence on the words and deeds of politicians. But should we buy their claim made after one election that it was ‘The Sun wot did it’ ?

The contrary view is that the overall effect of The Sun’s political messages on voters is rather weak. Possibly, although political leaders such as Tony Blair at very least will put some effort into wooing the Sun lest its opposition will cost them valuable votes at election time. I am inclined to believe that the popular press, including its largest circulation daily paper, has some political impact (perhaps not as much as they might wish or claim).

It’s the heavies wot don’t do it: tabloidification

Less obviously, the impact of the so-called free press (The popular press in Liberal Democracies) is in sustaining a cultural norm accepting the rhetoric of the banner headline and the cartoon images. We may reach differing conclusions over whether the popular press influences political opinions. It seems clear to me that there is little doubt over the way in which the daily diet reinforces cultural behaviours. There are reasoned arguments to be found – publications such as The Economist maintain an admirable level of analysis on a range of business and political issues. In general, however, what used to be called the heavies, or the broadsheets, (or even The Quality papers) have become closer in format (and arguably even in style and content) to what used to be called the tabloids. Tabloidification has won the day.

The Case against Charles Clarke

The Home Secretary took on the job after his predecessor, Charles Clarke, was encouraged to resign by Tony Blair. A succession of damaging stories had emerged about failures in the Home Office. The leader took the rap.

The strongest ‘quality’ case against Charles Clark might be expected to be found in a paper such as the staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph. Shortly before his resignation the paper identified ‘three strong reasons why he should go’. These were mismanagement of his department; failure to address the problem when it came to light; and refusal to accept responsibility for the problem.

The problem turns out to be that the Home Secretary has failed in his primary function of ‘maintaining public order by effective management of the systems under his control. Mr Clarke has allowed some hundreds of foreign nationals, sentenced to prison in this country, to go free without even a formal consideration of whether they should be deported’.

This all sounds reasonable at first reading, and suggests that there was a case to answer. Further reading leaves me unconvinced. I am reaching a conclusion that we have here an illustration of The Nimzowitch effect.

This, simply put, is a state of general anxiety about what might happen, so that the threat appears more important than its execution. (See the earlier post on chess cheating for more on the Nimzowitch effect).

The Case Against John Reid

John Reid bought himself a honeymoon period by announcing energetic measures to put things right, and was equally energetic in indicating what a shambles he had inherited which would require quite a lot of fixing.

The combination worked for a while, but another series of stories (‘scandals’) emerged from the Home Office. The specific details now blur in the memory, but were often concerned with poor record-keeping, and the potential implications of such bureaucratic failings – ‘disappearances’ of various kinds.

The BBC has followed the stories diligently. Individually they are in varying degrees illustrative of our old friend The Nimzsowich effect. From just this week, for example, the time-line of crises includes

27 January…The News of the World claims 322 convicted sex offenders are missing across the UK
26 January….Home Secretary John Reid denies telling judges to give softer sentences to ease prison overcrowding
26 January….England and Wales Youth Justice Board head Rod Morgan quits over youth prisons’ overcrowding
25 January….Risk of being a victim of crime in England and Wales rises for the first time since 1995, figures suggest
14 January Senior civil servant suspended over failure to update police records of Britons convicted abroad

I leave others to decide the evidence of actual rather than threatened harm to the public.

So is John Reid really incompetent?

We are sometimes reminded that you may be paranoid, but you could still be persecuted. I believe that the various stories will have within them evidence that there continue to be problems that need fixing at The Home Office. But on balance, I see the evidence as demonstrating powerlessness of a political leader grappling with ‘events’. Powerless yes. Incompetent? I remain open to a reasoned argument. The view would be the stronger if it offered specific actions that could have improved things. Until then I will hold to the view arguments (stripped of political purposes) are based on a peculiar belief that a leader ‘ought to be able’ to fix everything going wrong in connection with his organization or department. It is the belief that grants the charismatic leader the high road to power, and the low road to eventual defeat.

Why Margaret Thatcher and BA needed their Willies

January 26, 2007

The BA dispute appears to be an old-fashioned Union versus Bosses confrontation as the company struggles to introduce a major shift of culture. The BA board has brought in Willie Walsh, a ‘tough’ leader with a track record of success through a confrontational style that has echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s . How will this influence the efforts of the company to achieve a transformation in its operational culture?

In days gone by, Industrial Relations in Britain was said to be symptomatic of The British Disease. Governments repeatedly found themslves in bitter conflicts against organised labour. The ultimate threat available to the Trade Union leaders (be the dispute ‘official’ or unofficial was a ‘breakdown in negotiations’ leading to the Unions unleashing their weapon of last resort, withdrawal of labour.

However, the old maxim was frequently disproved. The threat was not more powerful than its execution. The strikes seemed easier to start than to finish. (Interestingly, the most famous strike of all, the General Strike was rather quickly resolved). Sometimes the ‘reason’ for the strike was a bafflingly trivial incident or issue to the public whose daily life was being disrupted.

Efforts to achieve a more collaborative culture in place of strife largely failed. The bitterness of the disputes if anything reinforced the confrontational culture within which they occured.

Tony Blair has hardly concealed his admiration for the political achievements of Margaret Thatcher who appeared to have out-confronted the Unions a decade earlier. He was to achieve his victory over traditional Labour symbolically through the removal of Clause four from its constitution.

News of my death has been exaggerated

Defeat of an idea is harder than the defeat of its leading supporters. Labour’s so-called awkward squad has remained, in the party and trade-unions, and a reminder to Tony Blair that culture change (like regime change) is never simple. Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G Union is to play a part in this unfolding story at BA.

The protagonists in the BA dispute

Willy Walsh was brought in to British Airways with a reputation as a successful industry ‘lifer’. He joined Aer Lingus as a cadet Pilot of 18, and left as CEO in 2005. In the meanwhile he had been attributed with playing a major role in the transformation of Aer Lingus:

Successfully reinventing Aer Lingus as a profitable no-frills airline, while other established European flag carriers went to the wall, he slashed costs by 30% and shed more than a third of staff. He refused to apologise for the swingeing cuts, saying “we make no apologies for focusing on profit”.

Not distracted by a stand-off with unions that led to a three-day lockout in 2002, Mr Walsh once claimed in an Aer Lingus staff publication that “a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”. It is a comment unlikely to have been missed by the Transport & General Workers Union (T&G), whose members voted for the forthcoming strikes at BA.

Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G Union is also a transport industry lifer, but in the Auto-industry. His reputation as a left-wing traditional socialist was confirmed in his overwhelming victory to the T&G leadership in 2003 where he replaced the popular Bill Morris, and defeated a candidate known as a supporter of Tony Blair (and by implications his New Labour policies).

Woodley/Walsh seems to be lining up as the major battle. They have entered negoatiations in stage two. However, the story can not be reduced to a simple slugging match between the two.

In stage one, the T&G was represented by Jack Dromey, the candidate Woodley defeated as Union leader. He has recently hit the headlines for another reason in the Cash for Peerages scandal, spiced up because of his marriage to another Blairite (and a cabinet minister, Harriet Harman).

BA in stage one may have been hindered by the imminent retirement of their most senior and experienced ‘people person’ Neil Robertson.

Where does Margaret’s Willie come into all this?

Margaret’s Willie comes into this partly because it seemed such a nice headline. But wait, there’s more. One of Mrs Thatcher’s sayings was in recognition of the debt she owed to her close friend and cabinet colleague Willie Whitlaw. (“Every Prime Minister needs a Willie”).

Maybe the humour was unconscious or in a flash of rarely observed irony from the Iron Lady. Avoiding tempting puns, I suggest that MT was acknowledging the benefits of a combination of her sort of leadership style with someone to play a moderating role. Superleadership, in effect, with other team members compensating for the excesses of the dominant figure.

IN an earlier post to this Blog, I explored the possibility that a dispute over sick employees may raise questions over sick leadership. In which case, at BA at the moment, Willie Walsh may well need his Willie Whitelaw. As maybe Tony Woodley as well

Jack Dromey as Willie Whitelaw?

Well, that would make a nice simple story. Life’s not like that. TW seems to be the one taking a conciliatory stance. Jack Dromey, whever his location on the tricky political dimension left to right, has had his earlier moments of industrial heroism. His track record is not exactly that of a non-confrontational leader. Indeed, he played quite the opposite role in the famous Grunwick dispute which lasted two years and ended in defeat for the Non-Unionised workers involved.

Kindler kindles change at Pfizer

January 25, 2007

Pfizer’s new CEO, Jeff Kindler announces a strategic plan which involves the slimming of the workforce by around ten thousand employees over the next two years. Its aim is to reposition the company in the long term for improved performance and shareholder returns. The unexpected timing of the departure of former CEO Hank McKinnell recently prepared the way for significant changes at the company. The honeymoon period for a new leader may work in the company’s favour

When a corporate leader departs unexpectedly, we can expect two things. That the company has reacted to some external events, and that the move will be followed by a major change intiiative. Both seem to be the case at Pfizer.

The BBC noted

The shake-up comes as the world’s biggest drugs firm faces rising competition from generic drugmakers.. Pfizer said it planned to close three research sites and two factories in the US, as well as a factory in Germany and research sites in Japan and France.

Pfizer’s news release this week announced that

‘the company’s immediate priorities were to drive improved performance, position Pfizer for future success and enhance total shareholder return. Executing on those priorities will mark the beginning of an ongoing process to change the

The restructuring follows the company’s leadership changes in which Hank McKinnell was replaced last year as CEO by corporate lawyer Jeff Kindler.

McKinnell’ departure was attributed to the disappointing performance of the company over several years, and possibly to his leadership style, and reluctance to yield to shareholder concerns over his remuneration. The leader of the world’s largest pharmaceuticals group was attracting the increasing attention of web-based protest groups.

What’s a leader worth?

We examined the issue of Mr McKinnel’s remuneration in an earlier Blog. This is probably an unwelcome side issue for the company, although it would have contributed to the considerations leading to the appointing a new leader.

A leadership principle

There is a leadership principle emerging here. We commented on it in the earlier case as the temporary leadership honeymoon granted to a new leader during which change programmes are more easily initiated.

I would like to offer a more speculative possibility. The honeymoon effect may be more powerful when a charismatic leader is involved. I am reminded of examples in political and sporting fields. This idea is open to testing by a careful examination of the consequences of leadership changes in the short and longer term. As far as I am aware this has not been tested for business readers, but I would welcome suggestions and comments.

If this is the case, it should be noted that the company has appointed someone with a safe pair of hands, rather than a more dangerously charismatic personality.

Magic Madge keeps Pearson in the Pink

January 24, 2007

Shares of the Pearson publishing group hit a five-year high this week. City analysts upgraded its prospects. CEO Dame Marjorie Scardino has received the brickbats in its years of decline and now earns the plaudits in its renewal. Rumors persist that the Financial Times remains an attractive target for an asset raider. Will Dame Marjorie stay to savor the fruits of success, or will she became a hostage to the fortunes of The FT, whose pink pages have come to symbolize the early-morning reading matter of City commuters?

When shares at the Pearson group hit a five year high this week, city analysts upgraded its future prospects. CEO Marjorie Scardino also celebrates ten years as leader of the publishing group, and her sixtieth birthday. Have a nice one, Lady M.

Only FT100 female CEO

It has been a turbulent ten years. Marjorie Scardino was the first woman to lead a major (Footsie 100) company. In her early time as leader, she put in place a policy of disvesting non-core assets (such as the high profile Madame Tussauds). She was lauded in the city, and Pearson shares started to pick up. But the gain occurred during the dot-com boom. Shares rocketed, and then equally rapidly fell precipitously. Her big investment in acquiring National Computer Systems (NCS) at the peak of the boom was particularly criticized as an expensive error of judgment. Scardino’s personal stock also slumped.

Courageous moves

Critics identified the Financial Times as a source of volatility at Pearson’s, and its sale a possible opportunity for consolidation. Scardino linked her future to retaining the FT, as her ‘over my dead body’ quote indicated. The unspectacular recovery of the share price four years had just about fended off the criticism of City analysts.

The current reappraisal reveals that the decision to acquire NCS was as shrewd as retaining it was courageous. It places Pearson at an advantage over other media rivals such as Reed Elsevier who have not invested as thoroughly in educational technology.

Is Pearson’s future stabilized?

Possibly not. The thrust of criticism remains, that the group’s assets are not integrated (that unlovely buzz-word) to deliver synergies (that even uglier buzz-word). As recently as last year, new Chairman Glen Moreno indicated his concerns on the UK’s operating structure and performance. Critics see the potential for asset raiding. And the jewel in the crown is the FT. Other much loved brands such as Penguin are also vulnerable.

Is Dame Marjorie vulnerable?

Possibly. Chairman Glen Moreno says the company has no succession plans in hand for her job. A lingering doubt remains. ‘Back me, back my brand’ was her watchword over the FT. Which also translates to predators as ‘Ditch the Bitch, and Deliver the Brand’. In which case, the Private Equity poker players will be doing a good job at losing a good leader, which are hard to find. Scardino’s protégé Rona Fairhead head of the FT group also becomes vulnerable. The winners in such a battle are likely to end up with the leader they deserve.

Lateral thinking for project leaders; Ways of ‘searching widely’

January 23, 2007

Project leaders are well aware of the need for searching widely for new ideas. Lateral Thinking methods have been successfully applied in a range of business contexts. Two experienced business educators summarise their approach for working with MBA project teams.

We have been applying Lateral Thinking methods with cohorts of MBA students for several decades. Our work has drawn heavily on the original concepts of Edward de Bono who popularized the term Lateral Thinking.

Here is a powerpoint presentation about lateral thinking. We prepared it to help teams in ‘searching widely’ in projects.

Lateral Thinking for Project Work

We have been working for several years with Dr de Bono, and also with his colleagues at the institute for the development of thinking, at The University of Malta.

Our focus has been to adapt the ideas of our collaborators to meet the specific requirements of teams of graduate business students. These experiences confirm the benefits of the approach, and findings have been published in various papers and books on creativity for for business professionals.

For a recent introduction to creativity in business see the (admittedly lengthy) monograph from The Innovation Research group at Brighton University Business School. The report will go more deeply into the brief summary we offer here.

Mapping the Project

Before looking for new ideas we recommend a project team to carry out a Mapping in order to develop a shared understanding of key issues in any project activity. The Mind Map will be the starting point for discussing ‘what’s the best way to describe the brief as a challenge or problem’. Keep the mind map in your shared project space (real or electronic)

Lateral thinking for New Perspectives and Ideas.

We have identified three Lateral Thinking techniques which help in the production of new ideas. The three techniques (Reversals, Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If, and Jolts) are summarized in a powerpoint by ourselves on using Lateral Thinking in project work.

Once you understand how to apply the techniques you can take the map you made, and list perspectives or starting points for the project We recommend using the convention beginning ‘ How To …’. You may only need one or two breakthrough perspectives, but search widely in order to obtain those valuable How Tos. You will need many more How Tos before you can be sure that you have done a good job at this ‘search widely’ stage.

A breakthough perspective is a focus for more ‘wide searching’, and more lateral thining. Again, ‘Reversals’, ‘Wouldn’t it be Wonderful if’ and Jolts help in arriving at valuable and unexpected ideas.

Finally, in project work, the strongest ideas are coupled with actions. Can you work on the ideas so that the follow-up actions are visualised in your statement of each idea?


This is a brief introduction to the application of Lateral Thinking techniques within project work. Some people find it comes easily, others have to practice. Our experience is that anyone can become skilled at such thinking. Teams can help those members who are less comfortable with Lateral Thinking by providing a supportive and relaxed environment. Treat meetings as ways to progress the project, but also as ways to develop skills at generating valuable ideas within any project experience.

BA Turbulence: Sick workers … sick leadership?

January 22, 2007

British Airways is facing a potentially damaging Union dispute, with strike action threatened over the coming weeks. The dispute contrasts the newer participative leadership and classical industrial relations battles. Increasingly, sick workers are being associated with sick leadership stories, as Walmart is also discovering.

The context is a familiar one. BA operates in one of the most competitive global market sectors. The business pressures for the traditional carriers have been accentuated by the success of cut-price rivals, increased political interest in the ‘carbon footprint’ of air travel, operating costs, and costs of financing pension arrangements.

Over some unpleasantly bumpy progress in recent years, the company has been addressing these problems. There have been shifts in leadership, but the one-time tag The world’s most popular airline now seems to have distinctly ironic echoes.

Indicators of the company’s concerns have been recent negotiations to come to terms with its pension commitments, and efforts to address productivity losses resulting from what the company attributes to excessive levels of absenteeism.

The sickness sickness

In recent years, absenteeism has been studied both from economic and behavioural standpoints. The former approach draws on traditional industrial relations measures of ‘sickies’, and is inclined to focus on days off per year per employee. The vocabulary is that of malingerers, and of a sickness culture. The behavioural standpoint draws on the more modern human resource approach.

For many workers (and not a few academic researchers), this is regarded as a relabelling rather than a revolution in the culture of the workplace. What should be noted in this case is that BA has been a leading advocate of workplace participation, and motivational methods for many years. It has invested heavily in its management and leadership training .

Yet, the current debate still has echoes of an older confrontational ‘us versus them’ culture.

Sick workers, sick buildings … sick leadership?

There has been various non-economic explanations of what was simply lumped under managerial terms of malingering and absenteeism. Ideas of psychologically damaging environments (sick buildings syndrome) have been studied. ‘Sick buildings’ may have clear and identifiable dimensions. but may also be more as symptom of wider issues. Sick buildings may be an indicator of sick jobs.

This at some level will connect with organizational leadership. In time, the matter will become a threat to effective operation.

The PR difficulties of Walmark at present might be cited in this respect. Its leadership decisions are monitored closely and discussed through various pressure groups via the internet.

This week, for example, the company introduced some leadership changes. One headline was ‘Walmart promotes executive who warned of sick workers’.

BA and Walmart alike increasingly have to consider the dynamics not just of sick workers, but what in their actions can be accused of being sick leadership.

John Reid’s leadership faces the honeymoon test

January 21, 2007

The Home Office could be split into two departments under recommendations being put forward by Home Secretary John Reid. This will be the biggest challenge to his honeymoon period as Home Secretary. Is he getting the balance right beween ‘quick wins’ and sound transformational policies?

Plans announced this week suggest that John Reid will seek to split the Home Office. One new department will deal with security issues and the other with justice. The plans are to be put before the Cabinet for discussion.


John Reid has displayed an energetic and pugnacious leadership stance in his brief time as Home Secretary. He took over in May 2006, after his predecessor Charles Clarke had departed following a story of foreign criminals being released from prison without being considered for deportation. Subsequently, serous errors on police computers have been revealed and inmates including terror suspects have ‘disappeared’ from custody, (precise numbers not known to the Prison Service).

Initially, he took the line that such weaknesses were inherited. In a memorable phrase, the Home Office was ‘not fit for purpose’. Since then, he has initiated extensive internal investigations. The ‘fitness for purpose’ of forty four most senior figures have been assessed, and two new chief executives have been brought in.

Quick wins?

In business mythology, leaders brought into a crisis go for quick visible results. Shortly after John Reid’s appointment, Nick Cohen blogged that

‘Reid told the senior civil servants that he wanted “quick wins” – his version of Tony Blair’s “eye-catching initiatives”. Quick wins followed by the truckload .. One senior civil servant told me that a part of the explanation for the shambles in his department was the “absolutely unrelenting pressure” for “top-grade people to spend a vast amount of their time pushing out initiatives”.

The BBC noted that ‘In a recent commons statement he addressed the most recent Home Office embarrassment over failure to maintain accurate records of people in the United Kingdom who had commited criminal offences abroad. He found it increasingly difficult to maintain the line that he was not responsible for such continued procedural weaknesses falling within the responsibilities of The Home Office’.

The merits of a quick-win strategy for leaders

There is an intuitive feeling that a new leader should go a quick win. First impressions are important. Particularly if a leader arrives to ‘sort out’ a crisis, the psychology of the quick win is appealing. The leader addresses anxieties, and shows that he or she is decisive. Ritala Houston illustrates the quick win in the context of IT projects (quite relevant in some respects to the current issue).

But the mythology is worth challenging. On one hand, decisiveness may sit uneasily with the claim that there are complex issues to be understood, so that a newcomer may be reacting before being aware of important aspects of the situation.

The Leadership Dilemma

There is a leadership dilemma here. How can a leader take advantage of the leadership honeymoon without starting new schemes based on inadequate knowledge and preparation? Answers please to this blog, or Dr John Reid.