Tough Calls: Allan Leighton’s philosophy on business and how to fix the economy

Allan Leighton has distilled his experience as a successful business leader into a how to do it book. He talks to BBC’s Radio Five of the book and his views on how to fix the economy

Not a Book Review, by Tudor Rickards

Allan Leighton has written a book on business as a matter of making tough calls. This post followed Mr Leighton’s appearance talking about his new book on a radio interview [BBC Five Live, Sept 22nd, 2011]

The high-profile leader

Allan Leighton has had a track record of considerable success as a corporate business leader. He is widely credited for the successful transformation of Asda. LWD subscribers will have followed his more turbulent time at Royal Mail. You can see a range of posts dealing with the period 2007 on as he battled with the challenges of transformation in the State owned organization [Use the LWD Search box opposite inserting the tag Allan Leighton]. According to reports at the time, his leadership style was no-nonsense, and popularist (or unpopularist if you crossed him). His successful career justifies attention when he turns his attention to offering business advice.

No business jargon

Mr Leighton spoke with impressive confidence. The absence of business jargon was noticeable This differentiates him from business leaders whose public utterances often suggest too much coaching, over-rehearsal and acceptance of someone else’s script-writing.

The key ideas

Three key ideas were clearly expounded.

[1] ‘Most business decisions are ultimately simple’
[2] Work from understanding consumer needs and motivations
[3] Stick to your Business DNA. [Shades of the advice given several decades ago by Peters and Waterman, ‘stick to your knitting’]

George Osborne or Allan Leighton?

The interview shifted to the Tough Calls facing the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Mr Leighton suggested that the Government’s focus should be on renewing consumer confidence which had been eroded by high levels of inflation. Confident consumers are spending consumers.

Within an hour there was a powerful exchange of views between two industrial commentators, one taking the view that confident financial analysts were more important than confident consumers for long-term economic stability. Not such a simple decision, perhaps?

Tough Calls reviewed

I came across a fine review of Tough Calls written by Tom Otley, in The Business Traveller:

Books from business leaders seek to draw general rules from specific experience. For us to read them we have to believe the person is successful, and they are able to distil the knowledge they have gained from their careers into a form we may learn from.

One obvious advantage his high profile has given him is that for a book like this he can speak with dozens of very well known, influential and respected business leaders and learn what they think about decision-making. Everyone from Sir Terry Leahy (Tesco) to Martin Sorrell (WPP), Sir Stuart Rose (Marks & Spencer) to Charles Dunstone (Carphone Warehouse) is here, and it’s immensely interesting reading what they have to say.

The disadvantage of Leighton’s approach is that each one of these business leaders has their own receipt for success, and they don’t always agree with one another. Nevertheless, Leighton concludes by offering a sequence of actions on the part of the decision maker:

“1. Step in. 2. Collect and digest the best information available at the time. 3. Make the decision. 4 Communicate the decision. 5. Make sure it happens. 6. Move on.”

…Many of us over the years have had bosses like this, who distil their considerable wisdom to the point where it’s obvious.

The reviewer mischievously then illustrates the point with a quote from the currently beleaguered James Murdoch:

“I have been following a lot of journalists and commentators tweeting and blogging about News Corp. … They’ve been out to dinner, they’ve had a drink and then they are on Twitter. It is just madness. You have to have rules about engagement in these areas.”

Follow That

I’m not sure if I can add much to Tom Otley’s review. However, the book is available at a very reasonable price on Kindle, and I may well attempt my first review of an e-book.

Watch this space.

One Response to Tough Calls: Allan Leighton’s philosophy on business and how to fix the economy

  1. “Adjust as you go” seems to be Leighton’s message.On the Today Program on yesterday [1] he was impressively non guru like.

    There is no big plan.

    “No plan survives first contact,” he says, “Things go wrong. Fact of life”
    “Some things are are marginally wrong,” he says, “these are the ones you get to very quickly.”

    The interview is worth listening to. Leighton displays a certain mastery of the interview. To students of leadership, there is clear evidence of map-testing and map-making as well as reflection


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