So yesterday morning Sir Terry Leahy keynoted at CIPD Conference in Manchester. All the cliches that are often applied are not actually cliches for this man – he was a captain of British industry and his leadership saw a business go from “also ran” to “King of the Castle”.
My intention here is not to tell you what he said as Doug Shaw did an excellent job of that in this post but to share some reflections of watching one of the most successful business leaders in a generation hold court and follow up on a post I wrote a few days ago which posed a question.
In an industry that has featured the full effect of Sir Stuart Rose, the polished delivery of Justin King and the tour de force that is Sir Phillip Green, Leahy was always the also ran when it came to showman ship and charisma. His appearances were very structured, his press photos always in front of a store and until yesterday I couldn’t have told you what he sounded like.
It was therefore quite a surprise to me that to hear someone who was relaxed, not charismatic but engaging and still true to his Liverpool roots (although with a little city polish). The man who stood in front of me had the calm self assurance of someone who is not talking about possibilities, but has delivered results. He goes to sleep at night knowing the impact he had, the shareholder value he returned and the world which now rests at his feet.
What he had to say was relatively interesting. He made some comments about the business that I know some in the room would question but painted a pragmatic picture of operating a growing FTSE100 business. The acknowledgement that was lacking for me was the assertive, possibly aggressive, stance that Tesco take commercially. Having worked for both a Tesco supplier and latterly a company that competed with some categories at Tesco, you may be forgiven for thinking the description given today was of a benevolent responsible organisation when in fact it may be both those things but it’s an organisation that takes no commercial prisoners and neither should it.
Some, including Doug in the post linked above, question the dominant position Tesco have achieved in the UK and in some markets overseas. If there is concern there I don’t levy it at Leahy and his team – if Tesco is out of control it’s the fault of regulation and legislation, not of an organisation that is inherently there to return share holder value.
In thinking about us all sitting there listening to him it almost felt like a lion addressing a room full of wildebeest . Not for a moment was anyone from the room going to ask a question that didn’t play to him returning an answer that comfortably allowed him to continue to referring to Tesco as “we” (he left the organisation in the Spring of this year). No one, myself included, moxied up the neccessary guts to ask the question I was hoping that someone was going to ask…how did he think Tesco’s current performance reflected on his legacy? Did this challenge him as Level 5 Terry (in Good to Great speak) and render him a mere Level 4 (despite the awe inpsiring growth in market capitalisation).
In a conversation with Philippa Lamb (who had interviewed him for this session) I raised the question I was hoping someone would ask and acknowledged there was no way she could have asked it, but I am disappointed that no one person in the room asked the question that HR professionals should be asking rather than a nice stream of interesting questions that played to Sir Terry’s tried and tested responses.
The elephant remained on the table, the lion left for a meeting in Milan and the wildebeest all shuffled off for a coffee and to muse over how many Tesco Clubcard points they had.
Them’s the breaks!