Tag Archives: Leadership

The one with the wild rabbit

On occasion I loath the power of advertising. Not the pernicious, influential, sub-conscious messaging and influencing – that’s just the game. The bit I loath is the fact that on occasion something just lodges in my brain and lays dormant just waiting to pop out. Today I will inflict such an instance on you. It concerns Hennessy brandy and it’s Wild Rabbit campaign…

It was a Saturday afternoon in May 2012 (yes it’s been lodged that long) and I was lucky enough to be sat in the back of a taxi in New York heading towards Greenwich Village and I noticed a billboard that looked something like this (but without the palm tree – it was New York!!)…

 hennessey wild rabbit billboard

And it intrigued me enough to find the website and follow the thread of the campaign. The central tenant of which is this:

“In Cognac, France, where Hennessy is made, rabbits run wild. But the intriguing animals are rarely seen. Over time, people invented tales about them; Tales about a creature that lives in people’s minds.

This elusive Wild Rabbit, is thought to drive people from one success to another. For nearly 250 years Hennessy’s Wild Rabbit has been to build on our expertise and push our world class cognac ever closer to perfection. Constantly chasing. Never stopping. Never settling.


I had forgotten all about the advertising campaign (and apologies to Hennessy I’ve still not bought any brandy) but fast forward to February 2013 and I was reading a report on some research carried out by the talent consultancy Korn Ferry. It was based on the survey results of speaking to 109 business executives and getting them to rank which of Korn Ferry’s competencies they believed were their prorities in the post-financial crisis world (I must have missed the memo that it’s over). They were comparing it with data collected in 2007 and the pre-crisis post-crisis comparison looks like this.

Rank Pre-crisis Post-crisis
1 Customer Focus Dealing with Ambiguity
2 Drive for results Customer Focus
3 Motivating Others Manage Vision and Purpose
4 Priority Setting Strategic Agility
5 Problem Solving Managerial Courage
6 Timely Decision Making Perspective
7 Strategic Agility Priority Setting
8 Organising Motivating Others
9 Command Skills Drive for Results
10 Business Acumen Listening


On initial reading I was interested to see the absence of command skills post-crisis and to see that courage had appeared in the list. It was no surprise that dealing with ambiguity went straight in at number 1 and I suppose I was a little encouraged with the climb that strategic agility had made and the importance placed on managing vision and purpose.

However, the more I thought about it the more I thought the list was lacking anything truly inspirational – I mean, a lot of what these 109 executives are rating are to a certain extent the key skills of managers but what of leadership? I am not intending to have the leadership vs. management debate here but for me both lists were missing any kind of magic – where were the game changers?

This list and the blog post it was going to provoke have been bouncing around in my head for a few weeks and somewhere in the bouncing I came back to being sat in that taxi on that Saturday afternoon and being intrigued by the concept of the wild rabbit.

Maybe it’s just my divine discontent gene twitching again but I can’t help thinking that an organisation lead by those list of 10 will hardly be blowing the doors off anything. Where’s innovation? Where’s inspiring people? Where’s the global edge?

One could argue that courage+customer focus+strategic agility may blow the doors of something but I struggle with the notion that an organisation recruiting to that shopping list will have find themselves with a group of very competent senior managers but no magic.

In sitting and thinking about it you could play with the idea of the wild rabbit and think of IBM transforming itself from a business machines company to the knowledge and service offering they have now, probably most people would quote Apple’s disruption of the music market and the e-commerce examples are numerous (altogether after 3 – Jeff Bezos). But think about stuff that’s happening now – Random House and Penguin merging to ‘suit up’ in the battle of content vs. distribution… Think of the Co-op changing from an also ran to the ethical food retailer. There are probably loads of great examples but the example that both lists make me come back to is Kodak

Chapter 11 or Wild Rabbit?


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The one with the bullet proof toolkit

I recently took part in a workshop involving a group of senior managers working through their feedback from an external culture survey and audit. The day started with the group’s leader reminding them of the process they had been through, what had happened since the survey itself took place and how the scores had been compiled. All good so far.

It then moved on to one of their number going through the details of the response rates, the scoring and how their benchmarking within a comparison group had taken place and finally lead up to them being rated within the comparison group.

I must confess a wry smile as the group spent at least 10 minutes focused on how better management of the process and increasing the response rate could improve their score and reflect an improvement on the position they had achieved. The manager leading this session did well to discuss the options but kept them coming back to rather than trying to game manage the process would they not be better placed to consider the result they had achieved and what that ACTUALLY meant for their organisation.

It was at this point that he revealed a piece of information that had immediate and profound significance to me but the impact didn’t appear to hit home with the group for some time. The piece of information was that the final score achieved was based on two elements: the first was the survey results and the second a third party assessment of tools and processes that impact the culture and people of the organisation.

Why should this have profound significance you may ask? (Go on then…..ask). Well it turned out that  they had received significant commendation for the audit of tools and process. The overall score had been moderated down by the results of the survey. Yes….that’s right. The tools are great but it’s in the adoption and application of the tools that the opportunity for improvement exists!

There it was – in black and white…externally validated and bench-marked…no one could look at HR, OD, Comms or similar and challenge the toolkit, this was actual data that showed the focus needed to be not on reinventing, refitting or changing the wheel but actually was just about managing and leading the organisation using the fabulous toolkit provided.

It was about 40 minutes later that someone vocalised this penny drop and an uncomfortable silence enveloped the room…followed by a display of challenge, support and a commitment to improve that wasn’t about finger pointing, fad chasing or rolling out initiatives it was just about a group of very capable managers and leaders taking ownership.

5 hours later we went to the pub 🙂


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The one with the no men

So the journey through ‘The West Wing’ continues. For herself it’s the first timem for me it’s the several-th time but every time I watch it I still find little on television past or present to rival it. In an episode we watched recently the President, suffering from a bout of insomnia, consults a therapist. At the end of a two-hour conversation the therapist announces ‘time’s up – we’re done’ and the President, being the most powerful man in the world and all that says,

“I hate to put it this way, but I’m me, and you’re you, and we’re done when I say we’re done.”

Interestingly, rather than yielding to the clear power in the room the therapist pushes back and says aside from his family he’s going to the one person in the world who doesn’t care that he’s talking to the President. Brave man!

It’s interesting watching people in powerful positions and how they treat the people around them and how they expect those people to behave towards them. Hang on a second – the second half of that sentence depends on perception – it could read how they are perceived to expect the people around them to behave towards them…

Have you ever talked to a leader who complained of being surrounded by ‘yes men’? The question I always want to ask (and once did ask) is “do they tell you what you want to hear because of them or because of you?”. Creating an environment where it’s safe to tell truth to power requires both a leader who encourages that behaviour but also people surrounding that leader who are willing to take that courageous step and be a ‘no man’. Of course it’s incumbent on the leader to behave consistently and not shift the goal posts and absolutely essential to the person making the challenge to do it in a manner that is appropriate and allows the leader the space and position to admit being wrong.

I have written about courage (and cowardice) before and having reread those posts this evening I still feel that the work written on ‘Courage as a skill’ is valid to someone considering making this kind of challenge but the thought I keep on coming back to is that whilst there are smart ways to go about being courageous at the end of the day it is a matter of stepping up and doing it rather than letting an opportunity to get the right outcome for the organisation sail past.

If you are that leader (because SOOO many CEOs read this blog) take a moment and ask yourself if anyone ever tells you you’re wrong. If no one ever does look at yourself first before you look at ‘them’ and if you truly believe your behaviour should be engendering more challenge from your team then maybe you need to hire more people willing to tell you that you’re being an idiot….

Having looked in the mirror recently I realise I’m fine….not so much because of my behaviour but just for the long list of people more than happy to inform me of my idiocy 😉

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The one with the best leadership development

You can’t make it a week without some list of people or companies being published either in magazines or in blogs about the best this and the best that. Leadership it seems is no different and this month Forbes magazine publishes it’s list of “Top 25 companies for leaders”. So far it’s only a summary from the website (the summary list is below) but to save you time starved peeps the effort I’ve had a read through and have some overarching thoughts to share.

It doesn’t all have to be external – using internal resources to develop your leaders whether that be through workshops or through mentoring is equally if not more valid that using external experts.

Senior commitment – numerous references are made to participation of senior managers, CEO expectations and participation. It seems the best of the best start at the top

Involvement – whether that be of managers in the programme or participants in community or charity work, getting leaders involved in a broader sphere than their function appears highly regarded

Women – several of the participants are noted for special focus paid to women, whether that be mentoring or proportion of leaders that are female

British ain’t best – of the list of 25 only one is British and then actually it’s Anglo-Dutch (tricky to work out i’m sure). Unsuprisingly American based companies do well but next in the list after the US is India.

Internal Succession – a number of mentions are made of those who successfully develop their leaders from within.

Recognition – recognising the effort not just of those being developed but also those who commit to developing them reflects well for several companies

Playing the long game – the realisation that retaining key talent and having them succeed (in both senses of the word) through any organisation takes a longer term view than ‘next appraisal’ is noted for a few of the companies.

So there it is, a summary of a summary… As with any of these lists you have to ask how they were assessed and by whom, what were the inclusion criteria and how much crafting of submission went to be considered and recognise but there are some good ideas in there which I shall present as my own reference when next developing a leadership development strategy.

For those of you who remember (and in some cases adore) ‘Good to Great’ if you read the list of the ‘great’ companies now, some of them have fallen on hard times and some don’t exist and whether that was down to their flawed greatness or paradigm shift in external factors who’s to say but the two questions i’m always left with after reading any of these “best of” lists are these:

  1. If you polled the employees would they agree?
  2. Will the ‘best’ leadership of these organisations mean they continue to be successful?


The Top 25 (in order)

IBM                                        Sends leadership SWAT teams around the world to coach local staff

General Mills                     90% of management promotions are internal

P&G                                       Every single CEO of P&G started at entry level

Aditya Birla                         Honours employees who teach villagers skills like composting

Colgate-Palmolive           The 7 day leadership event for junior employees features a business challenge, presentations by senior management & charity work

Hinudstan Unilever         Sends young managers to live in villages to understand rural consumers

ICICI                                       Assigns talent scouts to identify 2,500 promising employees

McDonalds                         The development programme takes rising stars from central functions and develops them plus exposes them to other cultures

Whirlpool                            A dozen senior execs are “innovation mentors” tasked with evaluating new ideas

Pepsico                                Creates 10 year development plans for individuals with C-Suite potential

GE                                          CEO devotes 40% of his time to leadership development

BBVA                                     Offers theatre workshops to boost managerial communication skills

Natura                                  Every year managers are asked to reaffirm their commitment or leave

Deere                                   CEO personally mentors 20-30 employees as part of their development

3M                                         Over 300 Senior managers teach on leadership programmes customized by country

Eli-Lilly                               Half of variable compensation for managers is assessed against mentoring and leader behaviours

McKinsey                            Job applicants receive coaching between interview rounds

L’Oreal                                  23% of senior managers are women

Unilever                               The top 100 leaders in the business submit development plans to the CEO

Siemens AG                       Each year 10 junior employees are named “stars of the future”

Intel                                       An internal network of executive women mentor female talent

China Vanke                       The company discourages displays of dogmatism by managers

Wipro                                    Over 100 employees have gone on to start their own businesses

Bharti Airtel                        A reverse mentoring programme sees junior employees mentoring senior colleagues about tech

Novartis                               Runs a 2.5 day programme to help managers “understand their core purpose”


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The one where our business is now is north

I am an easy mark for good oratory I really am. I think what some people can do with the composition and delivery of words is incredible. I think, with a few exceptions, the art of oratory has been replaced by the art of spin and sound biting. As Rob Lowe (as Sam Seaborn) in ‘The West Wing’ says “Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place.” Rare indeed!

If you have read any of Daniel Goleman’s work on “Emotional Intelligence” (he literally wrote the book on it) he describes six styles of leadership that leaders can apply to build resonance. My intention here is not to get into a debate about emotional intelligence or application thereof…  The six styles he describes are visionary, democratic, coaching, affilliative, pacesetting & commanding, and the inference is that we each have a default style that comes most naturally but by being more conscious and aware of what is going on around us we can focus our behaviour and communication to make what we do more effective.

I have used this on several programmes to try and help those in leadership roles understand their impact on people and why they sometimes don’t get the results they were intending. What makes it difficult to illustrate is getting examples of leader behaviour that are familiar to a cross functional group is really tricky, so I resort to using video clips either from films or of oratory (or both) that go some way to give an example for discussion.

The style that often gets misapplied (especially, in my experience by people who are insecure or feel their control is limited) is the commanding style. According to Goleman is builds resonance by soothing fears and giving clear direction in a difficult situation but is often used in inappropriate circumstances thus having a negative effect.

It was actually a consultant I worked with who suggested a piece of oratory that really fit the bill to illustrate this style and to give you a little background…

Lt Col Tim Collins was the Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment. On the eve of the invasion in Iraq in 2003, he gave a speech to his men which was recorded in shorthand and published by a journalist (you can see her in the clip). In 2008, the BBC made a series of short films called ’10 days to War’ and one of the shorts was entitled “Our business now is North” where Kenneth Brannagh played Lt. Col. Collins to great effect.

What fascinates me about what he says is the way he is able to calm and motivate whilst at no point making a request or making what they have to do seem any less intimidating or perilous. Having watched it numerous times it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end.


I must add an aside that made me laugh – lots. The first time I ever played this as part of a workshop was with a number of senior people in the business I worked for. I overheard someone say “doesn’t Brannagh do an amazing Northern Irish accent” to which her colleague responded “he should do, he was born in bloody Belfast”.

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The one with 3 years salary

I don’t sleep very well. Actually, that’s not true – once I get to sleep I am world class at it, but I don’t find it easy getting to sleep. I think (and there’s your first problem) that there are numerous reasons for this the primary amongst them is I don’t switch off easily…

Sometime in the late 90s before broadband and Twitter and numerous other distractions I used to watch TV to pass the time. Late night TV then (as now) was not of the highest quality but before Sky + and a gazillion channels, I watched what was on – which was often ‘Late Night Poker’.

I had never seen “No Limits Hold ‘Em” before and had only played more traditional forms of Poker. I was fascinated with this new variant and being able to see what the players had in their hands, the shared river cards and the game strategy and betting behaviour this drove. If you have no idea what I am talking about watch “Casino Royale” that’s Texas Hold ‘Em.

The thing that amazed me was this notion of going “all in”. The idea that you could bet everything on a single hand and that the show of strength was either an indicator you had an amazing hand or the biggest bluff on the planet but it often worked – either way. Watching the players who were ‘short stacked’ (low on chips) who had limited opportunity for tactical betting but had to wait for a half way decent hand and then bet it all.

I read a blog this afternoon by Kate Griffiths-Lambeth who talked about the state of the global economy (borked) and the behaviour that it drove in business. She made some excellent points and discussed the difference between being risk astute and risk averse. The latter generating behaviour of arse covering, constantly shifting sands and a form of organisational inertia as everyone waits for the next u-turn.

It took me back to a conversation I had recently with 2 senior people (one a colleague of mine, the other a contact of his) regarding the safe playing that is happening in organisations and what it would take to move that on. Given this conversation happened later in the evening and a we had already sailed past the 5 beer mark the conversation was more ummmm wide ranging than may normally have happened but out of it came a random idea…

What if you took the leadership team of a business – say the top 30 people in the organisation and said to them that they had 3 years salary in escrow. The organisation didn’t own the money anymore but they didn’t have it yet either. Whatever happened they would either be fired at some point in the future or make it to the 3 year mark but what proportion of the money remained on the day they were dismissed it was theirs to keep (I told you it was random).

  • What behaviour would that generate in the leadership of the business?

I could speculate (but not go all in!!) but I don’t want to. I just want to let that thought sit there for a moment. I know it would generate some good behaviours and some bad and that would need managing but how different would the leadership be? Would they go “all in” or keep tactical betting and arse covering?

I’m going to leave it there but before I do I just want to ask a concluding question…

  • How could a business create that behaviour in its leadership without putting several million pounds in escrow?

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The one with the riots

For those of you who read this blog regularly you may be surprised that I am writing this as I don’t tend to blog about what is broadly topical and although the context of this blog is the events unfolding at the moment it is the reaction on the news and in social media, that has given me cause to reflect…

The ugly face of civil unrest has shown itself in the UK this week and personally, I am shocked and appalled at what I have seen on television this evening. The idea that the people who are looting and destroying property this evening are doing so in support of a cause seems unrealistic and it appears they are taking advantage of the situation for their own ends.

What happens in the coming days will no doubt captivate the media and the commentators and in the final reckoning it will be not the people who have been victims of these events that will get the attention but the institutions involved. What will be overlooked is the broader ramifications for our country and the focus will be who was to blame. I may be wrong but I would put money on it and I’m not a betting man.

My attitude towards the police is probably similar to a lot of you. I am respectful of them on an individual basis, my interactions with them have been confined to a few incidents involving radar guns and like any significant institution it would be easy to label them as a group when in fact they are a massive organisation but still made up of individuals.

In the coming blame game, it is the senior people who will be held accountable for their perceived failure tonight and that will certainly involve the Home Office and the current government. I read a statistic (don’t ask me where) that over 70% of organisational change initiatives fail and in whilst the current government will be held accountable for their failure to reform or realign the police, in their 15 months in government would it actually be realistic? I am not seeking to excuse the current government or the previous administration. The point I am trying to make is from an organisational perspective trying to change something as large as the police force is a herculean endeavour and while the police remain a political football, kicked from side to side of the House, is it realistic that lasting change will ever be made?

During a private conversation on Twitter this evening, someone remarked that the police should have gone in earlier and also called the army into play. With hindsight they may be correct, but hindsight is 20/20 and no one sees that clearly when something is emerging. Someone, somewhere tonight is accountable. Ultimately it’s David Cameron, but on an operational perspective, someone in a police uniform was captain of the ship tonight. Imagine being that person…talk about a catch 22.

If you make the call too early and go in heavy, you risk escalating an already volatile situation and also put the lives of your people at risk. If you make the call too late and the situation gets out of hand then civilians and property are put at risk. Either way you lose and the fourth estate will hand you a noose, without too much hesitation. Talk about an exercise in decision making…

No doubt that person has faced difficult decisions before, I would hope that to reach a Leadership role they would be well versed. But step back for a moment and ask yourself as an individual, what decision would you have made? It’s easy to be arm chair commentators, but think about the last time you had to make a difficult decision at work…how much did you fret, get angst-ridden and deliberate before you made it? Now imagine doing it with human life and property at risk and the press laying in wait.

The final thing that has been bouncing around my head is what the situation emerging today says about our values as a nation. You can’t move 3 lines in HR press without some mention of company missions and values. We all espouse them with ease and ask the people we work with to live up to them. Often, we include them in performance review and judge people against them. So what are the UK’s values? And how are we doing in our performance review tonight?

I’m now going to bed with the prospect of waking up to the FTSE yet again taking a hammering and hopefully some calm having prevailed in the parts of this country that have seen unrest today.

I don’t really know why I’ve written this. For one reason without writing it I wouldn’t have got to sleep for some time and it’s a definite way to ease the frustration I will undoubtedly feel as the blame game unfolds but mostly I wrote it in the hope that someone somewhere actually thinks about what all this MEANS and from that comes real change…but that may just be me dreaming!


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