A matter of personal choice…
‘Enough’, says Charles Handy in his book ‘The Hungry Spirit’, is a liberating concept. When you know you have ‘enough’ it releases you from worrying about survival and bestows the luxury of choice. You can get on and do what you really want to do; to realise your personal purpose, perhaps. And choice is a luxury, not available to those who don’t have ‘enough’. This piece could continue to explore how to ensure that everyone has ‘enough’ and we may come back to this later. But for now, I want to explore ‘choice’.
The pandemic has presented an opportunity to reflect and many of us are taking a look at what our lives could be like as we move back into a more sustainable, post pandemic, environment. We see articles on ‘the Great Resignation’ as people make choices about where they work, who they work for and what they are achieving. More poignantly, a conversation with a friend who is now nursing his partner back to full health, the admission: ‘makes you eliminate what really isn’t important in the great scheme of things’. Then there is the dimension of emerging talent that may not be so inclined to be attracted by the size of the wage packet as much as the underlying raison d’être of the organisation.
This takes me to the leader’s choice. Just like everyone else in the organisation, the leader will also be thinking ‘do I really want/need to do this?’, or ‘do I have the energy to nurse this organisation back to life’, or more positively, ‘we are surviving, doing well even, is it time for someone else to take on the challenge?’ Or even ‘we have demonstrated strength through a very difficult time, what more might we do with this strength?’ Given the impact of the answer to these questions on the organisation and other peoples’ futures, it may weigh heavily but nevertheless they need to be addressed.
It is ‘the leader’s choice’ that made me reflect on a fundamental matter for all organisations:
Is this organisation built to last, to focus on the creation of long-term wealth and with a continuing and relevant purpose?
Is this organisation built to create value in the short term, its purpose being to deliver results and cash for distribution to those who have made it happen and those who have invested their cash in it?
At this point, let me declare my interest and my choice. Telos Partners has been and continues to be built to last with an enduring purpose to create sustainable success. But this does not mean that organisations focused on the short term are in any way wrong. Nor does it mean that that long-term organisations should not be focused on wealth for investors and those making it happen. In our wonderfully diverse corporate community there is space, and indeed a need, for all types of organisations. Those with a broader social purpose (a better description than not-for-profit, or charities?); those willing to take an initial risk to create new opportunities at a pace that would defy consideration of anything longer than 12 months; those needing to reshape over as short a time as possible to maintain their competitiveness; and those who really see their reason to continue to create wealth over time.
Surely, I hear you say, most organisations go through cycles and that long- term survival requires short-term measures, and those that have survived over time do so irrespective of their owners, with most businesses transitioning from private, to public, to private equity, ensuring that they are accessing capital suited to their needs. And sometimes, the right and long-term thing to do is to sell a business to a more suitable owner, an owner better suited to the longer-term ambition of that organisation.
But organisations don’t have ambitions. Leaders do. And this is where it gets personal.
Imagine a finely tuned petrol fuelled internal combustion engine. Capable of releasing say 600 bhp (brake horsepower). Now take away the spark plugs, the source of the initial spark in each cylinder. How much brake horsepower would be released? And there lies the primary purpose of a leader: to create, nurture and maintain that spark for the organisation. The finely tuned engine, the people, the teams, the structure, the systems can then get on to create the organisation to deliver to its potential.
What might this spark, the ambition, look like? I recall listening to Sir Hector Laing*, then Chairman of United Biscuits, talking about his ambition as ‘hearing on my death bed, the wonderful sound of a billion Chinese people munching McVitie’s digestives’. An amusing picture but capturing a lasting image of both international growth and an organisation built to last beyond his lifetime. Carefully created to appeal to both the emotional and rational concerns of his audience. Less colourful, but just as powerful, was an exchange with a recently appointed chief executive of what can only be described as a rather unexciting and underperforming engineering business. ‘It’s going to be great’ he said, leaning back on his chair and setting out a blueprint for recovery. There followed a seven-year journey bringing the business back into great shape and ready to be taken on by the next generation of leaders and managers. That journey would not have even started had he not made the personal choice to make the organisation ‘great’.
My Christmas read has been Eddie Jones ‘Leadership’ and he talks about an ambition beyond the time-bound next Rugby World Cup. He makes the point that the ambition (to be the world’s greatest team, oh yes!) has to be shared by all who will be involved, but it will be down to him, that one person who holds the ambition and is willing to take the initial steps needed to make it happen. And as Eddie admits, it took a lot of soul searching and challenge to check that he has the energy to power this ambition. Necessarily personal at the outset, then to be translated into group endeavour over time.
I wonder whether, as leaders, we spend enough time really defining our ambition or whether we allow the ambition to be defined, possibly more narrowly, by those who might recruit us into ‘their’ organisation. Hiring a new leader to transform the organisation or to improve shareholder returns and, possibly inadvertently, deflecting from a broader leadership ambition. Or if, as entrepreneurs, we invest in defining our ambition when we are moving from ‘start-up’ to ‘scale-up’. I spent an enjoyable hour or two recently with a CEO who has a proven track record with start-ups and a desire to create something that will be of a scale that can thrive beyond his stewardship. Something that has eluded him to date and something that he has found difficult to communicate beyond his small team that helped with the start-up stage. Together we teased out his ambition and captured it as succinctly as possible (modified to protect confidentiality):
A mixture of rational and emotional energies. Committed to the written word to capture one person’s ambition and to start the process of bringing others into the development of the business. This is not to be confused with purpose or mission; they will come later and will need group buy in, to create a sense that they are part of an exciting journey for the organisation. Sure, they will likely be influenced by the ambition but this is more a ‘call to arms’ and designed to attract those who want to share in such an organisation.
Is this necessary for all? I would argue that if you want your organisation to last beyond your personal tenure, then yes. If, on the other hand, your leadership challenge is to deliver against someone else’s ambition, and that ambition is shorter term and focused solely on a financial return, then your mission is unlikely to be served by painting a longer-term picture that may be less than authentic.
As I hinted earlier in this piece, we may be entering into a new era of corporate life. Exceptional talent may be drawn more to those enterprises that are creating real meaning in people’s lives and redefining wealth creation in broader terms. Not just cash for shareholders and to fund executive bonuses, but in addition to creating financial capital also creating intellectual, relationship, human and social capital that will put an organisation in a place that will enable it to survive and thrive over many generations. Helping each organisation to create ‘enough’ for everyone in the business and for those with whom they trade.
Perhaps time for our own post (or mid-term?) pandemic thinking. What is my ambition for the business (or ‘my’ part of the business)? A few simple questions (but with complicated answers) for early 2022:
- Do I want this business to last beyond me, or will my job be completed when I have delivered for the current principals?
- Am I clear on my personal ambition for this organisation?
- Can I articulate this ambition so that I can invite the people in the organisation to be part of its success?
A genuine personal choice. But important to make it as the journey to long- term sustainable success is quite different from the shareholder value driven model that has evolved in the recent past.
A topic for another day.
*later Baron Laing of Dunphail