This is an influencer post by Steve Tappin, Xinfu’s CEO & host of the BBC CEO Guru
My first part-time job, while still at high school, was as a cleaner at the ICI factory in Harrogate, north England. This involved cleaning the factory floors spotless with a machine polisher – if you could survive the staircase initiation trail – working alongside with some tough but good-hearted people.
Strange that a few years later I would begin my business career there and start a lifelong quest to find a better way to lead the biggest companies in the world.
So, back to my first tea-break on the first day of the part-time job…
The Initiation Test:
Could you climb up on your hands over 50 steps on the outside of the Victorian spiral staircase?
If you could, you were in and if you couldn’t you would get beaten up by the others. So a strong incentive to succeed. Fortunately for me (and you might not have guessed it from my profile picture), at 17 I was a keen soccer player, full-on at the gym, and most importantly a lot lighter than today! So I survived and got accepted into my new peer group.
Graduating from high school a couple of years later, I was looking for my first job. I responded to a job ad in a newspaper – to join the very same firm, ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) – the biggest company in Europe at the time. The role was at the same Harrogate factory where I used to clean; but this time it was a chance to join the fast-track management scheme.
700 people applied for just two vacancies. I didn’t quite make it into the final two, but was rather the third person they employed. I was told that I had scraped in by virtue of my personality and ability to get on with people. Taking after my dad, I like to think that I can get along with just about anyone, and I’m sure my experience of getting stuck in polishing floors helped.
So I got to work in different departments, across several functions, and this time my colleagues actually allowed me to walk up the steps unchallenged to my office!
However, it wasn’t an effortless rise to the top. To get properly into management, I had to study again and pass my professional accountancy exams. I hated accountancy, and only just scraped through. Below 50 was a fail, and I managed two 50s, a 51 and a 52. I saw this close shave as a bit of a warning for the future: it taught me you should only do what you are passionate about and truly enjoy it if you are to properly harness your talents.
So having failed to cover myself in glory in accountancy, was this the end of the fast-track? It could well have been, but then an opportunity came along for me to use my less obviously “corporate” talents…
ICI introduced a inter-divisional soccer tournament and fortunately I was a semi pro-level footballer. Our division was tiny, yet against the odds, I captained our plucky team to victory.
This was one of those lucky breaks that helps define careers. Three months after this sporting victory, I got a surprise six-grade promotion, rather than the one- or two grade promotion that I might have expected at this stage of my career. I was co-opted to join the division of the general manager who had hosted the football event and had presented the football trophy. It turned out that my new boss had chosen me not for my accountancy skills, but rather to ensure that his division could win the soccer trophy in the future.
So I’d got a break, but not one based on merit or my ability to do the role. Unfortunately, this kind of thing was common in ICI at the time, and the self-interest at the heart of company would sow the seeds for its later destruction. However, the experience had set me off on my unlikely career mission…
Start Of Mission
What I was experiencing in ICI was that there was too much complicated process, and too many layers to make a decision; all in a world with too much self-interest.
Broadly what was happening was that, at one level, you had the workers who cared about the company and gave their best, and whose families had often been in the business for generations. At the level of senior management, far too many were people who were focused primarily on their own career, their own power base, and competing with the other senior managers. Their desire to control people played out in their zeal for managing tasks and processes.
This was really sad, because in amongst all this, you had some exceptional people – some of best talent in the UK – but they were trapped within a totally ineffective business system.
At the age of about 22, I could see the negative impact that this business system was having on the lives of the people in the middle, and the stress that it was creating on the people who cared. As for the people at the bottom of the pyramid – although they cared and wanted to give their best – to them ICI had unfortunately just become another job.
This to me was unacceptable, for everybody involved. I decided that there must be a better way to lead big companies. And it made me realize that ultimately it’s the CEO or leader of the division who initiates the change. This is what set me on my quest to find a better way for CEOs to lead companies.
So What Happened To ICI?
I was first-hand able to witness the start of the decline and see it all going wrong. ICI had begun a process of going from being the biggest company in Europe in the late 1980s, to separating and de-merging into two divisions. Through a series of bad deals – ICI used to be a portfolio chemical company, then bulk chemicals became less valuable and it demerged into specialty chemicals and bulk – the company slowly but surely fragmented and disappeared. Now it doesn’t exist today.
This is a prime example of how a company loses itself – where processes, bureaucracy and self-interest take over and act as like a cancer. It can creep up on any big corporation, in what I call “the bureaucracy cancer”.
For ICI, this fading industrial giant, there was a glimmer of hope. In the latter stages, this guy called John Harvey-Jones came in as CEO. For a time, he turned it round and got it profitable again. He got the company so that it was performing, but ultimately he never managed to break through the middle, and the corporate bureaucracy structure.
Many years later, the then “Sir John”became a mentor and a friend to me. He had gone on to expand and improve his leadership formula into a BBC TV program called ‘Troubleshooter’ – a forerunner to ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons’ Den’. He was a true inspiration, who represented what you could achieve with integrity, belief and energy.
What Did I Learn From This Experience?
ICI helped me to understand that I was more of a missionary and rebel. I came to appreciate that I was better outside the system than working within it. At ICI, I was always pushing bosses to be bold – to find smarter ways of doing things and driving performance – when really, people just wanted an easy life. I realized that people don’t always want to face the corporate truth, even when the writing’s on the wall.
So I was privileged to be there at that point in time and witness it all: the seeds of destruction of a bureaucracy.
I’m now a CEO of my own company, Xinfu, which means “trusted friend and confidant” in Chinese. This role enables me to coach, advise and spar with numerous CEOs; to fight corporate bureaucracy without getting stuck in the system.
I also learnt a great deal by reflecting on the work that Sir John Harvey-Jones did post-ICI – the way he inspired and lifted people – and I try to bring that back into our work at Xinfu.
And I’m still on the mission. One that gives leaders the ability to build connection, to give self-belief to their people, and to create an exciting future that people can believe in. In short, an ability to lead and as John would say, “make it happen”.
A Better Way To Lead Global Businesses
So what is this “better way” that I keep coming back to?
At the core of it, a key plank is about replacing process-orientated professional management. Why? Because their focus is on ensuring next quarter’s targets are safe and setting further incremental targets at the top. I believe that, unintentionally, they are strangling our top Fortune 500 companies with bureaucracy, complexity and incrementalism.
Instead, my mission is to set out a better way for leaders. One where they can become more inspiring entrepreneurial leaders, who set their companies free from creeping bureaucracy and get them innovating again. Just like Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple. These new leaders not only create empowering systems to build sustainable value, they also create a environment where people believe in the company and leadership. One where people want play their part and put their heart and soul into what they do. They create a “winning family” culture where people care, and feel proud and loyal towards the companies for which they work.
If this can be successful, then our corporations can once again grow quickly, becoming places where people give their best, get opportunities to fulfill their potential and build the career of their dreams. But without having to be good at soccer, or to climb spiral staircases in bizarre initiation tests!
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