The fury of helplessness and the loss of water supplies

December 30, 2010

When a completely unexpected disruption of plans occurs, there is often widespread reactions of fury and helplessness. News stories identify scapegoats in government, corporations, and through individual incompetence

As I write, I am half listening to the developing story from Northern Ireland where many people have had their water supplies disrupted [December 20th 2010]. The reporting talks of thousands of people who have had no access to water for nearly two weeks.

The incompetence of others

One TV interview revealed the fury of a woman about the incompetence of the authorities who should shift themselves and do something. Reporters speak of the failure of communications. They appear to suggest that people have been cut off from water for two weeks. More accurately, water supplies have been disrupted, and various short-term actions have been taken as the problems are being tackled. These include delivery points for bottled water and stand-by supplies.

Corporate and governmental actions could have been swifter. Some individuals within the authorities may have been particularly incompetent. It also seems to be the case that the story reinforces individual helplessness. The general public, as symbolically represented, can do little more than demand ‘they’ shift their idle bodies.

The real sufferers

I couldn’t help thinking that the most vulnerable are not well-represented by a healthy and well-dressed woman who had driven to a car park and failed to find a promised supply of bottled water. Some others, in geographical and social isolation will be preserving their energies on more serious survival strategies. The old, frail, and poor are accustomed to reacting to additional losses of the necessities for a tolerable life.


BP’s Hayward goes: How we get the leaders we deserve

July 26, 2010

Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO has been dubbed the most hated Businessman in America in the wake of the Oil Spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. His removal was inevitable. But does it make much sense, beyond being a symbolic gesture of a leader falling on his sword?

There is little surprise in the news that Tony Hayward is to be removed as CEO of BP. The BBC’s Robert Peston among others felt that Hayward’s days were numbered from the earliest days of the Deepwater Horizon fatalities. Peston reveals that the BP board had decided that its future would require a new CEO:

Directors also felt that the sacrifice of Hayward should not happen until serious progress had been made on staunching the oil leak and until it was possible to quantify the financial cost of fixing the hole, providing compensation and paying fines. In the last couple of weeks, there has been such progress. And if the moment has more-or-less arrived for BP to start building a post-Macondo future, then it also needs a new public face, a new leader.

The most significant charge appears to be his ‘PR gaffes’.

The demonization of Hayward

Since the Oil-Spill a storm of adverse publicity has been sustained against him. President Obama joined in with remarks in a television interview that Mr Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements”.

Mr Hayward has been demonised as being responsible for the world’s worst environmental disaster – and, let’s not forget, for the deaths of 11 men in the rig explosion that preceded it. Critics argue that, as the man in charge, it is Mr Hayward’s job to take the heat. Nor has he helped his cause with some misguided remarks about wanting his life back and optimistic comments about the clean-up operation. Other public relations own-goals included his refusal to answer questions put to him by a Congressional subcommittee and his decision to participate in a JP Morgan yacht race around the Isle of Wight. END

Leaders we deserve has followed this story closely. The background to Dr Hayward’s appointment in 2007 suggested that he had demonstrated top leadership potential, and had been selected for one of the most challenging of CEO positions with any global organization.

Growing stale in the saddle

CEO tenure remains a complex area for study. Danny Miller’s work is much quoted. He suggests although CEOs may ‘grow stale in the saddle’ that for many organizations, a change of CEO is most likely to take place only as a consequence of catastrophic performance. By generally accepted organizational criteria, Tony Hayward had appeared to making a good start in his job at BP. He declared intentions were to address issues to deal with unsatisfactory operational practices. But should he have been able to put enough changes in place to have prevented the specific errors that contributed to the catastrophe which led to the deaths of eleven people, and environmental disaster

What makes a good leader? How heroes become zeroes

Research into leadership has moved away from universalistic theories. We have stopped looking for presence or absence of a set of properties which differentiate a good leader from a bad one. Even success or failure of itself is insufficient to reveal a simple answer, because all leaders deal with uncertainties and make judgment calls.

In times of crisis, orchestrated anger against a leader builds up. His statements are analysed as evidence of his or her callousness, stupidity, duplicity. The symbolic significance of speech-acts are just as important as physical actions. Sound-bites become replicated in headlines and become elements within a dramatic narrative.

Psycho-analytical models of human behaviour suggest that social groups seek ways of dealing with fear and uncertainty which address inner phobias rather than practical means of overcoming unpleasant circumstances. Under stress and distress group members react as if a leader has betrayed them. According to one text-book such reactions draw on a basic assumption of dependency: a world in which

“The leader is the all-providing and all-knowing saviour who may also become another hate figure”

Lessons to be learned

Under such circumstances it becomes a social imperative to change the leader we have to the leader we deserve. There are lessons to be learned here, about leaders, dilemmas of leadership, and the social processes which result in complex issues being reduced to a leader’s incompetence.


Have ‘Woolies’ been Bullies? The Case of Trevor Bish-Jones

June 21, 2008

Trevor Bish-Jones departs Woolworths with a smile. Is there a lesson here about the life-cycle of a Charismatic leader?

This week, Woolworths confirmed details of the departure of its Chief Executive Officer Trevor Bish-Jones. The corporate web-page provided the news at the end of an interim statement

“We have also announced this morning [18th June, 2008] that Trevor Bish Jones will be standing down as Chief Executive of Woolworths Group plc. Trevor will stay in place for the next three months as we start the search, both internally and externally, for a new Chief Executive .. We have strong operational management running each of our businesses and this, combined with Trevor’s commitment to stay while we find a successor, will ensure continuity for the Group. The Board would like to thank Trevor for the significant contribution he has made to the business over the past six and a half years.”

Six and a half years ago

Chairman Gerald Corbett reported on Trevor Bish-Jones’ appointment as follows

This financial year our priorities have been to stabilize the business post the de-merger, tackle the significant overstocking problem, reduce debt and take action on loss makers to give us a sound base for recovery in the year ahead. We are on target to achieve our stock and debt targets, albeit at a cost to this year’s profits .. I am delighted to announce the appointment of Trevor Bish-Jones. He is a highly experienced retailer with a successful record of managing large national retail chains in highly competitive markets. The performance of the Mainchain shows how much work there is to do to re-invigorate its position in the eyes of the consumer and improve retail disciplines.

We expect to see considerable further progress next year. We have a strong brand; major market positions; a national high street presence and sales of over £2.5 billion. We are continuing to strengthen our management at all levels and look forward to next year with confidence.

Neelam Verjee of the Times captured the new leader’s background:

Mr Bish-Jones never intended to end up in retailing. He studied at Varndene Grammar School in Brighton, before training as a pharmacist at the Portsmouth School of Pharmacy. His first job was as a research chemist studying oil shale in Colorado, Denver, with Tosco, a US company. He returned to Britain in 1983 to finish studying and joined Boots in its pharmacy division ..He spent the next 11 years at the health and beauty chain, first as a store manager before making the jump to buyer. He joined Dixons Group in 1994, at its PC World division, and went on to work for The Link and Currys, before taking the top job at Woolworths.

His hobbies include fast cars, especially Porsches, and motorcycles (he owns a Ducati), football (he supports Brighton and Hove Albion), spending time with family and friends and going to the pub. Mr Bish-Jones, 46, also likes horse riding and golf. He is married with two daughters.

Time passes

This week, the Financial Times noted that

Dealt a difficult hand from the outset with onerous leases and an outdated business model, Mr Bish-Jones had some success in improving the wholesale side of the business, which distributes CDs and DVDs to other retailers ..[But] the Woolworths stores have proven an uncrackable conundrum ever since they were spun out of the Kingfisher conglomerate, and he leaves with the shares close to an all-time low. [under 10p, 19th June 2008]

The demerger referred to took place in 2001, before Bish-Jones joined the company.

The Times this week updated its earlier story

Resplendent in a three-piece pinstripe suit, Trevor Bish-Jones gave a great impression of a man without a care in the world, at Woolworths’ annual meeting yesterday ..Sitting in the middle of the board of directors, the outgoing chief executive leant back and let his chairman do the talking. Mr Bish-Jones could contemplate what job offers he may consider and how to enjoy the rest of the summer.

One of the most likeable men in retailing, Mr Bish-Jones is also one of the most hardworking. In a career spanning 27 years he has never taken more than two weeks off at a time and is keen to spend a bit more time with his wife and two daughters.

The picture emerging from these reports is that of a charismatic leader, able to win hearts without necessarily winning the battle of the financial numbers. Which may indicate something about charismatics …[But see the list of hobbies above, for those fascinating discrepancies sometimes revealed in secondary data sources.]

Was Trevor a Scapegoat?

But was Bish-Jones a scapegoat, as the Telegraph asked?

Richard North, Woolworths’ chairman since last June and himself the subject of a sudden sacking by his chairman when he ran InterContinental Hotels in 2004, said that it was time for someone new to take a “fresh look” at Woolworths …Mr Bish-Jones will remain for three months while Zygos, the head-hunter, searches for a replacement, [adding] “Trevor has just completed a series of big things which in effect have come to a natural conclusion, so it is a natural time for change,”

The “big things” referred to were the reshaping the DVD and CD-making business, in the wake of Tesco dropping a lucrative contract in 2006, and a refinancing last year.

Some shareholders at the meeting supported the scapegoating view. Others were reported to be of the opinion that his departure was based on the rational considerations that it was time for a change, time to introduce fresh blood, etc.

It is certainly convenient for a business to arrange an amicable departure for its leader. One that implies no blame, rather a timely move forward. Such a rationale will always be less convincing as shares head south to record lows …