Sunday, June 24, 2012

What Inspires You to Want to Be a Better Leader, Each and Every Day?

Too many articles and discussions about leaders only concentrate on ‘high level’ leaders, at the CEO’s and Executive level – but in business, leaders exist all over the organisational structure and it’s at these lower levels that the ‘great’ leaders of tomorrow need to be developed. You have team leaders, project leaders, departmental and divisional leaders, branch and store leaders, to name a few – there are leaders everywhere and the problem with some of the current rhetoric on leaders and leadership is that it tries to make the subject to complicated and elusive, when the foundations of leadership are actually quite simple.
We ‘learn’ and start forming our ideas about leaders and leadership from an early age, through the interactions we experience with our families, our schooling and our first step onto the career ladder – where the ‘leaders’ we meet and interact with at an early age start to influence our perceptions about leadership, both consciously and subconsciously, and influence the types of leaders we might eventually become.
To be a good leader, at any level, you need a good solid ethical foundation to work from, along with a basic understanding of the concept of ‘treating people as you would like to be treated yourself’. Then you need to add the behavioural, visionary and communication skills to these basic principles to have any chance of becoming a good leader – let alone a great one.
During my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with great leaders and the unfortunate displeasure of having to work with appalling leaders too (though the good news is that you can learn from bad leaders, about the real dangers of this kind of leader and the negative impact they have on people and organisations – the type who will stab anyone in the back to protect their turf and realising just how dangerous an ‘animal’ these people can be).
Two great leaders stand out for me over the last 25 years, who have influenced my life, career and leadership style. The first is someone I met back in 1989 called John Stanbury – John has been the CEO of many great organisations including Foskor, Outspan International and Capespan. He has a solid ethical foundation; the ability to be a ‘driver’ and a ‘team player’; an insatiable appetite for knowledge – where he would know an organisation, its products, and its customers, better than anyone else.
He had boundless energy, never seeming to tire; always managed by walking around, getting to know staff at all levels, what they did, what their problems were – yet while doing so helping each employee to understand their job better and how they contributed to the organisation; he was a hard task master, with very high standards but had that uncanny ability to get the best out of his people.
Was he liked by everyone – nope; why – because he would quickly identify those people who had simply been over-promoted or who had lost the ‘drive or will’ to develop within their current jobs – something this ‘type’ of person never likes to be ‘discovered’ often hiding behind their ‘teams’ to avoid detection; yet even in these circumstances John would always give them the opportunity to get back on track again. 
He is a great speaker, very humble and willing to impart his knowledge to those who care to listen and many of his managers over the years have now gone on to be successful CEO’s themselves.
The second person is, Parkin Emslie, someone who I met more recently but who has those ‘natural’ leadership qualities that makes you admire them and what they have achieved. Parkin has developed his own successful business from scratch and is a firm believer in generic growth. If you met him out in public you’d never know how successful he is – he’s totally unassuming, very relaxed and laid back – but underneath beats the heart of a great and proven entrepreneurial spirit. One outstanding reflection of his style is that his whole workforce respect him more than any leader I’ve worked with – and he respects them right back.
Interestingly at the other end of the spectrum the two worst leaders I’ve ever encountered both work for the same institution – the Warwick business school – and I had the displeasure of meeting them both recently.  It’s not surprising that they both come from the same establishment as it has been shown that bad leaders attract other bad leaders.
Between the two of them they encompass everything that is bad about a leader. Mark Taylor, the Dean of the business school is your colonial, power driven, narcissist – who rules by power, like some glorified roman emperor – sending those that even catch his eye to meet the lions in the coliseum, as he watches on with that power crazed look in his eyes. It’s all about being right – demanding respect – loving the feeling of ‘power’ in his hands, the ability to ‘dictate’ – the kind of person you imagine was bullied at school, and now loves bullying back. Those that put up with this style are a combination of other bad leaders, who have learnt that in order to survive they must have their lips permanently sealed to his bottom; those who are scared and who hunker down under their parapet hoping not to be noticed; and those who have little choice in a tough job market, but to stick it out – where they know they are working for a monster, but have to put up with it, as they need the income to survive – and pray for a day in the future when the ‘dictator’ is deposed.
The second person is Alison Bond, the Head of External Relations, who’s moral compass is so messed up, it’s amazing she can find her way home. Here you have the classic example of someone who has been over-promoted – yet rather than being ‘woman’ enough to admit their failings has found a way to hunker down and survive. These are your most dangerous of ‘animals’ as they will ruthlessly defend themselves, for fear of being found out. They know when to give that fake smile, pretend to be your ally, etc – but all the time they are using other people to ‘promote’ themselves.
For me it’s not just the John’s and Parkin’s of this world that inspire me to want to be a better leader each and every day – having seen the positive impact these great leaders have on their staff and their organisations; as well as how much they give back to their communities. But I’m also inspired to be a better leader by seeing the chaos that is caused by bad leaders like Taylor and Bond, who just make me want to create an environment where people enjoy to work and where I can inspire others to want to be good leaders as well – showing the different effects good and bad leaders have on their environment.
But the question is: What inspires you to want to be a better leader, each and every day?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Vodafone: Tax Dodger or Brilliant Financial Mind?

“Vodafone faces a fresh attack over its affairs after an investigation by the Sunday Times revealed that the mobile phone giant paid no corporation tax in Britain last year. Despite earning several hundred million pounds from its 19 million customer, Vodafone shared none of these profits with HM Revenue and Custom in the UK in the 12 months to the end of March, 2012”, (The Sunday Times, 10th June 2012, Business, p.1). The revelation comes amid heightened scrutiny of the tax bills of multinational companies as governments scramble to patch up their public finances.

The Sunday Times tell us that the underlying earnings before interest and tax at Vodafone’s British operation rose from £1.2 billion to £1.3 billion in the year end of March. Adjusted pre-tax profits rose from £348 million to £402 million over the period. However, its British corporation tax bill fell from £140 million in the 12 months to 31st March, 2011, to zero in the year just ended.

Vodafone, Apple and scores of other multinationals have created subsidiaries in Luxemburg in an attempt to minimise their tax bills in big markets such as Britain. Luxemburg is an aggressive adversary when it comes to tax. On the surface, it is a model international citizen, playing host to the European Court of Justice and the secretariat of the European Parliament.

The country is, nevertheless, exacerbating the crisis that threatens to smash apart the single currency in Europe by denying governments billions in taxes. 

Vodafone and others aren’t breaking the law by doing this and are upholding their responsibilities to their stakeholders through profit optimisation. Most people aren’t that sympathetic towards the taxman at the best of times, so there will be those that are saying ‘good for them’, just before instructing their broker to buy shares in Vodafone.

But this ‘clever manipulation’ raises a number of questions, like whether business is operating on a fair and equitable playing field, where these benefits are open to all that want them? But hold on – if they were, where would HMRC get its tax income from? So, in what seems to be a common theme these days, there appears to be two distinct sets of rules – one for the large and powerful organisations and then for the rest.

As much as I’d like to be critical towards Vodafone, I can’t actually fault what their financial team are doing – in fact, as much as it pains me to say, one has to applaud them for finding a way to optimise their financial returns to their stakeholders – it’s what they’re paid to do.

So the fault must sit with governments for not finding and closing these loop-holes that allow the richest organisations to get away with not paying tax in the country where they are generating vast profits. The same governments that complain about the lack of money they have available to spend on education, health and security, which leads them into borrowing a debt – leading to recessions like we’re currently experiencing – it’s absolutely crazy. While the big boys are sipping their champagne to a job well done - thee SME sector is targeted, harassed and chased for even the slightest deviation from their tax obligations – so how must they feel when they read stories like this?

It’s worth noting that Amazon avoids even more tax by using a similar method. By shuttling money through Luxemburg, it managed to pay no corporation tax in Britain last year despite generating sales of more than £3 billion in the UK.

Call me naïve, but one has to wonder just how much of an impact these practices have had on the current austerity measures being employed by governments throughout Europe.

It would appear that big business is being allowed to blackmail and manipulate governments by threatening to move their organisations offshore and lay people off, if governments try to close these tax loopholes. But hello – these governments aren’t getting any income from these organisations anyway – but more importantly these governments are elected to ‘protect’ their citizens, so where is the leadership that’s required to enforce the fair and equitable gathering of taxes for the good of the nation.

When you think about it, this practice seems to have been going on through the centuries, where the hard working owners of small businesses were chased by the taxman and severely punished for the slightest irregularity – to the extent that organisations were closed and proud men lost everything. While at the other end of the scale the wealthy land owners paid very little in comparison and had quite a cushy life.

Double standards are becoming a common theme in today’s society and it’s these double standards that divide nations and lead to sub-optimal solutions for national growth. We need governments to close the loop holes and gather the tax income they are due, for the future good of the nation and its people.


Duke, S. (2012). Vodafone faces new tax scandal. The Sunday Times, Business, 10th June, p.1.

Duke, S. (2012). Luxembourg: home sweet home for tax avoiders. The Sunday Times, Business, 10th June, p.9.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Can America Justify Spending Over $1.5 billion on the Presidential Campaign?

We often see criticism in the press of how youngsters misuse Twitter, for example, to make rude and insulting comments about people they may or may not know – yet we mustn’t forget that most of the $1.5 billion (or more) that will be spent on the Presidential campaign is for advertising that ‘attacks’ their oppositions ‘credibility’ and can be really ruthless and insulting. And this financial figure could be way too conservative as a record $2.4 billion was spent on the Presidential campaign in 2008. So if a group of grown men, who want to be the next President of the United States, can spend well over a billion dollars to make rude and derogatory ‘accusations’ about each other – is it any wonder a thirteen year old will think it’s ok to do the same thing? 

Fake allegations about the presidential candidates are posted more than three times per minute on social media, according to MSNBC. Political action committees and corporations, freed by the Supreme Court to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, are preparing some of the most negative ads the US has ever seen. The candidates' own committees are said to be soliciting $1 billion each. 

What is scary about this election is that 46% of Americans would never consider voting for Romney and 46% would never consider voting for Obama this November (where clearly some wouldn’t vote for either). And most of them feel viscerally that the other guy is a horrible, terrible, no-good person who will ruin the country. 

What's even scarier is that the experts think the election will be decided by less than 1% of voters. (Even though the experts are often wrong, it’s likely that nearly half the population will be seriously bitter come January.) 

I suppose centuries ago you were either born into the role of leader of a country – or you fought to become the leader of a country – where fighting involved nasty weapons, rather than nasty words. 

But can we really justify in the 21st century and in, supposedly, democratic countries that it’s money that buys you the position of power and leadership rather than anything else. How does money link to leadership qualities – I’ve searched everywhere to find any correlation between being rich (or having rich friends) and being a good leader and I simply can’t find it. In fact, if anything, you’ll find evidence that ‘wealth’ can, in certain circumstances, negatively impact ‘excellence in leadership’, as the ‘wealth’ assume positions of leadership rather than earning it through experience, results and building a reputation.  

But even aside from the above how do you justify spending this kind of money, when there are citizens in the US, who through no fault of their own, are currently struggling to survive. It was back in 2005 that Hurricane Katrina struck and over seventy countries pledged monetary donations or other assistance. So I just have to wonder how these countries, some of them poor and suffering themselves at the time, like Sri Lanka, (which was still recovering from the Indian Ocean Tsunami yet still offered to help), feel about seeing the US ‘happy’ to spend this much money on a Presidential race?

Maybe I’m naive but this can’t be healthy for politics or for the economy in general – unless of course you’re in the advertising industry. What message does this send out to the population – when political games are more important that people’s lives? 

The other overriding problem that you have – which you actually have to give governments around the world credit for – is that in the majority of cases they have been able to ‘silence’ their own citizens. It doesn’t bother them that the majority of people throw up their hands in despair stating, ‘but what can we do, you can’t beat the system’ - that’s exactly what they want people to think, it’s perfect for them.  

The question I think we and many Americans need to ask come November is why would the US want to vote for a candidate who has spent nearly a billion dollars telling you how bad his opponent is – when that money could have been put to much better use elsewhere, helping struggling American families, for example. Why would you want either of them to be the custodian of your countries economy – when they are clearly so bad with money?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Business Schools: Run by Innovators or Dictators?

In a developing story it’s alleged that the Dean of Warwick business school has given instructions to all of his staff (academic and administrative) that they are not allowed to make any form of contact with a member of their alumni. 

What has this alumni done – murder, theft or something more sinister? No, it appears that after volunteering his time to the university, working with the student and alumni population over a significant period of time, arranging events and talks, where sometimes he was out of pocket himself – his crime was to suggest to the Dean areas where the university could improve and add value; to offer an annual excellence award which would be funded out of his own pocket and to question the ‘support’ (or lack thereof) he received from the Head of External Relations. 

It sounds like the kind of thing Joseph Stalin or another narcissistic dictator would demand – telling ‘his people’ who they can and cannot speak to - not what you’d expect from a modern day business school which you’d assume would be constantly seeking to add value and improve in a highly competitive market – and at least listening to, not sanctioning, inputs that could add value. It’s understood that this alumni member wasn’t a recent graduate (not that it should matter), but the Chairman of an International company with over 24 years’ experience advising organisations in strategy, transformation, and leadership. 

Knowing something about leadership, both in theory and practice, this example definitely falls within the power driven, egocentric type – big ego, small…… 

In today’s global economy business schools constantly have to re-invent themselves to survive as, firstly there is a demand from business that they do, and secondly the market is highly competitive – in order to do this you need transformational leaders, who have strong inter-personal skills and who are open to ideas and criticism – something that seems sadly lacking in the example above. In an article by Rich Lyons (2011) he states that “adaptive systems like natural selection respond to external changes, but do not anticipate them. Innovative strategies, on the other hand, are about anticipation,” (p.32). 

Lyons goes on to say that “perhaps more important, as business school leaders, we need to remind ourselves that we are in the human capital business – a long-cycle business.” 

Top business schools have always encouraged healthy and sometimes unhealthy debate – in fact that was one of their founding principles. The forceful and sometimes downright antagonistic debates that went on at Harvard Law were the foundation of case study debates in business schools today. Yet it seems in our global society where we have constant change, you can still find a Dean of a business school who, it appears, is blinded by their own importance. 

So is this example the exception or the rule? Fortunately it appears to be the exception and though there is still a lot of debate about whether business schools are doing enough to prepare their students for business, what’s encouraging is that the Deans of other schools within the UK; such as Judge, LBS and Said, to name just a few, appear to have a much more people-centric approach.  

Colonialism is, or should be dead, and what the world doesn’t need now is any form of colonial leadership, whether in business or academia, as this leadership style stifles innovation, destroys morale and develops internal cultures based on fear and self-preservation. So let’s hope that this example of poor leadership is nipped in the bud and the right changes can be made for the good of the school, the staff and their future. 


Lyons, R. (2011). Paths to Innovative Leadership. BizEd, Jan/Feb, p.32-38.