Monday 18 July 2016

The Legacy Man

Avoiding the folly of corporate self-aggrandisement

I’ve a new client. Great guy, been around forever, one of the all time great survivors. He’s been through a lot, but always seems to keep on the success-side of the street. Kurt, his name, Scandinavian background, big built, big presence and big, big ideas. I saw him last week in his new role as CEO of a packaging firm and, since I’m trying to get his business to develop some of his key people, he kindly laid out his current strategy.

All was sounding good until he mentioned the “L” word. “I’ve been in business a long time Rudi,” he said, “achieved just about all I ever wanted, but there’s a few things I’ve left to do. I want to retire in
about three years when my contract is over and leave something, behind me, something lasting.” Kurt hesitated or a moment, leaving the word he was about to say unspoken.

I steeled myself, to say it, knowing I’d regret it the instant it popped into my head.

“A legacy, “I ventured, “ almost whispering the word.

“Exactly!”, cried Kurt, jumping up his seat, his blue eyes flashing with passion and obvious, pent-up emotion. “A legacy, that will last for years to come. Something that they’ll always remember me for.”

Oh dear, oh dear, I thought. What have I gone and gotten myself into this time?

You see, I have a thing about this sort of stuff. Attempting to leave a legacy behind you, is not the icing on the cake, but the poison on the pill - it just doesn’t work. It’s tantamount to committing professional suicide. Time after time I’ve seen business leaders, pour thousands of dollars, dinars and dalasis (*) funding chairs of learning (my goodness where would our B-schools be today if not for misguided -or should I say misgifted- CEOs), that they vainly hope will preserve their name long after the pages of corporate history have curled up and faded.

Sadly, there was a dilemma for me. Should I tell Kurt the horrible truth; that trying to leave a legacy will open him to ridicule and worse, as he joins a long list of misguided, swollen-headed leaders? Is it really worth losing a good friend, not to mention his business, just because he’s got a little above himself?

As our eyes met, it took just a nano-second to transmit my look of doubt (was there a small smidgen of disdain in there too?), and I knew that I’d scored. Looking back on it some hours later, I realised that I didn’t actually have to say anything, he knew what I thought. And he was smart enough to know - without missing a beat - that what I thought was exactly the reaction that everyone else would have: the board, the team, the employees the clients, customers the whole kit and caboodle.

The moment was over. He sat back and looked at me, drained his coffee cup, sighed and said, “You know Rudi, being a leader isn’t much fun really, too much to think about, too many responsibilities.”

I nodded eagerly in agreement. “Yes, but a good leader has to know when NOT to do stuff too.” Again our eyes met. I knew that he knew, that he’d made a fool of himself. But he knew I’d saved him from making a massive mistake, a folly of corporate self-aggrandisement that would be difficult to ever live down – just the legacy you DON’T want. My one look of horror, well mixed with disbelief, was sufficient.

We never spoke of it again – not ever. The business school that would have been the recipient of his largesse, went unfunded. No matter. Another poor sap is always only too eager to have a tablet cemented above the door lintel as a tribute to their – and their shareholders - largesse. They don’t do a chair in corporate stupidity yet – maybe they should think of one.

(*) I didn’t make this up, its the national currency of Gambia, but it rhymes nicely !!!

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage direct with Rudi Plettinx here.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Take-out in a Takeover

The MD of course!

There’s a lot going on in that big bad business world of mine. Most prominently is the present penchant by ambitious leaders to leave a lasting legacy by taking over someone else’s business. It’s sort of like a leader’s right of passage to pay through the nose to gobble up a rival’s business, do the macho media thing, and then sit back and watch the whole thing collapse.

It is a known fact that more than 80 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail within three years. B-schools are packed to the rafters with tragi-comedic case studies. Yet, still otherwise sane, successful CEOs persist in giving it a go.

My old friend, Charles, has done more mergers than anyone I know and he seems to make them work. Has a practically unblemished track record. So what does he do, that others don’t? Why does he get away with it every time against the odds?

We were sitting in the departure lounge in Frankfurt airport, (the one place where it is odds on if you pass through enough times you’ll eventually meet everyone you know) waiting for a plane that seemed reluctant to take flight.
I settled into my comfy chair hugging a Virgin Mary, (vodka can wait ‘til I get airborne) and asked Charles the secret of his uncanny success.

He thought for a while, then turned to me and said. “Really it’s very simple; it’s all about who you fire in the first 24 hours. Stick to that formula, no matter what and you’ll be fine.” Then he smiled, and added, “There are four people who’ve just got to go right away. In fact, the first 60 seconds isn’t a bad idea.”
“Four?” I said, isn’t that a lot of disruption, so quickly?”
“Yes, F-O-U-R” he countered, with added emphasis.

So who are they?” my curiosity peaked.

Charles held up his fingers. “ONE, The President, MD or founder, goes right away. His or her attachment to the business is just that, bad for business. Remember, you bought this company for its potential, you can’t be all goo-goo about history and people that want to leave a legacy.”

“OK, so who’s next?” By this time I was getting into the spirit of the game, brutal as it all sounded.

“TWO, is the marketing guy. Why? Well he or she wanted to be the next president, so they will be a major barrier to anything you want to do. Get in there and get them out, day one, then we can all get back to doing business with a clear sense of purpose.

THREE, the CFO, he can just mess you around, if he’s bitter can screw you with the analysts and the rest of the financial community. You don’t need him, do you?

“FOUR, and this may come as a surprise, the head of sales. Has to be at the top of my list always,”

I was surprised by his choice, and told him so. “But don’t you need the top sales guy to be on board? Isn’t that about retaining continuity?”

“No, you keep the second best sales guy, but always fire the best one otherwise he’ll tell your customers and suppliers the wrong stories.” Charles looked about him and added in a whisper, “Sales people always know everything because they are out of the office every day talking to everyone. You want them talking UP the business, not talking it down.” Then he quickly added, “Scratch a great sales guy and under the surface they always want to run the business, think they can do it better than anyone else. Have in-built zero loyalty as a default setting, “he sighed, sounding like he was recalling past encounters.

Anything else, I queried?

“Well if you are still into killing off potential troublemakers you can throw in one more. Your legal counsel will always revert to type and be more loyal to their profession than the business. They love building barriers and explaining why you can’t do things. So do you need them?”
Just then my flight was called. I made my excuses and got up to leave. “Sure about those four on the list?” I said as I walked out.
“Absolutely,” said Charles, waving me goodbye, “that’s what I’m doing first thing tomorrow morning.

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage direct with Rudi Plettinx here.