Every year old friends send Christmas cards and one of the messages often written is “we really must meet up”.
So this year I made a resolution that this would actually happen, and not only has it been hugely enjoyable, I’ve been amazed at how much others that we haven’t seen for a while can teach us.
It started with a very long-lost friend from the days of my first marriage. As he was the husband of the ex-wife’s best friend the chances of a continuation of our friendship post my divorce, weren’t high, but life moves on, circumstances change, and opportunity arose.
When we finally hooked up again and got up to speed on the last 20 years, we inevitably got to talking about business. He’s had a pretty stellar career and is now running a very large UK public authority.
An outsider might expect us have two very different perspectives – he is running a very diverse public sector organisation, faced with massive cost cutting, while we’re running a very specialised marketing services business.
There’s not a lot of similarity between emptying bins and writing white papers, but in reality both our roles are providing services to clients who don’t care about the challenges we face in delivering them, they simply want the best results, and of course, excellent value.
This got us into the area of examining how you motivate and lead teams.
We all know that inspirational leaders can make pretty poor managers because their focus is on the big picture, and the distant horizon of the blue sky. Equally, many managers get tied up in reporting and figurework, thus losing touch with the minutiae of the job.
That, and the desire to avoid culpability, is why so much money has been spent on management consultants by the public sector over the years – they bring in an independent view. Or as another cynical friend comments – “They get paid a fortune for stating the blooming obvious!”
But the reason we have become such a consultancy culture is that the ‘blooming obvious’ often isn’t to those in charge, even if those doing the work can see it as clear as day.
One (or perhaps two?) whiskies into the discussion, my friend summed the situation up perfectly. “The problem with most large organisations is that all the knowledge they need to do their core business better is already contained within it. The challenge is getting the management to listen.”
But how to overcome that problem?
His solution is to send his managers back to the floor and get them to spend a week doing the jobs of the people they manage on a fairly regular basis. The results are outstanding – shaving nearly 5% of the operating budget in just over 6 months – without losing a single job, and comfortably beating the government’s 1st year cost reduction targets.
Apart from saving costs, it’s been a hugely rewarding exercise, and has boosted staff morale substantially.
It’s also helped to get a grip on productivity. By getting their hands dirty, the managers have seen for themselves the challenges faced by staff, and not just listened to, but implemented, the staff’s ideas for improvements.
And it’s had a beneficial boost in dealing with staff problems – it’s a lot harder to make the case for poor performance when the manager you’re making it to has got his hands just as dirty as you have, and knows exactly which piece of wool you’re trying to pull over his, or her, eyes.
But interestingly, although my friend has little time for ‘consultants’ as a whole, he is a great believer in the value of outsourcing. Especially for specialist areas like recycling, where economies of scale have to be achieved for it to be sustainable, and specialist knowledge areas like IT, and, thankfully for us, creative services such as marketing.
His view is that better value in these areascan be delivered through working with people who work across a number of organisations practising their core skills, rather than building up a headcount that gets very entrenched in day-to-day operations and loses its impartiality.
His model for a public sector business is very interesting – Inspired leadership, strong, respected and knowledgeable management, and a workforce of people who share the objectives of the business as a whole, are listened to and respected for their capabilities and ideas.
Given the results he’s achieving it looks to me like a model many other businesses should be emulating.