BACKS TO THE WALL

BACKS TO THE WALL - Gone are the days of the swaggering, charismatic superhero bosses of the late 1990s. In these straitened times, the new leadership ideal is unshowy, hardworking and consensus-building, presenting a measured but informal demeanour. Matthew Gwyther meets the bosses who have been hired to rescue two of Britain's most hapless institutions: the Strategic Rail Authority and ITV.

by MATTHEW GWYTHER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Gone are the days of the swaggering, charismatic superhero bosses of the late 1990s. In these straitened times, the new leadership ideal is unshowy, hardworking and consensus-building, presenting a measured but informal demeanour. Matthew Gwyther meets the bosses who have been hired to rescue two of Britain's most hapless institutions: the Strategic Rail Authority and ITV.

Remember the late '90s? Those were the days when you hardly had to get out of bed but your company's turnover still went up by 20% each year. The days when stock markets just carried on going up, your job was secure and the headhunters kept calling.

Management was a light hand on the tiller of an ocean-going yacht named Onwards 'n' Upwards. Well, that vessel has since dismasted and run aground in a Force Eight downturn. These days, one hears rather less about management.

With times as tough as they now are, the buzzword is leadership. Everybody wants leadership. How you can create it, develop it, buy it, imitate it.

Just what is its secret? Answers come in the cascade of business books on the subject that has gushed out over the past year.

First there was Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer - that one pushed the British lantern-jawed 'getting your men out of a tight spot intact' line; then there was Leadership the Sven-Goran Eriksson Way - How to turn your team into winners. (Maybe the reprint should include a chapter entitled 'How to cope with Brazilians who are miles better than you are'.) Enter stage right Laurence Olivier's son Richard, who published a book about leaders in the works of Shakespeare.

From over the pond four more came in, from Colin Powell, General Patton, Jack Welch and Larry Ellison. And, yes, ex-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who helped his city overcome the adversities of 9/11, in search of a punchy title for his autobiography, came up with Leadership, a title that by then sounded less than original. But don't let it detain you for too long (MT's reviewer dismissed it as cartoonish and dreadful).

Other contenders included Jesus, CEO, followed a couple of weeks later by The Leadership of Jesus. There was no chapter on watching out for the Judas at the boardroom table or tips on walking on water in front of your workforce. However, we're sure that the worst that will happen to a failing British CEO is a metaphorical rather than a literal crucifixion at the hands of shareholders.

Yes, leadership is everywhere, and it is telling that the role models and exponents of successful leadership in adversity come not from business itself - out of favour as it is at the moment - but from outside, from sport, exploration, the military.

With economic conditions deteriorating and problems aplenty for many businesses, we at MT detect a new sort of leader coming to the fore. Whether born or made, this is not the charismatic Henry the Fifth type, leading sword-in-hand from the front and urging troops 'once more unto the breach'.

Now the mood is more one of how to be a leader in retreat, and we listen to the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-tzu - 'To lead the people, walk behind them'. These new leaders seem quieter, more considered. Perhaps a little boring. It used to be a case of when the going gets tough, the tough get going, but maybe now the conventionally tough get sidelined.

The pages of Fortune, once filled with noisy superheroes like Jack Welch and Tom Siebel, now praise modest family-centred men with a solid lifetime's service to companies like Johnson & Johnson as the new role models.

If ever there was an industry in need of strong leadership, it is Britain's railways. A dilapidated infrastructure combined with an indifferent, even fractious workforce; historical under-investment; and a fragmented organisational model - all this creates a near-unique set of problems and reasons for under-achievement. As a result, the relationship between our railways and its customers is about the most poisonous in commerce. Since privatisation, rail has had no champion, no figurehead to draw things together.

Its new leader emerged just over a year ago in the form of Richard Bowker, appointed to run the Strategic Rail Authority. As a boss, Bowker is unconventional. The ex-commercial director of the Virgin group, he is just 35 and wears chinos and an open-necked Timberland shirt to the office. And he likes canal boating.

'If you ever wondered what the Milky Bar kid looked like when he grew up,' said the Observer on his appointment, 'wonder no more.'

But it would be a mistake to think the new chairman/CEO doesn't have steel. 'I'm not one of those command-and-control, fire-and-brimstone people,' he says, 'but occasionally I have to bang heads together. I'm not a bully, but I can be incredibly persistent.'

He certainly has a powerful reputation as a highly skilled negotiator, and this is a vital weapon in his armoury because, just to compound the other problems in his job, Bowker cannot, of course, take ultimate control of his business. Government, via the Secretary of State for Transport, holds the whip hand and the purse-strings.

Bowker took the impossible job nobody wanted. He has to bring together passengers, train-operating companies, the carcass of Railtrack, and the Government, and move them forward. So far, leadership for Bowker has been the realignment of expectation. He has cut 100 trains a day from the timetable and scaled back the West Coast mainline upgrade, the cost of which had ascended manifold. He quickly learned one of the first painful lessons of leadership: however nice you are (and he is clearly civilised and likable), you cannot hope to be loved all the time. While empathy for those who are led is vital, leadership is not a popularity contest.

'Drawing a line in the sand' is a favoured phrase of his. He knows very well that the rail industry needs to put the grim recent past behind it and replace it with a positive, forward-thinking vision. Every leader needs a mantra and Bowker's is 'professionalisation'.

It's not an elegant word, but one can see exactly what he's driving at - giving customers what they want, when they want it, in the way so many other businesses have to do, day-in, day-out.

When asked who his own leadership hero is, he immediately responds with the name of Sir Peter Parker, who chaired the old BR from 1976 to '83 (he died last year). 'Peter was one of the greatest industrial leaders of the last quarter-century,' says Bowker. 'He had an external humility and calmness but steel ran through him. He was the one who set the course for the railway to have a new professional base. Shortly after I got this job I called him up and met him.'

One hopes Bowker's leadership role will prove more fruitful than Sir Peter's, who once described his job at BR as being a constant battle to shore up 'the crumbling edge of quality'.

After the railways, the business going through its most trying times is ITV. In the old days, ITV owned the infamous 'licence to print money', but recently things have cut up very rough indeed.

The role of ITV chief executive went unfilled for months, all those who were offered the lucrative position dismissing it as a poisoned chalice.

Apart from the failure of ITV Digital, the problems besetting the company included the worst advertising recession in television's history, all kinds of programming flops and diminishing audience figures, and then the bungled attempt to lure Channel Five's Dawn Airey as its chief exec, only to see her join Sky.

The solution that Michael Green of Carlton and Charles Allen of Granada finally settled on was to split the role in a job-share between Clive Jones, CEO of Carlton Channels, and Mick Desmond, head of Granada's advertising sales business. By coincidence, Jones and Desmond come from the same Welsh valley.

Desmond has a lot in common with Richard Bowker: relative youth (he is 43), a mildness of manner and a keenness to get back to basics. Again, the Government holds the key to the business's destiny, as it has a veto on whether Granada and Carlton merge formally.

Television's senior management cadre has attracted a large number of shouters and bullies over the years, but Desmond does not use the jackboot.

'I don't believe in leading by using a dictatorial, coercive style. In crisis situations that can work for a short period, but it just runs out of steam. You cannot lead people through fear.'

You especially can't lead creative people through coercion, and the television industry - even at ITV1, which can often appear grimly formulaic - is still supposed to be a creative one.

Desmond doesn't agree that the situation has become dire, despite recent poor audience figures. 'We don't have our backs to the wall. That would be desperation,' he protests. 'The analogy I prefer to use is one from rugby. We are trying to win hard yards.'

Leadership for Desmond also means a close understanding of his enemies, the most deadly of which are Sky and the BBC. Does he think Sky is well led? 'It's driven by Murdoch and his style is different from the rest of us because he plays a longer game around a political agenda. He controls this Labour Government by owning a majority of the press. He's a very ruthless businessman.'

And the BBC? 'We've had a double whammy there. First with Birt getting the extra funding and then Greg Dyke, who is very commercially minded, running it in a way the Government did not intend. The BBC is awash with money at the moment. They've got so much cash they don't know what to do with it.'

Now a leadership book from Greg Dyke - that would have all publishers of business books falling over each other to get his ink on the contract.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today