UK: Sir John Harvey-Jones - Memoirs of a natural subversive. (2 of 2)

UK: Sir John Harvey-Jones - Memoirs of a natural subversive. (2 of 2) - Yet for all the personal insecurity, for all the slightly tortured feeling that life (including a family which he adores) is more important than work, Sir John never refused a challe

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Yet for all the personal insecurity, for all the slightly tortured feeling that life (including a family which he adores) is more important than work, Sir John never refused a challenge, never took his foot off the ladder, and never, on his own account, hesitated to act vigorously even when starting from positions of serious ignorance. In this case, at least, ICI seems to have taken little care to prepare its executive material for each step of that ladder.

But Sir John, a superbly self-taught manager, was well prepared for the chair by his own observations and goading when, in the position of main board director in his early years, he found himself underloaded for the first time in his career (he calls that phase "The Bored Years").

His major criticisms of ICI in pre-board days are directed at this institution, which combined great theoretical power with strange weakness: how many other companies would allow divisional heads, led by Sir John, to form their own committee - an act which some understandably thought "subversive and even insubordinate"? The truth is that Sir John is subversive by nature and mind. The BOP ideal does not include the humorous, troubleshooting iconoclasm that piloted its possessor through the convoluted coils of ICI's workings to a position where he could and did straighten some of them out.

But you can scotch the snake without killing it: "very upset" by the news that Sir John was to write his memoirs, his former board colleagues insisted that they should not be mentioned by name, "or in any way that any of them could be identified as individuals". What made these men so afraid? Even five years, it appears, is not long enough to change a corporate culture at main board level. But that is another story, one at which this affectionate and honest account of a life excellently spent only hints.

(Robert Heller is a former editor of Management Today.)

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