Delivering change as a new leader

Hays boss Alistair Cox on the challenges of introducing big changes as an incoming CEO.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When we spoke to Alistair Cox about his restructuring job as CEO of Hays, we realised that this was the second time – following his spell at the helm of outsourcing firm Xansa – that he had come into an organisation at a time when sweeping changes were required. And on both occasions, he was taking over from a leader who’d been at the helm for many years. Since these are both such big management challenges (particularly when you have to deal with them both at once), we were interested to know how he’d gone about it. ‘Quickly’, is perhaps the salient point…

At Xansa, he took over as CEO from long-standing boss Hilary Cropper, who remained in situ as chairman (until she was forced to retire through ill-health). But fortunately for Cox, she wasn’t the type to tread on his toes. ‘To her eternal credit, she said: there’s a bunch of things that need doing; you’re just going to have to do them,’ he says. ‘So she gave me completely free rein to sort things out – including a few sacred cows’.

When he took the Hays gig in 2007, the succession can’t have been easy either: he replaced retiring CEO Denis Waxman, who’d been one of Hays’ co-founders back in 1969 and had run the business ever since. ‘Nobody in the company had ever known anyone else as boss,’ Cox points out. But with a recession looming, he didn’t have time to ease himself in gently. Big changes were clearly required – and he reckons speed was of the essence. ‘You need to cut to the chase quickly. You need to tell people what you’re going to do with the business and why, how you’re going to do it, and what’s in it for them. You’ve got quite a limited timeframe to set your agenda out.’ In practice, this meant his first few months in the job.

So how did staff feel about such a big upheaval? Reaction was split, says Cox: ‘Some people are inherently resistant to change. Some are willing to accept it but not quite sure how to deal with it, and so need help through the process. And some are hungry to change continually.’ Restructuring on this scale is always going to be a painful process – which is why Cox thinks that it’s actually easier to do it as a brand new boss, with no vested loyalties: ‘It’s easier for a new person without any history to just deal with the issues, as opposed to someone who’s been fundamental in putting the business together.’

In fact, says Cox, all incumbent managers should try and think like a newcomer every now and then: ‘Something I think you should try and do periodically is to step back from the business and assume you’ve come in as a new CEO. What are you going to find that the previous CEO hasn’t dealt with yet? Because there are always going to be some things you’ve put in the ‘too hard’ box’. The same will be true for whoever succeeds him, he insists.

Something else Cox reckons bosses need to do is take a closer look at the flexibility of their workforce – getting the balance right between permanent and temporary staff. ‘I strongly believe a flexible workforce should be part of any company’s strategy, in good times as well as bad,’ he argues – but he thinks the approach of many organisations is ‘probably not sophisticated enough, if truth be told’ (both in the number of contract workers they employ, and also the terms on which they employ them). Generally speaking, he thinks the UK is relatively well set up for this – but he’s worried that a ‘steady drip-drip of legislation’ in the area is making the idea less compelling to business. ‘That’s dangerous, because it will erode the UK’s competitiveness at a time when you need to be as competitive as possible.’

Admittedly, as a supplier of contract workers, Cox (and Hays) clearly has a vested interest here – but we can see his point...

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Delivering change as a new leader

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