On Thursday night Allan Leighton launched the latest leg of his bid to raise £1m for Breast Cancer Care. The chairman of Royal Mail (amongst others) got out his little black book and invited some of his most senior business chums to come along to dinner and talk about leadership, in front of a 300-strong audience. Sir Stuart Rose and Val Gooding were the two main attractions, and to make up for a no-show from the ailing Jacqueline Gold, Leighton persuaded CEO chums Adam Crozier and Gail Rebuck, plus entrepreneurs Surinder Arora and Martha Lane Fox to chip in their tuppenceworth from the audience (at rather short notice, by the sounds of it).
However the night began with journalistic royalty in the form of the BBC’s Robert Peston, who told us that he first started to get worried about the economy when a top banker failed to give a convincing definition of the complex CFOs, CDSs and other TLAs that were printing money for his traders. ‘Now people want their £4trn back, which puts a bit of a dampener on things,’ said Peston. ‘The world is going to look a very different place [in a few years] – not necessarily worse, but very different.’
After dinner Leighton was joined on stage by Rose, Gooding and celebrity compere Jon Snow, who presided over a discussion of leadership in times of adversity. And although all three have cut their teeth running huge companies, Leighton insisted that the advice was just as relevant for small firms. ‘Running a small business is exactly the same as running a big business – in fact in some ways it’s harder.’
Leighton’s number one tip was ‘hire a great CEO’ (a nice ego-boost for his Royal Mail chief exec Adam Crozier, who was sitting on his table) and then leave them to run the business (‘He does all the good bits and I take all the credit’). He also talked about how to get the best out of your staff. ‘If people feel respected, if they feel like they’re doing an important job, and if you keep their job as simple as possible, they’ll blossom.'
Rose argued that people really want strong leadership in difficult times – and insisted that he was much happier with M&S’s market position now than when he took over, despite its recent woes. ‘Strong businesses will get through this, weak businesses will go bust,’ he said. Speaking of which, there was lots of discussion about the fate of Woolies: ‘An example of a business that hasn’t moved with the times,' suggested Rose. Gooding also spoke about the resilience of the health sector, while Arora and the (Goethe-quoting) Lane Fox spoke engagingly about keeping the entrepreneurial flame burning.
We even enjoyed an unscheduled contribution from a ‘tired and emotional’ young lady, who decided to launch a slightly unorthodox stage invasion. Eventually the ever-gallant Leighton offered her a seat – wonder if she’ll make the panel for his next event?