UK: THE MAIN ATTRACTION - WHEN A SPEAKING INVITATION IS ACCEPTABLE AND WHEN IT ISN'T.

UK: THE MAIN ATTRACTION - WHEN A SPEAKING INVITATION IS ACCEPTABLE AND WHEN IT ISN'T. - Chairmen and chief executives of major companies are under constant pressure to stand and deliver. They receive an endless stream of invitations to address their peer

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Chairmen and chief executives of major companies are under constant pressure to stand and deliver. They receive an endless stream of invitations to address their peers - and lesser mortals - at national conferences and private functions, and seminars and round tables, this week, next week and the week after. Certain requests perhaps have to be accepted whether the speaker likes it or not. Others will be highly optional although many of these might also be accepted. But what makes a captain of industry decide whether to say yes - or, with equal grace, no?

Predictably, perhaps, business leaders tend towards unanimity on the subject about which they are most ready to hold forth. 'The company, the company, the company,' intones British Petroleum chairman Sir David Simon, who is always eager to take the platform at 'events where the company's reputation and performance may be enhanced by my personal participation'. Keith Oates, Marks & Spencer's deputy chairman, takes a very similar view: 'The criterion must be the perceived benefits to the company which pays the businessman's main salary.' Martin Taylor, chief executive of a well known banking group, is willing to talk 'to any audience where I feel this gives some help to Barclays'.

The more prestigious the occasion (or the audience, which usually comes to the same thing), the greater the help and the perceived benefits. Thus Simon is likely to give priority to conferences of, for example, the CBI (he was a programme speaker at Harrogate in November) or which are sponsored by governments or heavyweight bodies such as Chatham House. Naturally, distinguished audiences must not be fed propaganda.

But as long as the speaker is an expert, almost any subject could serve to advance the corporate good. When Simon spoke to the CBI last year it was on the EMU debate: he belongs to a working group of European industrialists and is much preoccupied by competition issues. He has also been known to pronounce on corporate governance as a member of the Hampel Committee, and is interested in education through various business school links.

Niall FitzGerald, Unilever's new chairman, likewise asks himself, 'Is it something on which I have strong views and can speak with knowledge and enthusiasm? At Glaxo Wellcome, chairman Sir Richard Sykes seems less concerned than most about 'promoting the company' - except of course, as an executive explains, 'in the broadest sense'.

The 1997 Innovation Lecture, which Keith Oates will deliver before an invited audience at the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centre, Westminster, on 27 February, could offer the best of all worlds: a distinguished gathering plus 'an opportunity to explain how the development of new products and ideas is in the bloodstream of Marks & Spencer'. But if it might benefit the company, many top managers are endlessly prepared to dwell on this subject, and to less august listeners.

'Maybe groups of customers, or suppliers of services,' suggests Taylor.

'I am always glad to speak to school pupils or students about the company and the sector, and careers in them,' offers Andrew Teare, chief executive of The Rank Group.

So which speaking invitations are less welcome, and therefore more likely to be turned down? 'From anybody else,' says Taylor, meaning anyone who's in no position to influence the company's fortunes. 'Those which are for the self-promotion of the speaker,' answers FitzGerald. 'Those where you are not expected to talk about the company,' says Simon. 'Also those where the script matters.' Simon prefers to work from half-a-dozen bullet points: 'When not speaking from a script you're in free fall,' - and vulnerable to every kind of mis-construction. 'It is always flattering to be asked to speak, but time pressures prevent acceptance of all except a few invitations,' replies Oates, making a point that's constantly echoed by others. Teare's response is straight from the shoulder: 'Evening functions of any type.'

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