Why Michael Tobin abducted his staff

The former TelecityGroup boss and author of Forget Strategy, Get Results has a 'radical' approach to management. Here he explains it.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2015

What inspired you to write Forget Strategy, Get Results?

Since running [FTSE 250 technology firm] TelecityGroup, I’m often asked to talk about my ‘radical’ approach to management. When I wanted to encourage my team to break old patterns of thinking, I treated them to an unprotected swim with sharks. When I needed to diffuse tension between colleagues who had previously been bitter rivals, I took them up to the Arctic Circle where they had to huddle together to keep warm at night. I wanted to write those stories down to help managers think differently, to break the traditional way of doing things.

Where did you get your maverick, entrepreneurial spirit?

I had an unusual upbringing. I was born in the East End and moved to Rhodesia with my mother when I was seven to escape my abusive father. We then moved to apartheid-era South Africa, where we were petrol bombed and shot at. When we returned to London, we moved into a squat in Stockwell and made ends meet by selling pianos that had been abandoned in condemned houses. I landed an apprenticeship with a local factory-equipment maker and went from engineering, to sales, to management. I didn’t go to university. All the strategies in the book are, to me, instinctive, practical common sense.

You arranged for members of your team to be ‘abducted’ on a trip to Tallinn. Tell us about that.

It was shortly after the Telecity IPO. I’d been trying to explain to staff that, as a public company, you can no longer speak to journalists in the same way; your comments can affect the share price.  Even a ‘no comment’ can land you in hot water. They nodded along but I wasn’t convinced they understood. I arranged for our next management meeting to be held in Tallinn. After a meal out one evening, we were walking back to the hotel when three ‘armed soldiers’ grabbed us, pushed us through a medieval doorway, lined us up and started interrogating us. Everyone was nervous and frightened. Four members of the team blurted out something about our company which, had it been relayed to a journalist, might have been sensitive to the share performance. I later explained that I’d organised the whole thing through a specialist travel agency called Black Tomato to show just how easy it is to become tricked into revealing information. An important lesson learned – albeit in an unconventional way.

One of your mantras is "regret nothing". What’s been your biggest mistake?

Instead of going to university, I became an apprentice at the age of 16, earning £30 a week. I often wonder if I missed out. Then again, if I went to university, would I be the same person that I am now?

You advise managers to ‘forget strategy’. Should they bin their business plans?

Business plans are important but they’re overly prescriptive; you need to take the structure out of them. After all, a rival could torpedo your five-year plan in seconds. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, 'everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team'. My advice is to hire people better than you, articulate your vision and then let them figure out how to get there. It’s not about managing people, it’s about leading them.

Forget Strategy. Get Results (£16.99) is published by Wiley. This article was first published in April 2014.

Michael Tobin will be sharing his unusual approach to management at MT Live Edinburgh on Wednesday 4 February. Fellow speakers include Kath Mainland, CEO of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society; Sir Peter Lederer, former chairman of Gleneagles Hotel; and Sir John Elvidge, chairman of Edinburgh Airport. Last chance to book tickets!

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