Lessons from the frontline
Michael Tobin urges us to forget strategy and get results by making sense of real life business
Trying to distil the essence of what you do every single day of your working life, usually instinctively, often instantly, sometimes inexplicably, into a book is a very strange process.
It might be easier to sum it all up after retirement (if such a concept is actually valid these days), with time to reflect back on how the things you did in business worked, didn’t work, or somehow happened. Or if you are writing from a theoretical, academic point of view, well, it’s only a theory, so you can put it out there and see whether anyone agrees.
But the whole point of my first book was that I was writing it while I was running flat out in my role as CEO of TelecityGroup. I had to step back, mentally if not physically, from the day-to-day flux, problems and issues and create an overview of the mind-set I was applying to all the myriad elements of my job – but while I was doing them. It was a bit like trying to re-tune the engine of a car while pelting up the fast lane, pedal to the metal.
The weird thing was it really helped. By analysing how I operated as a business leader and trying to articulate my way of working at the very same time I was making those decisions, it allowed me to understand myself more. I wasn’t taking time out to write the book, I was taking time in.
The ideas and lessons of the book, which I hoped would be valuable for its readers, were just as valuable for me. It reminded me how important it is to keep learning: Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” As I was just coming up to a significant birthday the idea of reviewing and rethinking, and of questioning and querying everything I was doing, was very refreshing.
Here’s a case in point. In the spring of 2013 – while I was in mid-flow on the text – Telecity acquired a new data centre in Istanbul. Turkey was a completely new territory for us as a company, and I needed to make the deal happen fast. But I had just appointed one of my core management team, Rob, who’d handled most of our recent acquisitions, to head up our UK operation.
Rob said he’d be happy to help with the Istanbul deal, but I didn’t want him to divert his energies from his new role so soon into it. The problem I had was that there was no time to go through the lengthy process of recruiting a replacement for him. I was going to have to draw on the resources available. Which in turn meant asking two other members of the management team, Matthew, the head of investor relations, and James, my chief commercial officer, to do something they had never done before.
But as I said to them, “This is how you learn. On the job. On the edge.” I’m not sure how convinced they were at the time, since despite their huge experience and abilities in their specific fields, in this particular task they were completely untested.
I had faith in them. I knew in my heart that if I gave them the freedom to use their own abilities, along with the confidence to make the most of that freedom, they would do a terrific job. We had been working together long enough for them to be imbued with the values of the company as well as, if not even better than me. And guess what, they did a great deal out in Turkey, exceeding my expectations.
More than that, though, I could see them both growing as human beings. I now knew that I had a team that was even more capable of adding value to the company, and who in turn would be able to impart their knowledge to others.
Because this was all happening in front of me, and around me, while I was actually in the process of thinking about explaining the power of vision to inspire and instruct, there was an immediacy to the story I particularly liked.
It also meant that I could talk to James and Matthew and understand their own reactions to what I had asked them to do, in real time. Matthew told me that he had found the prospect of leading the acquisition negotiations quite daunting to start with. But because I had given them masses of trust and freedom, and made it crystal clear I did not want to hear about every detail, every problem, every negotiation point, he was realising that this was in fact immensely empowering. Which was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Taking that sense of freedom as a starting point, I began formulating the book around the idea of ten core F Factors: alongside Freedom would be Flexibility and Focus, Faith and Failure... Another F was Fun. I completely agree with Napoleon Bonaparte, that in victory we deserve champagne; in defeat we need it.
Applying fun to company learning is tricky. Company bonding sessions tend to receive something of a bad press, not entirely unjustified – we’ve all been on exercises run by overly cheerful facilitators involving assault course or role playing and gone back home wondering what it had all been about. Are they junkets which are nothing more than a staff jolly, or is there a quantifiable and positive outcome?
I believe that, used in the right way, bonding and shared fun can help to create cohesion as well as neutralising conflict. The key element is addressing a genuine, specific problem, rather than booking a few days out and hoping everyone will come away having learnt something useful.
I tend to respond to issues that have cropped up within the company at any given time and then find a way to bring them into focus through a shared event, ideally cemented by fun.
In 2006 I was merging Redbus and Telecity into one new entity. They had been bitter rivals in the data centre industry for many years. I needed the post-merger team to bond quickly and set all of that rivalry aside. In the office, there was a veneer of professionalism between the new colleagues, but I could sense the deeper tension and mistrust lying behind it all.
I was aware I needed to break the ice, which gave me an idea! We went for a management session away from the office at the Ice Hotel in Lapland. If you’ve never been there, everything in the hotel is carved from ice: chairs, tables, glasses, even the beds are made out of ice. There is no electricity, only candles, and since the rooms are freezing cold, each room sleeps two to a bed under furs, using the heat of each person’s body to keep the other warm, purely to make it through the night. The loos are outside in temperatures of -30 to -40ºC in the pitch black, so if you want to nip out during the night, your roommate has to guide you out and back in, firstly to make sure you don’t get lost, and secondly because they have a vested interest in your safe return to keep them warm for the rest of the night.
I placed pairs of the more prickly rivals from the same company together as I knew they would be obliged to overcome any embarrassment and set aside their differences. And I added another twist.
The team arrived at the hotel in the morning for the first meeting, only to find a message from me that I had missed my flight and they should start without me. The immediate reaction of many was that this was highly unprofessional of me. In fact it was a deliberate ploy. Without me there the team, alone for the first time since the merger, had to create their own agenda. Neither of the old companies was going to let the other dominate. They immediately set to work and formulated, together, a vision of where we were heading.
I turned up later on, told them about the sleeping arrangements (a few raised eyebrows and nervous laughter) and took them to the vodka bar. I wanted their guard to be down and their bladders full! Next morning we reconvened at breakfast. Everyone had a soft, smiley face. They understood why I had done this. After another work session we headed out on skidoos to a nearby frozen lake, and enjoyed salmon and schnapps. Everyone was exhausted but happy, there was no more positioning. Any awkwardness had melted away. It was a magical moment – and back in the office things had changed radically. The permafrost had thawed once and for all.
That was the core of the team that in due course steered the company through our initial public offering (IPO) in late 2007. We were the only technology IPO to get away in the UK as the world economy dived all around us. With a shortage of positive business success stories to hand it created a lot of press interest.
I called the staff together and told them that things were different now that we were no longer a private company. They would have to watch everything they said in response to any enquiry from outsider – who knew who might be fishing for an angle? As a public company, a stray word or two could easily impact on the share price. “Yeah, yeah, Mike,’” everyone nodded wisely, “We know what we’re doing.” They looked slightly miffed that I thought they weren’t 100 per cent media-savvy. I wasn’t entirely sure. I’d had a few sessions of media training and had been surprised by how easy it was to be manipulated by a journalist who knew the game far better than any of us ever could.
My solution this time was to arrange a management meeting in Tallinn. Picked up in some superannuated Trabants, our gruff drivers dropped us off at the hotel, before we went to an old-style folkloric restaurant. It all felt very pre-Glasnost. Walking back down a medieval cobbled street, we were abruptly stopped by some armed soldiers – or police, it wasn’t clear.
We were somewhat roughly herded into a hallway and taken one by one to a separate room. “What’s your name?”, an interrogator snapped straightaway before shooting out a bunch of rapid-fire questions from behind a bright light – “Why are you here? Who do you work for? What is your share price? Who are you planning to acquire?” Of course, it didn’t take long for everyone to work out what the game was, but it was amazing how many people gave away something revealing that could have been sensitive to our share performance.
It had all been set up with the help of a specialist agency – and might seem like an elaborate way of getting my message across. But again, like the Ice Hotel experience, it really worked. It hit home. So much so that now on one of our regular analyst days where press, investors and analysts visit one of locations for a tour and a presentation, I don’t say a word. Sometimes I don’t even attend. That’s the confidence I have in every member of my team to handle incredibly sensitive communications.
I could have sent them on a bunch of seminars and courses, but the risk of an inadvertent comment would still have been there. The Tallinn ‘interrogation’ was a one-hit, memorable experience that is still bearing fruit.
And not only do these experiences deliver results, they also feed into the company culture and folklore. They are woven into the fabric of our vision. New employees are told these stories by those who were there as if they were legends handed down from generations past.
I once took a team, just before that merger of Redbus and Telecity, to swim with sharks in a chilly Firth of Forth, without nets, Plexiglas or cages. Upfront and personal with 3-metre-long hammerheads and tiger sharks. Even though I knew the sharks had been well-fed by their expert handlers in advance, I was still scared when I swam down for my turn.
Why did I set that up? Because I wanted everyone to confront fear, in the immediate term, fear of sharks, but more broadly fear of merging with another company, and of the job losses that would, sadly and inevitably, ensue. As it happened nearly everyone who did that shark swim did survive the cuts. And years later, at my wedding, three of my four best men (don’t ask) had been part of that swim, and all of them mentioned it in their speeches.
What have I learnt from all of this? That the best learning comes from addressing real issues, and that if you can find a way of making that point in a dramatic, almost theatrical way, the core message is long-lasting – and not only endures but becomes a crucial element in the overall company culture.
Investing some imagination, time and money at the front end in a project with some real edge and bite (potentially so in the case of the sharks – after we had been, one of the handlers at the shark centre got bitten by one of his charges) sticks long in the memory and pays quantifiable long-term dividends.
Something to bear in mind next time you’re booking the team in for a paintball weekend.
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