Leadership for real

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Written by Stuart Walkley on 1 February 2013 in Interviews

In a new, occasional series, Stuart Walkley talks to leaders about what they need to control if their businesses are to be successful. This month, he puts the question to Malcolm McHutchinson

Far too often leadership has been reduced to series of complex models and smug consultant-speak. It's time to hear a more authentic voice. I captured the direct words of leaders in the UK today, posing them a simple-enough question: "These days, what do leaders need to control if their business is to succeed?"

Malcolm McHutchison, managing director BTA and group director of marketing at cash flow management specialist Talaris (pictured above), said: "Control still matters but control is exercised in different ways and is probably redefined. There is no way that, with my chief executive holding me responsible for the P&L of £280m in revenue and £60m in EBITDA, I am not going to feel the need to exercise some control somewhere or at some time!

"Business does not run itself and cannot be left to chance.

"Looking at how I spend my time in a 'typical week', I guess I spend a day each on:

  • the market (customers, key sales reviews etc)
  • key management (one-to-ones, tracking key milestones on programmes, assessing how they are) 
  • finance (monthly/half-yearly results/forecasts, understanding the shape of the business)
  • managing the CEO and board stakeholders
  • solutions and strategy (product development, managing capital programmes, restructuring, acquisitions).

"There is always another travel day squeezed in there somewhere in case they aren't all full days!

"Alignment of interest is a really powerful concept. If you are managing senior people within a private equity-owned organisation, you are invariably managing fellow shareholders. All shareholders are motivated to maximise shareholder returns and, assuming it is performing okay, have little incentive to leave the business. This alignment of interest sets a strong and consistent strategic context for decision making, trust and performance within the business. I guess long-term incentive plans (if they are attractive enough) may do the same in non private equity-owned firms but the ability to motivate and move people's thinking as shareholders takes the individual somewhat out of the equation (but not always).

"Control, therefore, for me is about getting people to respect company protocols… not organisational charts and set hierarchies.

"The thing that is important is to control information flow rather than control people. One leads to the other without people feeling it. People control themselves, or should do in well-run businesses where talent is recognised and expectations made. They need to manage the business, to be in control and to know what is expected of them.

"Following this logic, the importance for me and my team of this is that they know they are 100 per cent supported if things fail and they are not exposed. We jointly carry accountability either way, but me having control of the issue means they feel less burdened by accountability for it (now shared by me). This works when they trust me to allow them the oxygen to be directly recognised by the CEO (not via me) when things go well.

"Personally there are four things where I feel I need to stay in particular control, to be held accountable and to be of most value to the company:

  • managing financial numbers
  • anything to do with the main board
  • any form of restructuring
  • strategic development I am more relaxed about because it is inherently more fluid and needs to be collegiate.

"I am fairly light touch on some of this stuff, but I think it is really important to occasionally show my 'darker, broodier, angry' side. It just shows people you've got it and that, if the light touch control isn't working, here's a glimpse of how we can also work."

About the author

Stuart Walkley is director of Oakridge Training and Consulting. He can be contacted via www.oakridgecentre.co.uk



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