Monday, 30 January 2012

Why are so many leaders so bad at their jobs?

In spite of the massive amount of research into the subject and the plethora of training offerings available to new leaders, still they fail.

In the USA, some 40% of new leaders lose their jobs within 18 months. And there’s scant evidence that the 60% who manage to remain in post are much more competent or successful.

In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull published a best-selling book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. Maybe it’s time for a new generation of managers to discover it. It’s still in print.

The best-known maxim enunciated by the authors was that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”.

What appears to happen is that managers who do well in a particular role get promoted and fail miserably in the more senior job, which usually requires a quite different personality, approach and skill-set.

When I worked in the advertising business, the best copywriters and art directors regularly were moved up to be creative directors in charge of lots of very volatile underlings. They almost invariably lacked the people skills that mark out the finest creative directors.

The only person that I ever worked with who really understood this was Charles Saatchi. His best creatives stayed in the jobs where they excelled, applauded and paid tons of money, while others better suited provided the leadership and management.

More recent research* seems to confirm the Peter Principle. Rather extraordinarily, it appears that promoting people who are not good at their jobs has a greater success rate than promoting the ones who are.

But surely the key point is to understand what’s really needed in particular leadership roles ‒ and identify and put in place people who genuinely fit the bill.

*“The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study,” Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, Physica A, vol. 389, no. 3, February 2010, pp. 467-72.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Alfred Hill: Australasia’s finest composer?

How exciting it must have been for the sixteen year-old Australasian, Alfred Hill, to arrive in Leipzig to study violin and composition in 1887, able to observe at close quarters most of the greatest musicians and composers of that time – Brahms, Joachim, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Sarasate, Bruch and Ysaÿe among them ‒ and within two years to be inducted into the legendary Gewandhaus orchestra.

Born in Melbourne in 1869, he was raised in Wellington, where he became something of a musical prodigy before going on to Leipzig to study at the Conservatorium. The training he received there was extremely thorough, but already Leipzig was felt by many to be living in the past, under the shadow of Mendelssohn and Schumann.

So how sad, later in life, to be deemed out-of-date and consequently ignored in one’s own lifetime.

Over the course of a long life, lived primarily in Sydney, Alfred Hill composed constantly, and, although he experimentally incorporated both Maori and Aboriginal motifs in his work, he never escaped from the late Romantic style he acquired in Leipzig. In the meantime, from the early years of the twentieth century, the musical world had become preoccupied with “modernism” – Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and the rest.

The consequence is that the bulk of Hill’s music languishes in various libraries in Australia and New Zealand, unperformed and unknown.

So kudos to Naxos and to the Dominion Quartet for recording all of Alfred Hill’s fine series of quartets for the first time. And to the DQ’s viola-player, Donald Maurice, for editing and publishing Hill’s fascinating Leipzig diary.

But there’s so much more to discover.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Importance of Being Plausible

Walking the canals in Birmingham (more there than in Venice, don’t you know) with friends from Sydney, I was asked by one of them who had invented the vitally important system of locks.

I had no idea. “Don’t think it was the Romans,” was all I could offer.

So I decided to approach the skipper of a passing narrow-boat. He and his crew at that moment had just negotiated their way through another lock (more than in Venice, we can be sure). He looked to me very much the expert, cap set at jaunty angle.

Not fazed at all by my approach, he gave us a rather comprehensive answer. The Chinese were involved, of course. The Babylonians. The Dutch (very flat, Holland). And something about Robert Barron in England, who had invented the “double-acting tumbler lock” in 1778.

I was impressed and said so to our helpful informant, adding: “At least, it all sounded very plausible to me – and plausibility is very important, you know.”

My little jest did not result in any smiles from Mr Jaunty Cap. In fact he gave me a rather odd look.

As we walked away, my wife Sophie said to me: “You do know who that was?”

“No idea,” I responded. “Who?”

“That was David Suchet." Only one of our finest (and most plausible) actors. And a passionate supporter of our canals.

Monday, 23 January 2012

With Larry Lamb at the Gabba

The opening of The Iron Lady in London reminds me of the two days that I spent with Sir Larry Lamb at the England-Australia test match at the Gabba in Brisbane in 1982.

These were days of cricket-watching, drinking and talking. He did a great deal more than me of both the last two.

And we ate soft-shell crab, a Queensland delicacy.

By this stage Larry was editor-in-chief of The Australian. Previously, in London, he had been the pioneering editor of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun. Two stories he told stick in the mind.

First, of the daily meetings prior to the 1979 election that he had with Margaret Thatcher and Tim Bell to plot the following day’s front-page headline in The Sun. It’s generally agreed that swinging that mass-market tabloid behind Thatcher won her the election.

Then, of his rejected proposal to build an executive loo at The Australian. “Tell him to piss out of the window like the rest of us,” was apparently Rupert Murdoch’s decision. Larry was not best pleased.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Pianist, composer and conductor

I suppose this combination was quite common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms…

But more recently? Benjamin Britten comes to mind.

A major talent of this kind for the future is Alissa Firsova, who led a performance at the Royal Academy of Music in London on Monday. She opened by playing and directing Mozart’s great A major Piano Concerto K488 and followed this by conducting the first London performance of her own “Freedom” Clarinet Concerto. She ended with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Altogether an amazing achievement.

Currently a conducting student at the Academy, she had around her some dazzling young talent. Anna Hashimoto was the clarinettist and soprano Fiona Howell the soloist in the Mahler. The orchestra seemed to be a gathering together of Firsova’s student friends from the Academy. They were extraordinarily good.

I first met the then teenage Alissa several years ago, introduced by clarinettist Mark van de Wiel, who brought her clarinet quintet “LOSS”, played by the Philharmonia Soloists at our local village music festival in King’s Sutton. And she has been coming back ever since.

A name to watch.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Socrates on success and failure

Not that I’m a great expert on the man, but I like the summary of Socrates on the subject of success and failure in Peter Stothard’s recent book On the Spartacus Road:

“Failure was so often better than success; there was so much more to be learnt from it.”

But only, of course, if one is looking. My experience of corporate behaviour is that people generally first look, then look away, then walk away.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Mastersingers in the concert hall

During the sometimes lengthy stretches of sung Wagnerian chat during last Wednesday’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, I reflected on the fact that so many of my most intense experiences in opera have been not in opera houses, but in concert halls.

When I first started to go operas, productions seemed to fit seamlessly with the story, the characters and the music. Over the intervening half century, directors have come to rule the roost, more often than not imposing a “concept” that appears to have little or no connection with the composer’s and librettist’s intentions.

This gap is at its most cavernous when, say, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing in the pit at Glyndebourne, has meticulously researched the piece, endeavouring to present the work as closely as possible to what the composer might have experienced, while on-stage the singers are asked to be and do something that has all the hallmarks of having arrived from another era, another aesthetic, another planet.

Last Wednesday’s mastersingers, direct from the current Covent Garden production (not seen by me), wore lounge suits. There was no distracting scenery or “concept”. But they were totally inside their roles and performed the drama vividly.

It was an overwhelming experience of one of the great creative works, both words and music by Wagner himself.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


I wonder whether the whole theory and practice of Management By Objectives has had the overall effect of improving performance or containing it? Or even, perish the thought, reducing it?

MBO was popularised by Peter Drucker in his The Practice of Management of 1954. Since that time, it has become ubiquitous, all employees having to have Key Performance Indicators by which they are assessed.

I’m sure that it appeals strongly to leaders who want to have CONTROL. The mantra “What gets measured gets done” is one of those articles of faith that is parroted to generation after generation of managers.

It seems to me that if people are engaged in, even inspired by, their work, then KPIs are often in reality a rather dreary invitation to deliver below their potential.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Gaius Petronius or Charlton Ogburn Jr?

If we must make a choice, who carries the greater weight? The Roman author of Satyricon, Gaius Petronius (c. 27 to 66 AD), or a forgotten American obsessive believer that all of Shakespeare was written by the Earl of Oxford, Charlton Ogburn Jr?

All over the internet, there is a challenging and well-composed sentence about change management attributed to Petronius. Here it is:

We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

I think it’s brilliant. So good that it should perhaps be on the wall of every CEO in the world.

Trouble is, it was never written by the legendary Roman. In reality, it was part of an article in Harper’s Magazine written by Ogburn in 1957.

My own belief is that reorganizing is the last thing you do.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Keats and prototyping

Seems an unlikely connection, I admit.

This is what the great poet wrote in a letter to his brother and sister, George and Georgiana Keats, in 1819:

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.”

He continued: “Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it...”

So, in innovation, it’s important to make whatever you are developing as tangible as possible, whether it’s a new product or service, or a new vision, mission, strategy, values statement, way of working – or a poem.

This is as much so that the inventors can play with it, discovering in practice what works well and what does not, as for putting it in front of consumers, customers, colleagues and other "stakeholders".

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Mavericks and leadership

I was to discover rather early in life - in my teens - that having maverick tendencies is a serious barrier to being promoted to leadership positions.

I think the basic issue is that bosses can’t predict what you’ll do in any particular circumstances. Mavericks seem to them to carry more risk than reward.

And yet, when an organisation is in trouble and needs new directions, the creativity of mavericks is exactly the place that good solutions are likely to come from.

My own approach to this problem has often been to team myself with more sensible, structured, reliable partners. I think I did this for the first time at Saatchi and Saatchi. It worked well.

Are there other approaches that work?

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Leaving Saatchi

At thirty-one, I’d come to the conclusion that, to get experience as a CEO in the advertising business, I needed to leave Saatchi and Saatchi, the hottest agency on the planet at that time.

I had found another, smaller, agency that was looking for someone to succeed the dashing Rupert Chetwynd as MD. And they wanted me to do that.

Back at Saatchi, I was quite surprised, when I told Tim Bell of my plans, that they didn’t follow my reasoning at all. In fact they wanted me to stay. And so I found myself in the presence of the legendary Charles Saatchi (above, right).

What would it take to keep me at Saatchi’s? The offers came thick and fast. Salary increases, trains, boats, planes. Anything you like. Oh, and we’d like you to be managing director.

The problem with that offer was that the agency already had a whole raft of people called chairman, deputy chair, managing director, deputy MD and so on. I couldn’t see that becoming MD would have any reality to it. So I declined his kind offer as graciously as I could.

As I was leaving his office, Charles stopped me: “I’d just like to say one thing to you… It won’t be as easy out there.”

How right he was. Winning business at Saatchi’s was a walk in the park.

But how was I to know that?