The results I'd seen yesterday, my first day as the new MD, kept me awake late into the night. The sales figures, the financials, the declining market share, made me very worried. Of course, the positive indicators were pointed out: "the decline is less than the overall market"; "our customer feedback results are improving"; "we've managed to cut costs to maintain our bottom line", but the underlying performance was clearly not good. This was not going to be an easy ride! With my heart in my stomach I rushed my breakfast and left for my new office.
On the way, my mind in turmoil with the task ahead, I was conscious that something else was troubling me, gnawing away at the back of my mind. "What is it" I thought to myself, but I couldn't pinpoint the problem. Then I noticed a group of schoolboys racing their bikes – shouting, laughing, challenging each other. "That's it!" I thought, "There's no energy! Where's the passion, the excitement, the drive to succeed? If there's no drive and no passion, no sense of a burning platform, how can we win?" Perhaps it was just a first impression, but I resolved to dig further.
I pondered on this as I walked into the office. Jenny, my PA, was there, ready, bright, smiling, offering coffee. I was tempted to accept but declined. "Later please, Jenny". I'd decided to go for a tour of the offices. It was still quite early so a look round should be interesting. Although I'd been taken for a brisk walk through yesterday, I wasn't at all sure where everyone sat. Jenny showed me the office plan covering the 300 or so workstations, offices and meeting rooms on three large floors. With the plan in my hand, I set off.
The closest area was Finance – all very quiet, with most desks empty. The few people there glanced up in surprise at my cheery "good morning". I introduced myself. Some stood up, expectantly, others didn't. A quick chat and I moved on, through Legal, Strategy, HR and Administration. Noticing my HR Director at her desk and her team already at work, I resolved to return her way later.
There was more of a buzz in the Marketing section on the next floor, but still not many around. Dress was more casual here, even scruffy, but the people I talked to were bright enough. It was much the same in Trade Marketing and Sales; generally quiet with many empty offices, people drifting in, some with coffee cups in their hands, chatting, milling around. They all seemed surprised to see me. I decided then to return to the HR Director, Maria, the only lady on my team. I thought I'd leave the third floor – Technical, Logistics and Supply chain - until the next day. She was alone in her office and seemed pleased to see me. Greeting me cheerily, she offered me coffee and I followed her to the coffee station.
Back in her office, I warmed to her quickly. With her 7 years' service, Sandra knew the Company well. She had been recently appointed to HR Director and, with her previous years in HR, she'd built a deep understanding of the people and the way things were done. I soon decided she could be a great ally and support. When I mentioned my observations from my tour through the offices, she agreed that there was usually a bit of a slow start – some people travel a long way. A few come early, several stay very late but timekeeping is generally left to the individual "as long as the work is done".
I asked her about the mood in the business. She considered carefully. "Can I be straight?" she asked. I reassured her. She looked me straight in the eyes. "They're worried, a bit despondent. People see things aren't going well but they're not sure what management is doing about it. The way ahead isn't clear. All they see is costs being cut to meet profit targets. They know some of this is necessary but they believe there's a limit to how far that can go. Some good people are leaving. The worst situation is in Manufacturing where they see the drop in production, the plant standing idle. Everyone's frightened about their security, but Management just doesn't seem to understand – or to care!"
She went on to express her personal frustration. She felt alienated. HR was a low priority, always left to the end of the ExCom meetings and, by the time they got to her, the meeting was usually running hopelessly late. The Directors were tired, wanted to finish and go home, with obviously little interest in what she presented.
The previous MD rarely took her seriously. "Perhaps it's because I'm a woman or maybe because I'm often the bearer of bad news", she confided. "I challenge them a lot, but no-one really wants to listen". She'd considered moving on herself but she loved the Company and really wanted to see it succeed. She'd decided it was only fair give the new MD a chance. I smiled reassuringly but my heart sank!
I returned to my office with what I'd learnt running through my mind. "There we have it", I thought, "the smell of the place!" The underlying situation was starting to emerge – albeit from only a few impressions, a couple of conversations and a glance at the figures. I mused how it could be that I could pick this up after only one day – did the previous management really not get it? Were they so wrapped up in their own beliefs, their minds closed to other views, that they simply stopped listening? After all, my predecessor had been in the role for 9 years – far too long, in my opinion, since you do start to believe your own bullsh*t. I decided to find out.
I asked Jenny to call in David, the Strategy Director, to take me through the Company's Strategic Plan.
He brought a huge file – a long PowerPoint printout. He took me through a series of charts, trends, tables, lists of things to do. I said little but searched for a flow, a sense of logic, inspiration, but couldn't find it.
"OK", I said, "but where's the strategy?" He referred me back to the third slide, where I read: "Grow market share by 2% points; strengthen our position in the formal trade; build customer relations; enhance product quality", etc., etc. I turned to David. "Is this a wish-list or a strategy? Are these not things that we would strive to do anyway? Where's the focus, where's the breakthrough? How will this change fundamentally the direction the company is headed?" I fired these questions at him, He looked blank and confused, so I softened my tone – it may not have been his fault. "Let's try to find out how much he knows and whether he can rise to a new challenge", I thought to myself.
"David", I said quietly, "I can see you put a lot of work into developing these insights and data." He relaxed slightly and I continued: "I'd like you to come back on Friday with a clear indication to me of how you, with all your strategic planning experience, would recommend we go about building a strategy that excites everyone on the team in a common purpose, with focused direction, that will deliver the change we need. I want to find the underlying issues, expose them and deal with them, so I'm looking for a radical approach that leads us all to think differently. Do you understand?" He nodded. "Right, good, then I'll see you on Friday!"
So, now I'd met the Strategy Director and presented a challenge. "We'll see what comes of that, who he involves and how he goes about it" I thought.
I'd met the HR Director and now it was time to turn my attention to the rest of the team. I asked Jenny to set up a programme for me to meet them all over the next two days, but first I wanted a session with Maria and with the company psychologist, to get their views and opinion.
As Jenny left my office, I reached for the handover pack, turned to the section marked "Organisation and Staffing" and settled down to read. I wanted to know as much as I could about each of them before we met.
To be continued…