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Posted by on in Bob's Blogs

A couple of weeks ago I was at a wedding party and ran into Bob, an ex-colleague who I’d not seen for many years.  He is now the MD of a large construction company, based in London.  In the middle of a lively and enjoyable reunion, we inevitably spent some time talking about the people we had known and the experiences we had shared.  An important influence on both of us had been a man called Ian Rae.  We had each worked for him at different points in our early careers.

Following that conversation I have reflected a lot on the question how do you identify whether someone is a good leader?

For some people the answer is easy – “if they get good results, they must be a good leader, right?”  For others, it’s equally straightforward but not so hard edged – “getting good results in the short term could be a result of lots of things such as the market, luck, even what the previous guy had set up.  Leadership is about how well you engage your people”.  I think both these approaches are one dimensional.  There is a need to consider both the results achieved and the ability to build relationships in a way which increases the capability of individuals and the organisation as a whole.

So how does my conversation with Bob impact on this?

Ian was an ebullient, hard working and approachable chief executive of a large textile business.  He had spent much of the early part of his career in Trade Union negotiations at a time when confrontation had been the default setting in British employee relations.  He had skills shared by many successful negotiators, humorous, outcome focused, quick to see the merits in the argument and able to be very tough when necessary.

My friend recalled Ian telling him a story which had stayed with him throughout his career.  He had found it particularly useful whenever he had started to feel that what he was doing was so important that he was becoming indispensible.  Ian had said to him it was important to remember when working in a large company that it was similar to putting your hand into a bucket of water.  Once you pull it out, you can see how much you will be missed by the size of hole that is left.  I have subsequently found that the most elegant version of this story is contained in the poem the "Indispensable Man" by Saxon White Kessinger.

In some ways, you could interpret this as suggesting that leadership is what you achieve in the short term as measured by the results you get while you are in post.  There is no doubt that Ian achieved outstanding financial results.  The company was an environment which required good results in order to survive.

However, this misses the point of this story.  Bob and I were having a conversation 25 years after the event.  Ian’s impact had been significant on the way in which both of us had developed as people.  The impact of his leadership was still being felt many years after he had died.

The implications of this are that Ian’s task achievement in the short term and the longer term impact he had had on the people he worked with were both indicators of his effectiveness as a leader.  He had achieved his results through outstanding leadership.  More than many people I have ever worked with, he focused both on achieving the task and developing his colleagues.  The development was not an “add on” once the task had been achieved, it was an integral part of the way in which he achieved outstanding results.

I am going to end this reflection by referring to the experience of another colleague of Ian’s.  Martin Taylor was interviewed in 1993 by the Independent Newspaper, having achieved the position of chief executive of a major plc before the age of 40.  The focus of the article had been on his relationships with Sir Christopher Hogg, the Chairman of Courtaulds, who had been instrumental in encouraging Martin to leave his career as a financial journalist in order to go into business management.  Tellingly, Martin said “Everyone talks about what Chris Hogg did for me, which was tremendous, but I owe Ian an enormous debt in that he knew exactly how much to leave me alone and, when I did something particularly stupid, he was there to catch the ball.  I couldn’t have asked for a more helpful environment”.  This sure sounds like leadership to me.

Martin Taylor had a glittering international business career which included being chief executive of Barclays Bank and chairman of Syngenta.  He is now a Member of the Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England.