Home Human Resources News An uphill struggle: do our execs need to spend more time in the saddle?

An uphill struggle: do our execs need to spend more time in the saddle?

by LLB Editor
29th Jul 13 5:21 pm

Graeme Yell, director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, on what firms should keep in mind before they change business strategies

Earlier this month, Froome spectacularly won the 100th edition of the Tour de France. Spurred on by a heady rush of recent UK cycling success, my hometown in the Surrey Hills has become a magnet for lycra-clad men (and I’m afraid the vast majority are men) of a certain age.

I should own up here to the fact that I am partial to a bit of biking myself but I am repeatedly struck by the remarkable equipment on display. That is not a comment about the lycra or indeed the physiques tumbling out of it but rather the astonishing array of bicycles. Parked outside one pub last weekend I saw a cluster of about a dozen bikes with a combined price tag of at least £40,000. I have nothing against expensive bikes per se (and maybe in truth I’m a bit jealous) but my contention is that rather than spending thousands on a new bike, most bike owners would do more to improve their performance by spending a bit more time in the saddle (or the gym) and less in the pub (or the bike shop).

There’s a startling comparison to be made to the world of business, where a preoccupation with ‘hardware’ often eclipses any consideration of what is necessary to make it work. I was working with a client recently who had announced a major strategy overhaul days before. After months of working closely with a leading strategy consultant, the business is to be ‘reconfigured’ – splitting the existing customer distribution channel into two separate businesses to recognise the difference between their client types. Products have been divided up amongst channels, reflecting the buying preferences displayed by the customer groups. A new executive team has already been identified and individuals tapped on the shoulder for changed roles. Systems and processes have been examined: those which will span both businesses will be ‘offshored’ to a shared service centre. It all sounds like a remarkable recipe for a dynamic business transformation, something you could buy a dozen volumes about in any airport bookshop worth its salt. Until you ask yourself, what happens next? 

Whilst it sounds great on the surface, noone beneath the executive floor has any idea what they will be doing in this brave new world. The polar nature of the responses I encountered is a reflection of the blend of people’s engagement with the business and their personal motivation, ranging from blind panic (“we need to create x,y,z now in order to deliver the new strategy!”) to downright apathy (“we tried this before in 20xx. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now”).

It must be a reflection of my naiveté or my desire to cling to childhood ideals that the world of business is as smooth and professional as a hot-towel shave (despite 20 years of evidence to the contrary) but I am still shocked whenever I encounter this phenomenon. And yet it is worryingly common. The classic backdrop is the CEO announcement of sweeping organisational changes, with dramatic implications for the whole organisation. You can almost hear investors purring with delight about the innovative new tack the company is taking. But look a little more closely and in the background you’ll see employees gaping aghast at each other, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. If it was a caption competition you could fill in the blanks: “we’re going to have to deliver what?” “How on earth does (s)he expect us to do that?”.

Shiny new investor-friendly hardware aside, what’s really needed is an early focus on the ‘software’ underpinning the journey – toning the muscles and honing the cardio ability critical to embarking on the strenuous uphill struggle ahead. Organisations must take a step back and consider the type of culture they’ll need to support their change in strategy, and work hard to align and engage their people behind it. And to do this they need to actively review all of their internal assets: systems and processes, reward and recognition, leadership, values and behaviours needed to power a change in direction. 

Without this necessary groundwork it’s not unlike the reaction I might get if, having picked up a couple of pairs of walking boots, I march into the house and declare to Mrs Yell that she and I will be climbing Everest next month. Except we don’t have the whole CEO/staff dynamic going on (or if we do, it is the other way around!) She would undoubtedly give a frank/colourful reaction to my crackpot plan.

So, next time you see a group of ‘MAMILs’ (middle aged men in lycra) sitting in a beer garden, pint in hand, jealously guarding their glinting carbon fibre mean machines, ask yourself: “Does this remind me of an executive team I know?”

Graeme is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.

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