Graeme Yell, director, Hay Group on how a little positivity can go a long way
As this is my two-year anniversary column, I have been mulling over how much can change in 24 months. When I wrote the first one, London was struggling with the aftermath of rioting and there was a dark cloud of concern (particularly in light of the uncivil unrest) over how the Olympics would go. On a personal front, my wife Ellie and I were also anxiously awaiting the arrival of our baby – now Joshua is running around the place, chatting and singing, with his second birthday just around the corner.
Looking at changes over a similar timescale, the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, got his share of (mostly negative) headlines recently when he took the unprecedented step of indicating where he believes interest rates will be for the next few years. This decision and its reception have some very interesting aspects in terms of leadership and the role of opinion, the latter of which is rather like ‘engagement’ in organisational terms.
Mr Carney’s announcement itself, that interest rates will not rise until unemployment drops to 7% or less, is clearly bad news for people who are dependent on interest for their income. However, huge swathes of our society have little or no savings, and with continuing high levels of household debt the benefits could be seen to far outweigh the negatives. And while it has not been the habit of previous governors to make longer-term pronouncements about likely trends in interest rates, it is hard to see why the monthly circus of speculation about the decision of the Monetary Policy Committee could possibly be beneficial.
Given this context, it was interesting that many publications and commentators leapt on Mr Carney’s announcement as ‘a bad thing’. How people feel about the country, and more specifically about the economy, really matters – confidence underpins and drives our collective success or failure. I’m not suggesting that there should be some kind of permanently jolly cheerleader spouting positive propaganda, but it seems as if some commentators have made a conscious decision to play the role of a cynical onlooker – a little like the colleague in the back row of the meeting who grumbles incessantly about how management are running the company into the ground.
By contrast, Mr Carney has taken a sensible and bold step – given that it has never been done before – and one which many leaders would do well to learn from. The monthly interest rate decision represents a small fraction of the impact that the Bank of England makes, but in the eyes of the city and the UK at large it has become the most visible and commented-on symbol of their work. Mr Carney has effectively taken interest rates out of the picture – allowing him and the Bank of England to focus on other areas of their remit, whilst providing a beacon of stability and commitment that is hard to ignore.
Many leaders know what it is like to be dogged by a single issue that overwhelms their ability to focus on other things. Unchecked, the issue can sometimes get so out of control that it seriously damages or destroys their credibility (such as Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax).
My advice to leaders: think about whether your people share your focus on the organisation’s key issue(s) – or are they preoccupied by other things? If so, you need to find a way to remove the distractions in order to create the clear sense of perspective and priority that is the hallmark of all successful organisations.
I took Joshua swimming at the weekend – by far his favourite activity – to enjoy the lovely summer we’re having. Someone was trying to do laps in a non-lane area that was crowded with people having a fun and relaxing time. They complained to numerous swimmers along the way about their splashing and getting in the way. My advice to them would be the same as I’d offer to many commentators and leaders – a little positivity can go a long way, it makes you and others happy!
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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