Only leadership brings in changes

Special to Times of Oman

I once had lunch with the late Sir John Harvey-Jones. A fascinating chap, he motivated the Germans to asset strip their country for the Russians who were taking war reparations against the defeated Germany.

Running the port of Bremerhaven as a Royal Navy officer, the young Harvey-Jones succeeded where others had failed.

He maintained this early experience of personnel leadership and motivation in negative circumstances taught him many lessons about management. Later he became chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, a multinational British chemical company who made everything from explosives to paint, but Harvey-Jones is probably better known for his BBC Troubleshooter television series.

In this role he visited struggling companies, performing management audits and providing advice for improvements. Swarovski the crystal manufacturer endorsed his advice and has since become a leading global brand.

Over lunch John told the story of an ICI plant where he was posted as manager. At his first management meeting those who had previously worked with him mused that his arrival would fix their problems.

The young Harvey-Jones said this would not happen; he continued that he would provide the management strategy, and as managers they would deliver the results.

When he departed the plant was running smoothly with a happy, motivated and productive workforce; whilst costs had been reduced and profit increased.

At the time of our lunch there was a strong possibility that the late John Smith would form a Labour government within a year; and it was rumoured that Sir John would be elevated to the House of Lords and become the new government's industry minister.

Effectively Sir John Harvey-Jones was asserting that management cannot change the workforce, but good leadership can change the culture.

This was the lesson his time at Bremerhaven docks had taught him.

This applies today and Ford Motor Company which lost its direction two decades past is a good example.

By the late eighties accountants were running Ford and cost cutting, or cost containment was the order of the day.

Accountancy decisions replaced production engineering and product development.

Staff morale deteriorated, quality and sales declined and costs spiralled.

Ford sought an American John Harvey-Jones in the form of a senior Boeing CEO. Tough decisions followed and Ford restructured globally; selling valuable companies such as Volvo and Jaguar-Land Rover in the process.
The culture at Ford changed and the entire workforce was involved. Improvements were sought; plant rationalisation initiated; market penetration emphasised; and new products developed.

Investment increased and once again engineering values took centre stage as the company focussed on core products.

Similarly, explaining the culture and values of Volkswagen the CEO cited five key factors and profit was not number one; both engineering quality and workforce satisfaction ranked higher.  

As chairman of ICI Sir John Harvey-Jones similarly emphasised innovation, product development and a valued workforce.

Evidently a company culture which places accountancy in perspective and concentrates on the core business and workforce satisfaction ultimately increases profits and long term shareholder value.  

The author is a freelance contributor based in Britain. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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