Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I have now been in the heady world of talent and hiring for 25 years, which means two things: one, I’m horrifically old, and two, I have a few stories to tell. Not a lot I can do about the first point, except try to age with some semblance of grace. On the second point, I thought I’d recount some of the amazing/hilarious/cool/stupid and sometimes unfathomable things I have witnessed/done.

On reflection, it might be an increased awareness of ageing that’s compelling me to confess my sins, but here goes. I pray for your forgiveness and questions/feedback 🙂

A Lesson in Leadership from One of the Greats: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The room was big. Not football-stadium big, but big enough to be intimidating. On top of this, the room was near to capacity, the buzz of anticipation bouncing off the concrete walls. Archie Norman, the former CEO of Asda and now outgoing Chairman of ITV, was picking up a microphone.

It was 2003, and Archie and a collection of institutional banks had refinanced a bankrupt telecommunications company called Energis Communications. At £150 million in debt when he started, Archie and 1,500 employees were just about to start one of the fastest and largest turnarounds in corporate history. Today, however, some 3 years before the completion of the sale to Cable & Wireless, I was being introduced, along with 10 other new hires, to the company.

“Roger, please stand up.” It was a statement not a question. “No, on the table please.” I vaguely remember mumbling a joke about my height. I also remember Archie ignoring it and waving me up.

So, there I was, stood on a table in an auditorium of the old Case building in Reading*, looking out at 150 managers who I could clearly see were simply relieved it was not them that Archie was addressing. He continued, ”Roger, please tell your colleagues what you are here to do?”

This was it, my big moment. I cleared my throat and said, “I’m here to ensure that everyone in this room is surrounded by the very best people in industry – not just our industry, but industry in general”. Archie smiled. He already knew that was our mission, my mission. He was testing me.

“So, given this, what were you doing yesterday?” That was it – I knew why he had me stood up on the table. I had heard he was a hard taskmaster, but firing me in front of 150 of my peers? Well that seemed a little bit more than harsh.

My shoulders sank and I whispered, “I ran an assessment centre.” The smile was now accompanied by a glint in his eye, it was mischievous, and I swear he chuckled as he said, “So, you ran an assessment centre, I assume to hire great people for us? Sounds brilliant. And explain to me, how much do these things cost, roughly?”

I thought, ‘Well, I am being fired, so no point lying’ and answered meekly, “About £10,000.”

“OK, so how many great people did this £10,000 get us?”

Now I was confused. He knew we didn’t hire anyone – he and I had discussed at length last night how the day had gone and my thoughts on the people present, both candidates and assessors. I was now irritated –  the bastard was going to throw me under a bus in front of 150 people, some of whom I quite liked, so through gritted teeth, I said, “None, no-one, no-one was hired yesterday and…”

Clapping – he was clapping. Now he was encouraging everyone else to clap. He was clapping vigorously and everyone joined in. I almost did a celebratory wave but thought, perhaps not. Over the cacophony of applause, he stated, “Yesterday, Roger kept 10 people who would not have succeeded at Energis from our door. I’d say that’s a good day at work. Congratulations!”

Archie Norman is perhaps the master of gesture and action when it comes to setting cultural standards. He’s not a master showman – he had John Pluthero for that at Energis, Allan Leighton at Asda, and Adam Crozier at ITV – but as a leader who sets the norm through his actions, I have not worked with or seen anyone better.

Through his actions at the Energis Management Action Day (MAD Day), he told 150 managers that the most important thing was to hire only the very best people for Energis. Later that week, when I told him I was worried that we were hiring the wrong people, he asked what we should do. I said, “If it was me, I would stop all hiring until we are 100% confident that everyone knows What Great Looks Like for us.”

Within 20 minutes, the Chairman and Chief Executive had issued an edict freezing all hiring.

The point is: hiring the right people into your organisation is not a luxury. It’s almost the sole reason why, as a manager, director, or leader, you exist. You can have great processes, great human resource functions, but ultimately, how you behave as a leader and your actions around hiring set the tone for the quality of people in your organisation.

*It was actually a swimming pool previously

Apr, 25, 2017

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