Wednesday Live: Humans as Resources

Everything is simple in war but the simplest thing is very difficult’.  This is a phrase which has been rolling around my mind since the fascinating talk on leadership by Major General Andrew Kennett CB CBE, who agreed to come to the Attic in February 2016 to our client breakfast club Wednesday Live.

We were delighted that so many of our clients came to the talk and they proved an interested and lively audience, even for such an early hour.

Andrew chose the title ‘Humans as Resources’ as he believes that central to good leadership in an organisation or situation is how you treat people and respond to change. Andrew is an exceptional speaker. His account of armed combat in Iraq held our audience spellbound. The reality of what military deployment in an armed conflict outside conventional warfare was sobering and captivating. He drew on historical conflicts and a few of his own experiences in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Andrew described his background and work in the Army, MOD and overseas security environments throughout the world. His commercial experience was gained in the electronics sector, security consulting and running skydiving centre.  His charitable experience is with the Skinners’ Livery Company, a membership organisation with City Guild origins of 700 years, which has education and grant making charities at its core.

Andrew outlined his view of good leadership as having three components:

  • A sound strategy comprising good plans and clear communications.
  • Alert to the lessons of success and failure: learning from past lessons and understanding the present context.
  • Strength of character.

We discussed as a group that there were clear parallels that could be drawn between the Amy and the legal profession in terms of a traditional, hierarchical structure and that lessons could be learnt both ways. A military life is one based on institutional structures and culture. Non-military organisations and their operations are more unstructured and chaotic and need a more subtle and nuanced management style, but still a very clear strategy.

Turning to the first component. There are many types of strategy and Andrew considers that people frequently confuse strategy for policy. The best strategy changes the context of the problem – focus on the desired outcome, rather than perhaps the problems immediately presenting themselves. Effective prioritisation is required as there are rarely sufficient resources. Simple plans are effective as they are readily understood and you can galvanise the situation by using unexpectedly imaginative ideas.  Clear communication is vital. There must be clarity for all staff about the aims and objectives of the organisation. A clear plan about how this is to be achieved and adequate resourcing and training to make the framework operational is the ideal, but this rarely happens in real life. However, much can be achieved by clear processes and a small team which establishes a network to serve the aims of the organisation.

Interestingly, history tells us that ‘strategy’ has its origins in military terminology [ conflict]. Having a strategy even with good plans and clear communications is only the start for a leader: there is the challenge of managing friction. Returning to the opening quote by Carl von Clausewitz ‘everything is simple in war, but the simplest thing is very difficult. These difficulties have a habit of accumulating and producing friction which no man can imagine who has not seen war.’ Andrew says a leader must develop the skill in understanding whether these frictions will prevent meeting the organisational objectives. A good example is Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, which was secured using two deductions. He reconfigured his feet into two columns attacking the French line using a perpendicular approach. This was a new and unexpected tactic. It worked as the French gunners were less skillful and the sea had a significant swell. He also knew that his ships’ captains and their crews were sufficiently experienced and trained to cope with a new approach. One of the main lessons here was of his knowledge of the sailors’ capacity to tolerate unpredictable situations and he knew this because of their training. This is a facet that needs to be borne in mind for any leader today: how well trained are your teams? Can they pull together as a team in uncertain times and retain in mind the objectives of the organisation? Andrew suggests identifying areas for focus and creating a network of people involved with the skills for good governance. Even if you have good people, you need to specifically hone suitable skills – how is this to be addressed?

Turning to the second component. Most people and therefore organisations, find it very difficult to learn from the past. The cliché, ‘lessons will be learnt’ in the aftermath of a crisis or disaster is an oft-repeated phrase for the very fact that we frequently fail to spot that we repeat the same faulty behaviour. Learning organisations in his view, are very rare. There is cyclical nature to problems and leaders need to recognise this dynamic. Frequently, the same business challenges arise, but often people are not interested in examining the past to consider what we have already learned. To learn lessons – we need to change the culture and behaviour of people and this is very difficult. Andrew cited his experience at the MOD, where it is less effective when it comes to non-military decisions – he raises the life experiences of the reservists as being under-utilised as they can bring interesting insights and perspectives. There was further discussion about the parallels with the legal sector: the reforms of ABS were meant to bring non-legal experience into the management of law firms. Another example cited was the influx of US law firms to the UK has led to a change in remuneration and mergers that arguably, takes the focus away from clients. When people are thrown into new situations – they react by instinct and generate activity – not necessarily creating the best outcomes. There is a place for gaining perspective and allowing time to pass to truly understand what is needed.

The third characteristic of leadership, strength of character, was borne out of intuition, decisiveness, honesty and the ability to continually learn. Leaders must be alert to the lessons of success and failure – keep them in mind and implement systems and processes to apply them. Andrew’s examples of good leaders included Napoleon, Churchill, Thatcher, Mandela, Ang San Su Kyi, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Ghengis Khan! He said emphasised that high moral standards and values help, but also leading by example and this must be tempered with humanity. Through experience, his belief was that making mistakes was inevitable, but how you react is key, not only for managing the situation but also as an example to those around you. This can be a powerful lesson for testing organisational values and credibility. The team observe the behaviour and will emulate. It promotes authentic and provides real time examples of putting an organisation’s values into practice.

He posed the question whether leadership was innate, intuitive or learnt. The selection of people as leaders has to be questioned, what creates a star performer in one context and leads to promotion, does not necessarily translate into good leadership and management skills. Dana Denis-Smith raised the parallel in law where there is little built into staff training that prepares them for leadership roles that align them to the organization goals. The billable hour as a tool to identify ‘star’ lawyers for promotion, does not equate to building management and leadership skills. There followed a discussion about appraisals, specifically, the utility of ‘360 degree’ appraisals – where you have to get feedback from a number of people and this demands good management and constructive criticism. Comments from the audience included that in a small organization you have to look at culture and whether it’s safe to speak out.

And finally, at the heart of determining good leaders of an organisation, what in an organisation can change?

The event on 24th February was live tweeted with the hashtag #WednesdayLive from @TheAttic

http://www.theskinnerscompany.org.uk