On the Ropes

I think I’ve become a fan of Alan Leighton, currently Chairman of Consignia (aka the Post Office), after hearing him interviewed by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4 (On the Ropes). On the Ropes usually features people who have gone from riches to rags, or experienced some other personal failure in their life. In this case, it was argued that the Post Office is on the ropes and Leighton is the man responsible for turning the organisation around. Humphrys stressed Leighton’s reputation as a ruthless businessman, but most of what Leighton said seemed like common sense to me. Here are a few highlights:

“I believe fundamentally you shouldn’t pay people for failure.”

“All organisations I know, particularly those that are performing badly, have what I call layers of treacle or permafrost in them which basically stops stuff happening. You know, there are business prevention squads in most businesses. They go out of their way to stop things happening, and one of the things you’ve got to do is get around that.”

“In businesses, generally, the Chairman and Chief Executive create the context. They can’t do anything else. They don’t actually go and do very much. In retailing all the money is taken in the shops. It’s not taken in the head offices. So you have to get that piece of thinking around your head. Where does the money get taken? Who takes the money? Who does the execution? Well the front line, so this whole thing about people are business’ most important assets. It’s a sort of trite saying that everyone trundles out now and then, but actually it’s true. And if you actually understand it’s true and you get after it, it’s the only the way you turn businesses around.”

“…the execution has to take place at the front end and you’ve got to have the management who believe that too. You know lots of managers don’t believe that. Lots of managers think they’ve got a job by right. Their job is to bark out commands. Their job is to get people to do as they’re told. Their job is not to listen to what people say. Their job is they know best. Well in my experience the operators know best, and if you can get them to be involved in things then you get a better result.”

“The most bizarre thing about [the Post Office] is, this business is a monopoly. It’s got £8 billion of sales, it’s a monopoly and it loses £300 to £400 million pounds at the operating level. It’s happened over a period of time….[the Post Office] is so inwardly focussed it doesn’t think about the two things that count. If you don’t look after your customers and you don’t look after your people, you can be a monopoly and have £8 billion of sales and still lose a lot of money!”

“The most important thing is, do the right thing. If we do things wrong, we’re not going to sit on them forever, which is what’s happened in the past. We do things wrong, we get up, we say we did things wrong. We take the hit. We take the embarrassment, but we’re not going to continue to do something that is wrong.”

“In business turnarounds particularly, and in good businesses, most of the turnaround isn’t in huge, big programmes. It’s all about doing things better that you do everyday, and I’m sure there’s a lot we can do on the back of that.”

Although his comments make a lot of sense, these goals are very difficult to achieve in a large organisation, and I imagine the UK Post Office will be a challenge, even for an experienced businessman like Alan Leighton.