Can you talk about the role of “the fixers”? The timing issue for leadership is extremely interesting here—you can declare victory and then go off, heroically, but then a few years later, the company might be doing badly.
A cynical writer might say that CEOs and those around them are thinking about legacy almost as soon as they’ve arrived. This might be why they’re pushed out before their time. But fixers are the Red Adairs of business, if you like. They’re not quite putting out the fires on the oil rigs, but they are the people you pick up the red phone and call when a company is in crisis.
There are awesome examples in private equity. I write about Tim Parker who was at The AA [the British automobile association], [car repair chain] Kwit Fit and Samsonite. I had a long conversation with Moya Greene about what she did at the Royal Mail. I think they’re really not afraid to be unpopular. They are there to think the unthinkable and do what it takes to call the company back from the brink. In a lot of these instances, including what Stephen Hester did at RBS, it starts with the finances. You need to get the people behind you, but then you need to fix the finances, and then fix operationally.
These characters are very good at defining the challenge and at managing their own personal risk. Moya Greene is a good example. Margaret Thatcher famously said she wouldn’t sell “The Queen’s Head.” It was a transaction that eluded Peter Mandelson when he was business secretary. So Greene was up for the job, but she wanted to know that the government of the day was committed to an IPO, a proper privatization. That conversation was the moment she said, “Yeah, I'll come in,” because then she could see how to frame success.
The best companies never really need to be fixed in this way. But they have this almost perpetual fix. Ivan Menezes, what he did at Diageo is almost a perpetual approach, rather than these big corporate heart attacks that are probably not to be recommended.
What kind of preparation should a CEO do before being interviewed?
A good profile interview is half about the person, half about the organization. I’m going to want to know what your favorite TV program is. I need to know who your mentor was. It’s non-negotiable: You’ve got to give a little bit of yourself.
Beyond that, your answer shouldn’t sound too corporate. You can spout all that corporate stuff, but I’m not going to write it up. It’s human—you’ve got to think you’re across the table from someone. You’re not on a throne.
If the great leaders of today and tomorrow are meant to be authentic, to use that word again, it’s not just about talking to the workforce. It’s about talking to everyone. There are no silos anymore. A great test of that is to sit down with someone who isn’t going to just say, “yes,” to whatever you say. That’s something that they all should be able to do.
Of course, there’s one exception to that rule, and that’s a leader whose performance has spoken for itself. Someone like Erik Engström at RELX. At The Sunday Times, I christened him “the silent Swede.” He absolutely loved it. He never does any media. You don’t need to when you’ve produced the kind of performance he has over a decade.
You wrote that purpose, authenticity and delivery are characteristics that all these types of leaders should have in common. Could you talk about that?
A great leader is someone who inspires great followers, great followership. Having purpose means you know what they stand for. Authenticity is you can believe them, and believability stretches from the CEO standing in front of that virtual town hall and saying, “We’re gonna do this and here’s why,” to being believable in an interview with somebody like me. I feel a dread when people don’t know their own brief. I start to think you’re just here for the money.
And then delivery is interesting. There’s something about what they’ve done earlier in their careers. But it also might be that they’ve shown the green shoots or something. Good leaders and the board around them are very good at defining what success looks like.