Anthony Hilton: British CEOs don’t connect with staff

The Prudential insurance group was run for a while by a crusty individual called Mick Newmarch. One day, after an interview, I asked if he ever got bored repeating the same message to journalists.

He said that when he proposed a policy in the boardroom, everyone nodded but half meant ‘no’. When the message was passed down the line, it was distorted at each telling, so the policy heard by the frontline troops bore little relation to the original. By giving press interviews, which would be read by Prudential’s employees, he felt he had a better chance of getting his message across.

Newmarch was special in three ways. First he realised his message was unlikely to get through, second he cared about this, and third he tried to deal with the problem. Communicating internally is not to be left to a house newspaper or website, because they do not have third-party credibility. It’s remarkable how few CEOs are aware of this issue or even care.

British CEOs don’t mix easily with the troops. For every Allan Leighton, who would stack shelves and man the tills when at Asda, there are a dozen Sir Derek Wanless’s, admired for his boardroom and strategic skills when at NatWest, but who could never deliver a rousing speech in local branches.

The guilty secret of British business is that most CEOs achieve very little, because few know what is going on at grassroots level. The myth is they are selected for their leadership skills, but the reality is that most are insecure, surround themselves with sycophants and insulate themselves from anyone other than their peers.
There are notable exceptions, but CEOs are more likely to be chosen for their ability to talk impressively to  analysts than their ability to deliver a vision to staff. By being inept at internal comms, most make very little difference.

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