Interview for Director Magazine: ‘Managers Manage, Leaders Anticipate’

John Blakey visited Estonia in April, at the invitation of the Estonian Business School, and spoke at the conference “University of Employers” about the role of trust in today’s business world. He noted that business leaders play the key role in restoring trust in society, since studies indicate that the trust of people towards all institutions is at an all-time low. Lennart Komp, Senior Consultant of the communications company, Dalton, interviewed John for the magazine ‘Director’:-

You say in your book that President Kennedy was characterised by three qualities: ability, integrity and benevolence. These are also the so-called pillars of modern management. Are there any leaders like him today? Who could they be?

One such leader is certainly Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, one of the largest multinational companies on the planet. I think he is probably the most high-profile business leader in the world, who is implementing a vision around the triple bottom line thinking. He uses trust rather than authority as the glue for that organisation’s culture. Triple bottom line thinking combines outstanding financial performance, inspiring personal relationships and a positive image in society as a whole.

Harold Schultz, CEO at Starbucks, is also such a leader. He has said that to be a benevolent organisation, you need to make a lot of profit, but if making profit is your sole purpose, then you are on a ‘collision course with time’.

Shall we see in the coming years a major shift in how leaders think and behave or are we on the path for disaster?

I think we do not know it, do we? We are today in a bit of a battle of two ideologies and we do not know who is going to win that battle. We probably sense it in our instincts that it is a time when it could go one way or the other. In addition, what it needs today is good leaders, who would talk about it, who would implement the new ways, who would inspire. We also need people’s faith that business can be done in a better way. It is not a time to be passive, not a time to think that someone else is going to solve our problems. It is a time for every leader to work out what their contribution is and where they stand on these issues.

Some other of our biggest problems, such a climate change, terrorism and poverty, are global issues not national issues, and thus we need to adopt a different paradigm. Not in terms of just business but also at the government level. We have to join forces to win these battles and I think that maybe that will be what will drive us to let go of the old ways of leadership. However, it will not happen all on its own.

We are accustomed to thinking that the only purpose and measure of business is the highest possible profit. British businessman Justin King thinks that today, the most important thing is the trust towards the CEO. How do we get people to embrace this idea and use it in practice?

It is very important to ask what we are measuring because what gets measured gets done. Traditionally what we have measured in business is profit and we have a lot of sophisticated financial measures for that. I think that if we really want to move towards a broader purpose, we will need to start measuring on a broader scale. There are different ways to measure profits but both internally and externally, we have to measure the impacts of different factors on people too. For example, the unity of people, profit and planet – the triple bottom line.

Therefore, every business leader will benefit from looking at the company’s triple bottom line goals and measuring this progress on a weekly basis, month to month with the same discipline that is used traditionally for measuring profit.

How scary is the reality that today, everything is just a mouse click away, as you mention in your book, talking about transparency? What could be the consequences of that in the long-term perspective?

It would be terrifying if we lived in a world that did not have that openness. It is like living your life in a cave and one day, when you came out into the sunlight, you were terrified of the sun because you had never seen it before. Nevertheless, over time, you realize that the sun is not an evil thing. It is actually a good thing and you can get used to that.

I think it is a bit of a similar case with transparency. If you have not lived with it, like my generation, it can feel scary at first and it takes a bit of time to get used to it. However, morally it is probably neutral, certainly not evil. The answer is that we all have to adapt to it and then it all becomes less daunting. I hope that having more information and more people having more answers will help us make better decisions over time. This way it is not a small number of people having all the information while everybody else is in the dark.

First, I wanted to ask what would happen after the era of transparency, but it seems that we have not yet reached this era yet. Based on your experiences, when would you say such time could arrive and become the new normal?

It is very hard to measure how far we are at the moment on the road to transparency. Is it 20%, is it 40%, is it 60%? Moreover, what does the end of that road look like? Probably the pace at which different cultures move along that path will vary. It depends on the country, the sector, the size of the company and several other factors. That is fine. Not everyone is going to be Unilever. However, one thing is certain – leaders are people who anticipate events and developments. Managers, who don’t do that are left to react to the current situation. Leaders will always try to look ahead and be ahead of the curve. Therefore, if everyone else is at 40% transparency, the ambition of the true leaders is to get to 50%. They want to be ready for the changes, rather than to react to them.

John explores the nine habits that inspire trust in his book, ‘The Trusted Executive’ which has been shortlisted as the CMI book of the year. Available to order now via Amazon UK.