The Bosun in charge of galley slaves on a mediaeval cutter didn’t have a lot of emotional intelligence about him. A good thrashing for anyone not ‘pulling their weight’ – yes, that’s where the expression comes from – was regarded as meet justice for skiving. But then, they were not there to hand out justice, nor to make a slave’s life tolerable. They were there to row the boat ashore and, by God, they were going to do it. I’ve worked for one of those.
Admittedly, you cannot see lashes on my back but a brain scan would show them for sure. The punishment was more subtle, the pain more internal, the reaction more drastic. After several months of what can only be described as brutal bullying I let it all out one night after a business dinner at which he had humiliated and put me down. I drank to soften the blows. After the event I took my boss – my adversary – for a coffee and spelt it all out.
I derailed spectacularly. My TTFS (tendency towards frank speaking) took off like a kite searching for its sky. I wasn’t rude but I was sarcastically very offensive. By 3am I was sure I would be fired. At 4am I started marshalling my thoughts about the next job. At 5am my CV looked up to date and progressive. At 8am I joined my boss for breakfast. His calm, cold, analysis told me all I needed to know about my future with him. Brief.
There were apparently two options. I could go for another job. The market wasn’t good at the time. It seldom was. Or I could go to my boss’s boss and report my boss for dangerous management. I chose the second option. I don’t know whether they thought sending me to the former colonies was a neat way out. They sent him to one, too – America. He was given lots of money to develop new businesses which he screwed up in spades. I was given my cash flow to make a sale of three businesses in Australasia for S$10M.
I was lucky. My parent company’s preoccupation with the US meant they thought I was in Hong Kong. If they asked a question I sent them a handsome cheque as a surprise dividend. Business men don’t argue if the money’s rolling in. They didn’t believe we could really make money in Asia so, after three years, I listed the business selling a third of the shares on the Singapore Stock Exchange. It valued the business at S$135M. Eight years later we sold the business for a valuation of S$825M. My parent company said thank you, nicely.
Twenty-seven years later those of my managers who are still alive remembered my 85th birthday, some coming from overseas to celebrate with me. Why?
The opportunity I had was almost unique. Good cash flow, strong brands, low parent company expectations, no interference, the best non-executive Chairman I could possibly have had (Dennis Lee Kim Yew), a time of growth. My managers guessed how I was going to run the business when I took them into the car park early in my stewardship and piled up all the management books I had read, doused them with paraffin and set light to them. “We shall do it the other way”, I promised.
The other way was devolvement of responsibility with the necessary absolute authority, no micromanagement but a real interest in their own management methods and styles, a clear understanding – and practice – that our people came first – ahead of owners, shareholders, customers, suppliers. A great team is worth its weight in gold. I paid generous wages, generous bonus payments provided their own targets were met – but I had a special way of ensuring that they set very high targets for themselves.
What was the ingredient of all those that I used that I thought the most effective? I cared. I really cared about them. I still care about them. One, my old Finance Director, died the other day. I cared about him to the end and I still do. That didn’t stop me being demanding and taking nasty decisions when I had to. But I always tried to soften them with the offer of another job if they couldn’t get one reasonably quickly or with a little extra money.
What would I have done differently if I had known then what I know now? I would have made a greater effort to achieve a management buy-out. I would have tried harder to work with the new owners who bought the business. I would have developed even faster than I did, although there wasn’t so much money sloshing about in the world then which might have made it difficult. Instead of just grooming my successor I would also have groomed my successor’s successor.
And would I have made the management of the business less touchy-feely?
Absolutely not. It is what made it so successful.