The Three EEEs of Management
Not so long ago I met up with a former colleague. It’s more than thirty years since we worked together. We’ve kept in touch but I hadn’t seen him for a few years. We decided to lunch together. He is a truly splendid man. When diagnosed with a long-term disease over twenty years ago he decided that he would help those afflicted by the same disease. He has devoted himself wholeheartedly to this cause and in the process has handled his own situation exceptionally well. A model for all of us, I think. Generosity of spirit must come high in anyone’s management book.
Leading with your Heart
My friend is one of those people who never stops thinking. He greeted me on this last occasion by saying that he had worked out what my management style was. He called it ‘The Three EEEs’ – Encouraging, Empowering, Enduring. I was flattered to think that he had been pondering the way I tried to handle my colleagues in Cerebos Pacific Ltd as I built the company from a not very profitable little one-product business into something that we sold for S$825m. His description of it, including the title, was accurate. So how did it work?
First, let me say that the system – if, indeed, it was as grand as that – was not one that would suit every organisation nor, indeed, every manager. The opportunities and problems you may be landed with are of an infinite variety. Times change. We had no pandemic in those days, no internet even. Competition was less fierce but still enough to make me aware that if we didn’t join in pretty vigorously we would be left behind. Nor will every manager be faced with the stark disbelief that their new boss was capable of doing anything, let alone pulling an ace out of a hat.
Leading with your Head
I was also faced with a fundamental disbelief that our (then) main product worked. Called Brand’s Essence of Chicken, the claims all derived from the past and were of the same ilk as chicken soup. The advertising claims were considerable – restoration of energy without calorie intake, haematological recovery after loss of blood, the two main ones. You could make unsubstantiated claims in those days; you couldn’t do so today – you would have to prove them. I saw immediately that we had better know if our claims were sustainable. So I set about doing what all previous managers had shunned – I had them tested by western standards at Imperial College in London.
The results confirmed our claims and gave us the confidence to start expanding the sales and production across Asia Pacific. Nothing succeeds like success and this opening salvo to my management style undoubtedly helped me stave off any possible revolt at the introduction of a Brit, who had never ventured further east than Prague, to run an essentially Asian business. But here I was, trying to manage people from different backgrounds, diverse cultures and many sorts of religions most of which had little to do with the formal Christianity of my upbringing.
I was fortunate in having Dennis Lee (Lee Kim Yew) as my non-executive Chairman. He and his wife, Gloria, then Chairperson of Kim Eng Securities, were endlessly patient with me and helped me avoid the worst of the many mistakes I was inevitably going to make. You have to have a lot of luck to succeed and my greatest good fortune was to know and be guided by these two people. I still had to run the business and I had learnt something from two former businesses that I had helped rejuvenate. The lesson I regarded as most important was to pay highly, choose excellent people, give them their head and remind them only very occasionally who was boss.
Encourage by discovering their joy
That is where Encouragement, the first of the three EEEs, came in. I had learnt that just saying ‘well done’ was, by itself, of little value. It’s easily said, seldom meant. To mean it you have to be truly interested in your colleagues – not just their working lives but their families, their health, their sports, their children, their sorrows. Joy is the antidote to the day-to-day routines of life. To see that they work well, see that joy also works well for your employees. Show encouragement not just by honeyed words but by genuine interest in their lives. Don’t threaten, it always rebounds on you.
Easy enough to order yourself to be encouraging. Rather more difficult to get your reports to encourage their reports and so on through the organisation. Easier today with the email – just copy those you want to train. They will get the message in due course. And if they don’t, manage them out. A culture is a matter of enforcement just like all other disciplines. When it works well encouragement leads on to the second of the EEEs – Empowering.
Empower by cherishing everyone’s ideas
And here I have to admit, I don’t like the word. It seems an impertinence to assume that I or anyone else can actually empower someone. If anyone empowers in this world it is surely your mother. Birth is without question the greatest empowerment you can be given. But empowering is itself a powerful word and the process is certainly that. It is actually more about letting go than injecting power. Freedom is always a difficult concept for those who don’t have experience of it.
When I was building Cerebos the idea that a subordinate would question a boss was unthinkable. But there are myriads of decisions which can and should be left to be made by those at the right level. If the boss makes them all, the rest of the team will choose not to have a view. Soon that divides the team and leaves a paucity of creative thought not just about local decisions that could have been made in the proper place but about everything to do with the business. Successful companies cherish everyone’s ideas.
Endure by continuing the strength of purpose
Perhaps the most difficult of the three EEEs to comprehend today is the last – Enduring. People now change jobs faster, regard loyalty to a company as outdated and, increasingly, are themselves the company since they run a gig and sell their time as required. What’s to endure with that? Even more than when I was building Cerebos Pacific, in my opinion. Continuity is not about fixed ideas or systems. It is about continuing strength of purpose and lasting relationships. They are what make a team. The terms of the relationship matter less than the circle of people who make up the group. It doesn’t have to be small, exclusive or frequently in touch.
On the rare occasions that I fired people for poor performance I told them they were leaving the company but not the family. Everyone seemed to understand that. More than thirty years later all those who reported to me still remember my birthday.
And at least one of them remembers The Three EEEs.