by Richard Sykes

Learning to lead

Feb 22, 2010
IT LeadershipIT StrategyManufacturing Industry

A decade is a long time but nonetheless a span of time that I can put my arms around, remembering, relating to, and digesting events and developments through the 10 years. Mulling over the life experience built over each personal decade creates insights that add to the quality and effectiveness of my professional life. The millennial transition of 1999/2000 was memorable for many reasons, not least the threatened drama of the Y2K bug. Personally, it marked my move from a near three decades of big-company life to what has now been a decade of small-company portfolio life. But thinking back a further ten years to 1990, I can now see an interesting coming together of leadership experiences that I will share here. I celebrated New Year 1990 at the Nezu Shrine in Tokyo – my local shrine, as a year earlier I had become a resident of the Sendagi district. Those familiar with Tokyo will know that this is a corner of an older Tokyo and not an area where foreigners normally live. If the personnel department of ICI Japan had had their way I would not have taken an apartment there. I was there to lead the implementation of a £55m manufacturing investment. My senior team were all local Japanese. I had got to know them in the previous years over a series of business visits and it was this team that decided that they wanted me to live in a more Japanese environment; hence the apartment in Sendagi. I was there to give them leadership. I brought experience of the business that the manufacturing plant would serve, and the workings of the wider ICI. But this was a venture set in Japan, not by then totally terra incognita to me, but culturally and business-wise a very new and different environment in which to practice my leadership skills. My team set out to educate their new leader; my challenge became to simultaneously learn and lead, to make a creative synthesis with a determined purpose. Three years on, I was back in London to face a fresh challenge as the new group VP of IT with a very clear brief from the board: the Group IT function had become too technically focused, too out of touch with the needs of the ICI businesses, too costly. Something had to be done. My inherited senior team were once again experienced locals but this was genuinely unknown territory for me, as I had no background in IT. So the cultural gap was, in its way, as real as it had been in Japan. And my experience of giving leadership based on a broad strategic understanding of business operations and objectives contrasted strongly with my new colleagues’ preference for working with a prime focus on the technology. From Japan I knew that, in a new culture, to learn you had to listen, to observe, and to be seen to be doing so. I built close relationships with my Japanese colleagues because they saw me doing just that. As their leader, I was their teacher (their sensei) but they saw that I fully accepted that they were, in their way, equally my teacher. In listening, I fed back, questioned and challenged in order to deepen that learning shared between us. They gained from my experience of the business that the manufacturing plant would serve and the workings of the wider ICI: I gained from their experience of how business was done in Japan. So with my new team in London, I began to explore this new culture in the same way. And I used stories and analogies to help build bridges. An early learning articulated was that they saw me as somehow always scoping the landscape from the start in terms of its main features: the mountains, the rivers, the forests and the fields. I saw them scoping each forest from a micro-focus on the soil and the tree roots, then developing the detail up the tree trunk, and then, finally and at last, moving to scope the forest. I operated on the basis of a single A4 sheet that said ‘thus it is and thus we act’: they created a 50-page study that set out options and detailed possibilities. A concrete example. I inherited a long established and significant ICI IT resource researching the development of voice recognition. Technologically, it was fascinating work: a vision of a new generation of manufacturing plant controls that could be hands off, and spoken. A sound ambition but before too long the debate was re-positioned thus: ‘How soon will this really be practically possible?’, ‘Is a chemical major really the right place to innovate thus?’, ‘Once the capability is for real, what will block ICI from accessing it quickly?’. The resource was soon found a better home, outside ICI. To paraphrase LP Hartley, ‘The distant past is undoubtedly a foreign country – they did things differently there but recent decades in one’s own life are different – they can and should be rich sources of learning’. And a specialist culture, such as has developed around the exploitation of information technology at the heart of our businesses, needs to be recognised as if it is of a country foreign to the business. To give effective leadership across such a cultural divide, you must listen and learn, you must be both teacher and student.