This interview with Brian Bacon, Founder and Chairman of Oxford Leadership, was published in October 2014 in Het Financieele Dagblad, a financial daily in the Netherlands.
Brian Bacon (62) is the founder and chairman of Oxford Leadership (OL), a leadership consultancy with over 200 partners in 28 countries. A distinguishing factor of OL is the payoff: ‘Transforming business for good’. Bacon has long held the conviction that the business world should develop a sense of responsibility for the world as a whole, not just its own part. In his view, this is happening more and more these days.
How did this awareness come about for you? Why does this touch you?
“ I am from the Vietnam era. I was skeptical about leadership. I realized that businesses have a responsibility to their shareholders to make decisions and choices that are primarily good for them. There is no doubt whatsoever that the business of business is business. But, there is also another reality. There is a responsibility and obligation that goes beyond the business world because there are unintended consequences of business choices that end up being very dangerous for society.“
Bacon enthusiastically told the story of the transformation of the fast food giant, McDonalds. The company had been associated with problems such as obesity and the destruction of the rain forest. “They were missing a fundamental shift in people’s attitudes and behaviors.” But according to Bacon, over the last ten years McDonalds has been part of the solution. And at the same time, their share price has grown ten-fold.
The turnaround came under the leadership of Charlie Bell who became President of the company in 2002 and CEO in 2004. “During the annual meetings of the senior management, it was usual to use large PowerPoint presentations. Charlie only used four slides in his first presentation to the top 500. He then took a couple of minutes before he posed the question: ‘What are we going to do?’ A manager then asked, ‘ What are we going to do about our image problem?’ Charlie looked him in the eye and said, ‘We don’t have an image problem.’ You could hear a pin drop. ‘This is not an image problem, it is a big fat reality problem. There may be differing opinions about the extent to which we caused these problems but we are not going to get into that. We are going to talk about how we are going to be part of the solution. We have 32,000 restaurants in 112 countries. With this kind of coverage, we can have a real impact. If we decide that we are going to be part of the solution then we will be.’
Instead of telling the managers what the solution is and getting them to buy into it, he asked them a question. We know from neuroscience that people tend to accept solutions that are provided to them. People are in the habit of saying, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ But if you get into the issue and initiate a dialogue then you get a whole other part of the brain working: the part that is creative, intuitive, enthusiastic, and remembers. You can feel the energy when people are working towards finding solutions. So after that meeting, 500 people left with new strategies and the fierce resolve to execute it. This had an immediate effect on the share price, long before the results showed in profit and revenues. Investors felt that this man had a plan and something was happening.“
How important is the CEO as a person?
“Very important, but for a less obvious reason than you might think. It is not the case that there is one heroic leader who has everything under control. Charlie wasn’t that either. Charlie was uncomfortable in front of a group. He was, to me, more of a host than a hero. He could craft good questions that would get people thinking. He could connect people to the organization. He knew everyone and remembered everyone’s name. It was no trick, he was genuinely interested in people. He always held his meetings in his restaurants, never at the head office. He wanted to get out and be seen.
Running a big business is incredibly complex. It is impossible that the one person’s mind is large enough to embrace the complexity. Even the illusion of a heroic leader is dangerous. If you think your boss knows everything, then you are waiting around for him to tell you what to think. The best leaders let others see how they can think themselves.
Good leaders are able to generate passion for a goal that goes beyond their own business and certainly goes beyond their own interests. When people see that and sense that, there is a different quality to the relationship. For every relationship – whether it is within an organization or with a spouse – trust and respect are the two most important components.”
What does trust mean?
“When you are playing football, you play the ball to another player on your team who you think is in a better position to score. But you won’t do that if you do not trust the other player’s competence or intention. “
So it is about competence and intention?
“It is about intelligence, intensity and integrity. If you don’t have the latter, then the first two won’t do you or your company any good. You will make decisions that will ultimately destroy your reputation. Character trumps competence. A competent person will possess all of the skills, but if I don’t trust his intentions, the relationship will never work. “
Intention to do what exactly?
“The right thing.”
But the ‘right thing’ can be different for you than it is for me.
“ We sense each other’s intentions long before they take form in our thoughts. It is in the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system. If I sense that someone’s intention does not align with what he says and I also don’t see it in what he does, then I don’t trust him. Integrity is defined as the alignment between your intentions, words and actions. People know if your intentions are driven by your personal needs or if they are driven by a greater purpose. We also do this with our leaders.
Leadership is personal and is fundamentally about relationships. It is not about PowerPoint presentations or big strategic plans. “
How often do you find the ideal situation of trust and respect in an executive team? Managers often find it difficult to bring up the fact that they no longer fully trust someone especially if that person delivers results.
“In ninety percent of the cases people do not say what they really mean, but say what is in their best interest for the other person to hear. In that context, you cannot build trust and it leads to suboptimal performance. You may be able to get away with that for a while but if your competition has built an effective team you won’t be able to keep up. With effective communication, you may even be able to eliminate some management layers. That is what AkzoNobel is doing now. It requires another leadership style but the company will become faster and more agile.”
I have just finished reading the latest book from the Nobel Prize winner, Edward Wilson who is the greatest evolutionary thinker since Darwin. The most successful species on this planet are ants, termites, bees, spiders, and people. That is because they work together. We are in a multi-polar world. The powers that be will not give up their positions lightly. It won’t be without a conflict. We need to find new ways to cooperate and collaborate. And who is the best at working together? Businesses. Just look at how businesses move through Europe, Asia, and America. Governments cannot do that, and NGOs also have difficulty. The most frustrating work that I have done in the last thirty years was working with governments and international organizations. At the UN, I worked on a project with seven thousand priorities. That is ridiculous. The business world just gets on with it. I am totally convinced that big business is going to save the world.”