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Any CEO who tells you that in his job there is an almost limitless opportunity to be ineffective is bound to get your attention. Those are the words of Sir John Harvey-Jones, a name hardly on everyone’s lips in the USA, but very well known to leaders of the chemical industry in America. He is …

Any CEO who tells you that in his job there is an almost limitless opportunity to be ineffective is bound to get your attention. Those are the words of Sir John Harvey-Jones, a name hardly on everyone’s lips in the USA, but very well known to leaders of the chemical industry in America. He is the recently (1987) retired head of the British firm, Imperial Chemical Industries, better known as ICI.

For the uninitiated, ICI is the world’s fifth largest chemical company. At one time it was number one, which explains why in 1982 John Harvey-Jones was put into the “top job,” as he calls it. ICI is no pigmy. Its sales are approximately $21 billion, depending on what exchange rate is used, and would rank among the 25 largest U.S. corporations. With 130,000 employees and 75 percent of its business overseas, it is hardly a peanut.

Acquisitions of U.S. companies under Harvey-Jones include Stauffer Chemical, Glidden and Beatrice’s chemical divisions.

What about this guy and his book? One thing is certain, he is no shy retiring violet. Though his book is neither an autobiography nor memoir, it is written in the first person with what I would describe as decently controlled immodesty. A brief resume would reveal that John Harvey-Jones was born in 1924, joined the British Navy in 1936 (that’s right, he was 12), was educated at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, became a lieutenant in the submarine branch in 1941, was sunk twice by the age of 20, and retired from the Navy with 20 years seniority in 1956 when he joined ICI. He had nine different assignments within ICI before he was appointed in 1973 to the main board of directors. He became head honcho in 1982 and retired in 1987 in accord with company policy at age 62. The truth of the matter is that his personal history entitles him to more than a little recognition, which Queen Elizabeth II took care of in 1985 by knighting him.

When one considers the number of volumes written over the last 5,000 years on the subject of “leadership” one is entitled to a little groan when greeted with yet another. Is there something novel here? The answer is both yes and no, but the same might be said about the latest who-done-it and good ones are still produced.

“How much better it is to change before we are changed.” That doesn’t earn too many brownie points for novelty. Tired truism or not, Harvey-Jones as new chairman, was not about to be the victim of change if he could help it. While moving ICI out of unprofitable bulk business into more profitable specialty lines, he saw to the elimination of redundant layers of management and about 30,000 employees before he was through.

“The engine of change is dissatisfaction with the present and the brakes of change are fear of the unknown and fear of the future.” This does not break new high ground for originality, but is at any rate neatly said.

These little observations bring to mind Benjamin Franklin, who made no pretense to originality for the likes of “a stitch in time saves nine,” but reminded his readers that he was delivering useable advice. The author’s track record, like Franklin‘s, is there for the world to see. He seems to be telling the reader, “Maybe this stuff is old to you, but I am telling you it works.”

When Lt. Harvey-Jones finished one of his post-war tours of duty he received the customary personal performance evaluation. His flimsy, as it was called, said, “Lieutenant Harvey-Jones is an able officer, who knows how to make things happen, albeit tactfully.” There is no doubt where he found the title of his book. I think there is little doubt either where the true strength of this extraordinary man lies. He gives expected coverage in his text to direction, goals, visions and objectives, but the message comes through loud and clear that when all the conversation is over, somebody has to carry out all those plans or no results will be produced. Between the lines the reader can detect a very no-nonsense guy whose sense of humor vanishes when expectations are not being met.

A variation on the same theme is provided with this remark, “The key to tactical success is really in the ownership of the tactics, and the absolute determination and commitment of those carrying them out.” I can visualize an ex-navy officer saying, “You birds agree with what we must do and why we must do it. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it.”

A British corporation is operated at the top in quite a different manner from its typical American counterpart. This fact is perhaps where novelty is to be found for the American reader. In the U.K. an inside director is known as an executive director and an outside director as a non-executive director. There is more than nomenclature involved. An executive director is usually full-time as a director and full-time as the chief executive of a major subsidiary or division, which certainly seems to be getting two quarts into a quart bottle.

“In law every member of a board shares a co-equal responsibility for the future of the company. Since the responsibility is collective it can be quite difficult to shoulder your share of that responsibility.” Most British boards carry a majority of executive, or inside, directors. How to bear twin responsibilities for the operation of a part as well as the “future” of the whole will baffle most Americans, as it does this one.

The author notes that “non-executive directors tend to play a disproportionate role in the companies that are in serious trouble.” This is a rather astounding statement to be made by anyone who believes in a board with a majority of inside directors. He acknowledges that the outside director also draws the short straw and is realistically the only one who can bring about the replacement of a chairman or a chief executive when the chips are down.

Harvey-Jones spends a considerable amount of time recounting how “to create an effective board team that can work together.” He adds, “The job (of non-executive directors) is difficult enough anyway, but it becomes almost impossible to carry out if they are hopelessly outnumbered by the executive directors.” His solution was parity of numbers between the two with the insiders being slightly more equal. It may be difficult, but important, for the American to understand how British firms operate at the top if they are to compete effectively. The need for the same kind of understanding becomes even more important when it comes to Japanese and other Asian competitors.

A trip to the library revealed that Harvey-Jones was one of three deputy chairmen when he was elected to the top spot in 1982 and that the other two resigned immediately. It would have been interesting to have the author’s comment on this happening in the light of his many other remarks on teamwork in setting up his new board.

Balance is one of the author’s favorite nouns. Balance on the board, balance between long- and short-term commitments, balance in make-up of senior and junior executives. I began to think he was the ghost of a Greek philosopher expounding the good sense of moderation in all things.

Sir Harvey-Jones is a very interesting fellow. As a CEO he was a dedicated believer in the fundamentals of solid blocking and tackling, which the reader learns from his book, but was also a maverick, which is at best only hinted at in his text. He deliberately was a public figure. He used his long hair and colorful ties to identify himself indelibly in the public press. For example, when he was in the throes of eliminating the 30,000 employees, one news item reported that he “cut everything but his own hair.” The author says that “ICI goes to great trouble to try and ensure that the company does not take any particular political stance.” He fails to tell us that he was a rarity among his peers as a Social Democrat or that he publicly and scathingly criticized conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I hope that the Good Knight will write his autobiography and set an example of openness that is not entirely present here. Who knows? John Harvey-Jones might even give Iacocca a run for his money.


Lawrence G. Blackmon is former president and CEO of Microdot, Inc.

 

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