LIVING THE LEGACY

There comes a time when the thoughts of every successful businessman turn to how history will remember them. That is usually the point when most would happily exchange all their worldly wealth for a reputation and legacy that won’t have their great grandchildren queuing up at the deed poll office.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and once the world’s wealthiest businessman, understood this at a time in his career when he had more to give.  Today, he dedicates much of his life, energy and wealth to doing social good through his Foundation while Microsoft continues to operate profitably.

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, might understand Gate’s thinking much better after the last few months of having to wash News International’s dirty linen, ironically in the full gaze of the media.

Murdoch’s performance at the Leveson inquiry this week was that of a man fighting for the reputation – not of News International or the News of the World, but of – Rupert Murdoch.  When he said that he wished he’d closed it [the News of the World] years ago,” I’m sure I heard his eyes whisper that he wished he’d “stepped back from this years ago.”

Sometimes, it’s better to stop chasing the dream when you’ve been enjoying it for decades.  There is a time when everyone needs to call it a day and pass the opportunity to someone else.  If you run a successful business for long enough, eventually the wheels are going to come off.  If you’re the main driver when they do, then your name is on the can you have to pick up and carry.  Ask the former directors of Arthur Andersen, Marconi, or Lehman Brothers, among many others.

This is a conversation that few CEOs will ever have with their communications lead, no matter how trusted the relationship between them.  They will discuss, frequently and at length, the CEO’s ‘today’ reputation.  The ‘tomorrow’ discussion seldom comes up.

Everyone wants to exit at the height of their powers. It’s a matter of recognising it when it happens and ignoring the call of the next challenge.  I had this discussion with the former CEO of a business that imploded on their watch a few years ago.  After a career of successfully running major industrial organisations and a peerage from the Queen, he was left holding the can when the music stopped unexpectedly.

“I didn’t need it.  I kept telling myself that I’d do just one more job and then I’d put the shoes away and the slippers on.”  His Wikipedia entry leads on that last role, his only business failure in a lifetime of remarkable commercial achievement.

A good communications department can build and manage a CEO’s reputation because it is a few steps removed from the personal ambition that fuels the persona behind it.  That objectivity is as good a reason as any for a well-established CEO and their comms guy to have a different conversation the next time they meet.

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TELCO RINGING OFF IN PAIN?

While still with the company a few years ago, John Pluthero, former CEO and chairman of Cable & Wireless Worldwide (CWW), was the guest speaker at a telecoms industry dinner in London.  Pluthero, who can charm the birds from the trees when he wants, is also a very able communicator.  He pointed out that his company could trace its roots back to the 1850s, before the birth of British Telecom, or BT.

He then delivered a message he knew would make its way back to Ben Verwaayen, the then Group CEO of BT: “As the true incumbent operator in the UK, we at Cable & Wireless look forward to the safe return of our customers.”

With such a keen sense of history, I wonder how he feels today, given the news that Vodafone plans to acquire CWW for £1bn, effectively buying the business for spare parts.  I’d also be keen to hear what he would say to the 6000 people that still work for CWW.

C&W grew up as the British Empire’s de facto international telecoms operator.  In more recent times, CWW became home to a number of acquisitions including Energis (£750m in 2005) and Thus (£329m in 2008) in the UK.  Whatever else it is known for, C&W is not known for over-paying for assets.

It’s easy to say that the end game for C&W was inevitable, that it’s a case of the new digital world overtaking the old analogues.  Margins for traditional fixed line services such as phone calls and high-speed data connections are, after all, in decline and the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook over mobile networks is the future. I think this misses the point.

Social media and cloud computing only work when people are reliably connected at high speeds – over fixed and mobile services – to the servers that host the data they want access to.  C&W has invested heavily to take advantage of this data tsunami and cloud computing presents a big market opportunity.

CWW, in other words, is relatively well placed as a seller of shovels and services to those digging for digital gold.  It wasn’t disruptive technology that did for C&W. It was C&W.

Shortly after Pluthero arrived, he found the business in disarray and conducted a ‘strategic review’.  The business was trying to be all things to all businesses, they decided, and would focus on the 3000 largest customers it had.  C&W now famously wrote to around 27,000 of its business customers that were too small and unprofitable, giving them 90 days notice to find an alternative supplier.

It was clear that the business had lost its way and needed a turnaround.  Turnarounds need effort and senior management effort needs incentivising … with big carrots. A £60 million executive incentive scheme for a handful of the most senior executives in the business was unveiled.

According to a number of people in the business, the scheme drove short-term behaviours among senior management who ignored the longer term. Thousands of staff paid for the business’ habitual profit warnings with their jobs. The final die had been cast by an incentive scheme designed to avoid it.

It remains to be seen whether another player enters the bidding for CWW.  Tata Communications, which walked away from the sale negotiations last week, retains the right to return with a higher bid but the likelihood is that Vodafone’s bid will prevail.

CWW’s shareholders will accept the 92% premium to the share price since the sale talks opened and will either cut their losses or bank their profits.

Vodafone will use the business as a data network and avoid the cost of renting circuits from BT and others. The parts of CWW it doesn’t need will be sold to whoever wants them.

The C&W brand will live on in the Caribbean in the form of Cable & Wireless Communications but another bit of Britain’s rich engineering and technology history will go up in flames.

Mr Pluthero’s cultural interest, meanwhile, has moved on from history to abstract art.

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ADVOCATING ADVOCACY

I have yet to come across a training course designed to help public relations and communications people develop the most important skill they need for success: self-confidence.

There is any number of courses that will help you better manage the media, make you a better writer or communicator in a corporate crisis, but I’ve not seen a ‘self-confidence for communicators’ course advertised.

Calling a grizzly old journalist on a national to pitch them a story requires self-assurance, as does going on the radio to answer questions when something’s gone wrong.  Presenting your agency to a prospective new client calls for self-belief.  Defending your business against false accusations levelled by a competitor or disgruntled ex-employee requires poise, while advising a CEO who has lost control that the best thing for the business is for him to resign requires … well, you get the point.

Public relations, or corporate advocacy, is a ‘confidence’ business. It typically asks you the question ‘what should we do?’ at times when the stakes are high, the odds short or the opportunity important.  Your answer, and the way you implement that answer, puts you in the spotlight with the grown ups who are highly paid and have big offices.

In fact, working in public relations is a lot like entering the debating chamber.  Your role is a daily succession of proposing or opposing motions, accusations or arguments in a way that makes others behave and think differently and better towards your employer, its products and services.

In many ways, this can be the best part of the job.  The perceptions of some are deeply entrenched and unlikely to change without robust debate. It’s professionally more satisfying to alter the perception of an enemy that to reinforce the view of a friend.

Practice helps, but a lack of familiarity and knowledge of the topic, otherwise known as being underprepared, erodes the speaker’s confidence.

Successful debaters do their research, gather the facts and consider the counter arguments the opposition might present.  They go into battle armed with talking points or a script, an analogy or two, perhaps a joke and a few prepared Q and As and put downs.  Or, as Richard Kline, the American actor and director, put it:  “Confidence is preparation.  Everything else is beyond your control.”

Public relations is advocacy and advocacy is often difficult.  Engaging in the difficult, especially when getting it wrong happens in public, is not everyone’s cup of tea.  I’ve worked with too many communications people over the years, both in-house and in consultancy, who found it easier to step away from the awkward and to delegate the difficult.

The one thing all those individuals have in common is that none of them got any better at it.

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