Beware corporate yes men

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The first time I heard Emeli Sandé’s dreary song “Next to Me” about a boyfriend who doesn’t stay out late with the lads or go anywhere or do anything apart from stay by her side, I remember thinking that he sounds a dull fellow and she seems to prefer a poodle to a lover.

Now that song follows me on a regular basis – it’s the slowdown piece on a fitness programme from Xbox. And listening to it the other day made me wonder whether loyalty is an over-rated feature in a company’s management team.

Business leaders and chief executives tend to create ideas – or visions as we like to call them – and then tell their managers to deliver them, or in my case sell the ideas to themselves so that they can be internalised and a sense of ownership acquired.

I fancy that I’m a rather brilliant salesman because I always manage to convince my team about what I want to do for the company, but the truth is, probably, that they think resistance is either futile or likely to get them the sack.

Do we get the best out of our businesses by hiring yes men such as the lame lover in Sandé’s song? Obviously the further down the managerial chain you go the more it is imperative that people stick to the script – though for over a decade I have held a monthly lunch with junior members of my team whom I don’t usually get to talk to, and they tell me things as they see them. Indeed they are more likely to speak frankly to me than they are to their line manager and the process has proved hugely beneficial.

Preparing for a major expansion of my business, I interviewed candidates for a chief operating officer role. Second rounds were conducted over lunch in different restaurants to elicit observations and to discuss their ability to deliver the business strategy summary I had shared with them. All three hopefuls naturally said they could do that in their sleep, and I’m sure they all could. The person I chose for the job, though, was the one who highlighted a section of the new plan that he said was confused, off-brand and needed rejigging.

Now, as a former south London gang leader, it would usually be my first instinct to – if not hit him – at least show him the door. But the fact is that he was right and if he hadn’t pointed that out, I would have ended up making a costly mistake. I think that I would have, in due course, come to the same realisation myself but the truth is that we often don’t realise a decision or route is wrong until it’s too late.

I fed this information back to the two advisers who are working with me on the business plan and they agreed as well. Did they get his point too, or were they just agreeing with their client? Who knows?

I’ve never read the memoirs of great business leaders so I don’t know how common it is for the head of a corporation to be successfully challenged by a junior – by a board, of course, but not by someone you have brought in to support your commercial efforts.
Will this course of action come back to bite me? Is this going to be the beginning of a series of challenges that could quickly irritate me?

A decade ago, it might have threatened to, but here has it started a process of other challenges I would have previously brushed aside as nonsense and which I now might consider as the business becomes bigger than me? It seems to have.

I recently held talks about hiring Bell Pottinger to be my new PR company. I wanted to see whether punching above my current corporate weight might prove beneficial further down the line. The firm also immediately challenged a core part of my growth plan – it then deconstructed and formulated an altogether new and much more compelling proposition. A PR firm – who would have thought it? Again, being entirely honest I would never have seen that such change was possible and it’s proved a game-changer for the programme.

I suppose now that I’m 50 I’m not so easily rattled. Disruption has been one of the great corporate buzzwords of recent times, but it’s usually the boss doing the disrupting, and now it’s not. The people I am referring to here will undoubtedly read this article – so guys, thank you, well done! It shows that you’re worth the expense. Just don’t do it too often, OK?

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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