who I admire (and why)

The people we admire speaks to the influences that shape us.  They also act as a good reference (a personal Trip Advisor if you like), a kind of Social Network Analysis that is essential in today’s globally networked village.

The criteria for inclusion on my list other than that I have met them is that the individual must have fulfilled one or more of the following, I have:

  • admired work they’ve done
  • learned from them
  • respect for the way they conduct themselves
  • worked with them

Over the next year I am going to update this list periodically.  There will be absentees for reasons of (their) security if by naming them and why I admire them I will be putting them at risk. I expect the list to contain surprises (to me).

Dr Joe Stanislaw: former President & CEO, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, USA

It’s 40c, one Thursday afternoon and Joe wearing his favourite dark blue jumper is driving a couple of the team up an escarpment on the way from Mecca to Taif, the old summer retreat of the Saudi Government. Coming round a bend too fast we hit upon a pack of Hamadryas Baboons who are spoiling for a fight. ‘This is fun’ Joe shouts out and drives straight through the middle of them before they can jump on the Honda Accord hire car.

Joe was (and still is) one of the foremost global energy analysts, a pioneer of scenario planning, author of two best selling books and a hugely polished speaker. At that time I was a young Project Manager with a bank helping Saudi Arabia’s downstream energy company look at potential acquisitions; CERA were part of the team along with a partner from Arthur Andersen.

That Joe was willing to spend his day off with the team and do the driving spoke volumes to me about leadership and respecting the importance of the team dynamic.  He was also a tough taskmaster but highly creative and fun to work with; his use of graphics to explain difficult topics was a real eye opener to me.

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David M McVeigh: former Head Corporate Finance, Saudi International Bank

Friday 5pm and we are up against it to get an advisory proposal to the client. The Oil & Petrochemical Group I manage elects to work over the weekend knowing that one of our major shareholders who is in direct competition for the valuation mandate for a private flotation of a Lube Refinery won’t be. David who is our boss breaks into his weekend, reviews the proposal on a Saturday night, makes a couple of really valuable suggestions and the proposal arrives on the client’s desk for their opening. We win the mandate.

Two things are important here: firstly the hunger to win business as a team; secondly the willingness to take on the establishment to do so – the major shareholder is less than pleased and David suffers as a result. He backed us because he believed it was the right thing to do knowing it might harm his career prospects.  David also taught me the importance of listening and he was the first person to tell me you have two ears and one mouth for a reason: use them in proportion.

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Ford M Fraker: former US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Ford was my ultimate boss at Saudi International Bank before he became Ambassador and would join his team on calls to clients and formal receptions.

I’m standing in line at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in Riyadh waiting to be presented ahead of a dinner in honour of a mining client I am accompanying from Toronto. Ford who is there notices that my jacket is open and gestures me to button it up.

Back in London he and I talk about the significance of the little things that make a difference to the way we are perceived.  Henceforth whenever giving a formal presentation I always make a point of buttoning my jacket as a mark of respect and comply with another tip he gave me to speak slower to a big audience. He also said I should include ‘did you get that’ pauses, a deliberate look up at both corners of the room in any presentation.

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Paulo Pereira : Green-keeper, Pyecombe Golf Club

When I took over as Chairman one of my first acts was to meet every member of the team to seek their input as to how the service we offered could be improved; to find out what they liked about working at the club; and what their aspirations were. It was important that everyone felt a sense of ownership of ‘the product’ since they were the ones interacting with our stakeholders and visitors. Paulo who is Brasilian (there can’t be many Brasilian green-keepers in the UK) had some good ideas about improving team work.

A couple of months have passed since my chat about teamwork and supporting each other. Pyecombe is on show as a group of influential Captains from Sussex clubs are there for a big event. As part of the pre match rituals a bacon roll and coffee is provided. Not today! Due to internal miscommunication the new Portuguese Head of Catering is late so a number of players tee off food less and disgruntled.

All is not lost, Paulo and ‘Alex’ speak in Portuguese and hatch a plan. The freshly cooked rolls are ferried out to the Captains via the greenkeepers buggy and what could have been a PR nightmare turns into a PR success: yes we screwed up but went the extra mile to put it right.

Albeit trivial this was a great example to me of what happens when you empower people. In the ‘Retrospect’ we conducted afterwards the mistake was acknowledged but most attention paid to the remedy and the self motivation behind it.  The episode was later used to illustrate what good service is all about, ‘its the little things that make a difference and everyone has a role to play in delivery’.

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Barry Mence: Chairman, Sopheon PLC

Sunday, 4pm and the nights are drawing in as its Autumn and the height of the dot com boom, I am sitting in the lobby of a Guildford Hotel waiting to meet prospective acquisition targets our Chairman is having lunch with. If its gone well I am to be introduced (as the board’s Advisor) to their Chief Operating Officer and go through the draft integration plan I’ve drawn up. If its not then I am to slip away into the night and no one will be the wiser.

Lunch is a success; we have the basis of a deal and so begin a six month process to integrate a Dutch/UK and US group.

Barry grew up in Essex and despite prospering has lost none of his deal making instincts, his pragmatism or his sense of duty to those who’ve been loyal to him. Concealed beneath a gruff exterior is a hawk eyed focus on cost containment and attention to detail. Barry always maintained you needed three components to run a successful SME: someone to set the strategic direction and vision; someone to run it; and someone to have a good grasp on the numbers and work hand in glove with the person running it.  The roles often differed (Chair, CEO, COO, CFO and sometimes CTO) but the principle stood.

Another core concept was to ensure expenses were tightly controlled especially during integration when its easy to fritter away shareholders money. We introduced a coach class only policy on all flights which impacted him more than most and pioneered the use of virtual board meetings.  It capped our annual travel budget at £75k rather than the £200k it would otherwise have been.

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James Macfarlane, Chief Executive Easypress Group

James is an evangelist whose particular acumen is growing small companies with exciting technology. He is also adept at identifying potential obstacles that might derail a business.

7.30am Thursday, a day before the company is due to handover its beta version of a new product. James and I have arrived expecting to find it difficult to park. We don’t, so decide to wait awhile.  Its not full and doesn’t become so until 9am.

We spend a day interviewing people as part of the due diligence for a potential investor and leave 2 hours after official working hours. There are but half a dozen cars left.

On the way back we discuss what we’ve heard and seen: on the face of it a well run company with a Chairman/CEO who has an iron grip on finances and a couple of development teams with imagination. Yet no one seemed to show hunger to get the product out the door; ‘a group in love with the process rather than the results of the process’.

And the Chair/CEO is stepping down (and cashing out) to be replaced by the chief rainmaker who is not going to relocate.  Warning signs indeed.

From James I learned that its vital to look behind the numbers: at how management works with each other; what motivates the staff; how client issues are dealt with; what processes are adhered to; and finding a way of presenting those observations back to the investment community that will both inform and resonate.  The ‘Seven Pillars’ approach he and I developed to looking at how a business actually works became a very useful basis for diagnostics and reporting.

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Treasurer, National Oil Company

It’s inappropriate to name this individual but the story remains vivid twenty years on.

I’d just completed a quarterly review meeting. At the time I was looking after the bank’s relationship with the energy sector and this company was one of the most important. I was asked to stay on for his next meeting.

In came 4 be-suited individuals. Each was asked to introduce themselves. By the time the last had done there was a palpable sense of foreboding; they were all from different divisions of the same organisation.

My client was making a point: ‘gentlemen, I am more than happy to have a meeting with your esteemed institution but not four meetings.  Can you please decide who will act as the relationship manager? If I need specialist advice I will ask for it’

The Treasurer might have gone to extreme lengths to make his point. I took away the need for organisations to have:

  • a good cross organisational contact/calendar system
  • a coordinated approach to client strategies
  • a good relationship manager who can interpret a client’s needs

As a postscript the client subsequently asked us to help them evaluate the case for selling on a Cost and Freight (C&F) rather than Free on Board (FoB) basis; such was the trust we’d built up by not swamping them with requests to meet.

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Victoria Ward: Founder & Parter, Sparknow LLP

I first met Victoria over lunch in 1995 when she was Chief Knowledge Officer at Nat West Markets and I was in a similar though less flatteringly titled role. At the time and ever since I have admired an intellect that drives an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a relentless curiosity and incredible capacity to generate innovative ideas that are often ‘ahead of the curve’ not to mention a work ethic that would make Hercules recoil in horror. I could fill this section with many anecdotes from the last 15 years of working together. Since I’ve set a challenge of restricting each entry here’s one that stands out from the early days.

Victoria and I are having dinner in a dark little restaurant in Bern called the Ratskeller.  Its been a long and successful initial foray with a client and we are ruminating on the day to follow and what it might mean for the business. Her marker pen magically appears and the white paper tablecloth becomes the blueprint for the journey that is about to be embarked upon.

Her fertile imagination and passion for the work goes into overdrive while I attempt to put a mental structure around the ideas that emerge.

The event and programme designs that emerge prove to be inspired.

This episode was repeated numerous times on planes and exotic and not so exotic locations.  I learned that the right environment is vital to stimulate ideas and creativity; that space, food and reflection time are hugely important; and perhaps most of all that noticing what others do and say and capturing it in a meaningful manner matters much more than most people realise.

Victoria has consistently pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved for blue chip clients around the globe. Often against overwhelming odds Sparknow has undertaken assignments that have changed the way clients look at themselves and what they do and its work has lived on long after the team have left. Victoria’s ability to dust herself and others down after failure has played a pivotal role in that success by constantly viewing one setback as an opportunity to be used elsewhere.

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Madelyn Blair: Founder and President Pelerei Inc USA

I met Madelyn at her homestead in the Maryland countryside some 75 minutes drive from Washington DC.  At that time while consulting at the World Bank where she’d previously worked she was the joint organisor (with Steve Denning) of the Golden Fleece Organizational Storytelling event. Over the years I came to value her counsel (she acted as a sounding board for me during the early years of my Sparknow role) and her drive to publish the book that she says is in each of us.  It was with immense pride then when she asked to reverse roles so that I became a sounding board for her after she published Riding the Current a book I consider now to be a must read for anyone looking to re-examine their own career or life journey.  Here’s an excerpt (about the concept of an Accompanier on your learning journey) to show why I think the ideas much of it talks to are so valuable:

I have a network of colleagues I go to because they have a known and different perspective from my own. I tend to call upon then during specific projects. I expect them to add to my reflections by showing an alternative point of view. I don’t ask them to think with me just offer their perspectives along the way. They join me on the journey at particular points, and I will be calling them in this book, my Accompaniers. I owe a lot to them. They play a major role in keeping my knowledge relevant. They are like travelers who have done a lot of traveling already and maybe to the same places I am heading.

Oh and I also have Madelyn to thank for introducing me to a couple of tremendous exercises: ‘It’s all in a word’ that focuses on a word of phrase usually from a mission statement and gets people to describe in a storyish way what it means to them; and ‘when you look at things differently the things you look at change’, an exercise that gets people to look at a space through the lens of different ‘professions’.

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Hank Barber: former Vice President Mobil Oil Corporation

I’d just flow into Jeddah from Dhahran where I’d been meeting the Deputy Minister of Petroleum & Minerals of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. During a 45 minute audience we’d spent a lot of time talking financial markets, the price of gold and the state of the UK property market. Back in the mid 80’s this was not uncommon. In the Arab context at the time you got to know someone first before you talked business.

This was to be my first meeting with the new Vice President of Mobil’s operation in Saudi Arabia which at that time was one of it’s biggest outside of Fairfax, Virgina. I was ushered into see Hank to talk about their big joint ventures at the new industrial city at Yanbu. His opening ‘You’ve got 15 minutes, what have you got?’

Again this was not uncommon: US oil executives were very busy people with little time and you get to know them once you’ve done business.

Hank became someone I got to know well and one of his first acts was to enrol me on Mobil’s internal Petroleum Manufacturing Orientation Program at Paulsboro New Jersey. It was aimed at giving finance people a basic understanding of the processes around refining.

Hank’s reasoning was sound: he’d worked out I was someone they could do business with so it would be really useful if I understood the difference between a Cat Cracker and a Hydro Cracker. It taught me the importance of being able to speak in the language of the business and understand the issues facing them.  The exchange also illustrated the value of looking at each client (whether internal or external) according to their customs and style and that no one size fits all when communicating.

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 Frank Gardner OBE: Security Correspondent BBC

Its December 2005 and on my desk is a contract for a substantive piece of work helping to craft a knowledge management strategy for the Islamic Development Bank whose HQ is in Jeddah.

The assignment will involve many trips, a lot of interviews and face to face working sessions with a workforce that is 99% male and drawn from 56 countries across the islamic world; I will be leading a team primarily comprising English women none of whom have been to Saudi Arabia let alone worked there.

My duty of care stretches beyond the team, their beliefs and willingness to wear an Abaya and Hijab, to their loved ones. Before I commit on behalf of our organisation Sparknow, is this the right thing to do or should we park this in the interesting but too tough to tackle drawer as many had suggested?

My alumni network includes Frank Gardner who has more reason than most to feel bitter about his time in Saudi Arabia having been shot and left for dead in Riyadh some 18 months previously.  Since then there has been a cycle of violence and as Frank has recently returned to his BBC role I decide to ask him candidly what he’d do.

His response was honest, objective, in fact everything I could have wished for. That he was willing to give it spoke volumes about him as an individual.

We duly went ahead with the assignment which lasted some 18 months, were treated with great courtesy throughout and today as a by product the organisation employs a number of young professional women.

Behind this tale lies a fundamental lesson for me on the value of maintaining networks and of being willing to go the extra mile to do so: if we don’t know, we need to know someone who does or at least who knows someone who knows someone who does.

Frank has been an inspiration to many facing adversity; his books are a cracking good read and his documentaries thought provoking and witty. While humour is always close to the surface in any exchange with him he engenders trust.

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Lotti Henly, Founder Plan Zheroes

Lotti Henley is remarkable. She was described earlier this year by the London Sustainable Development Commission as:

‘…an 86 year old war hero; an Austrian aristocrat who was forced to eat scraps of food from bins to survive during the Second World War...She says her lasting memory of hunger is the motivation behind her new campaign, Plan Zheroes, which aims to link up hundreds of shops, supermarkets and other food outlets across the capital with local charities in need of free food.’

I met Lotti through Plan Zheroes. Articulate, witty and sharp she is an inspiration exuding the passion common in the volunteers who make up the PZ network.  And she makes a great soup!  Over the past year I have seen her lobbying at the Palace of Westminster, enthusing with potential CEO supporters and cajoling volunteers.

Lotti is a person who makes it difficult to say no to, a truly unique person.

 

3 thoughts on “who I admire (and why)

  1. It is an idea that has come.
    Food is God given. low key, essential
    If we neglect to feed a child, we stultify their development for good .
    This is Community in action, it includes cultural change in a very global world.
    Re education,
    A way to peoples hearts, compassion and an unbeatable passion

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