When the planets aligned through a bizarre set of events and I received confirmation that Lord Digby Jones was kindly going to share his time with me and come on our leadership tips series, I thought holy sh*t, this is exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. Among other positions he’s currently the chairman of Triumph Motorcycles, he’s Corporate Advisor to Aon Risk Solutions and Jaguar Cars, and he sits in the House of Lords as a Crossbencher.
Digby has an amazing history packed with achievements, to note some… He served as Director General of the CBI (the UK’s premier business organisation) where he became known as the UK’s ‘voice of business’. He then served as the UK’s Minister of State for Trade & Investment where he travelled and met with the world’s top business leaders and politicians. He regularly appears on TV, radio and in the newspapers and is an active speaker at events across the world. He also strikes me as an incredibly giving man, from his commitment to a number of charities, right down to squeezing me into his unbelievably tight schedule while he was here in Australia. His demeanour quickly put me at ease and by the end of the interview I felt like I’d known him for ages. Thank you Digby.
Who is the best boss you’ve had and why?
When I started at Edge & Ellison law firm in 1978 my Principle Gil Hayward, he was meticulous, his attention to detail was brilliant. And there was me, in my early 20s, I was going to change the world by tea time. I’ve always been a good salesman, good at marketing and people have been kind enough to say I’m very good with people. My forte was not to bother with the detail. However Gil reined me in and he made me concentrate on the detail and he made me cross the T’s and dot the I’s. He was brilliant for me and for keeping my feet on the deck and making sure I didn’t just go off into the clouds and float away. I will be forever grateful because the danger for someone like me was that I would’ve been found out in terms of not being able to run a team in years to come because I didn’t concentrate on the detail.
I then became a qualified lawyer and I built up a practice and a team. The senior partner of the firm John Wardle was a prodigious worker, he was a brilliant leader, lead from the front, a stunning corporate mind, a man of the most enormous common sense and he was an absolute inspiration to me. If he’d said jump out of the window, I would have said what time? He got the best out of me. He inspired me.
Gil Hayward taught me about management and John Wardle taught me about leadership. Wardle let me make mistakes and I’ve learnt that many people make mistakes every day. The clever ones do two things. They never make the same mistake twice and the reason they don’t is because they are honest with themselves to admit their mistake. And second, they don’t mind telling someone else they’ve made a mistake because somebody somewhere has made the same mistake and they know how to get out of it.
What are your top 3 tips for being a better leader?
1, 2 and 3. People.
1. We have shifted all over the developed world to a value added culture. Where the shift in consumerism and not necessarily the buyer of a mobile phone, drinker of a lager or user of banking service, but consumerism in politics (the voter has a different expectation), consumerism in the public sector (the patient has a different expectation) whatever it may be, the expectation of the consumer has changed. We’ve shifted from providing commodities, we no longer sell on price. We sell on added value. We sell on innovation. And we sell on quality. All of that can only come from the proper application of people and that means you get the best out of them or you don’t. You maximise resource or you don’t. You increase your productivity or you don’t. And it all comes from how a leader gets the best out of their people and knowing when to get heavy. Knowing when to have a light touch. If you can inspire people, you can take them to places they didn’t even know they could go themselves. It’s about demonstrating that what you are going to do is increase their self-respect, increase their self-esteem and take them places they never realised possible.
2. Never ask anybody to do anything you will not do yourself and never ask them to do something they know you will never do yourself. And I have in mind sacking people. As much as you regard your people, there are some people who have to go and you have to do it sensitively. If you make a decision in a board that you have to lay off person A, B & C, the person who tells them is you. It’s never nice and you go home having potentially ruined lives and it’s horrible but you do it because you are the leader. The lesson of that is if the people in the business know that you will do this, the horrible parts of the job and not delegate your responsibility, you will build respect.
3 You have got to really know your stuff. People who make things look easy, work harder, prepare more and take nothing for granted. Tomorrow morning I’m going to stand in front of 300 to 400 people from Coopers Brewery and give them an hour of the gospel according to Digby. They might think oh he just stands up with no notes, no powerpoint, seat of the pants and makes it look easy. But this afternoon I’m going to curl up in my room and plan what I’m going to say, plan how it’s going to sound, understand where I’m going to take them, understand what I’m not going to say and understand where I’m going to end. Tomorrow morning, although I get very nervous about these things, I hope it will be alright, and people will go ‘that was very easy’. No it wasn’t, it was damn difficult.
I never take anything for granted and I make sure I know my stuff. I’m the Chairman of Celixir (Stem Cell Research) and if I have a conversation with one of the scientists, I don’t pretend to know the science but I have bothered to read the briefing paper and I do understand what I ought to be looking for. If a scientist has given up hours of her time to write a briefing paper, the least I can do is give her the respect of reading it.
What conventional corporate wisdom no longer applies in today’s workplace?
Pile it high and sell it cheap. You’ve got to understand that you add value and sell accordingly. Increasingly, people understand that you get what you pay for.
Another one, “you’re doing really well my son, you can have the key to the executive toilet”. (Digbyism for hierarchical nature of business). The whole concept of you’ll have a better car with a sunshine roof, secondly you’ll be admitted into a different dining room and thirdly you get the key to the executive toilet. All of that, which was the hallmark of businesses 30 years ago. It doesn’t apply anymore, in anyway, shape or form.
What predictions do you hold for the future of work?
If Britain was boss of 19th Century and America was boss of the 20th Century then this is Asia’s century. Australia and Japan are a part of that for this purpose. Both of these are quality, developed economies operating in a developing part of the world. The opportunity is huge because the societies are getting richer, and what you need in business is growth. Growth of spendability. Growth of expectations. And growth of employability. Europe and America is post growth, to get a 1% growth in GDP in the UK or America is an enormous effort. To get a 1% growth in GDP in Vietnam is like falling off a log if you do it properly (another Digbyism). That’s the first big challenge, identifying what’s your market, what’s the route to market, and how to exploit it.
The next challenge is you need more and better skilled people so it’s an enormous investment in your human infrastructure. I’ve formed the view that businesses seriously need to improve how they skill and train their people.
The third challenge for business is getting more and better investment in the physical infrastructure of a country. That has to include working with politicians because the democratically elected governments are the ones who provide this infrastructure with tax dollars. Whether it’s airports, railways, roads, energy or broadband. You have to be able to get your goods to market and your people to work. It might take capital investment but the biggest thing of all it will take is human investment. They need to understand that, they need to appreciate the opportunity and they need do something about it.
More about Lord Digby Jones