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Michael Tobin

Forget Strategy. Get Results.


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Leadership vision for the future – faith, hypertext and clarity


Last year, there was a fire in the warehouse right next door to TelecityGroup’s Paris operation. This was a massive conflagration – I’ve still got some footage of it on my phone – which threatened to close down all the businesses in the vicinity.

The firefighters who arrived on the scene advised our staff to evacuate, immediately. Their appliances would be blocking off all the exits so the staff, although they would not be in any direct personal danger, could be stuck in there for a day or two. But my team decided they didn’t want to leave. They selected a core team of six to stay put, keeping the operation running and ensuring our clients had no interruption in service.

When I learned what had happened, I was delighted. My staff had taken that decision entirely by themselves – and it was precisely the decision I would have taken had I been there. They had felt no pressure to wait and get hold of me to clear the decision at a higher level. They went with their instinctive understanding of the values and vision at the heart of our company. Now that’s something you can never write down in any employee or Health & Safety handbook.

Shared visions are key

It reinforced my belief that a consistent, shared vision, combined with a flexibility of approach, is how companies will succeed and grow in the future as they learn to deal with the huge level of change all businesses are facing. The same attitude will also allow them to embrace – and to relish embracing – the new influx of staff from Generation Y brought up entirely in the digital era.

I have been working in the digital economy for 30 years, and through a happy mix of fortune, fortitude and faith, have been able to surf the waves of its ever-shifting currents.

As it happened I was always out of sync with old-school ways of doing business. My own leadership technique – I now realise – developed organically out of the way that I, like the generations younger than me, tend to view the world: a world where fast, flexible and fearless business thinking is the only way forward.

Apprenticeship benefits?

This grew directly out of my own experiences. I didn’t go from school onto university, but straight into an apprenticeship. This was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I learnt about every aspect of working in the company I joined, and about broader business imperatives. It meant I could take on real responsibility early (I was managing staff at 18, and an MD at 21).

I quickly appreciated the rewards – emotional, practical and experiential, not just financial – and the lessons I could learn and apply. This can be true for everyone. Since all of our personal experiences are unique to us, they offer the kind of flexible optionality that is vital right now.

The end of job security

Business leaders have always had to confront change, grasp the opportunities it offers. Periods of stability and stasis are rare. Job or business security is an archaic concept.

But the rate of change underpinning business right now is exploding exponentially. In the technology industry we see that constant innovation on a daily basis; to those on the outside it translates to smartphones or tablets being superseded within weeks of the latest release. It’s genuinely hard to keep up.

Staying inside a comfort zone, hiding behind the barricades of denial and delusion, is not an option. Yes, the future is a fragmented place, but not a frightening one.

Alongside a willingness to evolve, we need to empathise with the new generations coming to work with and for us. Every year another intake of staff arrives. If we do not embrace and harness all their energy, imagination and expertise, they will slip through our fingers – and then blithely leave us in their wake. However it can be difficult, counter-intuitive even, to relate to their hypertext, non-linear scatterbrains. I’m lucky. That’s my kind of brain.

Trusting instincts

Which is why I believe we must create knowledge space through values and vision, and then trusting – honestly and whole-heartedly – the gut instincts of your staff.

I have never paid much attention to the CV, a document that represents a codified, structured approach (most of them slaved off the same handful of templates). I don’t want to plough through a bunch of sexed-up past achievements. The question I ask myself whenever I consider potential employees is always: ‘Can I trust them, and do they have the ability to evolve and be flexible?’

If you provide that freedom, responsibility will follow. Generation Y operates in a switched-on, 24/7 lifestyle – they know no other mode of existence – where work and life is ever more intertwined. So I am relaxed if any of my staff spend time booking their next Ocado delivery during work hours: they know that in return I expect them to be available whenever there is work to be done. If I ring a colleague at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday they know there is only one reason: because it is truly urgent.

I recognise my younger staff have a significantly different worldview to older generations, but because we are all united by one overall vision, the age barriers that might otherwise exist crumble.

‘I don’t believe in strategy, only vision’. 

This is one of my mantras. Whenever I stand up and say that, whether in front of investors, journalists, government ministers or students, many don’t believe I really mean it. But I do. It is incredibly liberating: whatever is thrown at me and the company, whatever apparently insurmountable problems are on the horizon, I don’t have to refer back to a manual of guidelines, constraints and restrictions.

Vision is flexible. Strategy – particularly in the corporate world – is by its very nature not flexible. Just like my team in Paris, even when those around are going down in flames, believe in your vision, have faith, and you will flourish.

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Michael Tobin


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