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Sir John Harvey Jones – the interview


This week’s FTdynamo column conducts an interview with Sir John Harvey Jones

Sir John Harvey Jones MBE, is a former chairman of ICI and was once voted ‘Britain’s Most Impressive Industrialist’ by his fellow peers. His BBC programme ‘Trouble Shooter’ saw him rise to prominence on British television as he gave small businesses the benefit of his insight and knowledge. Now 77 years old, he is a rare European presence in the FTdynamo/Suntop Media Thinkers 50 survey, where he was ranked 37.

A believer in informality, collective leadership and a high level of conflict, Harvey Jones brought the previously staid chemical company ICI to the notice of millions through the force of his flamboyant public persona. He joined ICI’s work-study department in 1956 and worked his way up the ranks, becoming chairman of the heavy organic chemicals division in 1970, ICI fibres products director in 1975, deputy chairman in 1978, and chairman in 1982. After only thirty months as chairman, he had doubled the price of ICI shares and turned a loss into a one billion pound profit. Harvey-Jones’ stringent belief is that “people want to work for an identifiable person and the values of that person are very important.”

FTdynamo: What do you think young managers need to think of today?

John Harvey Jones: The key thing for young managers today is to get the biggest breadth of experience as quickly as possible. They need to have a thorough grounding in the basics of business, whatever their job may be. They must also have good understanding of motivation and management. I don’t think the future lies in the specialist manager, it lies with a manager with superb general skills.

The basics of business are very simple, so I don’t think it’s very sensible for a young manager to run a business on his own. The right thing to do would be to join a large organisation that takes care to develop and train its own people and particularly to find out the strengths and weaknesses the person brings to the job. IT is almost certainly the sector he should get involved with.

FTd: What do you think of Tony Blair as a manager?

JHJ: Very little. He has shown very good articulation, but seems very poor when certain things happen. It’s fairly obvious he doesn’t believe in collective leadership – he believes in personal leadership. He doesn’t seem to carry the cabinet with him and his ideas of execution are very naïve. Look at the foot and mouth episode.

FTd: So do you think his crisis management is questionable?

JHJ: A common belief in the press and general opinion is that he’s programmed, so when something crops up unexpectedly he tends to lose control and authority. This is also noticeable through the lack of confidence and trust he had in fellow Labour MPs. The way he treated Mo Mowlam (then Northern Ireland Secretary) was abysmal. He didn’t trust her and he made the mistake of letting it disturb his leadership ability.

FTd: You’re a patron of the Transcendental Meditation Society; do you think modern day managers should take heed of your hobbies to help them cope with the strains of 21st century management?

JHJ: I think management is a rounded job and I don’t like managers who are blinkered and solely interested in one thing. Transcendental meditation is a technique to cope with a wide range of pressures. Each of us has different strains; I believe everyone has to collect themselves at some point or risk causing themselves harm. The problems modern managers face today are so different from the past. A manager nowadays has to look after his workers as well as his business.

FTd: How can managers put a stop to destructive office politics?

JHJ: To tackle it head on, people hate being rumbled. You only have to catch someone on one occasion and they think twice next time! If you’re in a meeting and someone is playing politics, just say to them ‘you’re playing politics, come back when you feel better’. What politics do is that they divert energy and reduce focus. The problem for managers is that they have to get all people facing the same way. A true leader will be able to do this and conquer problems face on without causing too much personal discomfort between both parties involved.

FTdynamo features writing and research from leading business schools and management consultancies.

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