Diversity, Teams and Success


Tuesday 9 September 2008

Frances Edmonds

Diversity, Teams and Success: A masterclass in how to create world-class teams

Lewis Media Centre, London

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Frances Edmonds is instantly identifiable as an ex-convent school girl. She speaks in cut-glass received pronunciation. She has the self-assurance of a wealthy upbringing. She is elegant: tan suit, short fair hair, sparing make-up. Yet in the details she is still rebelling against her ascetic education: dangly gold earrings, red nail polish, wicked sense of humour. The Ursuline Convent School in Chester was, she revealed during this event, the place where her personality formed, in all its creativity and naughtiness.

"It's frightening out there," she told the London Business Forum, explaining that technological advances and globalisation mean "the customer is truly king" and that relationship-building is more important than ever to corporate cultures. However, she added, there's a simple solution to the challenges we're currently facing, and that's: "Do what you say you are going to do."

"How many people, how many organizations actually walk the talk?" she asked. "How often is there a massive dislocation between what people say and what they actually do? That promise gap that drives the customer mad, drives the customer into the arms of your competitors." So many companies fail to deliver on their promises, she argued, that it's easy to differentiate yourself on this basis.

However, she added, consistency is the key to success. "Everyone can deliver once in a while, but once-in-a-while delivery does not make a Michael Phelps or Tiger Woods. We have to deliver day-in, day-out, week after week, month after month, year after year forever and ever, amen. That is delivery. And if you deliver in that consistent fashion, there is only one conceivable outcome and that is success."

Edmonds said she wanted to use the acronym DELIVER as a loose structure for her speech. For example, she would talk about Discipline, Enthusiasm, Listening, Innovation and Risk-taking. And she would enliven her explanation of each tendency with stories and case studies from her own past. So, for example, we learned about the death of her father at 64. He was passionate about social justice and, as a doctor, worked himself to an early grave via six heart attacks.

"It's only later in life that I've understood [the lesson of]... my father's tragically early death," she said. "If you need to deliver heroics on a daily basis in order to deliver good customer service that is actually not a sign of good service. That is a sign of bad systems." As corporate leaders, she told the LBF audience, your job is watch for and act upon system failures like this - to prevent the company from overextending itself.

A best-selling author, Edmonds said she also learned a lot from the research for her various novels. For example, while writing Games, a romantic thriller about an American sprinter published in 1997, she learned that the top four sprinters in the US refused to practise together in the run-up to the 1996 Olympics in Alanta. "These four mega-macho egos never won the four by 100-meters relay," she explained. "Why? Because they would never practise the baton change together. It's that old acronym: T-E-A-M. Together, everyone achieves more. And that is absolutely true when we're working together in organisations where people with talent have to learn to sublimate their ego in order to work together in a team."

Collaborating for the common good is, of course, essential to innovation, another of Edmonds' principal areas of interest. People tend to think of innovation as a radical step-change, she said, but the most rewarding ideas can just as easily be incremental. I call it "recombinant innovation," she said, "drawing on the best of traditions." The slightest tweak of your organisational knowledge can produce valuable innovations, if only you develop the right culture.

This culture is characterised by respect, she continued. Respect is a "terrible word hijacked by every hooligan politician and rap artist in the business," but what it really means is meaningful delegation. "Not dumping on people, but training people up so that they can handle any thing that comes their way."

The best way to demonstrate this respect is by training people properly, Edmonds suggested. "When I was running my own business, Eaton Gate Builders, I was constantly arguing with my partners. And I know a lot of you here are from HR. I was arguing with them because I was all in favor of spending money on training courses. And all my partners would say to me is: 'Frances, if we spend all this money on training the guys up, the next thing you'll know they'll be off to the competition.' Have you ever heard that one?"

This is a bogus argument for several reasons, she insisted: "(1) If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. (2) If there are better jobs over there, well, that's your fault over here for not making your organisation better. And (3) when you train people, when you show an interest in people's career development, when you show that you genuinely care where they're going in life - not just your agenda - [it] is the most powerful means of retention. When people know you care about them, the loyalty, and the resilience, and the delivery is absolutely first rate."

A successful team is one in which the leader establishes a cause that everyone can rally behind. The consequences of failing to build such an environment, Edmonds said, were plain to see on the England cricket team went on tour to the West Indies in 1985. Edmonds husband, Phil Edmonds, was one of the players, giving her unfettered access to the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" antics of the players, which she would later turn into a bestselling memoir. "The captain was blaming the coach, the coach was blaming the players, the players were blaming the practice facilities," she recalled. "In losing teams, nobody takes responsibility."

Yet the following year, the same team won the Ashes on Australian soil. Why? Because there, "it was a disgrace to bowl wide, it was a disgrace to throw your wicket away cheaply, it was a disgrace to drop a catch," Edmonds pointed out. "Even more interesting, it was a disgrace to be late for the team bus, it was a disgrace to be late for the team meeting." Conclusion? In winning teams, every single person takes responsibility. "I call that pride," Edmonds said. "In creating great teams, it is the incremental improvement from each individual that makes the difference between a winning team and a losing one."

At the same time, she said, one should not drop like a ton of bricks upon every tiny trangression of one's employees. Tolerance of failure is a vital quality of successful corporate cultures, because success is ultimately dependent on risk-taking. The individuals in your organisation need to "dream the big dreams," she argued, safe in the knowledge that if they pursue those dreams and fail then they will not be blamed. Enzo Ferrari, the father of elite engineering in Formula 1, was once asked after a race what were his tips for success, Edmonds recalled. And he replied: "Failure. Because when you lose you know what has to be done. When you win, you are never sure."

Complacency wrecks companies, Edmonds argued. However, she cautioned, it's important for business leaders to show humility in their boldness. Another Formula 1 hero, the driver Juan Manuel Fangio, provided another salutary quote on the subject: "You must always believe you will become the best, but you must never believe you have done so."

Ultimately, Edmonds took most heart from the words of Sir Winston Churchill, she said. He once defined success as the ability to move from one failure to another without losing enthusiasm. "I like that definition of success because on the basis of that definition, I consider myself the most terrific success," she said. "However good we are, that recognition that we cannot possibly know it all, and that around us there are people of good will who truly will help us [is vital]. And there is no sham in asking for help and support."

Humility is the first of three Hs that are the keys to success, she concluded. The second is Humanity, the "true understanding that we show respect to people irrespective of their religion, their gender, their cultural differences, their ethnicity - because the world is not white, male and middle-class." And the third is Humour. This is, "the most important H of all" she claimed, because it is the thing that will get you to venture out from under your duvet on what Sir Winston Churchill used to call his "black-dog days".

"Where would we be without a sense of humor?" she asked? "I'll tell you: Germany."