Room to grow

Stefan Stern
8 June 2015

I look forward to reading about Karen Hester of Adnams in this issue of SM. And not just because I am a fan of the company’s products – although I am.

It is because it is always encouraging to read about senior managers who started at the bottom and worked their way up.

Ms Hester was a cleaner at the brewers before getting into purchasing and rising to become chief operating officer. Cleaners, and catering staff, know a lot about how well a business is doing. John Garnett, the former director of the Industrial Society (now the Work Foundation), used to enjoy telling a story about one of the kitchen staff who admonished him for being a bit out of touch.

He asked one morning how the business was doing. “Don’t you know anything?!”, came the exasperated response. “I’ve been making so many cups of tea I can tell you things are going well,” she explained.

McDonald’s is another business where many started out preparing burgers and serving customers, only to rise to management and then senior executive positions. There is a lot to be said for bosses who know how the job has to be done. This is what Jeff Immelt at General Electric calls “domain knowledge” – managers who really understand their field.

We cannot escape hierarchy at work, no matter how egalitarian we might want to be. “When one person meets another a hierarchy is immediately formed,” as professor John Hunt at London Business School used to say. But opening up opportunities to new talent must make sense.

Showing others there is a career path open to all can only help. In a world of often precarious employment watching the rise and rise of long-standing, loyal colleagues is profoundly reassuring. Cheers!

• Honouring your promises

Well, thank goodness that’s over. The UK election I mean. What a lot of noise and nonsense. The pollsters and experts were humiliated. All that ‘data’ wasn’t as good as they said it was. In that sense alone the voters had the last laugh, which is perhaps as it should be.

The uncosted pledges made may be completely unbelievable, but they come back to bite the winner. And there is a lesson for us all in that too.

The City of London may have dropped the notion that “my word is my bond”, but people remember what they were told and promised. Service level agreements get written in part to provide reassurance. But even they can only go so far in establishing trust.

What buyers and sellers need to know is that the spirit as well as the letter of any agreement will be honoured. We all know what value for money looks and feels like. We also know what it means to get ripped off.

So be careful when making promises you cannot deliver. And be sceptical when a supplier makes you an offer that seems to good to be true. It probably will be.

Now, prime minister, about those tax cuts, £12 billion of welfare savings and £8 billion a year extra for the NHS, all raised without touching VAT or national insurance…?

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of practice at Cass Business School

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