Mister Motivated

February 28, 2003

British business needs leaders not managers, says Ashridge guru Philip Sadler in his latest work.

How to Get Seriously Rich while Failing in Business will be the first venture into satire of Ashridge business school pundit Philip Sadler, well known for his serious critiques of management in UK plc. Too many managers, he says, are trained to manage rather than lead. "UK firms are overmanaged and underled, compared with (those in) the US."

Hence his interest in the Centre for Tomorrow's Company, which he helped to found. It has a group working on topics such as investment flows in the hope of creating firms that are less dysfunctional. "Leaders are there to create a culture of high performance, high job satisfaction and high customer satisfaction," Sadler says. "The rest can be delegated."

Sadler says that he "has always regarded writing books as a major way of communicating (his) ideas", alongside lecturing, deployment within organisations and consultancy. He has ten major publications to his credit and a host of lesser ones. Most of them, such as Organisational Development, Managing Change, Managing Talent and The Seamless Organisation , are textbooks, intended to accompany business-school course teaching. But some have a wider readership. His most recent, Building Tomorrow's Company was a Book of the Month selection by The Director magazine. Next in line is the satirical How to Get Seriously Rich , taking on the big-reward culture in business and the City, although Sadler is careful not to identify any particular organisation.

He has long experience of business, joining the newer of Britain's two business schools, Ashridge, in the mid-1960s, after a spell as the "social factors person" in the National Economic Development Organisation established by the Labour government to shake up British economic performance. He left for Ashridge when he realised that "the economists weren't interested".

Ashridge had been set up in 1959, mainly as a teaching organisation, but had begun to build up research so as to compete with the business school at Henley, and Sadler joined as head of research. Neither of these schools was part of a university, but now the Association of Business Schools in the UK has 102 member institutions, most of them in universities.

Five years later, Sadler became Ashridge's director at the age of 39, which was regarded by some as dangerously youthful. In those days Ashridge enjoyed semi-official status in British business, partly because of the lack of competition in management development that later emerged from universities and the private sector. The chairman of the CBI often doubled as chairman of Ashridge's governors. Thus Sadler had access to the heads of major corporations, which would have seemed quite normal for that time in the US, he remarks, where links between companies and business schools had long been close, but was most unusual in the UK.

Here he wrote his first book, published in 1972, on management problems in the printing industry, a byword for terrible industrial relations. Computer giant IBM was one of the supporters of his research. Ironically, the sea-change in printing and publishing brought about by computers means that the book, instead of being long out of print, can now be obtained online in single copies printed from a computer's memory.

For Sadler, a sociologist by degree - he received a first in sociology from the London School of Economics in 1953 - an interest in employee attitudes and morale, along with corporate change, has been a constant of his work, both as a researcher and as a consultant. He spent his early career in the 1950s at the Air Ministry, working on a problem that still troubles the Royal Air Force - staff retention. There, a detailed engagement with the workings of a major air base left him an expert in human and social interaction in the workplace.

Sadler has had sponsors in the private sector - including the Trust House Forte hotels group, which was receptive to his ideas despite the hotel trade's poor image as an employer - and in the public sector, where he admits to being less successful.

One comparative failure was the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Its structure was a messy one consisting of parallel wartime and peacetime bodies and of national and international groups. The board had 179 members, and board meetings used up a sizeable chunk of the organisation's budget.

There were ferocious vested interests, Sadler says. But he believes that the issue of restructuring will return to haunt the Red Cross. "Its founder said that it was better to fence off the cliff than to call an ambulance," he says. "But the Red Cross has focused on disaster relief and not on prevention. There is now a growing realisation that proactive steps can head off disasters. Droughts and crop failures give notice of famine."

Another, equally intractable, sponsor was the BBC, where Sadler was invited to consider the structure of the World Service in the interregnum between two director-generals, John Birt and Greg Dyke. "Birt wanted to centralise news and outsource everything else," he said, "and my role was a holding one before Dyke arrived." The issue was entangled in a counter-revolution that aimed to abolish the licence fee. "People ask why licence fees should be used to develop websites when most of the users were outside the UK.

Integrating the new and traditional media is especially difficult in the World Service and there are also splits between news, culture and education and between different languages and cultures."

Leaving aside such politically complex organisations, how has the growth in management education helped British business? Sadler thinks the diffusion of MBAs and other formal management qualifications through the economy has been an asset. "There has been a notable increase in knowledge about the basic technologies of management. Managers know far more than they used to about how to construct a marketing strategy, how to evaluate an investment or how to work within a budget."

But he sees gaps in the "soft side", the ability to motivate employees at all levels of a business. "In British services in particular there is still not the standard of service you would like. You would have thought organisations would get it and carry on monitoring to ensure they kept it.

Instead, it is all too common to get indifference, apathy or inefficiency in a service organisation that leaves you wondering why they are not better." Yet there are cases, such as the sandwich chain Pret a Manger, that prove that the British workforce can provide efficient services when properly motivated. "If they can manage it, why is it so difficult for BT call centres?"

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