Me And My Partner: JOHN SMYTHE AND COLETTE DORWARD
Ten years ago John Smythe and Colette Dorward set up Smythe Dorward Lambert. They have worked with 37 of the 50 top FTSE100 firms as behavioural change management consultants. In 1996 they sold out to Omnicom: in 1998, turnover was pounds 7.5m
Wednesday 14 April 1999
I hawked my idea around, but back then, it was: "Don't be daft - run along, boy." Now everyone is clambering on the bandwagon. I didn't know anything about consultancies, and Wolff Olins was the only one I talked to. Wally Olins became like a father figure. He was a supporting, encouraging, big kind of guy, and unusually in Britain then, he was very "can-do" and aggressive.
I had the view that a man with a vision can go a long way. That's when Colette appeared. She was at a meeting where I was talking about internal communication. She phoned and said: "I want to come and work with you." I was pleased and flattered she wanted to join.
Colette was just a slip of a girl: young and inexperienced, but very determined, and very principled. She felt that here was a cause that she could join and very actively support. I have been married three times, but I have known Colette for probably longer than anyone else. Often, I feel what she's thinking without a word being uttered. Paradoxically, she's one of the most enigmatic people, and I often feel I don't know her at all.
She quickly became the second driving force, though we were completely different characters. I was the visionary who had the big idea, and not a great completer-finisher - I would set the stage and sell remorselessly - and Colette put humanity into the place and made it attractive for people to come and work there. Her role was to build the business behind the oratory.
At the time, the market was dominated by the big advertising agencies and external communication providers. It was viewed as message delivery: image management. We said it was reputation that matters, not image. You have to look at the ethics of the business; you need a spiritual approach. If you have a strong vision and good set of values, profit will follow.
Every CEO talks about the importance of people, but what are they actually doing about hiring and firing them? What is the nature of the cultural contract? What will motivate them? We created a debate with clients about good communication, to see that people are part of the decision-making process. It's not a woolly agenda, or driven by wimpy thought. It's about the hard content of the contract between employer and employee.
In that five years, we started to create a philosophy and a new employment opportunity, and we created a business which had a pounds 3m turnover. Then we fell out with Wolff Olins. They were a fantastic sponsor but they wanted to merge our subsidiary. We were guerrillas - we had created our own identity. We had a very uneasy six months, then we took off. We left on the Friday and on Monday we camped in the offices of Collett Dickinson Pearce across the road. They were marvellous. They said: "We'll lend you money and get you started."
There were months when we weren't drawing salaries. It was touch and go, but we were absolutely committed. I learnt during that period that Colette is very hard-working. She is reserved and quite difficult to talk to - and clear about her boundaries - yet she was utterly reliable. She has a great sense of calm, a concrete barrier of calmness. She also has a very occasional wild temper.
Ten years on, we have 80 people working for SDL, and we have a very able second generation gradually taking over our management. You have to be willing to let go of power, but it's like a bereavement. You have to find a new role. Not having to be client-focused does mean you can be more creative and more daring.
Three years ago, we decided that the first vision - to establish an internal commun- ication niche - had been achieved. Our vision at the moment is about taking SDL into the behavioural and psychological arena.
The next vision is about challenging the current change industry. It's an intellectual hegemony, the "ghastly triangle" between the consultancy, the client base and the academic world.
I would say Colette values the fact that I brook no opposition. I suspect she has sometimes had to give in despite her better judgement, but it's not about having the upper hand. It's more about compatibility of intention, with two different ways of getting things done.
COLETTE DORWARD: I had heard John speak and thought he had something new to say. I knew of Wolff Olins and thought they were an amazing company. When I heard John was setting up there, I thought it was a really explosive combination. I had been pottering round looking for something to ignite: I was in financial and corporate public relations, which taught me to think on my feet and get into places quickly and try to find what's going on. I rang John and said: "Give us a job." He said: "Come round for tea."
At Wolff Olins, there was a tremendous feeling of creativity and passion, and John was saying: "I really think there's a gap in the market." There was no job specification for me. I didn't even have a desk. John struck me as someone who was driven, energetic and interested; that's very attractive to someone who was trying to find a direction and looking for leadership. I didn't feel I could get on with him at first because he was so different to me. We have been together for 15 years, and I have grown up. It's been a voyage of discovery, doing female things in a man's world.
John creates opportunities for people. He doesn't nurture you through these, but he is an incredibly generous and open-spirited person who wants other people to get on and do their best. That hit the spot for me, because I took it up.
There's a great deal between us which is tacit and hard for other people to break into. There is that male-female thing, which is unusual in business. It's only been establishing a bigger company - with more senior players who really are bringing things to the table - that has forced that relationship apart. It would have suffocated: this has allowed both of us to grow as individuals.
We were both driven by an idea and an interest in how to make people look at the heart of a business matter. Our apparent allegiance was to a world of design and the way an organisation represents itself through image.
Leaving Wolff Olins was a natural point at which to break. I made the choice to stick with John, someone I trust and felt a complete identity with in terms of value and in what we wanted to try to build.
Now most big organisations have somebody who is formally responsible for internal communications. That has been a major shift and we were part of that movement. The fabric of working life is changing, and people want different things from their employment experience. They are liberated to think and be creative.
We have made a clearer distinction between management and leadership in our own business and have created opportunities for senior people. It's a difficult transition for John and I, and for any entrepreneurial person, to know when to step back. It's more difficult for me because my instinct is maternal. It's my baby, and I don't like delegating motherhood to somebody else. I have had to learn that I'm of more value to the business if I let people much more experienced than me get involved in decision- making and management of process. What matters is to keep the heart alive.
John and I touch base on the things that really matter, but that's not to say we spend a lot of time together. I think I am his alter ego, and during our working life I have felt a sense of reinvention of self. I have had the opportunity to do that at several points, and there's a freshness because we haven't got stuck in a groove.
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