My Biggest Mistake: Philip Sadler

The vice-president of the Strategic Planning Society helped to build Ashridge Management College into one of Europe's leading business schools between 1964 and 1990. He is also a non-executive director at William Lea Group.

IN 1969, the principal of Ashridge Management College retired early due to ill health, and the chairman of governors invited me to succeed him. Until that moment my management experience had been limited to leading a small team as the college's director of research. I was being invited to take on the responsibility for a substantial organisation - one with no financial reserves on the one hand, and a requirement for massive investment in new facilities on the other.

The challenge and the opportunity were irresistible, however, and I accepted. My main reason was that, even from the peripheral role of research worker, I had been able to see the very real contribution that management development was making both to the performance of organisations and to the development and self-fulfilment of managers. I felt institutions such as Ashridge had a key contribution to make to the economic and social well-being of the nation and I was excited by the possibility of playing a part in making this happen. I had also become very fond of Ashridge, and the prospect of restoring Wyatt's great mansion and gardens was an added incentive.

As principal of a management college, I started to learn how to manage.

Inevitably I made mistakes in the early years, but fortunately none was big enough to damage the college significantly or derail my career. Also I was well supported by a strong management team and by staff in all departments whose commitment to making a success of Ashridge was an inspiration.

My biggest mistake, however, was the one I kept repeating. Unfortunately I didn't fully realise this until the occasion of my leaving party. At one point I spent five minutes or so chatting to a junior manager in one of the administration departments. As we parted he said, 'You know, I have worked for Ashridge for five years now and this is the first time we have had a conversation.'

My big mistake was the one made by so many chief executives - the mistake of forgetting that the job is much more about leadership than administration, the mistake of spending too much time at the desk, shuffling paper, instead of managing by walking about.

This mistake had some major consequences that now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see very clearly, but which escaped my attention at the time.

Although I quite quickly developed a vision of how Ashridge could become one of the leading business schools of Europe I failed to get that vision sufficiently widely shared and 'owned' by the staff as a whole.

This failure became important in three respects. During two very severe recessions in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, it was not always easy to sustain morale and confidence due to uncertainty about where the college was going in the longer term, or even how it was going to survive in the short run.

The second was that we lost some key staff at one point and I now believe that one factor in their departure was that I had failed to get them to share the vision - which I see as a failure in leadership.

The third consequence was that it took much longer than it need have done to bring about a number of stages in the working out of the vision. People opposed particular proposals because they could not see where they fitted into the grand scheme of things.

Chief executives, whether in businesses, schools, hospitals or any other kind of organisation have jobs which are highly fragmented. They have to deal with budgets, financial controls, markets and customers, and decisions ranging over such matters as investment in plant and equipment, development of new products, quality standards, productivity, health and safety, and community affairs - the list is endless and provides a workload that will easily fill a 12-hour day, if allowed.

But the boss really has only two vital functions: to create a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, and these are the tasks to which he or she should give priority. I really knew this all the time and I shall always regret that I didn't live by it.

(Photograph omitted)

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Recruitment Consultant - Soho - IT, Pharma, Public Sector

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000 first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Sales Executive

£20 - 24k (Uncapped Commission - £35k Year 1 OTE): Guru Careers: We are seekin...

Payroll & Accounts Assistant

£20 - 24k + Benefits: Guru Careers: This is a great opportunity for an enthusi...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week