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)

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