My Biggest Mistake: Roger Hayward

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The chairman of Kestral Communications and a director of Worldcom Group, an international network of public relations companies, says he learned the hard way that delegation can be a dangerous business without careful instruction

MY BIGGEST mistake began in 1987, but it took two years for me to recognise it.

In 1982 I decided to start my own public relations company, Roger Haywood Associates. I had one employee - my secretary - and we had one desk, one chair and one telephone between us.

Within a month I had won six clients and recruited six members of staff . . . but we still only had one desk, one chair and one phone.

At this point I realised we would have to get an office, so we took a small suite in a converted house in Norwich and within a short space of time the number of staff had expanded to 12.

I suppose, at its peak, the company was employing 24 people in this one small building. We were working under tremendous pressure in very cramped conditions, but the atmosphere was absolutely magic. I knew everything that went on and personally worked on every account.

The turning-point came when we bought our own building in a couple of acres on the edge of the city and at the same time opened an office in Peterborough.

Looking back, of course, we did too much, too quickly. Suddenly, I found myself appointing people to the board, making them responsible for different areas, and from there on it was downhill all the way.

One of the reasons was that as soon as we had impressive premises and decent working conditions, psychologically the people who worked for us thought we had arrived. And as a result, they stopped putting out so much effort.

I wasn't aware of any of this until I got a letter from the chairman of a multinational construction company thanking us very much for doing a wonderful job over the previous year and wishing us every success for the future. He said that it had been nice working with us.

I couldn't understand it, as the work wasn't finished. So I telephoned him and said: 'What the hell are you talking about? There is still so much to be done.'

He replied: 'Yes, but we are moving in a different direction. We are going to do corporate identity and develop a mission statement.

'We are going for external marketing, and new business sectors.'

When I asked him why on earth he had decided not to renew our contract without talking to us first, he replied: 'I have been talking to your account director for three months and she tells me you don't do that sort of thing.'

What my employee apparently had done was to turn down a contract worth pounds 1.5m, despite the fact that our company was perfectly able to deliver the results. Why?

Perhaps someone felt that the work was beyond the capabilities of the company, and was reluctant to even present the proposal to me.

It was a hell of a blow to lose that opportunity, but it was then that I realised where I had been going wrong.

I should never have assumed that the people to whom I was entrusting important accounts would handle them in the same way that I would, just because it seemed to me to require no more than commmon sense.

The reality is that I was expecting people with two years of experience to do what had taken me 20 years to learn. By this time the company was already in decline, but I made some immediate changes, which today affect everything that we do at Kestrel Communications.

First, I always rehearse with my employees exactly what they're going to say before meeting a client. Instead of just delegating responsibility, I make sure that they understand exactly what they are supposed to do and that they have all the ammunition they will need.

Second, I always have a debriefing session, and I have learned to be absolutely brutal in translating their language. For example, if I ask how it went, and they say: 'Pretty good, really' - what they actually mean is, 'It was bloody awful.'

My mistake was in ever allowing people who were less experienced to have the authority and opportunity to deal with clients without reporting back to me at every stage.

(Photograph omitted)