Want the best business advice? Go to the top - Business - News - The Independent

Want the best business advice? Go to the top

Wilf Altman reads words of wisdom from the world's leading CEOs

What does it take to be a chief executive? Strong leadership qualities? The capacity to achieve radical change? An obsession with customer satisfaction?

Actually, no two top managers share the same views. Straight from the CEO by William Dauphinais and Colin Price, now available in a new paperback edition, contains 33 interviews with worldwide business leaders. It reveals leadership qualities ranging from intellectual rigour to the search for increased knowledge and improved techniques; from sensitivity in managing the shareholder/stakeholder equation to an ability to revitalise a massive organisation.

The two best-known examples of business leaders who have done it all are Percy Barnevik of ABB Asea Brown Boveri and Jack Welch, head of General Electric. Mr Barnevik expanded his organisation massively through acquisition and split it into around 1,000 small companies to maximise people's energy and entrepreneurial drive. "You can never rest on your laurels," he advises. "You have to improve your position every year, every month and every day. Just two or three years of complacency can destroy a strong and successful company."

Lord Marshall, chairman of British Airways, advises managers to ask themselves, night and day: have I created the right structure to liberate the skills and potential of the entire workforce? They should also, he says, remember that it's the customer who pays their salary and everyone else's. Two of his other guidelines: keep strategies simply and don't over-intellectualise - leave exotic management ideas to business schools and consultants.

At Warner Lambert, best known for its pharmaceutical, healthcare and confectionery products, former chief executive Melvin Goodes targets several critical attributes, including an ability to focus on what's important to the company; to be fast and first to exploit opportunities; to reward the successes of individuals and teams; and to prize creativity and prudent risk-taking.

Radical change is often a challenge that faces new chief executives. Justus Veeneklaas, who heads Philips Australia, part of the giant Philips Electronics, had the task of spearheading a fundamental shift from product- oriented to customer-driven thinking. The transformation called for new strategic alliances with companies able to provide products and services to complement Philips' own components. New business processes and systems had to be put in place to support the changes.

In their book Dauphinais and Price, both top-flight consultants, stress that innovation now requires the CEO and management team to have a strong grasp of technology. "The old model of the CEO as a delegator and well- rounded generalist is less and less relevant ... Today's CEO must be able to swim in the flow of ideas that stream from the various dialogue participants ... the ability to harness creativity is critical."

One of the toughest challenges ever likely to face a chief executive was that confronted by Sir Richard Evans at British Aerospace. Many of the company's divisions had strong identities and resented interference from head office. Yet BAe was sinking and had to take a pounds 1bn write-off, at that time the biggest in British corporate history.

After shedding assets and many thousands of employees, Evans had to transform himself from a turn-around manager to an apostle of radical change, setting up a five-year programme which transformed the company.

Peter Georgescu, president of Young & Rubicam, another of the book's interviewees, suggests that CEOs need to ask themselves the following questions to see how they measure up. Is our corporate culture conducive to creative thinking? What have I done in the last week/month/ quarter/year to put my brands in a stronger position than before? What have I done to give my organisation a greater in- sight into the relationship between our brands and our customers? What have I done to further my intelligence about competitors' brands?

Dana Corporation, headed by Southwood J Morcott, had a five-year run of uninterrupted increases in turnover and profits. One reason for its success was the involvement of its workforce in generating new product ideas. As Morcott puts it, "All people in your organisation have ideas about how they could function more effectively and how the company could be more successful. Ignite the intellectual firestorm smouldering within your organisation!"

n 'Straight from the CEO' by William Dauphinais and Colin Price is published by Nicholas Brealey at pounds 12.99.

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