Leaders are only as good as their teams

The All Stars, Lensbury’s 2nd rugby team: I’ve always enjoyed sport, as a spectator and a participant. Unfortunately I’ve never been that good at it and in school, although I’d have happily swapped a few academic grades for a place on the school team, I never got the chance. However later on, first at college and then when I started to work, I found that enthusiasm was a pretty good substitute for ability. It wouldn’t get you into the first team but at least it got you onto a team sheet. Then I chanced on the discovery that if you would take on the chore of organising you would not only secure your position but you could even become captain, choose your position and take all the penalties! And so I became a ‘professional’ second team captain and my first shot at that was in the early 70s when I played for and captained the 2nd XV at Lensbury, the sports club of Shell in London where I worked.

There’s a different spirit in a second team. The first team is all about professionalism, playing to a high standard and competing for your place. By contrast people who play for the second team generally do so because they enjoy the sport, want to play alongside people whose company they enjoy and appreciate the security of a stable team. But they also like to win, they’ve given up time and might have travelled some way for the game so it’d better be worth their while. And by the way they have no desire to do more so someone else needs to look after the fixture list, the kit and the organisation on the day. That’s why there’s generally a vacancy for a second team captain which I’ve always been happy to fill. However by and large those who play in the second team don’t like to be captained so being a captain brings all sorts of responsibility but little authority.

The team at Lensbury settled down and became pretty successful. Early in the season we struggled but players invited mates whom they thought would improve matters and they did. These cliques softened and before long a broader team ethic developed and for some reason we called ourselves the All Stars. We had a pack which won us some ball, a couple of powerful backs who scored tries and I got to play fly half and kick a few penalties and conversions.

I remember a few of the others on the team. Good friends Frank Fuller and Ed Libbey played in the backs, despite the latter working for BP, and Colin Willis played second row. There was also a Peter Quinlan who played hooker and his brother Tony played in the backs. In an inspired act of captaincy in one game when Peter had to go off injured I moved Tony into the pack to replace him, they were brothers after all and wouldn’t that mean that they had common skills?

Lensbury was not the only second team I’ve captained. I’d also captained Churchill College’s second soccer team before, with less success, and then captained the ISCI (Indonesia) second soccer team (pictured above). At ISCI we gave ourselves the name the Masters, we won often and would celebrate after our games drinking lots of Bintang beer and smoking Filipino cigars. In those days of course smoking and sport hadn’t gone their separate ways. Finally I captained Valley Knights rugby team in Hong Kong but that sadly couldn’t call on quite the reserve of talent which I’d mined at Lensbury and in Jakarta.

Applied Chemicals Excellence, Methocel and more: I worked for Dow Chemical for 16 years and in those days the company had two very important characteristics. One was the importance of two roles in the company viz product marketing managers (PMMs) and manufacturing plant superintendents. The other was a matrix organisation. I was promoted to PMM in 1984 which was good news but quickly found that the only way I could succeed was by motivating sales people to act in the interest of ‘my’ products and in the matrix these guys didn’t report to me.

Methocel is super stuff and I couldn’t have wanted for a more interesting business to take on. It’s used in a range of end-user products from building materials to foodstuffs. Dow had a manufacturing plant in Germany and the three biggest competitors were German. I was based in Switzerland and depended on a dozen or so sales people throughout Europe.

I didn’t know it at the time but the business was going down the tube at least partly because previous PMMs had relied on an inappropriate understanding with the competition …

After a year business really was bad but perhaps fortunately the rest of Dow was doing quite nicely and this was in the days before companies simply axed under-performing businesses. For me this meant I flew under the radar and could do what was right for the business and not to simply follow the norms of Dow’s commodity products. I was able to do this because two teams came together. I also had an understanding and supportive boss in the person of Brian Trotter.

Team number one was the Product Management Team (PMT) which brought together marketing, tech service/R&D and manufacturing. I was joined on the team a year or so in by rugby loving Frenchman Jean Wittmann and German Ernst Ryll who brought fresh ideas and none of the conservative pre-conceptions of their predecessors. We developed a strategy which focussed the business on improving market share based on new products, better communications and a more competitive attitude.

The other team was the sales team across Europe which slowly came together as I was able to persuade sales management to reduce its fragmentation and appoint better people. Notable members of that team included Ian Davenport in the UK, Isobel David in France, Reiner Schipstuel in Germany, Jon Bilbao in Spain and ‘senior professional’ Attilio Mattioni in Italy.

I did lots of travelling and ensured that managers and sales people understood our strategy. We brought our distributors into the network and involved them in our planning. We acquired new product lines so that we had more critical mass and invest in more resources. And slowly the results came in and after four years we featured in Dow’s annual report as one of its star businesses.

We built our own identity, Applied Chemicals, and I instituted a virtual award program Applied Chemicals Gold. At the end of the third year I sent a cassette (it was late 80s) of Top Gun to every member of the sales team and charged them to expenses as ‘audio aids’. We had our own annual sales meeting and the last one was in Malaga. To be honest we were a business within a business. I guess it couldn’t last and I moved on.

Herding cats, Cambridgeshire County Council’s Lib Dem group: one of the management models I’ve embraced is the one that suggests that people have lives comprising up to four components viz their jobs, their families, their personal stuff and their societal activities. I always reckon that if three go well it’s like a three legged stool. It always stands steady on the floor. Four is a bit of a challenge, one and two are decidedly unstable. I’ve always done fairly well with the first three but when I lived in Wilmslow and worked, or later did not work, for FMC, the work leg became decidedly weak and I sought a societal position to compensate. That was manifest in joining the Lib Dems and standing for election for the Lacey Green Ward to Macclesfield Borough Council in 1996.

I didn’t get in missing out by just 5 votes after two recounts. But that was fine because I’d just got a new job which sorted out leg three and necessitated moving to Cambridge.

My life was then in balance again but for some reason I agreed to stand in another election in 2005: this time for the two member Cottenham, Histon & Impington division of Cambridgeshire County Council. I came second in the ballot behind a Tory.

I fought the election blind, I had no idea whether or not I’d get in but I did. And then I went into a councillor’s role with no idea about what that would entail. I wasn’t really that political and I had no idea how council’s operated so it was time for a steep learning curve.

I was a member of a 23 strong Lib Dem group on the council and half way through the four year term our group leader (Julian Huppert, later to be MP in Cambridge) said he was standing down and suggested I take over. He was young, very intelligent and highly political and I would have been pale in comparison but no-one stood against me so I became leader.

As it happened the Tories, the ruling group, changed their leader at the same time and the new leader encouraged the chief executive to move on so I became involved in the process to find and appoint a new one. Suffice it to say that the process went well until the Tory leader decided she didn’t like the result and interfered.

We didn’t exactly have a constitutional crisis but we, the Lib Dem group and the much smaller Labour group, campaigned to get the Tory leader to resign. The Tories themselves weren’t exactly 100% behind their leader and we found ourselves in the bizarre situation of Tory backbenchers encouraging our efforts to get their leader to resign. Under such circumstances it was important to maintain discipline which was a major test for me as a new leader.

Slowly the screws were turned and one Friday afternoon I found myself negotiating the Tory leader’s resignation speech and next week she was gone. It was a successful action which resulted in a large extent from the support given to me by the Lib Dem group (especially my deputy Peter Downes and steely fellow member of the appointments committee Nichola Harrison) and other senior Lib Dems (Chris White and Sal Brinton) from other councils whom I’d asked to give advice. It taught me that leadership doesn’t have to be lonely as long as you open up and share it with others.

After two years I was on the receiving end of the visibility of leadership. I was up for re-election and the Tories put up their existing councillor who was now a cabinet member with his own ambitions of leadership and another heavy weight in the person of the deputy leader of South Cambs district council. I countered that with a little smartness. I chose a woman as a running mate and she was from the other half of the division, I was from Histon & Impington. We fought an aggressive campaign ascribing all the ills of the community and more besides to the Tories and came out one and two.

I did another year as leader but stood down when the fun went out of it. Being in opposition is a bit like being a purchasing manager, which I have done. You miss the creative element of actually doing stuff.

Painting H&I yellow, electing three councillors in 2018: I was re-elected as a county councillor three times with the last, and I mean the last, time being in 2017. That was a comparatively easy campaign, divisional boundaries had been redrawn so it was now just a one member Histon and Impington division and it came soon after the dreadful Brexit referendum in which it had voted 69% remain. I was successful with over 50% of the vote.

It was my last time to stand for election, I promised myself that, but there was still the district council elections of 2018 with all three councillors to be chosen and there will be the election of my successor in 2021.

The 2018 election was a local triumph. It utilised and built on an operation built up the previous year and come Election Day we had a broad team of around 120 people. We had three candidates (Pippa Heyling, Martin Cahn and Steve Hunt) in place in good time and although all three were good Lib Dems it was hardly an identikit slate. We ran a good, positive campaign with high quality material (thank you Chris Sidell and Kevin Wilkins) and we were sufficiently agile to capitalise on the one issue which emerged during the campaign.

There were other great members of the team. Gary Sinclair made sure we gave sufficient attention to Orchard Park. John Turner kept us rooted in liberal values and Ros Hathorn brought a passion for matters environmental.

We worked hard and did everything right but we still had the opposition to beat and that included the two sitting Independant councillors. Fortunately they ran a lacklustre campaign in which they tried to make a virtue out of not being active as councillors. Labour did go Identikit with a slate of three ageing males and campaign material straight out of the Corbyn song book. The Tories relied on centralised material and campaigned for just two people although three showed on the ballot paper on the day.

I ran the campaign. There was a little buffalo management but that doesn’t go very far with Lib Dems so a lot of the time it was like a peloton with everyone having a role. I set vision, energised the organisation and kept the team together. When necessary one-to-one chats ensured that we all stayed on message despite the temptations of Facebook and Twitter. And then on the day we delivered the result, all three Lib Dems were elected and with similar results elsewhere we were a part of a bigger team that took control at South Cambs District Council.

The Histon & Impington Neighbourhood Plan, it seemed to go on for ever: it’s taken at least five years to pull this plan together and it’s not quite done yet. But for Covid it would have gone to referendum by now and be ‘made’. As it is we’re now waiting on a likely date of 6 May 21.

The fact that we’ve got to where we have is a testimony to those who’ve stuck with it for the duration and that’s probably just been Denis Payne (who’s been brilliant with the maps) and myself. More important though were those who contributed when needed and there’s been a core running from Hooda Abdullah through Sue Lee to Jon Pavey who’ve managed production of the various versions of the plan. Then there have been those with a particular expertise including Jon Polley (architecture) and Rob Benstead-Smith (environmental issues). Finally others like Geoff Moore and Brian Ing have just been there as team players helping out and picking up odd tasks that just needed to be done.

It’s been a marathon not a sprint but it’s been worth it because the plan itself is more than just a ‘material planning consideration’. It’s based on community priorities and cross cutting principles which are invaluable to testing whether or not a suggested initiative is right for the community.

All projects go through phases when you wonder if they’re worth the candle, when you look around and ask where the support is or when you simply think that maybe you’re not up to the challenge. I guess that’s a test and I’ll confess that there have been times that I’d have preferred that we’d never embarked on the Neighbourhood Plan and that I’d not got lumbered with leading it.

But we got there in the end. I guess that says something.

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