Monday, 26 November 2012

Thorpe Park: The Royal Holloway MBA business engagement

For a second succssive year, The Royal Holloway MBA group of 34 temporarily left their leafy campus setting and hectic schedule of classes to visit the nearby "Thrills Capital" of the UK.  MBAs, drawn from all over the world, are particularly keen to visit organisations first hand to get a stronger appreciation of how business in the UK works.

Thanks to the generous partnership of Thorpe Park management team, MBA students were able to hear about the challenges of a quite remarkable business, which not only faces the typical challenges of a leisure business, a particularly wet summer, the 2012 Olympics, and competing for share of spend in a slow growing economic context, but one that also includes a  special ecological considerations, operating as it does in a site surrounded by a wetlands wildlife sanctuary. 

Thorpe Park is one of 93 attractions that form the Merlin Group, a global operator that currently lies second only to Disney.  In close proximity to other Merlin Group attractions (Legoland and Chessington) the Thorpe Park mission is carefully targetted at the mercurial 16-24 age group.  The Royal Holloway MBA group were given five real business questions to respond to after having been given the chance to visit the park 'behind the scenes' and fire questions at a panel of Thorpe Parks senior management.

Having worked together in groups to address the set questions the Thorpe Park management team will be hosted on the Royal Holloway campus to hear what the students recommend.  It is hoped the fresh and challenging perspectives, pitched using newly acquired analysis and presentation skills, will provide some genuinely helpfull insights for the Thorpe Park management team. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Not-for-Profit and The Royal Holloway MBA

Over the past couple of years whilst I have been involved in the recruitment of prospective students onto The Royal Holloway MBA I have reasonably often asked about the relevance of this programme for the public and third (not-for-profit and charities).   The stereotypical MBA would be expected to look for a high pressured, well remunerated role in the financial services or consulting sectors. Fortunately, whilst a few do follow this path, the global group of MBA candidates that start each year in September at the iconic Egham campus tend to follow a much broader range of paths on graduation.

Royal Holloway used to offer a wide range of public sector specifc programmes and modules, but as the differences between the three sectors have reduced, these highly specialised options no longer exist in our portfolio with lecturers considering private, public and third stream sectors as a matter of course. Perhaps due to the liberal arts history of the College, Royal Holloway tends to see MBA candidates join from very wide backgrounds that includes representatives from all three sectors.

As part of a regular lunch time speaker session, laid on specifically for the MBA group, Peter Berry came to campus on a foggy, damp, November day, to share insights from his illustrious career, which included rescuing and reinvigorating the not-for-profit Crown Agents organisation, as well as being decorated by both Britian and Japan.  Using an example of change management he described how he had recommended to unpick the civil service pyramid organisation that saw a product led orientation staffed by personal fiefdoms switched to a market facing one that required 30% fewer staff, but resulted in a more efficient and effective organisation.

Peter also regaled a story that challenged the idea of assessing a charities effectiveness by measuring its running costs as a percentage of turnover, preferring to encourage the Royal Holloway MBA group to consider mission effectiveness.  His organisation set up a logistics operation to deliver essential food aid to people isolated by war, in both the former Yugoslavia and then in the African lakes (Rwanda).  The introduction of convoys of well paid ex-soldier driven trucks replacing low cost and heroic locals, protected by guards, whilst more costly to operate, were considerably more effective at completing their missions, and thus saving starving people in great peril. 

Having operated in many parts of the world where corruption was the norm, Mr Berry talked through how he managed to ensure that his entire organisation understood that moral and ethical behaviour was a fundamental requirement, however elusive the concept was to define.  The value of integrity in doing business was also highlighted, that whilst some significant markets were unaccessible due to the firm stance taken by Peter in his leadership role, this position in itself also opened up other opportunities. 

Growth in non-goverment organisations (NGO's) and charities was identified as an important area for MBAs to consider for their future careers.  Peter rather surprised the group at one point by suggesting that having fun is vitally important, and that you should never consider moving for less than a 20% improvment in your package - but this might not be a financial 20% - but may be entirely for fun.  He flagged that many non-profiteering organisational roles do not pay badly and when interesting work, combines with good training and development and enjoyment of the work (for an outfit that is about doing good for society) - this is a combination that can offer satisfaction that a high salary for work you hate cannot compete with. 

Peter Berry neatly answered one question about the validity of The Royal Holloway MBA in the public and not-for profit sectors by identifyingkey skills of ensuring the mission is delivered as being crucial, and suggesting that the training offered in the MBA programme would give individuals the capabilities that should make them highly desirable and effective managers and leaders in these sectors.

It was also clear from the strong and positive thanks that was given to Peter after his talk, that several students were positively invigorated about the possible opportunities companies like Crown Agents might hold for them going forwards. 

The 10 Commandments

Can you talk the talk and walk the walk ?  The best advice I could ever give a new people manager.


The 10 Commandments 

(for managing people)

1. Recognize peoples' effort

2. Act on poor performance

3. Stop fire fighting - start planning

4. Delegate and stop meddling

5. Make informed decisions

6. Stop controlling - start influencing

7. Communicate more

8. Take more business risks

9. Ask for feedback

10. Be seen to be doing 1-9 above

I have a little card on my desk, it dates from before Y2K (the IT panic concept that saw us all run around undertaking risk assessments and major software/system updates just incase computers thought we had gone back to 1900 not 2000 due to the DD-MM-YY date convention used inside many computer chips.  This, much like my local firework display this year, was a bit of a damp squib).

A learning campus - safe space where MBAs experiment with new leadership styles
It was something my then boss Paul Giblin had us print up for every manager in the BA Germany organisation for our conference that year.  I think it was a pretty snappy management philosophy even back then when my hair was thick and curly.  I keep it on my desk now, even though formally I no longer have anyone reporting to me.  As I have matured and gained more experience I note that the wisdom contained within this ten short paragraphs is more appropriate now that ever before.

Feedback sandwich start & end with positives
'Act on poor performance' is something that I need to keep reminding myself.  (With exceptions) my impression of the civil service is one where many of the great (and some of the awful) commercial managerial practises have really yet to manifest themselves.  When coaching students in groups I often suggest that giving feedback (using the feedback sandwich approach - lots of positive bun with a meaty developmental centre, but start and end on positives) and explaining (using a factual approach) is very helpful.  Most people do not wish to annoy or disappoint others, its unintentional and perhaps because noone has ever told them before.  Take a big breath, find the right moment and give it your best shot (honest and true, but diplomatically, of course.)  Starting the process with "You know what your problem is..." and alike are NOT recommended. 

I need it to remind me that I have a nasty tendency to do everything over email (my wife jokingly suggests that I would even have proposed over email, given half a chance...) and No. 7 "Communicate more" is there to remind me that informal corridor chats are not work denying opportunities but the chance to deepenend and widen my networking, you just never know when someone will be able to thrust an idea or solution into your lap.  In my role supporting the Royal Holloway MBA this week I found myself regretting that I had not done something face-to-face, whilst painfully wordsmithing a series of email tennis communications.

In a blame culture where criticism is rarely in front of the at fault individual, it is often the case that the giving and receiving of honest and meaningful feedback is an approach that is lacking.  We all want to improve, building trust in your colleagues to be able to tell you where you are over stepping the line or have been a bit too much is important.   Looking out for what people are NOT saying is also key, perhaps they do not feel comfortable telling you how they feel. 

Number 10 always makes me smile.  When we came up with this list - the first five were easy, the next four came slowly.  The last one - the all important tenth - that made sense of the 10 commandments title we'd rather irreverently developed - always felt like a filler.  But actually, of course, demonstrating your managerial/leadership philosophy is crucial, perhaps most aptly demonstrated in the "walk-the-talk" expression.  I am proud to have played a small role in support Paul Giblin putting his pocket book management in ten simple bullet points. 

Can implement a few of these ten commandments ?

Justin O'Brien

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The last John Lewis Christmas ad of its kind ?

Gone are the days of 30 million of us sitting down after the queens speech at Christmas to watch a jolly good show together with great auntie Edna snoring on the sofa, our choice restricted to just four or five terrestrial button options.  Sky multi-room, time shift TV hard drives "never miss a minute" and computer based catch up services have put paid to this.  Gone also, I imagine, the power companies headache of predicting the simultaneous kettle spikes of surging electricity demand during the first Bond movie commercial break on Boxing day, premiering to the massess a full five years after its cinematic debut.  Reassuringly though, Coca Cola will still be there with another reinvention of jingle bells, bright red Coke and that Christmas feeling, seeking to carve out its ownership of  this community celebration space that seems to be a core brand value.  But have we seen the last ever John Lewis masterclass in effective emotional branding with this years Christ-tingle making story of the lonely snow man ?

At 90 seconds in length it is certainly making a statement, although of course with the declining trend for embedded simultaneous television audiences, the cost may not be quite as high as we imagine.  In line with contemporary brand building approaches, the John Lewis brand, shop space, and friendly staff are entirely absent from screen and you only get to know it is indeed a JL classic in the closing credits.  Story told, emotional connection firmly made, just a pair of gloves, scarf and hat to show for it !  Entirely the opposite approach is taken by Marks and Spencer's who appear to want to reverse a declining sales trend by using fast changing, high energy dancers, vignettes flicking through their target segments, to show case as much of the new range as possible.  To my mind they are using a genre that is so strongly associated with GAP that it might as well be a GAP ad.  Snatching at too much, too quick, unlikely to be memorable is my firm belief.  Juxtapose the soft, intricate and deliberately slow story telling preferred by Craig Inglis, Marketing Director for the partnership business.

Enter stage right, Gabrielle Aplin, the young twenty something picked out of obsurity to cover a melancolic eighties version of 'The Power of Love' by sometimes contraversial Liverpudlian band Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  (Which of course these days would be referred to as FGTH, naturally.)  Like a well oiled machine, the meticulously executed 21st Century communications package is designed to deliver a mighty emotional punch.  The cheaply exploitable, emerging artist (often the opposite sex to the original artist for an added twist), keen on the exposure and hopeful that the successful middle market department store advertising spend will help break them into the big time, provides a convenient platform of safety in a classic hit, but hope in establishing youthful credentials with the new artists edgy cover.  Nostalgic eighties music for the higher spending 30's and 40's age group deliberately chosen by stealth.  Of course, from a marketing planners perspective using your brand to launch a top ten hit hopefully pays dividends as the carry over of the song can help remind and reinforce the campaign without further payment, perhaps even on channels that do not accept advertising.  (BBC making the news, not just reporting it !)  Just look at what happened in 2010 for Ellie Goulding and her cover of an Elton John classic, based on this it is not unreasonable for Gabrielle to hope for a BRIT award, a chart topper and to break into the USofA in 2014.  Go, Gaby, Go !

Back to the ad: A series of clips show the sad and lonley snowman's journey across stunning landscapes (The Mail suggests this is a Lord of the Rings Froddo like quest, since the stunning scenery and ample snow of New Zealands south island are used as the set) to eventually achieve his quest, reunited with Mrs Snowman at home, perfect gift bestowed and happiness ensues.

Cynically, I am not quite sure what message the audience should take away from this ?  Getting to and from a John Lewis, particularly the car park in Southampton, is an epic journey that will see your devotion fully tested ?  Buy your loved ones warm clothes for outdoors, because the economy is so bad you will welcome the warmth ?  Here I have to fess up to being a big softy on John Lewis, having purchased a 2011 CD of the cover songs used for their advertising campaigns. I even use John Lewis as a cracking case study when I teach marketing on The Royal Holloway MBA.   I guess we know the message is something around 'if you struggle to find the right gift for someone you really care about, go to John Lewis and you will not be disappointed'.  Touchingly sentimental, and where I should probably finish this post. 

However, aside from GAP like M&S, other players like Debenhams have emulated the magic formula used now for several seasons and what in the past saw John Lewis as distinctive and quite different may get lost and the inhibited memorability may see this genre of ads be replaced by a 'different kind of different' that drives a stronger return on investment for the advertising spend.  For the JL creatives, it will surely be a tough call to opt for a different formulation, particularly when the December retail spend plays such a vital role in the years sales performance.