“Now we present the first in a new series ‘Our Country Today’, in which we shall be discussing a range of issues affecting all of us. This week’s subject is modern senior management. Our interviewer is Mark Benche and our guest this evening is Sir Percival Stropes, Managing Director of United Vehicle Builders. So without further ado, over to the studio.”
Benche: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our guest, Sir Percival Stropes.
Stropes: Hello, Mark.
Benche: You’ve been in charge at UVB for three years and were recently appointed chairman of the Association of Chief Executives.
Benche: So I suppose there could be nobody better qualified to tell us about the thinking of high-level management.
Benche: I’d like to begin with your overview of the current position.
Benche: Well, perhaps you’d care to give us a start.
Benche: Er . . . now, if you will, Sir Percival.
Stropes: Oh, yes. Very well. What do you want me to say?
Benche: I was hoping you’d give us your take on the performance of the economy following the recent boardroom revolution.
Stropes: I’ll put it simply. We now have more hair on our chests than ever before. The gloves are off and we are punching our full weight. That’s in the heavy division. Nowadays, when we hit ‘em, they stay hit.
Benche: Quite. Now, if we could leave the boxing analogy, perhaps you would tell us just how things have changed. I’m thinking of the widely expressed feeling that we can’t sustain our position in the world without massive investment in education.
Stropes: Nonsense. There was a report to that effect as long ago as 1884.
Benche: Indeed there was, and some would say that it was accurate, as we have been sliding downhill ever since then. How can we hold our ground?
Stropes: Easily. We merely continue with our current process of downsimpling.
Benche: Well, I’ve heard of downsizing and downscaling, but you mention something new to me, and possibly to many of our listeners. Could you explain?
Stropes: Nothing to it. One merely needs to match the skills available to the work that can be found for them.
Benche: I see. But is that not the problem? As we fail to produce people with abilities appropriate to the new age, so we decline proportionately. Some would call this social regression.
Stropes: Killjoys, the lot of them. If the Weary Willies can’t stand the heat, they should leave the kitchen. Personally, I have no qualms about facing the future. Anyway, you have to consider the alternative to downsimpling.
Benche: And what is that?
Benche: That’s raising skill-levels to match the work required, is it?
Stropes: You could say so. I’ve no time for such airy-fairy ideas. I’m a plain man and I like plain dealings. Let’s leave these things to the Japanese, Germans, French, Americans and any others who think, in my view mistakenly, that they can make a go of it.
Benche: Forthright comment. Now, if I may widen the scope, perhaps you’d tell us how you tackled the problems you found on taking over at UVB?
Stropes: Head-on, that’s how. It was a question of administration and cognisance. First, we adopted the ‘flat mountain’ system of management.
Benche: That’s intriguing. Would you elaborate?
Stropes: It’s common sense. When I took charge, we had an absurdly hierarchical set-up. There were shop-floor workers, section leaders, assistant departmental managers, departmental managers, function heads, general managers, executive directors and the Board. That was eight levels. Ridiculous.
Benche: Some people might think that was not unreasonable in a company with 68,000 employees.
Stropes: They would be wrong. I immediately engaged Barton, Burton, Barton. In my view they’re finest management consultants in the world.
Benche: It could be argued that your judgement was less than impartial, in view of the fact that you are a non-executive director of BBB.
Stropes: Rubbish. Three B’s is the best firm of its kind and well worth every penny it cost.
Benche: Which was £3 million – 50% more than any other tender.
Stropes: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. These people put us on course with their two-part rescue scheme – ‘flat mountain’ and ‘laser focus’.
Benche: Tell us what difference the first part made to you.
Stropes: It changed the system to one like ripples on pondwater, in reverse. Employees no longer had to climb a pyramid to reach me. Open door policy, you see.
Benche: But surely you couldn’t allow access to you by everyone?
Stropes: Obviously we needed a filtering process. Input from the periphery is now sieved through progressively senior, status-graded employees.
Benche: And how many grades are involved?
Stropes: Starting at the rim, there are nine. The highest number applies to me.
Benche: That gives you more strata than before, doesn’t it?
Stropes: I didn’t think you’d understand. Top management is a science.
Benche: Er, well, perhaps we could pass on to the second part – laser focus.
Stropes: Straightforward. The consultants clarified that along with so many companies, we were not truly centred upon what we were doing. We’d gone wrong in labouring under the delusion that we were in the business of providing passenger vehicles.
Benche: But you were in that business, weren’t you?
Stropes: Not really. Our task was to move people from place to place. Making the nuts and bolts was secondary. It’s a question of strategy versus tactics. You might say that conveying the public was the strategy, whereas producing the wherewithal was merely tactics. Simple military thinking.
Benche: Very incisive. And how does that translate into practice?
Stropes: Easily. We shifted our attention from manufacture to transport.
Benche: How did you do that?
Stropes: Child’s play. We located large numbers of people who wanted to be on the move, then changed emphasis. So, apart from a head office with a few irreplaceable top administrators, we’re closing down our operations, selling premises and plant and investing the proceeds in Chinese railways.
Benche: Don’t you feel that you owe your workforce, and maybe the rest of us, a more detailed explanation?
Stropes: Look, I didn’t come here to be pilloried. Anyway, I have an important meeting in half an hour, so good night to you.
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