Simon had worked all his life in business and commerce and the time had come, as it must, to retire.  His career had been one of unblemished success.  He had been knighted three years previously for services to industry.  He served on a variety of government advisory boards and had the ear of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. Besides being chairman of an international financial institution, he held an impressive string of directorships.  His opinions on current events were frequently sought and, from time to time, he was interviewed on radio and television.

Simon even looked the part.  He had Cary Grant features – tall, square-jawed, with a fine head of white hair.  Clear blue eyes looked out confidently over half-spectacles. He always wore dark Armani pin-striped suits, complemented by sober ties and immaculate shirts.   

The numerous colleagues who worked with Simon in various capacities found him wise and genuinely helpful.  People would seek him out to ask his advice on weighty matters and for many years he had mentored a number of less experienced managers, all of whom had flourished under his patronage. 

Simon was steadfast in concentrating on four themes:

·        Fostering visionary champions of change

·        Unlocking people’s potential

·        Knowing and exceeding customer expectations

·        Introducing new, differentiated products and services.

He was adamant that research had shown time and time again that nine out of ten successful businesses were successful precisely because they did these four things better, and more consistently, than their competitors. 

Simon, besides remaining focused, was also remarkable in displaying a positive attitude come what may.  No one ever caught him being fractious or despondent.  He carried a piece of paper tucked inside his pocket diary and sometimes he’d fish it out and show it to one of his mentees.  It said:

 What is, not what isn’t

What can, not what can’t

What will, not what won’t

What does, not what doesn’t

What has, not what hasn’t.

Characteristically, Simon looked forward to his impending retirement with enormous enthusiasm.  He had compiled a list of activities he was keen to undertake; go to more concerts and opera, write a book encapsulating his management philosophy, read more biographies, walk the Ridgeway, the Pembrokeshire coastal path, explore the Scottish Highlands.  He also planned to give up some of his directorships and adopt a charity – preferably one promoting educational opportunities for the under-privileged and those who had been alienated by their compulsory education.

As expected, Simon’s deputy, Henry, was duly selected to be his successor – a man he had brought on through coaching and mentoring. During the three-month hand-over period they worked closely together.

On Simon’s last day, before the sumptuous celebration lunch that had been planned, Simon drew Henry aside.  He explained that he had written three messages giving helpful advice in the event of a crisis.  The messages were numbered and locked in a tin box (the sort you’d keep petty cash in).  In no circumstances were they to be opened in advance of a crisis.  Henry thanked Simon and took the key to the box.

Six months later a new computer system was installed.  Specifying and developing it had cost a vast amount of money but it quickly became clear that there were appalling problems which threatened the stability of the entire business.  The suppliers made reassuring noises and said that the problems could be overcome if a dedicated team worked on them non-stop for a few weeks – or it might be months. 

Henry decided that this was a crisis.  He opened the tin box and took out Simon’s first envelope.  He opened it and read the advice.  It simply said: If I were you, I’d go back to square one.  Henry sacked the suppliers, found new ones and started all over again.

After another six months a serious dispute with the unions erupted.  Negotiations broke down and the unions, confident that they had a strong case, announced that they were going to ballot their members and recommend strike action.  If this happened it would be the first strike in the company’s history and be severely damaging.

Henry decided that this was another crisis, opened the tin box and took out Simon’s second envelope.  He opened it and read the advice.  It said: If I were you, I’d go toarbitration.  Henry suggested to the union representatives that the best course of action was to take the dispute to the arbitration service and agree to abide by their decision. 

After a further six months the company suffered two simultaneous set-backs.  First, it was successfully attacked by internet fraudsters who, over a matter of days, spirited large amounts of money away overseas.  Second, a rogue trader incurred such serious losses that the continued existence of the organisation was in jeopardy. 

Henry was in no doubt that this was a crisis and he opened the tin box and took out Simon’s third envelope.  He opened it and read Simon’s advice.  It said: If I were you, I’d start writing your three messages.

 

 

 

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