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Author Andrew Kakabadse says bosses should listen to their staff for a dose of reality

Hong Kong’s bosses can be a remote lot. Some are so embroiled in their top-executive lifestyles that they rarely spend much face time with their management; others are so charismatic that underlings are afraid to tell them hard facts. Henley Business School professor Andrew Kakabadse highlights the dangers of developing a corporate bunker mentality in his latest book, The Success Formula. If bosses don’t talk to their teams, they could lose touch with their company’s customers, capability and reality - and plunge their organisations into ill-researched, crazy ventures. 

He couches his concerns in dry business speak, but he spots many warning signs of corporate dysfunction and office politics that busy senior executives might overlook. Kakabadse interviewed 100 senior people in 14 countries in his research for this academic yet practical book. Throughout it, he reminds bosses that even the best plans can fail without the top-level communication that keeps boards relevant in increasingly competitive and volatile market conditions.

Kakabadse wrote "The Success Formula" to show how "smart leaders" can "deliver outstanding value" to their "stakeholders". He  quotes Henry Ford’s observation that "a business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business". However, commercial or altruistic aims still need the leadership "formula" of "Strategy + (Engagement x Alignment) = Value Delivery", he says. 

Such an equation might test the algebraically challenged, but it basically tells chief executives that they can succeed in whatever they want to do, as long as they devise a realistic, practicable plan; can engage their senior management into it; and that their organisation’s structures, processes and protocols can actually realise their objectives. 

Kakabadse urges bosses to listen as they lead, so as to encourage staff input and loyalty. He cites Robert Swannell, chairman of Marks & Spencer, who says leadership is about how you behave. "It is worth reminding yourself of how you would have liked to have been treated earlier in your career," particularly in assessing "whether roles in successful teams are acknowledged", Swannell says. 

The author also reminds recruiters that corporate stars might not be best suited to the top job. The highlight of the book is where Kakabadse explains how Carly Fiorina was a highly successful, bright, charismatic and bold executive before she became CEO of Hewlett-Packard, yet "the very same attributes that had brought her success contributed to a lack of judgment that led her to her downfall", when she stepped down in 2005, the author says. 

Being nicer can also help to develop an "evidence culture", Kakabadse says. He urges bosses to keep raising questions and challenging subordinates’ suggestions with different evidence, not to show who is boss, but to learn more about an issue and discuss alternative action. 

The recruitment of like-minded subordinates can also set a new office culture; correct "corporate misalignment", or counterproductivity; and bring key people into action, the author says. A good way to test alignment "is to ask the general managers two levels below what is really going on".

Sensitive, more open management also encourages underlings to debate with the boss for the good of the company, Kakabadse says. "From 36 per cent of top teams in France to [58 per cent in Hong Kong and] 80 per cent [on the mainland], raising uncomfortable issues emerges as a deep concern." So people skills are key at the top, and bosses must show leadership by fostering a no-shame culture in which managers do not fear rejection of ideas; avoiding pet agendas, and zooming-in and out of issues, he adds. 

The author concludes with convincing medical evidence that shows older chairmen make better leaders and deliberators, yet "The Success Formula" is a dour read. 

Kakabadse’s theories might also seem a long way from the hierarchical and often politicised managements that are common in job-hopping Hong Kong. Even so, his scholarly checklist of rehashed leadership basics could inspire some office-cultural change here, if bosses could find the time to wade through it. 

Book details: 
Book           The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value  
Author         Andrew Kakabadse
Publisher     Bloomsbury Publishing

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Reality check , good managers get down to earth and listen to their staff, says new book.