Thinking Managers

Robert Heller of looks back at the life and the legacy of Sir John Harvey-Jones.

The Man Who Made It Happen

Sir John Harvey-Jones, who died at the start of the year at the age of 83, was a company man whose promotion to ICI chairman was the last stage in his ascent through the executive ranks.

ICI, a top-heavy corpocracy suffering form inertia, was on its way to recording unprecedented losses. It was that dire prospect that saw the board appoint Harvey-Jones, someone who had shown his dissatisfaction with the work of his fellows and, perforce, himself.

Personal responsibility is one of the keys to Making It Happen, the chosen title for Harvey-Jones’s deservedly successful book. His time in the ICI hot seat demonstrated his abilities and the great scope available for revival.

Harvey-Jones represented a breath of fresh air. ICI, as with so much of British industry at the time, had become introverted and unenterprising. The new chairman, however, was an adventurous extrovert, and his openness and warmth of character was a contradiction to his corporate personality. Those qualities brought him success in retirement as the Troubleshooter on TV, visiting small to middling companies that had asked for help from the Great Man.

Some were mistaken in thinking their achievements would earn them a pat on the back, and were quite surprised to receive a kick up the backside instead. One example was the Morgan Car firm, who produced cars with obsolete technology, fitting its vintage marketing platform. The resultant waiting lists were seen by the family management as an asset rather than failure.

A truly successful business, of course, creates and satisfies high demand and makes the most of a fully balanced, highly modernised supply.

Harvey-Jones was of a rare breed, not because it’s hard to acquire sufficient management know-how, but because of the human dimension. Rather than being a cold subject, strategy requires emotional drive to turn plans into reality.

Cynthia A. Montgomery notes in the Harvard Business Review that planning is not enough by itself. Strategy must also guide a company’s development – ‘its identity and purpose over time’. She argues that the prevailing approach looks upon strategy as a set solution, rather than a dynamic process.
However, the traditional objective of a long-term, sustainable, competitive advantage must now be replaced by creation of value. What’s more, says Montgomery, leadership demands that the CEO is the Chief Strategist, with no outsourcing. And the time-frame is ‘everyday, continuous, unending’ rather than jumping from year to year.

That’s how one should go about making it happen – following the example of the dynamic powers of a Harvey-Jones.

About the author
Robert Heller is one of the world’s best selling authors on business management.