There are lots of upsides to being a member of the Board. You get your own large office, PA, input on the company strategy team and, if you’re lucky, a reasonable level of autonomy. Everyone wants to make it to the coveted position of Board-level exec. But that’s because they don’t know that you also have to go on “Management Away Day”.
The idea of the Away Days is for you spend time together as a management group and get involved in exercises that will galvanise you as a team. Usually you create wonderful, game-changing strategies that never leave the flipchart paper they’re written on.
My worst memory was a “Corporate communication session” run by a couple of out-of-work actors. After lunch they asked us to “get energised for the next session”. This entailed all of us – the CTO, CFO, MD, me and the Ops Director – prancing about to music and being exhorted to throw our arms about and stretch. Think of five reluctant John Prescotts throwing shapes….Not pretty.
Every now and again though – if you keep an open mind and a positive attitude – you do get some benefit from these events. On one occasion our CEO invited his former MD to come and talk to us. This retired MD was an impressive guy. Over six and half feet tall, solid as an oak tree and with a voice like gravel. His hair was an authoritative grey, he was imposing but not threatening. His background was pretty impressive too. He’d successfully run the Public Sector division of one of America’s biggest corporations. Staff counted in tens of thousands. Turnover counted in billions.
Before his corporate life he’d been in the US Marines – when the US Marines were fighting in Vietnam. We asked him if there were any lessons he’d learned from his experience of fighting in Vietnam that had been useful to him in his life as a corporate manager. He answered that there were three things.
“Learn how to evaluate your people’s skills: In the infantry you end up with all of the guys who weren’t smart enough to make it to the Air Force. You have to work out very quickly who’s the fastest runner in your platoon, who’s the best marksmen, who’s going to be calm under fire. As their commander you need to know that stuff. It matters.”
“If you’re a leader, the marines, they’re always watching you – because you’re their leader. You can’t ever forget that.”
“When you’re in a war you have no choice. You’re in a kill-or-be-killed situation. You have to believe that you’ll win. You have to have a winning mentality.”