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UPDATED: What we can all learn from the BBC

Posted by Stephen Welch

Stephen Welch

Finally!, a controversy that doesn’t end in –gate. When it comes to the BBC the world has 90 years of broadcasting output to be thankful for. But maybe a lasting legacy will be the death knell of the –gate suffix as a handy lazy-journalist-friendly portmanteau.

Arguably of course it was lazy journalism wot done it in the first place. At Hay Group, though, we know there is more to it than that. And we believe that there are lessons not only for the BBC but for all organisations when it comes to thinking about how work happens.

There are three issues here; and in each case we can draw a clear line which extends from a BBC-specific to a wider theme impacting almost all companies in the public eye.

Issue A:  the agglomerative job syndrome.

In the case of the BBC, the Chief Executive, is the poor victim of one of the most bizarre pieces of job design we have ever seen.  It is an odd combination of activities and responsibilities involving both internal and external leadership while simultaneously being responsible for every bit of the BBC’s 300+ hours a day of output.  No other job in the media or indeed any other sector has this level or complexity of accountability.

Except for one.  There is one other job on the planet where the job holder has accountability for the editorial output of the organisation and also overall leadership responsibilities.  Coincidentally, this organisation also produces local output, its customers pay a regular fee, and like the BBC, it also provides worldwide services.  But whereas the BBC has had two Director-Generals resign in the last few years, no Pope has done so since 1415. Maybe it is no accident that the ‘non-executive Chairman’ of the BBC, Chris Patten, has implied that only an archangel could do the job independently.

The solution: create jobs which are doable and create accountabilities which are cohesive. This applies to all businesses, not just the BBC.  And unless the next D-G benefits from divine guidance it is likely that he too will struggle to be successful in this agglomerative job

Issue B:  the ‘I am my own non-Exec’ syndrome.

The governance system of this organisation is almost as odd as the job itself.  Most would separate the job of running the organisation from the one in charge of standards, quality and process.  In effect, there is no independent internal audit function or no non-Executive Directors (in the normal sense of the word) to create accountability and good governance practice.  In this case, of course there is in theory the BBC Trust. In theory.

We know from our own Hay Group work that the position and role of a CEO works best if there is a higher authority. The solution is to ensure not only clear job and structure design with clear separation of powers but also a clear culture which aligns people around the right behaviour.

Issue C:  is the false thinking that says the leader of a group of experts has to be an expert him or herself.

But thanks to 70 years of Hay Group research we can bust this myth in one paragraph.  It’s true that the leader of a group of people has to earn the right to lead that group, and have credibility as a leader.  But it is lazy thinking to believe the only way that happens is through expertise.  First, we know that the role of a leader and a contributor are very different, so you need different skills.  Second, the temptation of the expert leader is then to step in and get involved in the detail too much, disenfranchising others.  Third, a good CEO needs to have credibility with the whole corporation, not just one area; so specific background is less important.  This is why the world’s most admired companies (and best-performing ones) ensure their potential future leaders have a wide range of experience and are not parachuted into jobs.

So the solution here is to think carefully about what the job requirements are and then identify the right person (via a formal assessment process) how well each of the candidates matches the role requirements.  There is plenty of evidence which says that this leads to better organisational success than any other approach.

In summary then, the BBC can provide lessons for us all, even if we are not all as high profile:

  • Create jobs and organisational structures which are clear, cohesive and consistent.  This will deliver doable jobs that people can do.  Or: recruit archangels.
  • Define clearly your governance processes, internally and externally so that the norms of behaviour are clear.  It helps greatly too if your culture is aligned to strategy; in a way the BBC’s isn’t.
  • When selecting people think carefully about the job requirement and candidates’ fit to role.  Successful candidates may need initial help building credibility but for senior jobs a wider organisational perspective is more important than narrow function experience.

UPDATE:  So, just after this blog was published, the BBC appointed a new Director General.  When Lord Patten implied that only an archangel could do the job, we didn’t expect him to go one better and appoint the Lord (Hall) himself.

 And speed is a good thing to reduce uncertainty. But: festina lente.    When any business makes a quick appointment to replace someone who leaves, job design, governance and role accountabilities often do not change.  Even if they ought to. 

 There has been plenty of media comment on the complexity at the top of the BBC, and its culture.  In order to ensure sustainable success, we’d encourage the BBC to learn from the stories of other successful corporations and review its top level job design, ensure culture aligns to purpose, and clarify governance rules so that accountabilities are clear.

 Hay Group knows that previous behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.  In its haste to get a new DG, has the BBC missed a chance to change; thereby almost ensuring future behaviour will mimic past?

 

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