True leaders don’t just put themselves first

Sir John Cass Redcoat School in London’s East End and Tesco may not at first
sight be similar organisations. One is a comprehensive in which three quarters
of the students are eligible for free school meals. The other is the UK’s most
successful retailer where collectively, we consumers spend 16 pence in every
pound.

Yet both are united by a golden thread. They are great organisations,
winning plaudits in their respective constituencies for the way they are
managed and led.

Sir John Cass has just reported that it adds more value than any other
school in the country. It is also the most improved school for the second year
running – an achievement never matched in the history of league tables. Tesco,
once in a dog-fight with Sainsbury’s and the other supermarket chains for
market leadership, has – in less than 10 years – emerged emphatically as our
leading retailer. It combines great value, retailing flair and quality service
to a legendary degree.

What both organisations – although very disparate – have in common, is the
strength of their organisation, and that spells an important message in the
current debates and preoccupation with entrepreneurship. Both know what they
are trying to do, and the teams at the top have pulled together to set in place
common-sense processes for educating and retailing that are likely to work.

Haydn Evans, Sir John Cass’s headmaster, every year establishes a school
improvement plan with his teachers, governors and unions, and then sets out to
establish the matrix of processes – from additional teacher training to the
penalties for truancy – that will allow the objectives to be achieved.

Over at Tesco, Terry Leahy is doing the same, using the so-called Tesco
quadrant of multiple objectives to get his top teams to focus on value for
customers and shareholders, while innovating and engaging his workforce.

None of this is rocket science, although it takes a combination of
leadership and self-effacement at the top that many find elusive. It also means
constantly talking about the needs of the organisation.

The personal appetites and ambitions of the leader are subordinate to those
of the organisation. Instead the emphasis is on we rather than I, and on
respecting the multiple objectives that have to be achieved to gain
organisational momentum.

Entrepreneurship is frequently characterised in wholly individualistic terms
– a kind of Homeric struggle of the individual against the market.

The lesson from Sir John Cass and Tesco is that we have to think more
broadly and in organisational terms to bring about success.

By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Work Foundation

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