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The Bottom Line - Creating a competitive advantage

Updated Thursday, 10th February 2011

Stephanie Flanders and her panel of executives discuss political instability and a company's most valuable asset - the employees

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What is the impact of political instability on the way companies do business? And when chief executives say their workers are the company's 'most valuable asset', is it really true?

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In this video, Richard Fenning, chief executive of global security consultancy Control Risks, offers his top business tip: if you're running an international business, create a genuinely global culture within the organisation.

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Stephanie Flanders:  Richard, could you give me your top business tip please?

Richard Fenning:  I think my top business tip is also my top challenge, and that is, if you're running an international business, is to create a genuinely global culture in that organisation.  I think, if you can do that in a globalised marketplace, you have potentially a really strong competitive advantage, because most companies, international companies who regard themselves as being global, who talk about being global, are generally not when it comes to the culture of the organisation.  Our challenge is to make people working in Beijing, in Jakarta, in Johannesburg, in Paris, in New York feel as valued wherever they are in the world.  And that’s more than just kind of having kind of universal benefits for employees, it’s about the culture of the organisation, and it’s about giving them a common sense of a higher purpose to what they're doing.

Now that sounds dreadfully old fashioned, it sounds as if this is not a commercial organisation run for shareholders, it sounds as if it’s some kind of charitable function, which it most certainly isn’t, it’s most definitely a commercial organisation run for our shareholders, but you do have to find what it is that can appeal to people’s stronger sense of motivation than just the execution of a job and earning a salary.

Stephanie Flanders:  How do you do that?

Richard Fenning:  Well in our business we are fortunate in that we are on a routine basis helping people solve quite complicated problems, or helping them understand information that’s either not easy to get or not easy to understand, and at times we’re also intervening to protect life and at times save human life.  So we’re in a fortunate position that what we do genuinely does have a higher purpose to it, but not everybody’s doing that all day long.  So you can't just rely upon those sorts of incidents to create something that is meaningful for everybody, that informs it, it shapes it, it’s very much part of our heritage, but you have to really articulate what it is that the organisation stands for, what its values mean, and do that on a global basis.

When we embarked on this process, it was very clear that what we were doing was taking values that were kind of Anglo American values and we were transplanting them onto the rest of the world, and people may or may not have liked them but they clearly didn’t think they were necessarily their values.  Now creating some, and we’re by no means there, this is a journey without end, I'm quite clear about that and I don’t claim that we have all the answers, and I think it’s only now that I'm realising just quite how significant our ambition is, but we’re very much embarked on that process.  You have to engage people, you have to make people feel that they're part of striving to articulate what it is that the organisation does that makes it stand apart from its competitors and makes it stand apart from the other employment opportunities that people might have.

Stephanie Flanders:  What do you think the key performance indicators are?  What are those key performance indicators that you use to judge the value of your employees and can you give an example of how that’s applied?

Richard Fenning:  We use a whole range of numeric metrics essentially to manage people’s kind of utility in the organisation.  And that would be how much time they have billed to our clients, the pricing structure that they’ve used to do that, their realisation how much of their time they actually get back from our clients, and also the time it then takes our clients to pay us the cash.  These are the sort of if you like the kind of, the kind of basic data that we use to measure how productive the organisation is being.  But above that, that never tells the whole story, and I always look at, when we’re looking at individuals and you think if I rang that person up in the middle of the night and got them out of bed and said I really need your help now, would they give it willingly, and that is a general test of whether somebody is really essentially pulling their weight in the organisation, that’s it.

I only have half an eye on the metrics about individuals, for us it’s absolutely about global teamwork.  We have clients in Tokyo who suddenly have problems in Africa, we have clients in North America who suddenly have a major issue in the Middle East, and we’re constantly working across time zones.  We’re constantly inconveniencing each other at odd times of day and night, and it’s that willingness with no immediate financial benefit to the individual.  It’s that willingness to step forward and help a colleague, who they may never have met, may only have a kind of email relationship with them, that is the metric, if it is a metric, that probably counts for more than anything else.

(5’35”)

 

Stephanie is joined in the studio by Tim Watkins, vice president of the western arm of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei; Richard Fenning, chief executive of global security consultancy Control Risks; and Vineet Nayar, chief executive of Indian IT services company HCL Technologies.

The Radio 4 edition of The Bottom Line is online to listen to now; you can see the TV version on the BBC News Channel on 12th & 13th February 2011.

 

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