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Close to the Bone:

Are you Leading or Surviving?

my lovely horse burgermy lovely horse burgerI’m following the ‘Horsegate’ controversy with more than the usual level of interest. The story brought me back a couple of years…

Butchering Apprenticeship: When I was 16, I started an apprenticeship as a butcher. Over the next five years I worked in retail shops around Dublin and also in abattoirs on the North Circular and Ossary Roads. At that time, the trade of butchering had two distinct elements, retail (preparing and selling meat to customers) and what was known as slaughtering. In more recent years, I’ve taken to ‘slaughtering’ classic hits from the 1970’s after the consumption of three pints of Heineken, but that’s another story.

Junior Manager: Once the apprenticeship was completed, I got a place on a Junior Executive Development Programme in Carysford College. It was a six-month long introduction to management theory. As part of the course, we targeted organizations and made a pitch to conduct an internal consulting project. The real goal was to make ourselves indispensable and secure a job. It made sense to focus on an area where we already had some expertise. So, I came up with the project idea that retail organizations could pre-select high quality carcasses from abattoirs rather than simply accept whatever was delivered (in Ireland, all meat is checked by Vets; quality refers to profitability rather than any issues in relation to human consumption). I contacted Tesco, made a pitch to carry out an initial study and got the green light. Yes!

The Project: This was my first consulting assignment and the premise was simple. Tesco, at that time operated about 80 stores, and they were essentially at the mercy of meat wholesalers. Typically each store ‘accepted’ the meat sent into them by the local wholesalers, provided that the numbers matched i.e. the amount invoiced and the amount received was in sync. No quality checks were in place at that time and very little meat was ever returned by any supermarket to the wholesalers. In practice, it was a major hassle to ‘return’ stuff. Retail butchers work to a pre-determined schedule (making corned beef and boning and rolling all roasting joints in the early part of the week etc.). This schedule was severely disrupted if anything was ‘sent back’. In some smaller retail shops (often owned by the butcher himself), I saw meat returned to the wholesalers if it was not up to standard. But I never witnessed this in any supermarket. Supermarket butchers were ‘employees’ – not owners. As sending stuff back was a hassle, the general consensus was ‘why bother?’

horsemeat burgershorsemeat burgersContrasting Carcasses: Working in Tesco (Clondalkin branch), I selected 2 beef carcasses from the fridge i.e. the meat had already been accepted by the company. Meat is actually muscle tissue. So I choose the most ‘muscular’ carcass (technically, the one with the best conformation). I also choose the worst (i.e. least muscular) carcass and compared both. Animals are similar to humans in that you have fat, muscular and skinny cows and all of these go into the food chain (wouldn’t you just love to be called a ‘skinny cow’?). While all meat is sold by weight, ‘skinny’ cows (same point applies to sheep and pigs) have a much higher bone: muscle ratio. It follows that these animals are less profitable as there is a smaller % of meat once the bones have been removed. Oh yes, the things you learn from this blog! Bloody brilliant.

The Results: I dissected the carcasses into the component parts, carefully photographed and weighed each piece, then did the math. The difference in return between the well-muscled and the skinny carcass was circa 17 per cent – an enormous variation. About a week later, wearing my best (only) suit, I proudly presented the study at the Tesco HQ in Dun Laoire. I can’t remember the details of what happened, other than the fact that I didn’t secure my dream job – to visit all the abattoirs and pre-select the carcasses that Tesco would buy. I walked away jobless and Tesco didn’t follow up on the central idea of pre-selecting (an absolute no-brainer in terms of increased profit margins).

At that time, Tesco was an incredibly busy environment. Long opening hours, a vast range of products and the logistics of managing thousands of staff across geographically dispersed stores lent itself to a frenetic work pace. Those managers, consumed with their day job, failed to spot an innovation that had enormous potential upside. Even if they didn’t like me (what a silly notion), the central idea was powerful and should have been picked up.

Missed Signal: You might think that ‘missing a signal’ like this was an aberration or perhaps a sign of lazy management? My experience since then points to a different root problem. Most managers become consumed by the ‘organization’. They get sucked into the vortex of today’s crisis, budget construction, internal politics, and preparations for the next board meeting and so on. Consumed by inside issues, managers forget to look at ideas from outside the organization. Overworked managers become exhausted and cranky, often just trying to survive. One senior executive I recently met (banking sector), had punched in 100+ hours each week over a 6-week period. Read that sentence again, it’s not a typo. Over 600 hours in 6 weeks. That’s two-thirds of the annual allowable flight hours for an Aer Lingus Pilot completed in a month and a half. Is it any wonder that executives running on empty miss big ideas? While this is an extreme example, the point about ‘missing signals’ applies to many overworked executives.

Leadership Role: Sometimes consultants play a positive role in this regard, when we offer a conduit for new ideas. But you hardly want to outsource a critical component of managing your organization to an external group. Shouldn’t you be out there yourself, benchmarking (stealing ideas shamelessly), looking for ways to improve what you are doing? In the book ‘Accidential Leadership’ (Liffey Press, 2009), I defined leadership as ‘the ability to bring about positive change’. If you’re solely focused on managing today, then you’re not leading, just surviving.

Just looked at my watch. I can’t believe that it’s lunchtime already. Where did the morning go? God I’m starving. I could eat a horse!

By Paul Mooney (PHD)

Mob: 00353 (0) 872439019

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PS: Another Innovation: “The truth is I have no unbelievably special skills or genius eccentricities.” Excerpt from a job seekers email that went viral on Wall Street and described by one CEO as “The best cover note ever.” With so many people now actually telling lies on their CV, the truth is being classified as unusual?

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