House of Failure. No empathy. No plan. No future.

House of Failure. No empathy. No plan. No future.

On BBC Radio Four’s World at One, Alex Williamson, CEO of struggling department store House of Fraser (HoF) recently gave a textbook example of how not to be interviewed.

The department store chain had just announced it was closing 31 of its 59 stores with up to 6000 job losses. The interviewer was not particularly aggressive, just asking the basic questions any sensible person would put to a CEO. The problem was that Mr. Williamson didn’t seem able to respond clearly. Listeners were left none the wiser about how the business had got itself into this mess and, more importantly, what it was going to do to fix it.

From BBC iPlayer, here are a few of the phrases he used. When talking about shaping the future of HoF he said, “It has to be done in intelligent conjunction with our e-commerce platform.”  Williamson could have made a point about younger shoppers preferring an online experience, and the resulting need to create a different ‘destination’ in store to make it a place people want to visit. Listeners would have understood this. They got ‘intelligent conjunction’ instead.

On the redundancies he said, “It’s a tough day for all of us.” Really?  He’s still got a job.  A little bit of humility and a thank you to the people who were losing theirjobs would not have gone amiss.  He then talked about a “transformation agenda”, whatever that is.

Offering no solid plans from House of Fraser to differentiate itself positively in the future and turn the business around, he concluded by saying his focus was to “deliver on this very significant, very brutal and emotionally sensitive adjustment.” Doubtless the 6,000 people who will lose their jobs feel they are more than an ‘adjustment’, or a rounding error on a balance sheet.

We’re not trying to tell Mr. Williamson how to run his business. But his use of language makes his audience feel there is no connection between the management of the company and what is happening (literally) on the shop floor. If he had asked a few of his employees about the business, and then talked to some customers, he would have gained real and useful insights into what was needed.  In the process, he might even have learned the nickname for his so-called ‘House of Brands’ – ‘House of Failure’.

Now contrast his performance with business leaders such as Elon Musk or Richard Branson. (Or the CEO of WH Smith – see our recent blog on his approach.) This is not about spin. Neither Branson nor Musk are particularly ‘polished’ speakers or presenters.  What they do have is authenticity: an ability to connect with people through clear vision. They come across as knowing what they are doing and where they are going. It’s no secret sauce or special technique they’ve learned at media training. It comes from the heart. They believe in what they do and they know that their people and their customers are what matter to success.

Granted, both Musk and Branson are entrepreneurs who have an instinctive ability to inspire. It can be much harder for professional executives, who’ve risen through the ranks of an organisation, to deliver this type of spoken leadership. But it’s not impossible. Here are a few practical pointers:

Keep it simple  Avoid buzz words, overly complex phrases and management speak – it sounds like you’re trying to hide something. Even plain words like ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity’ can sound hollow when used in the wrong context. The only exception to the rule is technical audiences. In this context, the vocabulary of a particular specialism is not jargon.

 Demonstrate empathy  Empathising with your audience shows you care and are in touch. It won’t fix a problem, but at least you come across as a human being and not a management robot.

The world is your audience  You might be talking to a select audience in a specific environment, but with smartphones and social media your message can be shared with the whole world in minutes.  So don’t say anything that you might not want to be broadcast to a wider audience.

Listen before answering Taking a second to gather your thoughts can be really powerful. In the heat of the moment it’s easy to get caught up and feel you need to respond instantly.  A short pause may feel like an eternity, but it might save you saying something you regret for ever.

Answer the question  Avoiding the question looks like you’re trying to hide something. Even if you don’t want to answer, there are simple techniques to address the question and then transition into the point you really want to get over.  The only exception to this rule is in highly combative interviews where the interviewer is trying to force you into a trap.

Have conviction  Before you get in front of an audience make sure you have a plan you really believe in. It doesn’t need to be grandiose. But, in the case of House of Fraser, it would have made sense if the CEO told the listeners some concrete facts to illustrate how he intended to secure the future of the remaining 21 stores.

So, leaders take note. Simplicity, clarity and sincerity: these are the cornerstones of speaking as a leader. And they have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘management speak’.

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