The promo blurb above the title of John Dembitz MSc08(1975)’s new book Do it right: do it now! reads, “This compelling book is a fundamental primer for leaders and aspiring leaders across all manner of organisations.”
Given that it is really a substantial revision of his first book, the 2010 It’s the People! What really drives great management and leadership, it begs the question: what has changed in management thinking over the last 10 years?
It’s a question that elicits a surprising response from the author: “Sadly, very little! The reality is that there are good companies, there are average companies and there are appalling companies. Likewise, there are good leaders, average leaders and appalling leaders. And it is ever thus. Obviously, the big change in the last 10 years is digital. The advent of digital and the impact it has on people’s lives makes it even more necessary to provide decent management and decent leadership to people.”
Having spent 30-plus years in senior leadership positions across a wide range of companies, from a major consulting firm to corporate and financial communications and merchant banking, Dembitz decided, after an unhappy spell as a partner at one of the world’s largest executive search firms, “never to work for anyone else again.”
Instead, having “done the big-ticket items, run a company, set up my own company and been entrepreneurial”, he decided to become a full-time non-executive director and over the last 20 years built up a portfolio of non-exec roles with a range of organisations with diverse ownership structures, including family, private equity, hedge fund, private founder and AiM-listed.
As he is quick to point out, about the only thing they have in common is that they are all SMEs, albeit of a very different stripe to what we tend to think of as a small company. Why the switch from big corporates? “Very few things are more satisfying in business than being able to have an impact on the future of an organisation and the people in it,” he replies instantly. “That is exactly what being non-executive chair facilitates. And I really do like smaller companies – it is easier to make a difference.”
That desire to pass on the accumulated wisdom of almost half a century in leadership is also what impelled him to write the first book, and now this one: “As the saying goes, you start life as a blank sheet of paper, upon which experience writes. I feel that my blank sheet of paper has been extensively written on, and it’s time for me to pass some of it on and share it with a wider audience.”
Having spent five years with McKinsey after graduating from LBS in 1975 (he was in the eighth graduating cohort, “when you could actually live in Sussex Place!”), followed by his long business career, one might have thought he would be drawn towards writing about strategy; a suggestion he is again quick to quash: “There are enough books on strategy out there. And I naturally veer towards people – people management, people leadership, engaging with people, motivating people.”
It’s a subject that is clearly very close to Dembitz’s heart (hence the sub-title of the book; People – the essential ingredient for success) and one that excites as much passion in him now as the day he started work with McKinsey and was met in the lobby on day one by a senior partner “who actually accompanied me to my office as a gesture of welcome.” An even greater surprise lay in store: “My name was already on the door! My desk was laid out and there were business cards with my name on it, a pad with my name on it, and a schedule of the first week setting out exactly what I was going to be doing. What did that say to me? It told me that they had actually prepared for my arrival. They had planned how they were going to on board me for the first week.”
Onboarding is something he lays great emphasis on because it is key in establishing the nature of the relationship between organisation and individual – and yet so many companies still, as Dembitz says, don’t get it: “I still find it impossible to comprehend how badly people are onboarded – and it’s so easy to get it right! Why can’t people give just a little bit more of their time, a little more attention? Think how much time and money are spent on recruitment. And that simple process of onboarding somebody on their first day, first week, will have such a profound impact on the way they think about the organisation they have joined. I find it staggeringly difficult to comprehend – it doesn’t need a bigger budget, just an attitude of mind. Why is it so difficult to actually treat people better?”
Asking why, in fact, is the underlining imperative of Do it right: do it now! Not only does each of the 14 concise, straight-talking chapters have a section on ‘The Whys’, there is also a chapter entitled ‘The Pursuit of Y’, which is “dedicated to underlining why it is so imperative to question, to question requests, to question orders, to question the status quo.”
Given the many ‘whys’, is there one maxim that sums up the Dembitz approach to leadership that he would care to pass on? “Yes – always question the status quo. In order to embrace the positives that greater diversity and inclusion in the C-suite can bring – including cost savings, more revenue and more sustainable long-term value – attitudes, cultures and systems all need to change. And that starts with being prepared to challenge the status quo. Always ask the ‘what, how, when, where and why’ questions. They’re simple, but incredibly powerful.”
Do it Right: Do it now! People – the essential ingredient for success, published by The Conrad Press, is out now.
1. Do it now! Don’t prevaricate – often, a bad choice is better than not making a decision at all and failing to take any action.
2. Surprise them – provide as many positive surprises as possible when onboarding execs and employees. It’s a chance to make a big impact for a small price.
3. Master the art of selling – it doesn’t matter how brilliant the idea or the product or the people are; if there is no ability to sell, you don’t have a business.
4. Learn the power of the positive no – the ability to say no is commercially vital; for example, to reject projects that aren’t worth doing, to sit round a board table and say, “I disagree with that’, or to say to a bully, “You cannot do that – that is unacceptable behaviour.”
5. Say thank you – you cannot say thank you too many times. It has to be sincere, but going up to somebody and putting your arm round their shoulder and saying, “Thanks – you have done an amazing job and I really appreciate it” is worth more than any money in the world.