The Common Touch
You may recall that Gerald Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster died in August 2016. Like most people I heard of his death via the British media. He was famous for his great wealth generated through his business’s property holdings and investments. Those people who were aware of him would normally refer to him in sentences that included “he’s the richest man in England” or “he makes the Queen look poor”. For most, It was his vast wealth that defined him.
the common touch:
the ability of someone important or powerful to talk to ordinary people and to understand what they are thinking
My experience of him was different. I had the pleasure of working for him, albeit indirectly, for 2 years from 2010. What struck me about him was not his wealth, he was never flashy, but his ability to mix with anyone. He had the common touch in bucket loads. I dealt with him through my military service. Throughout the period I knew him he was a General within the Ministry of Defence with responsibility for the part of the British Army that I belonged to. Due to the nature of my position I would be the one who would interact with him the most when he turned his attention to my organisation. This meant that during visits he could have chosen to deal with me alone or with my senior team members, however he chose to do neither. He was much happier spending his time with the ‘rank and file’. He enjoyed the company of soldiers and cared not for their backgrounds or wealth or schooling or pedigree. He was interested in them for them. As Victorian as it may sound, I believe that he had genuine affection for the soldiers. He wanted to hear their stories wether they were tales of action and adventure in the Middle East or their (often more colourful) yarns of drinking too much in some far flung garrison town. To him they were all interesting stories and they were all interesting blokes.
When I speak of him I always recount a story of one of his visits to my organisation in Cyprus. We were training for a deployment to Afghanistan and making the most of the arid conditions that the Eastern Mediterranean provides. He was due to be with us for 48 hours before flying to his next visit. As part of his time with my organisation I had planned a dinner with the officers in a local hotel which I thought would be to his liking. He arrived, spent several hours watching the soldiers go through their paces and then enjoyed their company over cups of tea and dozens of Marlboro cigarettes. At the end of the first day I invited him to join us at the hotel for dinner. There was a short pause after which he looked me squarely in the eye and asked “do we have to?” which was swiftly followed with “can we have dinner with the blokes?”. And there you have it. Given the opportunity to have a dinner in a shiny international hotel or dine with the lowest ranks sat on wooden benches at trestle tables in a 1950s ‘cookhouse’. He chose the latter and would have done so every time. It’s worth noting that I wasn’t at all offended. On the contrary, I found it reassuring that in 2012 senior officers in the British Army were still keen to spend time with the soldiers – the reason why they joined in the first place. Regardless of the politics and pressures that the Duke of Westminster faced on a daily basis, he remained focussed on the really important part of the organisation – the people.
So what does this mean for the leader beyond the Armed Services? It’s simple. Don’t lose sight of your people. As old-fashioned as it may sound, put all of your effort and affection into nurturing your team. That sort of investment will pay you back 10 fold. I have seen first hand what the boss spending his time with the team can do. People want to feel valued, if you can take the time to interact with them they will feel far more valued than any bonus or car or health plan can ever make them feel.
I’ll leave you with a warning. All too often I see senior people in a wide variety of organisations who lose the common touch and their ability to communicate at all levels within their business. Some people find it very easy to reach a senior level and hide in their offices or on the golf course avoiding the one thing that keeps them in a Jag and BUPA allowance – the people. There are also those who make it to the top of the business and ignore those lower down the food chain, seeing them as lesser individuals. That is a certain way to resentment and, whilst leadership is not about popularity, it will have a negative effect on the esteem in which you are held.
Spend time with your people, meet them in person, get to know them and their story. It will pay dividends, you will realise what makes them tick and how to get the very best out of them.
Above all you must be credible. Returning to the Duke of Westminster, he wanted to spend time with the soldiers because he held them in genuinely high regard. If he had been doing it as some form of publicity stunt he would have been seen through in a heart-beat. Soldiers are a canny bunch, it doesn’t matter if you are a prince or a pauper, or the richest man in England, if the soldiers don’t like you and can see through you, they won’t pull their punches, but if you’re genuinely committed to them they will give you all they have.
As they say in the British Army:
“you can’t bluff a bluffer”
or as Rudyard Kipling put it:.
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch”