Perform To Win Chapter 1
Jack Isherwood put down the phone and stared blankly at his desk. He got to his feet with a rising sense of panic and looked around the office as if looking for a way to escape. He started to feel physically sick. Realising that it was only a matter of time before someone came into his office, he forced himself to breathe slowly and took a sip of water. Isherwood was the CEO of a successful engineering company based in Bedfordshire, England, and he had just finished the worst phone call of his career.
After a competitive pitch to renew their long-standing contract with a major car manufacturer, his assistant had put through the call from the manufacturer’s purchasing director, Michael Browning. Isherwood was a bit surprised to get a call from the purchasing director himself – usually one of Browning’s managers gave the good news to Isherwood’s sales director, and the sales director and the purchasing manager would see the renewal of the contract, quite rightly, as a good reason to have lunch.
Isherwood took the call with a bad feeling that they were going to be asked to renegotiate costs, though price itself had never been a major issue in the past. Maybe they could adjust some elements of the overall package to reach an agreement. He picked up the phone expecting to be asked if there was any improvement they could make to their terms and felt reasonably confident that the client would take ‘no’ for an answer once he had talked them through the detail of the proposal once more.
That was not how the conversation had gone.
“Good morning Jack,” said the purchasing director. “I wanted to have this conversation with you myself, because our companies have a long history and you are one of our most valued suppliers.”
‘Well, thank you Michael.”
“First of all, I want to thank you and the team for your pitch the other week. You had obviously put a lot of work into it, as ever, and it was a very thorough job.”
“Jack, I have to tell you that we don’t intend to renew our contract with you.”
Isherwood didn’t manage to say anything before Browning filled the increasingly awkward gap.
“We saw some very exciting competitive pitches and we feel that it’s time to make change,” said Browning.
Isherwood managed to regain his voice.
“Um, when you say ‘exciting’ Michael, what do you mean? We think that our prices are very reasonable, considering the service level agreements that…”
Browning quickly cut in. “Jack, this is not about price. If it was just about price, we would do you the courtesy of having another conversation with you. It’s just that …”
Browning seemed to struggle to find the right words; he sounded embarrassed.
“Jack, our companies go back a long way and, funnily enough, we can’t really fault you. You deliver what you promise and you’ve never let us down. It’s just that …” He tailed off, but jumped in again before Isherwood could say anything. “Jack, the other presentations were just what I said they were: they were exciting. We got the feeling that one of your competitors, in particular, was full of good ideas. We felt like they were challenging us to think differently. You know, we pride ourselves on being at the cutting edge, Jack.’
Isherwood started to mumble some form of praise and agreement, but Browning was in full flow.
“It’s a tough market Jack, and it’s not getting easier. You know that. If we’re not producing new, innovative stuff, then whatever we’re putting out starts to get commoditised the minute it hits the market. There will always be someone who will copy what we’re doing and undercut us on price. Always. So we have to keep innovating. We’re busting our whatsits trying to innovate, Jack, we really are, but we need all the help we can get: we need our suppliers to surprise us. We need them to help give us new ideas. Our relationship with your company is fine, it really is: we give you a specification, you give us a price and you deliver. That’s great. But that’s all that happens. Your team came in to present to us and they didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already. They told us that we’d asked for this, that and the other and then they told us that you had delivered this, that and the other. We know that. And then they told us that you could keep in delivering stuff for another three years at a marginally increased cost. That’s not news, Jack. That’s not exciting.’
He stopped, suddenly.
“I’m sorry Jack, I’ve said too much. You guys are great. I’m just trying to explain why we feel it’s time for a change. Being reliable is nice, but it’s not exceptional. We need ‘exceptional’ right now.”
Part of Isherwood’s mind was watching his company unravel as he waved goodbye to the key account that underpinned its finances; another part was listening intently to every inflection of Browning’s voice.
“Please don’t apologise, Michael. Thank you for sharing this with me. You could have just told me that you’ve gone with another bid. I appreciate it. At this stage, I only have one question: do we have another chance? Can we talk to your guys, really try to get our heads around what you need, and come back with another pitch? I know it’s asking a lot.”
“Well, Jack, you know – you’ve made your pitch. It’s a bit weird to let you do another pitch because the first pitch didn’t work.”
“I understand that, Michael, but, as you said, we have a lot of history between our companies. I don’t mean that in any kind of ‘You owe us’ sense; I just mean that there’s a lot of good stuff that could be lost if you move away from us now. I mean, the other guys can promise anything, but they may not deliver, you know? It’s a big gamble. I hear what you’re saying, and it’s obvious that we have to raise our game. I’m up for that, personally. We have a six-month work-out on our contract, right? If we can get back to you again in, say, a month, does that give you time to think about this one last time?”
Browning was quiet. Isherwood waited.
“The other guys will need at least six months to tool up if we give them the contract,” said Browning finally. “Frankly. I think they will need longer. It’s a big decision for us and a big step up for them. We might need you to cover our backs while we make the changeover. We can’t rush this. And you’re right, there are possible downsides. It’s just that were not asking anything simple from you here, Jack. We’re asking you to be different – you know, to think differently; to behave differently. That’s a big ask. Why would that even be possible?”
“That’s a good question, Michael,” said Isherwood. “But what you’re telling me is that if we don’t change, we’ve lost our most important contract. You know how important your business is to us. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. So either we change or we’re in the . . . er, we’re not in a good place. So I’m up for change, Michael. Can you give us one month and the chance of another conversation?”
There was a pause. Isherwood tried not to breathe.
“We owe you that much Jack. You’ve done a lot for us. But you’re coming from behind now. A lot of people are beginning to imagine a new future with new partners. You’re going to need to come in with something pretty spectacular.”
Isherwood breathed out. “Thank you Michael,” he said. “I think we can do that.”
“Well – you’re welcome, Jack. But it’s a tall order. You’re going to need to come in with a team of people who behave and think very differently from the team we saw last month.”
“Uh, yes. Wish us luck.”
Isherwood was still staring blankly at his office walls when his personal assistant came in.
“How was Mr Browning?” she asked.
Isherwood had regained some of his composure.
“Not good, Janet, not good. Please ask the board to come to an extraordinary meeting tomorrow morning at 8.00. Let’s have some kind of breakfast on offer – pastries or something.”
“I’ll email them now. What shall I tell them?”
They agreed on a form of words that conveyed a sense of urgency without, hopefully, creating panic and Isherwood was left to his thoughts. Unusually, he asked his assistant to make sure that he was not disturbed for the rest of the afternoon. As the factory began to empty, Isherwood also left the office, keen to get home and talk to his wife.
* * *
The following morning, a rather subdued and anxious board met in the company’s head office, an unglamorous three-storey block next to the manufacturing facility on an industrial estate near the town of Luton. The double glazing dulled the constant buzz of traffic from the nearby ring road, but the occasional roar of planes taking off from the nearby airport occasionally interrupted the conversation.
Jack Isherwood looked at the uneasy faces of his top team and broke the news about the failure of the pitch.
“I don’t need to tell you about the potential consequences of this,” he told them. “Without this account, we have to restructure completely. I think we can stay in business, but on a completely different footing. We have nearly 1,000 employees now, here and at the plant in Scotland. That would be completely unsustainable.”
He turned to his Finance Director, Andrew Gibbon. “Andrew, I need you and your team to draw up a set of figures for the worst case scenario, if you would – as soon as possible. Thank you.”
For the past fifteen years, the contract had been renewed, almost without question, after a certain amount of negotiation on terms. The relationship with the client was good; Isherwood’s company had always delivered on its agreement and prided itself on its quality control. A lot of hard work had gone into to producing the numbers for the client presentation. They seemed to show a healthy picture of targets met against every important metric. Everyone had been quietly confident that the client had no reason to end their successful, long-standing relationship and that they would retain the contract for another three-year term. In fact, no one had seriously entertained the idea that they might lose the contract.
“Can I ask, Jack – what did Browning say?” asked Roger Corbin, the sales director. “I mean the pitch went well. Everyone seemed happy. All of our usual guys at the client seem fine.”
“He said that we weren’t exciting enough,” replied Isherwood. “He said that one of our competitors had come up with a lot of new ideas. He said they needed new ideas from their suppliers to help them stay in front.”
“What sort of new ideas?” asked Corbin.
Isherwood allowed himself to give Corbin a rather old-fashioned look.
“If I knew that, we wouldn’t need to be having this meeting,”
“I don’t see how we can drop our prices significantly and still deliver what they expect,” said Andrew Gibbon, the finance director.
“Well, to keep the account it might be worth reducing our charges,” said John Winters, the chief operating officer. “It’s not ideal, but we could maybe shave some areas to bring costs down.”
“I really believe that this is not about price,” said Isherwood. “If it was just about price, Browning would have come straight out with it. He sounded embarrassed. He kept saying that he couldn’t really fault us but that we hadn’t offered them anything new: we just told them what they already knew – that we were hitting our targets.”
Corbin, the sales director, suddenly felt the need to defend the presentation they had delivered at the pitch.
“Well, we all signed off on the presentation,” he said firmly. “It was very impressive. We hit every single target that we were given. Delivery, quality control, everything. We tooled up successfully for their new product line, and that went very smoothly. All of the people I talk to at the client are really happy. Where is this coming from?”
“Did Michael give you any idea about who was driving this?” asked Margaret Simons, the company’s human resources director and the only female board member.
“No, Margaret,” said Isherwood. “He sounded pretty involved. I mean it sounded as if he wasn’t just giving somebody else’s opinion. But it probably goes further than him.”
“When they say that they want new ideas,” asked Rory Campbell, the chief technical officer, “do they mean new technical solutions? We’d need a lot more input from them about what problems they are facing before we could propose anything.”
“I can’t answer that, Rory,” said Isherwood. “He said they wanted to be ‘surprised’. I honestly don’t know if they have any particular problem that needs solving. Roger?” He looked meaningfully at the sales director.
“They haven’t mentioned any significant planned new development,” said Corbin. “If there was something new in the wind that affected us, we’d be the first to know about it.”
“So we need to surprise them,” said Campbell, “but they can’t tell us what sort of surprise they would like?”
“Well I guess that’s the joy of surprises,” said Isherwood, slightly sharply. ”Look. Gentlemen. Margaret. If we lose this account we are in deep trouble. Hundreds of jobs will go. I am not even sure that the company that would emerge after the shakedown would be viable in the long term. This is potentially a matter of life or death. This company is eighty years old and I have been CEO for nearly a quarter of its lifespan. I am damned if it is going to go under on my watch. I’m sure you all feel the same.
“I have bought us some time. Not very much time, but enough for us to give it one last go. We get to go back in with a new presentation and it needs to be pretty spectacular. Browning said that he would need to see what he called ‘a very different team’.”
The team shuffled slightly in their chairs and Isherwood realised the possible meaning of what he had just said.
“I don’t mean different faces,” Isherwood reassured them. “There is no suggestion that they have a problem with any of us individually. But it’s clear that, at the moment, we don’t have the right attitude. We’re not sending out the right messages. We’re not impressing them.”
“How long have we got?” asked Corbin, the sales director.
“One month,” said Isherwood. “Maybe we can stretch that a bit by the time they can find us a diary slot, but we shouldn’t bank on that.”
Corbin leaned back in his chair, looked up at the ceiling and let his hands drop into his lap, rather dramatically.
“You don’t think we can do it, Roger?” Isherwood asked him, pointedly.
“It took us two months to put the last pitch together. I don’t see how we can put a new presentation together in less time, especially if we have to do ‘something spectacular’. And I have no idea what we are going to say that is any different.”
“All I can tell you is that it does have to be something completely different,” said Isherwood. “Throw away the old presentation. ‘It didn’t tell us anything new’, is what Browning said. We hit our targets. Well good. But what else can we do for the client in the next three years other than hit the targets that they set us? We need to rethink our pitch from top to bottom. Has anyone got any ideas?”
Margaret, the human resources director, raised her hand.
“You signed off our leadership development course some time ago. We’re all due to attend the course next week. This is an arts-based course and I’m hopeful it will give some new perspectives; we’ve been thinking about this for a long time. We could use the time to think about the new proposal. I’m sure the teaching staff will be helpful – you know, it will give them a real, practical focus to work on. And we’ll all be together, away from the office. So what I’m saying is, we could use this in a very practical way to work on the new pitch. I think we may get some new insights from this that will steer us in the right direction.”
“Jack, forgive me,” broke in Campbell, “but if this is Margaret’s pet ‘dancing with ballerinas’ project …”
“It is not ‘dancing with ballerinas’ Rory, as you know perfectly well,” Margaret broke in, sharply. “It’s an arts-based leadership development programme at a leading business school, led by a leading business consultant. It happens to involve musicians and poets and dancers and conductors. It’s designed to challenge our thinking and make us more effective leaders. It’s about helping us to work better together as a team. What’s not supremely useful about all of that at this precise moment in time?”
“I just think it should be cancelled while we deal with this problem,” replied Campbell. “Frankly, I think it’s a waste of time and money anyway – but right now we clearly haven’t got the time to spare. There must be something that Browning isn’t telling us: some technical problem they’ve got that the other guys have got wind of. If we can find out what the problem is, we can come up with some kind of fix. Either way, spending three days listening to jazz or conducting choirs or whatever Margaret has got planned is clearly a waste of our time.”
“I don’t believe that there is any one ‘problem’, Rory, and I don’t think there’s any one ‘fix’,” said Isherwood. “I think this is about our attitude, our ideas and our relationship with the client. I think we’ve got complacent. And I think maybe we’re falling behind the times. I include myself in that. I’m an engineer by trade, like you, Rory. You know that. I think maybe we’re thinking: ‘Just tell us what the problem is and we’ll find a fix.’ I really don’t think that’s what the problem is. I think we need to be offering some innovative solutions. I don’t know what they are. I wish I did. But we clearly need to put our thinking caps on and come up with some new ideas. We need to make the client feel that we are the right partner for them for the rest of the twenty-first century. We need to be exciting. With the best will in the world, I don’t think that we’re very exciting.” Isherwood stared out of the window at the nearby elevated ring road, now filled with traffic travelling at a snail’s pace, most of it probably heading for the airport. The sky was overcast and a light rain had begun to spot the widows.
“This course is highly recommended,” said Margaret. “It’s adventurous and it’s unusual and it’s all about changing mindsets and attitudes. It’s about tapping into how performing artists work together to produce exceptional outcomes. I think it’s just what we need, Jack. I think it could help us to come up with those new ideas.”
“Do we really have the time?” asked Corbin. “We have to come up with a new proposal and create a new presentation. That’s weeks of work.”
“You said yourself that we don’t know what to say in the new presentation, Roger.” said Margaret. “We need the ideas first, then we’ll make the time to create the presentation. Maybe we don’t sleep much for a week or three. I can live with that.”
“This is a big risk, Jack,” said Corbin. “A week out of the office doing wacky stuff when we have a real crisis. I say we hunker down here and do nothing but work on the presentation for the next month.”
“Andrew, what do you think?” said Isherwood, turning to his finance director.
“I’ve got my hands full doing the ‘worst case’ scenario Jack. I’m assuming I won’t be asked to go on the development course now, in any case, but my advice would also be to postpone it. I’m guessing they’ll sting us for a hefty cancellations fee, but saving the account outweighs that cost.”
“John?” asked Isherwood, turning to his COO. “You haven’t said much today?”
“Thanks Jack”, said Winters. “I’ve looked at the course materials that Margaret has sent us. I think it’s a fascinating course. I agree with Roger that it’s a risk taking a week out when we could be working on the re-pitch, but then, as Margaret says, we get to tap into the brains at the business school. Plus the three days seem to be all about ‘thinking outside of the box’ and that seems to be what we need right now. Plus, finally, the five of us will be together for a spell, away from the office. That’s actually a great opportunity to get our heads together and rethink our whole approach. Hopefully we’ll come back with a load of new ideas. I think we should go ahead and do the course.”
Isherwood leant forward with his elbows on the boardroom table and his hands over his lower face. He looked around at his colleagues, thoughtfully. After a pause, he drew his hands down over his chin and then clasped them together in front of him and sat back, his hands resting on the table.
“I don’t do this very often,” said Isherwood, “but I’m going to make a little speech and I’m going to be completely honest with you.
“That phone call from Browning yesterday was the worst moment of my time with his company. In some ways, it was the worst moment of my life. I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer any major personal tragedies, and this company means a great deal to me. I don’t mind sharing with you that I felt scared and I felt stupid. That account has become far too important to us, and we’ve got complacent about it. Our contract has been renewed at every review during the fifteen years that we’ve had the business. None of us imagined that we might lose the account – but losing it is potentially fatal to us. How stupid is that?”
He looked around the table. Most of his colleagues’ eyes were fixed on his. Some were looking down at their hands.
“Our competitors are being cleverer than we are in some way, and we don’t even know what that means. They are ‘surprising’ people. Browning obviously feels that they would be more exciting to work with, in some way, than us. And I guess that means he thinks that business would go better as a result. Nobody wants excitement for excitement’s sake.
“But I’ll tell you what I think. I don’ think that this is about some new invention. Forgive me, Rory,” he said, nodding at his chief technical officer, “but I don’t believe that our competition has come up with some brilliant new widget. If they had, Browning would have said, ‘These guys are developing this amazing widget and they’ve got two year’s lead on you on it’ … or something. Wouldn’t they?”
He look around the room, inviting a response.
“They would be straight with us. That’s a clear reason to move the account to the guys with the better widget. They would tell us exactly that. So it can’t be about that; it must about new ideas in the broadest sense. It must be about ways of working together.”
Isherwood stopped suddenly, as if he had made up his mind about something.
“That’s exactly what it is,” he said, looking up at his colleagues. “Browning said that his colleagues were already imaging a future working with these new partners, and that was clearly a more exciting future. He said that if we went in again, we would need to be ‘a changed team.’ He’s not talking about skills and capabilities, or new widgets, he’s talking about attitudes and relationships; things that may lead to new and better widgets in the future. Something that the other guys have said and done has made him think that it working with them would be better; more fruitful.
“Here’s what I would like you to do. I would like you all to go on the course next week. Margaret, thank you for sourcing the course. I didn’t just sign off the money, I looked at what the course was offering and I think it’s very interesting; very challenging. I think it might give us new ways of seeing things. I’ve been thinking for some time that we need to shake ourselves up.” He stopped, with a rueful half smile. “Obviously, I was too slow.”
“I’ll tell you something else, Margaret,” he said, with a little glimmer of his usual good humour. “I thought it was bloody expensive but I still signed it off. Now I’m thinking, compared to losing the account, that’s peanuts. Maybe it will help us win it back. And if not, who cares?!” He looked over at his finance director, who was wincing slightly. “Sorry, Andrew. I think I’m a little shell-shocked.”
Andrew Gibbon lifted his hands and shrugged in a kind of, ‘That’s entirely understandable, sir, don’t worry about it’ sort of way. There were some slight smiles; the mood in the room lifted slightly.
“OK,” said Isherwood. “You will go on this course – you too, Andrew. Finance is critical to this; I don’t want people thinking that finance just crunches the numbers after the event; we need your creative input as well. Your team can do the worst-case scenario while you’re away. Don’t let them ring you up every five minutes during the course either. I don’t want you to be distracted by that. I want you all to go and dance with these bloody ballerinas…” There were more smiles, and Margaret was about to begin another protest when Isherwood, stopped her with a gesture, smiling.
“I’m just being facetious, Margaret. I want you all to go and do whatever the boffins tell you to do and I want you to be open to this. I want you to think about how we could do things differently. Anything. Everything.”
Isherwood stood up and looked at his colleagues for a few seconds with his fingertips resting on the table. He moved away from his chair, took a few thoughtful steps, turned around and sat back down.
“We are a team,” he said finally. “I think we’re a good team. We are facing a problem at the moment that I don’t have an answer to. I don’t think any of us do, as individuals, right now. But I believe that, together, we can find a way through. And I mean together in terms of the whole company. I think we need to reach out to everybody in the company and ask for their help. I think that we need to be talking to everybody that we know at the client and listening very hard to what they have to say.
“I want you all to go on this development course and be open to every new idea that is presented to you and to pick every brain that you meet and then to come back start work on the re-pitch. All of you, together. I will do whatever I can to help. I don’t know the answer to this problem, so there’s no point in me trying to dictate anything. I want you to surprise me, and then I want you to surprise the client.
“While your away, I think I’ll walk the floors a bit to let people know there’s still someone in charge around here. That won’t do me any harm, anyway. Who knows – perhaps I’ll learn something useful!
“Thank you gentlemen; Margaret. We have to win this one back. Good luck!”