Greg Dyke and John Birt: lessons in leadership

by | 28 Jun 2010 | Business & Leadership

The broadcasting lives of John Birt and Greg Dyke were surprisingly interwoven. When Dyke joined LWT (London Weekend Television) as a reporter in 1977, Birt was head of Current Affairs and Features. When Dyke was persuaded to move to the new (and struggling) breakfast television franchise TV-am as Editor-in-Chief, John Birt—by then Director of Programmes at LWT—told Dyke that there would be no coming back. This, in itself, tells us something about Birt’s management style.  Why tell a highly talented individual that there is no coming back? It’s all very macho and “You’re either with us or against us”,  but is it in the organisation’s best interests? Birt must have looked a bit foolish when Dyke did indeed return to LWT as Director of Programmes, replacing Birt, who had accepted the role of Deputy Director-General of the BBC. Dyke would go on to become chief executive of LWT and to make his fortune in the process. Birt would go on to become Director-General of the BBC and would later be succeeded in that role by his old colleague, Greg Dyke.

It would be easy to imagine that the two men, whose careers in commercial broadcasting had followed such similar paths, would have acquired rather similar management and leadership styles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A tale of two leaders

This is a tale of two leaders with diametrically opposed leadership styles.

Birt’s management style as Director-General was oppressive, controlling, non-consultative and obsessive about detail. As a result, he created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in which the organisation came to see senior management as a distant and hostile force which imposed painful structural changes without any obvious benefit or purpose. Communication flowed in one direction only: from the top down. The corporation’s staff—dedicated and highly creative individuals who were immensely proud to be working for one of the world’s preeminent broadcasters—were not consulted or involved in far-reaching decisions. Birt made extensive and extremely expensive use of the management consultancy McKinsey & Co. When Birt implemented one of his most significant structural changes, creating a Broadcasting Division that controlled all budgets, to which all programme makers (‘Production’) were now obliged to apply for programme funding, he didn’t tell even his own deputy about the policy: a fundamental reorganisation was imposed without consultation or warning. That reorganisation also created another new level of management. As Greg Dyke writes: “The Controller of BBC One had to report to the Director of Television, who in turn had to report to the Director of Broadcasting, who then reported to the Director-General. It was nuts.”[1] It is impossible not to agree with Dyke.

Birt’s performance as Director-General of the BBC is widely agreed to have been disastrous. When he reached the end of his tenure, the corporation breathed a sigh of relief. In sharp contrast, When Greg Dyke resigned as DG in the middle of a conflict between the BBC and the Labour government of the day, in the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003, about the organisation’s reporting of the government dossier claiming that Iraq could mobilise weapons of mass destruction within forty-five minutes, BBC staff took to the streets and demonstrated in protest that the Board of Governors had accepted Dyke’s resignation. Some cried.

How does a leader take an organisation from a general atmosphere of mistrust and even loathing of senior management, to a new atmosphere where colleagues take to the streets in protest when the leader is forced to resign? It’s an impressive feat.

‘A leadership bypass’

As it happens, when Greg Dyke took over from John Birt as Director-General of the BBC in 2000, I was working for BBC Magazines in ‘BBC Worldwide’, the commercial arm of the BBC, so I have some small personal experience of the changeover.  BBC Worldwide publishes magazines and books related to BBC broadcasting, and licenses BBC programmes to broadcasters in other countries. It is tiny in comparison with its parent organisation; it also deliberately operates at arm’s length from the BBC itself, to ensure that the commercial tail can never wag the public service dog. Nevertheless, when Greg Dyke arrived as the new DG, even those of us working in the commercial division could sense the excitement of producers and programme makers, of broadcasters and administrators—people who worked in different buildings from ourselves, but with whom we had some dealings. We got the same ‘all desks’ emails from Dyke himself. We saw the same interviews and video events on the bizarrely-named ‘ring main’ (a kind of internal cable TV channel).  Dyke came across well. He was direct, sensible and approachable. His vision for the BBC was inspirational—but more of this later.

We had all, previous to Dyke’s arrival, picked up some of the atmosphere of the BBC under Birt – often as much from the media as from within the organisation. Birt’s impenetrable and laughable version of management-speak (and his harsh vocal delivery, which led playwright Dennis Potter to describe Birt as a ‘croak-voiced dalek’) was pilloried as ‘Birtspeak’ every week in the satirical magazine, Private Eye, complete with a useful illustration of a dalek.

Birt’s main management initiative at the BBC had been an attempt to introduce ‘internal markets’ to the running of the BBC. Creating internal markets was much beloved by the Conservative government of John Birt’s day, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which was attempting to create virtual markets of buyers and sellers within Britain’s national institutions. Birt was very keen to stay on the right side of the Thatcher government, which had a visceral dislike of the national broadcaster, believing that it had an in-built bias against the government. (Funnily enough, all governments, of whatever political hue, come to feel this way about the BBC; this may be because impartial reporting is always irritating for anyone who is, by definition, partial).

Many people would agree that Brit’s greatest success as Director-General was in preventing the government from slashing the BBC license fee and cutting the national broadcaster down to size. Birt’s other significant contribution was his recognition that the BBC had to join in with the online revolution—deciding, correctly, that the internet was about to become a very significant force on broadcasting and that the BBC should have a major presence on this new medium.

The main point about John Birt, however, is not a technical debate about the correctness or otherwise of his management decisions but rather the overwhelming consensus that Mr Birt was not a leader who was able to ‘bring people with him’. He did not inspire. He did not create followers. And I subscribe to the school of thought that argues that anyone who is unable to create followers cannot claim to be a leader.

‘John Birt Days’: the least successful internal communications programme, ever?

When I was at BBC Worldwide, before Greg Dyke’s arrival, we were all obliged to attend one of a series of one-day workshops called ‘John Birt Days’. I would like to believe that this was the internal and ironic slang name for these disastrous exercises, but I am not certain. At these sessions, people from the commercial division rubbed shoulders with programme makers and bureaucrats, with staff from BBC Wales and from local radio stations. The purpose was to encourage free debate about the Birtist changes and, presumably, to bring us all to love and understand them. The result was hysterically at odds with the intention. It was plain that there was a massive disjunction between the management and the staff. When people were invited to give their opinions, the level of vitriol aimed at senior management was shocking.

I have, I can assure you, worked for organisations where senior management was not universally popular with the rest of the team. The level of antipathy of BBC staff to John Birt’s management was at a different level. I was elected as spokesman for my group and found myself delivering a speech to the plenary session at the end of the day which made comparisons between BBC management and eastern-bloc dictatorships. Everyone left these sessions thinking not, ‘I now have a better grasp of management plans for the future of the organisation’ but rather, ‘Everybody in the whole organisation, without exception, loathes and detests the changes that have been forced on them and believe that they are counter-productive’.  Representatives of senior management fielded questions at the end of the day, looking uncomfortable and slightly hostile. We were obviously not grasping the point. The staff were revolting.

It is clear why people have since talked of John Birt’s ‘leadership by-pass’ and of his tendency to ‘totalitarian micro management.’  Even the man who appointed Birt, BBC Chairman Marmaduke Hussey, came to regret his decision. ‘I had chosen a man who did not have the two prime skills of managing and getting on with staff. He totally failed to take the BBC with him.’ [2]

‘Long-term plans will be overtaken by events’

When Birt reached the end of his stint as DG, he behaved with characteristic control-freakery. He wanted a successor from within the BBC (that is to say, someone whom he had been able to influence and indoctrinate) who would carry on his good works. He had written a twenty-year plan for the BBC and insisted on a ludicrously long five-month handover for the new DG. He was not happy when the rather ebullient and plain-talking Greg Dyke was appointed from outside the BBC—despite the fact that they had been colleagues at LWT and that Birt himself had been the ‘outsider from commercial television’ when he had first joined the BBC.

Dyke wasn’t very interested in Birt’s 20-year plan:  ‘In my experience,’ says Dyke, ‘the only thing you can be certain about when dealing with long-term plans is that they will turn out to be wrong: there are too many variables for them ever to be right . . . John Birt wanted as his successor someone who would not disrupt what he had done so far and would carry out the first part of his twenty-year plan. He wanted someone from inside the BBC who would carry the Birtist flame, who believed in the Birt way of doing things. He certainly didn’t want some like me coming in from outside who would probably never even read his plan.’[3] Ouch!

Dyke’s point here is important and very real: it is a mistake for leaders to try to predict and influence the organisation’s future once they are no longer in control of it, and it is simply wrong to try to manipulate the appointment of one’s successor to ensure that a like-minded chief executive takes over. Long-term plans will be overtaken by events and a change in leadership style and direction is not only healthy but essential: it brings about the corporate equivalent of evolution.

The last thing that any organisation needs is another leader just like the old one.

A vision people could believe in

Birt has been praised for introducing a degree of financial realism and control to the BBC. It would be easy to imagine John Birt as the less-than-charismatic but nevertheless essential ‘hard man’ who had clamped down on wasteful expenditure. But Birt’s massive expenditure on management consultancy fees and his layers of arguably redundant management may not, in fact, have been that efficient after all. As Greg Dyke says, the BBC’s finances are, essentially, simple: ‘Everyone at the BBC used to tell me what a complicated organisation it was. I used to reply that it didn’t seem that way to me. We were given two and a half billion pounds a year and our job was to spend it. In the world I had come from, the hard bit was getting the two and a half billion.’[4]

Dyke himself set in place a very impressive programme of cost-savings, reducing the cost of running the BBC from 24% of income to 12%.  The point about Dyke’s cuts is that they had a purpose that people could understand: the money saved was ploughed back into programme making.

If, as Dyke says, Birt’s vision was to create ‘The best managed public sector organisation in the world,’ then Dyke’s vision was to build ‘The most creative organisation in the world.’ Now that is a vision that people who have chosen to work in broadcasting might well find inspiring.

Dyke’s vision for the BBC was set out in two major programmes: ‘One BBC’ and ‘Making it Happen’.

One BBC tapped into the inherent loyalty and affection that all BBC staff have for their corporation. It was a good way of expressing what every colleague felt in their bones: that they all worked for the same organisation and for the same ends. It emphasised the fact that the regions were as much a part of the BBC as the centre; that teams producing educational support programmes based on TV programming, or web pages for, were as significant the most famous on-screen presenter. As part of One BBC, every division was asked to make its own contribution to cost-savings; but because the end result was an increased investment in the BBC’s key function in life—to make excellent programmes—there was understanding and support for these measures.

Making it Happen

Making it Happen was an inspirational programme that highlighted the contributions to the creation of excellent programming made ‘behind the scenes’ by people at every level of the BBC. The programme made great use of inspirational videos: one featured the camera team who had hired 30 mules in the mountains of Afghanistan, after their Russian lorry-driver had refused to drive any further, and crossed snow-covered mountain passes for four days to get to Kabul in order to capture the moment that we all remember from our TV screens: veteran BBC reporter John Simpson walking into an undefended Kabul in 2001 after the withdrawal of Taliban forces following the successes of the Northern Alliance.

Making it Happen was an appeal to people’s emotions—good emotions, like pride in being a part of a world-leading broadcasting organisation. BBC personnel were energised and inspired. The mood changed.

Dyke also introduced his own ‘just do it’ philosophy to the BBC—which was in stark contrast to Birt’s ‘don’t do anything until you have the perfect plan in place.’ Dyke decided to move the BBC’s flagship Nine O’clock News programme to Ten O’clock, stealing a march on the commercial broadcaster, ITV, who had moved their news to a later slot, and freeing up the crucial nine o’clock slot for audience-grabbing drama. The decision was implemented within weeks. The establishment reacted with horror: “In yielding to the forces of Philistinism at the corporation Mr Dyke is clearly signalling his own priorities,” thundered The Daily Telegraph,[5] thereby also branding the grammar school-educated Dyke as a fellowPhilistine and not ‘the right sort’ at all.

Dyke’s view of this reaction was refreshing, as ever. ‘My own approach to organisations, business, and life is that you have to ‘try things’. Some will work, others won’t. If you try too many that don’t work, then you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that.  On the other hand, if most of your initiatives work, then you end up being successful. What you can’t do is analyse every idea to death without taking a decision. If you do that everyone will lose enthusiasm for the project.’ Moving the BBC News to ten o’clock in the evening was, in fact, a great success.

Some leadership lessons from ‘The Greg Dyke Way’:

  • Don’t get obsessed by the planning.  Plan enough, and then follow your (well-informed) instincts. More planning won’t help you find the answer: you may be right and you may be wrong, but if you don’t actually do it—and do it at the critical moment—there will never be an outcome for you to learn from.
  • Organisational efficiency and cost-savings are essential but are the means to an end. If the organisation understands what that end is, and agrees that it is good, colleagues will willingly undergo substantial upheavals and even the pain of job losses. Efficiency for its own sake is meaningless.
  • To undergo change, people need a vision. Something simple and motivating that they can hang everything else on. Something that informs their every decision and makes them feel good about their working lives.
  • Teams also need detail to help them ‘colour-in’ the broad vision. Highlight the strengths and successes of your organisation: dig into the archive, find good stuff and spread it around. Engage people’s emotions. Give them a reason to come to work.
  • All change involves doing something differently, and we all resist change. People don’t go the extra mile because of the compelling logic of our arguments (much as we would like to believe that they do); they do something different only if we have managed to touch some important chord that resonates in their real lives.

Greg Dyke touched that chord in the BBC, which marks him down as a very successful leader.

Let’s give the last word to the man:

‘In my experience [people] still tend to believe that the critical component in making change is deciding on the policy. It’s not. The hardest thing is getting the support of the staff who have the job of implementing policy: they are the people who will determine whether it succeeds or fails . . .  I believe that most people are capable of achieving outstanding performance—well beyond what many have been led to believe they can achieve—but that can only be brought about by an inclusive management style. I do not believe that people are best motivated by fear but by being involved in the decision-making process, by taking part in the setting of goals for an organisation and by being able to celebrate achieving them.’[6]

[1] Greg Dyke, Inside Story, HarperCollins, London, 2004, p162

[2] BBC News

[3] Greg Dyke, Inside Story, p 145

[4] Ibid, p 165

[5] Daily Telegraph, August 15th 2000

[6] Greg Dyke, Inside Story, p 206

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