Case for Discussion: ‘Leading in the 21st Century’
The following case comprises two short scenarios describing situations in two very different companies, where the leadership styles and behaviours of the CEO of one company and the owner of the second company are evident on a day- to-day basis.
Read these two cases. Think about them. Reflect on what they are saying. There are FIVE questions at the conclusion of the scenarios, which address both situations. You are expected to answer all FIVE questions.
Richard Branson: CEO of Virgin Group
Sir Richard Branson is a self-made billionaire with more than 200 companies, who does not fit the mould of a CEO in a dark suit with conventional behaviour and appearance. He is as likely to be seen kite surfing the English Channel, absailing down a tall building in India for the launch of Virgin Mobile, dressed as Che Guevara when turning up at a press conference, or wearing butterfly wings whilst running the London marathon as he is in a board room.
His business and life vision has been broad and adventurous, and under his guidance has developed a diverse empire of Virgin companies including airlines, telecommunications, a record label, credit card lending and a hotel chain. Branson’s more recent Virgin Galactic venture has had some setbacks, but he maintains his vision and sets the example to his employees that we all can dare to dream and make these dreams happen.
Branson is often studied in the business world for the keys to his success, part of which appear to be his management style and decisions he makes. He is known to take risks, but calculated risks. For example, a little known fact is that his first company, Virgin Records, was founded in 1972 as a very small boutique label, with not a lot of money behind them. The first artist he signed was an unknown progressive rock musician, Mike Oldfield, who produced an album of a single piece of music with no lyrics. No ‘single’, zero ‘hit’ potential it seemed. It was a huge gamble. However, the album was Tubular Bells, and went on to be one of the highest selling albums of all time, selling 17 million copies. It was the foundation of the Virgin Empire and Branson’s success. Likewise he took another huge risk in 1976 when he signed a totally new type of music act, the Sex Pistols, who re-wrote musical history and heralded in the start of the punk movement. These risks clearly both paid off.
He is definitely highly passionate about business ventures and believes in the importance of fun which he brings to the workplace. He was quoted as saying, “Some 80% of your life is spent working. You want to have fun at home; why shouldn’t you have fun at work?” Branson values removing barriers in the corporate hierarchy and sharing ideas and social events with his workers. Listening to others is important to Branson, particularly his employees, as is allowing them to keep motivated through applying their skills in areas and new projects he is not as good at.
Branson argues that delegating to others helps workers develop, whilst creating the opportunity for him to have more leisure time with his family and to be freed up for more strategic business development. Branson encourages his employees to think and make their own decisions rather than telling them, justifying this approach by saying they are paid to think and self-lead, not to follow.
Branson is often involved personally in selecting staff to ensure the right fit for the Virgin culture, as workers need to operate in a rapidly changing environment, need to make decisions and need to be empowered to act. Branson acknowledges however that the leader’s challenge is to know when to step back and to know when to intervene. Branson’s philosophy is that being people focussed is the key to business success, and that managers who have a people focus will achieve better outcomes.
Branson has a ‘non-policy’ on holidays for staff in that they can take holidays when they want them which, he believes, will ultimately increase productivity. Branson’s approach also includes respect for employees by giving them support and sometimes stepping back and delegating. Branson operates from the premise that if employees leave it will be because they do not feel valued and because their work does not give them a feeling of satisfaction, not because they do not receive enough money.
A classic Branson quote that sums up his attitude is “Customers do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of the employees, they will take care of the customers”
Branson has also gone further with his role, beyond the specifics of the organisation. He argues that in the past effective corporate leadership was only measured by delivering desirable results to shareholders. Whilst that may still be necessary it is not sufficient in the contemporary business world. Branson argues that the public – employees, politicians, customers – have greater expectations in relation to the moral and ethical standard of their leaders and are holding them to account.
So how does Branson propose that this can happen? How can leaders be more morally and ethically right? Branson articulates this in the following quote:
“First off, businesses need to get their own house in order. Be an agent of positive change in your own enterprise and adopt responsible practices to eliminate the risks that often lie at the root of inequality and poverty. Build more sustainable supply chains. Pay a living wage. Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Respect and advance gay rights. Minimise your footprint on the environment.”
Branson is under no illusion that this perspective is not the easy road to follow in business, but his ethical values are articulated in the following statement, when discussing why business leaders should do these things:
“These can be daunting tasks, but they make perfect business sense. Why? Because fighting inequality and safeguarding our planet for future generations means building and growing tomorrow’s markets. I’m sure by now you get the idea: being an ethical business and being a successful one are not opposites. They are two side of the same coin.”
Branson’s philosophy is reflected in how he articulates “Virgin’s purpose”. He is a champion of the concept of “changing business for good”, and that business needs to serve a greater good in society. This has driven him to establish a number of sub-entities of Virgin, committed to ethical practices. These include: The B Team, The Elders and the Rocky Mountain Institute/Carbon War Room.
Terry Gou (pronounced Gwaw): Owner of Foxconn Factories
Apple is one of the richest companies in the world. This is in part due to the efficiency strategies it utilises in choosing companies in its global manufacturing. Terry Gou operates Hon Hai Precision, the world’s largest contract manufacturer. Employing more than 820,000 workers, it is a major supplier to Apple, Sony, HP and Nokia. The factory is best known as ‘Foxconn’.
Unlike the previous example of Virgin employees, where the words ‘happy’ and ‘empowered’ and ‘fun’ underpin the culture, employees at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have sometimes been required to do 24 hour shifts, or woken up at 4am to meet an urgent order from Apple. Even though there are a range of worker benefits, such as swimming pools the pressure is constant to work harder in the quest for ever-increasing efficiency and productivity, often in an environment that is highly physically, as well as mentally, toxic and stressful, with dangerous chemicals and ‘forced’ overtime.
Management practices at Foxconn are quite different from those in many other countries, with the driving leadership goal being to make an ever increasing profit with higher worker output. In one of the Apple manufacturing plants in Chengdu there are even banners that remind the worker that they need to work hard today or else they will need to work hard tomorrow to find a new job.
There have been at least 11 suicides and further suicide threats being made due to harsh working conditions and worker treatment. Gou’s response to the suicides however did not involve changing conditions for the workers, but instead focussed on erecting suicide nets in some factories to stop jumpers. There was, however, some counselling and a pay increase, but not a change in nature of the work, working conditions or hours of work.
In many countries such working conditions would not be tolerated and could be considered unethical. However in countries where manufacturing is outsourced there can often be different management practices and treatment of workers. The challenge facing Terry Gou is that Apple chooses his company to manufacture for them, not just for price but also for fast delivery time. The flow-on impact for employees is a relentless driving for more production, with long hours and low pay. As mentioned, employees do have some benefits, such as cafeterias and medical facilities, but they have boring, repetitive jobs, minimum wages, forced overtime, plus the ever-present threat of dismissal.
In addition, Gou’s leadership style is ‘secretive’ and even new product launches are kept quiet. The employees operate in a culture in which jobs are carried out with military style precision and workers are tightly controlled. There is no clear consultation with workers and there was even an attempt by Gou to make workers sign a letter absolving his company of any responsibility if they chose to commit suicide. Gou’s leadership is still based on an old model which combines intense drive with a martial style of leadership, which is based on his hero Genghis Khan. Gou’s favourite sayings, which guide his leadership approach and demonstrate what he expects of his workers, are:
b) What leadership style do you feel is exhibited by Terry Gou? Define and discuss the characteristics of the style and cite specific examples from the case to support your argument.
It may be that you will argue that there is more than one of the leader behaviours demonstrated by Branson and/or Gou. Cite examples from the case to support your arguments.
(HINT: Go back to Weeks 2 and 3. Revisit the material on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions across cultures). You may also need to search for information on Hofestede and China specifically.
Case Study: Assessment 2 Requirements:
The following guidelines should assist you as you plan and undertake your case study assignment:
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