What does change mean for you? Sir Richard Broadbent

Change is something we all face, daily. But sometimes we resist it, delay it or can’t quite make our mind up about the direction we should go. How do we improve our relationship and reaction to it? Sometimes learning how others deal with it can help us to work out our own approach. We interviewed several high-profile people to find out how they have managed change in their working lives.

Our first guest is Sir Richard Broadbent. Formerly Permanent Secretary of HM Customs and Excise and chair of Arriva PLC, Tesco and deputy chair of Barclays, Richard has spent a third of his life in the civil service, a third in banking and a third in business. He is now an author and farmer and runs the Centre for Compassionate Communication in London.

What is the biggest change you have made in your working life so far? What provoked that change?

Moving from full-time employment with one employer to working with multiple companies. It is not so much that I spent fewer hours at work, probably the reverse. But my control over what I did, who with and my capacity to make flexible choices was very different.

When you think about making a change, what is the process for you? Do you weigh up pros and cons, talk to friends and colleagues, seek professional support? And how is that process different, if you compare self-generated and externally motivated changes?

The easiest changes, in one sense, are those that are forced upon you by circumstance (usually because issues haven’t been addressed before). It is clear that something is wrong, there is lots of data indicating what’s wrong, it is urgent and often the options are constrained by the circumstances. Then you just get on with it.

The important changes however tend to be rather different in character. The key step, which for me, initially at least, is almost always internal and to some degree intuitive, is to form a picture of where things are at, where they could or need to be and what are the enablers and blockers to that vision. With that vision in place, analysis, consultation, advice can all be taken as necessary but without the picture to give it direction it would all go round in circles.

How do you manage the change, once you have made a decision, or been forced to make one?

It rests on two factors: absolute clarity about the new direction, embodied in everything said and done from day one; and people – who you choose to empower, who you choose to move or remove.

I have come to believe that the clarity issue is key. As much as sending out ambiguous messages, it is easy to send out anodyne messages in tired language. The change has to be real, to be lived and to be seen as such. If not, it’s probably not what you should be doing. It always has to be more direct and, sometimes, tougher than you think in advance of going live.

A secondary point: it is important to listen and, within the parameters of what is being attempted, flex and fine-tune in response to feedback. Many people will have valuable insights on what more or less might be done. Just as many will complain or naysay. It is important to listen to the first group.

What are the main differences between working for yourself and working for others?

The two things that most struck me about running my own businesses were (a) the relative, almost total lack of support, resources and back-up. Everything, down to the paperclips, is up to you; and (b) the freedom to do what I thought was right. The two go together.

Have you ever regretted a change that you have made and why?

On some occasions. The commonest causes were:

  • misjudging the person who I moved, promoted or otherwise relied on to support the change;
  • over-estimating the capacity of the organisation to assimilate change.

Have you ever regretted not making a change and why?

Absolutely – much more often than I have regretted a decision. It is more common to look back and ask why I did not move more quickly or more radically to change something. The tendency to defer, to hope that the more radical, sometimes painful, changes can be avoided is far more insidious than the risk of making a change and getting it wrong. Very few companies go bust because they take a bad decision. Lots go to the wall because they don’t take decisions and consequently are overtaken.