Thursday 26 April 2018

Our business leaders have the chance to inspire a new generation

Interview: Simon Boucher, Chief Executive, Irish Management Institute

Dr Simon Boucher wants to help the rejuvenation of Irish business.
Dr Simon Boucher wants to help the rejuvenation of Irish business.
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

The head of the Irish Management Institute has a mission statement pinned to his wall. "IMI exists to raise the standard of management practice. We passionately believe in the capacity of managers to enhance performance. We enable organisations and individuals to fulfil their potential by developing their management expertise," it reads.

But Dr Simon Boucher has got lots of work to, because the most recent study reveals that Irish managers perform poorly in comparison to other industrial countries.

Of the 21 countries surveyed, Ireland ranked 15th, well-behind the first-placed USA and ahead only of Chile, Argentina, Greece, China, Brazil and India.

Dr Boucher says there's a "fair capacity" for improvement in the level of Irish management, particularly when it comes to setting goals and having difficult conversations.

"I think we're very good at building relationships," he says. "Maybe the other end of the spectrum to that is that if you want to have strong relationships, sometimes you don't want to have hard messages for people."

"So performance management discussions sometimes aren't hard-hitting enough, aren't straight-talking enough."

"But at the same time, if you were to look for a generic Irish style it's got really good strengths as well, so Irish managers tend to be good at negotiation, they tend to be good at connecting to people.

"I spent a tiny bit of time in Brussels and if you look at the Secretary General of the European Commission, you have Catherine Day, before her David O'Sullivan. So it's amazing to think that you've got so many Irish people, consistently at the highest level of European politics, and it's because they're very good at dealing in a cross-cultural way, they're very good at building relationships."

"I wouldn't over-egg it, you can get into the sense of playing to a cultural stereotype, but that's what comes out in the data."

Dr Boucher began his working life as a management consultant with Accenture, then called Andersen Consulting. Shortly after graduating from Trinity College in 1999, he was packed off to London with the dotcom boom in full swing.

"It was very exciting and very fast-paced but I don't think I felt particularly fulfilled by the work, which is no indictment of Accenture, it was just I didn't feel as if it was personally that motivating."

"Waking up in the morning to increased shareholder value, it wasn't quite what I wanted in my career, I'm quite a mission-focused person and IMI is really a mission-led business."

Management development is in Dr Boucher's blood. He spent part of his childhood in Africa, where his father worked as the head of a management development institute.

"We'd no TV, we'd no telephone, we had intermittent radio, so what I used to get for an outside world link was my dad buying 'The Economist' and 'Newsweek', so as a 10 or 11-year-old, I remember reading about George Bush versus Michael Dukakis," Dr Boucher says.

His reading got him hooked on US politics, and Dr Boucher says Barack Obama is one of the leaders who has inspired him most.

"I think a lot of people now are a lot more sceptical about him, but I was teaching US politics in 2007, 2008 when he was on the rise, and I just thought: 'My God, he's got the full skillset, he's an incredibly impressive individual.'"

"He's got a grasp of the detail but he can inspire people, he knows how to connect to people, he has an energy about him, so the things that you look at from a theoretical perspective of what charisma is, he's got an awful lot of that."

After leaving Accenture, Dr Boucher got a scholarship to the European University Institute in Florence.

"I was studying charisma… looking at how personality can overcome challenging situations, and I spent four years based in Florence - but kind of hopping back and forth across Europe talking to I think it was 80 different political leaders, met prime ministers, foreign ministers, finance ministers, European commissioners."

Talking to these leaders gave him a sense of the role that personality plays in leadership, and how a leader's personal characteristics can help them to overcome the difficult situations that can arise. But Boucher says it's important not to look for a one-size-fits all superman or superwoman.

"An awful lot of leadership is contextual, it's understanding the requirements of the time. You look at great leaders, and some people who started off with everyone thinking they're a super leader, as the requirements of the time evolve, if they don't keep up.

"I mean, think of Tony Blair. In 1997 he was walking down Downing Street with all the kids waving the Union Jacks, and he was phenomenally successful, a phenomenally apparently charismatic leader, and won three elections, but over time that charisma fades unless you continue to be relevant to people.

"Most Irish businesses have at the heart of them really interesting leaders and people you'd never have heard of, but that in their own context are doing really interesting things. So it's easy to say Barack Obama or Joe Schmidt or Bill Clinton, but actually all the leadership theory you see today and the stuff we'd be teaching over in our classrooms is about not trying to be somebody you're not, but trying to be really authentic with your own skillset and then really being mindful about what your priorities are and how you communicate them to people."

The IMI is 61 years old, and since taking over as chief executive last year Dr Boucher has been keen to make sure it keeps with the times.

"You have to look at what you do, and you have to freshen it up. The kind of management development institute Ireland needed in 2008 versus what it needs in 2014 is incredibly different.

"At the depths of the recession, people were coming to us for finance programs because they were cutting costs and trying to manage their business to within an inch of its life in terms of the finances."

"As the recession started to clear, and even 12 or 18 months ago, people were looking at strategy and planning programmes, because they knew that there was an uplift coming, but they knew it wouldn't happen automatically and the rising tide wouldn't take all boats and they had to come up with really new strategies.

"Now it's about you have your strategy, you've come through the recession, you managed to keep the ship above water, and where we're at is it's about how do you get the people on board to help execute the strategy quicker."

Dr Boucher is passionate about sport, and secured Republic of Ireland management team Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane as guests of honour for the IMI's national management conference on October 9. They will talk about team development and getting the most out of talent.

"Sometimes I think sport is at the cutting edge of what we do," Dr Boucher says.

"What does a really good athlete do? They work with a coach who knows them well, who sets very clear plans, measures the right kinds of things, and is constantly reflecting on their performance."

"Something that athletes do all the time, and executives are really just getting into, if we're honest, is thinking in a very deliberate way: 'What are my goals? 'How am I measuring success?'.

"At the end of a week or a month debriefing : 'Did I achieve what I intended to achieve?' What stopped me from doing it?'"

Dr Boucher was teaching on the IMI's programmes during the early years of the recession, and says that managers are beginning to become more positive as the recovery takes hold.

"The recession's coming to an end. There will be a recovery, given the business cycle, but it'll never be like it was where companies were making money and didn't necessarily have strong strategies about how to grow.

"There's an opportunity [for IMI] to be part of the rejuvenation of Irish business, and the next phase of Ireland's economic development. It's an exciting place to be."

The Irish Management Institute National Management Conference, sponsored by Eircom Business Solutions, takes place on 9th October. To register, log on to www.imi.ie

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