CIPD Podcast 9 - An interview with Greg Dyke

Date: 02/07/07 Duration: 00:19:47

Greg Dyke shares his thoughts on leadership and the qualities of a good leader, giving insights into the key issues and what it means to be a leader.


Philippa Lamb: Hello and welcome to the ninth CIPD podcast. I’m Philippa Lamb. In this podcast we have an exclusive interview with Greg Dyke. His career has seen him take on leadership roles at organisations including LWT and the BBC, roles that have rarely left him far from the headlines. When circumstances forced him to resign as Director General of the BBC, employees took to the streets in protest. In this podcast we ask Greg about the leadership style which inspired this loyalty and about his strong views on how to manage people well. 

Greg was one of the Masterclass speakers at HRD, the CIPD’s annual learning and development conference, and we sent our reporter, Adam Kirtly, to catch up with him there. 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Greg Dyke’ (Applause) 

(Cuts to interview) 

AK: Greg Dyke, thank you ever so much for coming to talk to us. I just want to start off with a very general question for you really: How important is the way people are managed, do you believe, to the success of a business? 

GD: I think in most businesses, absolutely crucial. I think… inspiring and talking to the workforce is one the major jobs as a leader of any organisation. 
AK: Surely, if it’s as important as you suggest it is, to engage with your staff, it should be more widespread, shouldn’t it? 

GD: It should be. I suspect that not enough people running companies actually buy into it. I think they buy into it in theory. The number of people I hear say ‘the most important resource we have are the people who work here,’ and then never talk to them is quite remarkable. So, I think people, not intentionally, but, you know, when you’re running organisations, if you don’t set aside the time for communicating with your staff, you don’t do it. You have to set aside the time, and it has to be a top priority. 

AK: Let’s expand on it a little bit. What does Greg Dyke believe makes an excellent leader? 

GD: In short, you’ve got to be who you are. Don’t pretend to be anything else. You’ve got to know about how to communicate with the people who work for you, and your customers, but particularly the people who work for you... You’ve got to care about them. They’ve got to think you care. And you’ve got to recognise that if it’s a big organisation – the last one I ran had 30,000 people – if it’s a big organisation, it’s impossible to communicate with everybody one-to-one. Therefore you’ve got to work out, ‘how do you communicate.’ But also I think you’ve got to recognise that leadership is about the stories they tell about you. And if you walk into an organisation, ignore the security people, ignore the receptionist, are rude to somebody else, that’s the story they tell about you. If you go in and know everybody, talk to everybody, that’s also the story they tell about you. So you’ve got to understand that the impact you have on a big organisation is about the stories that are told about you within the organisation. 

(Cuts to conference) 

GD: One day my house caught fire in the night. So I was up all night, covered in soot and the rest of it, and I’m supposed to be speaking actually at a conference here the following day, for people from the nations and regions of the BBC. And they all found out I’d been up all night, and they announced that I wasn’t coming. So the moment I found out they’d announced I wasn’t coming, I just abandoned the house, put a bit more soot on my face and came over. 

Jeff Grout: Why? Because… 

GD: A) They’d all come a long way – they were entitled to it. 2) You were telling them that they mattered by coming, even though you’ve got other things going on in your life. But most of all they were all going to go back to another group of people and say ‘he was alright, wasn’t he. He turned up even though he’d had this fire.’ 

Philippa: That’s certainly an impressive way to show commitment to your employees. But leadership isn’t all about fire fighting. Adam asked Greg Dyke about the role leaders play in delivering change. 

AK: Change is inevitable, important and unavoidable, but how can an organisation and its leader be effective in managing that change, especially somewhere as huge as the BBC, which you did. 

GD: Well you’ve got to sell change to the people who work there. If you can, you’ve got to involve them in the process. If you can’t that makes it harder, but if you can involve people in the process, you can sell change. You’ve got to have enough credibility yourself. The days when ‘coz you were the boss they did it’ are long gone, I’m afraid. They might say they’ll do it, but they won’t. You’ve got to actually earn the credibility. And if you do that, my experience is that they’ll come along with you. And they’ll come along with you, often on very difficult decisions. But you can’t just do it – you’ve got to explain it. 

AK: Lets stay inside the doors of broadcasting house, television centre just for a moment. You inherited a BBC, it’s fair to say, was a little bit low on morale, that wanted change without the pain, if you like. And you… it took you a long time, didn’t it, to, I think, most people would agree, successfully make those changes. Now that must have been quite a tall order when you first arrived. 

GD: Well, a couple of years earlier, I wandered around the health service for a year – doing a job for the government. I was amazed by the number of people I met in the health service who thought, on the front line, dealing with clients, dealing with customers, dealing with patients, the number of people who thought that what they achieved was despite the management. And when I got into the BBC it was exactly the same. That you came across people all the time, and it wasn’t necessarily true, mind you, it wasn’t necessarily true, but that doesn’t matter. If that’s what they believe, you’ve got to confront that. And therefore, the first year I spent at the BBC was time to get a lot of people onside. I spent the first six months really going around the place, just talking to people. And in an organisation where they’re used to having royal visits, to have someone who just turned up, and just wanted a chat and saying ‘go on then, tell me...’ and everywhere I went, I said ‘Let me ask you two questions.’ And this is the staff as well as the management. ‘What can we do to improve our service to the license payer?’ Because the people out there, if you can’t improve the service to them, there’s no point in doing any of it. ‘What do we have to do to improve our service to them? And what can I do to make your life better?’ Because I think that’s the key. I think the two are absolutely intrinsically linked, and that you’re not going to get people doing better work and better programmes if actually they don’t feel valued. 

Philippa: Next we asked Greg how he went about understanding what people wanted from leadership when he arrived at the BBC. 

GD: We got people to sit and talk about their view of the BBC. And I think we got about 15,000 people, at some stage or other, to sit and somebody listened. And what we said to them was ‘don’t tell us… don’t moan, tell us about the best things you did, tell us about what really worked for you here.’ And then we said ‘okay, if that’s to be the norm what do we have to do to change this place.’ And the overwhelming message we got back, the strongest by far, was ‘we want better leadership…’ So we decided to… that everybody who was going to do a management job, anyone who was going to manage anybody had to go through leadership training. And I’ve always had this simple theory, you know, 15% of people are natural leaders, probably, 15% of people couldn’t be leaders if… it wouldn’t matter what you did with them. But there’s a big chunk in the middle who you can teach, who you can help. And so often people get jobs without anybody helping them in leadership, and they’re expected to do it. This was about saying: ‘there are tricks, there are things you can do.’ And I used to go and speak at every one of these conferences and I used to start by just saying, ‘look, there are some rules that you ought to follow: Be you. Just be yourself. Don’t start aping what you think managers do just because you got the job.’ And that’s a terrible tendency that, you know, people who are great people become managers and think that they’ve got to be unpleasant or aggressive or start telling everybody what to do as opposed to consulting them. And you don’t have to do all that. And that was the aim. And the great advantage of doing that as a result of our whole making-it-happen process was that ‘aren’t you wasting money doing this’ our response was ‘hang-on, isn’t this what you told us you wanted.’ 

There is a real problem with the public sector, and you find it in the health service, you find it in education, you find it at the BBC. There’s a real problem that somehow, in the health service, if you’re not spending money on a hip replacement, it’s money wasted and that (…) my answer to that ‘why does the public, if that’s true, why does the private sector spend a fortune doing all this stuff, because they don’t waste money. But, you know, trying to – and you have to sometimes be quite blatant about it because, you know, we got accused all the time, by the Daily Mail and the like, of happy-clappy management and all that sort of stuff – well that’s because the average journalist knows nothing about management or about leadership… So you’ve got to do it despite them. 

Break: ‘The CIPD Podcast’ 

Philippa: So far we’ve heard some interesting perspectives on creating buy-in and engagement amongst a workforce that largely wants to be led – possibly some of the easier sides of leadership. But what about when the going gets tough? 

AK: There are times when you have to do unpleasant things. And there are times when you have to take an organisation in a direction that many people within it maybe don’t want. What would your advice be in dealing with, I don’t know, the less savoury side of leadership. 

GD: You have to justify what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. When I was at London Weekend Television, and I was Chief Executive, and we were coming up to the franchise auctions of the early 90s. It was pretty clear that unless we did something we would lose. ITV had been inefficiently run for 20 years – run by the unions. We had to change that. So, in two years we got rid of half the staff. And we did it by being very generous, explaining what we were doing, and why we were doing it, explaining that the world was about to change dramatically, and if we didn’t do it we wouldn’t be there at all. And treat people properly in the process, treat them properly and treat them generously. So I remember people coming to me and ‘Look, I’m a 48 year old, and, you know, if only you could wait until I was fifty,’ and I said ‘fine, that’s alright, we’ll pay you till you’re fifty,’ so that it works. Because the money you were saving from these redundancies was enormous. What you’re interested in was, what was it like in five years, not what was it like today. But they’re tough, you’ve got to earn the right to make those tough decisions. I think the people who walk into organisations and say ‘Right, now, I’m going to get rid of 20% of you’ on day 1. Well they don’t deserve a lot of help or support. 

Philippa: Next Adam asked Greg Dyke about the fairly substantial changes he made to HR at the BBC. 

GD: One of the great dangers is somehow – I found it at the BBC quite a lot – is that, well, people is HR. It isn’t, people is all management. HR are there to help and advise the management, but they are not there to do it, that’s the job of the manager. 
AK: Was that one of the reasons that the BBC, and no doubt many organisation have done this elsewhere, that made you make the decision to take the personal out of personnel, if you like – you centralised the personnel function. Was that, in a way, to force the line managers to take on the day to day pastoral care of their staff. 

GD: Partly, I mean the HR department at the BBC was much too big, and, basically, managers had opted out. They’d handed people, just like they’d handed finance over to the guy on the right, they’d handed people to the guy on the left. Well, without being rude, that’s not their job. If you can’t manage the people you shouldn’t be in charge. So, it was partly that, but we also had, I think we had one person in HR for – I can’t remember the figures exactly – but I think for every 40 people who work there. And the norm in this country was closer to 1 for every 100. So we were all way out of line, and we well out of line because they were management. So, therefore we changed it. 

Also, you change structures in organisations for all sorts of reasons, but you change them just for the sake of change sometimes. And it’s right to do it. The hard thing if you’re a chief executive, if you’ve been there a long time, is to change the things you set up. 

AK: Even if you get the strategy right at the top – and I know you’ve got to make all managers responsible and engage their staff etc. But even if you get the strategy right at the top correct – and you’ve got good people up there – and even a few layers down, how do you get this vision to trickle down to the coal face if you like, to the junior line manager, if you like, to make them as effective as the senior guys. 

GD: You as a senior guy have got to sell it, and you’ve got to sell it not just to management, but to your staff. One of the big problems is people saying ‘well, you’re alright, but it’s the middle management.’ It’s just not true. You’ve got to get them all onside. Now, you’re always going to have middle management – it depends on how you react to them. If middle management, by taking a chance, when it goes wrong, you give them a terribly hard time, they’re never going to take a risk again. So you’ve got to(…) it depends on how you react to them. 

I mean, if you can take out layers, take them out. But, as the ultimate boss, as the chief executive, you’ve got to communicate with those, with everybody in your place. 

Philippa: Greg Dyke clearly has some firm views on the role of line managers and the responsibilities they have in managing people well. But what about the times when the message has to come from the top? 

(Cuts to conference) 

GD: Well, I remember on the week of September 11th, there was a lot of fuss going on about Question Time and I watched it on the Saturday morning and I agreed with the fuss. The producers had made a mistake. They were so nervous of Question Time being anti-Islamic that they put an awful lot of Islamic people into the audience who were actually incredibly hostile to the former American ambassador. So I put out a public apology, which the BBC doesn’t often do. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think that was acceptable.’ Journalists hate apologies. I knew immediately there was a chunk of the news department that were very hostile. So I just sent them all an email on a Monday morning and said ‘look, I put up this apology. This is why I did it. That’s the end of it. There’ll be no recriminations. There’ll be no disciplinary hearings. We’ll just get on.’ Disappeared overnight… 

(Cuts to interview) 

GD:... You can’t assume that because you’re telling the next lad, they’re going to tell everybody. Because they don’t, so you’ve got to do it. 

AK: What advice ,Greg, would you give to leaders and senior people in keeping employee engagement going, of pleasing staff, when they’re part of a huge organisation, because you can feel a little bit like a number in a big organisation, can’t you? How do you keep the intimacy, despite the size? 

GD: Oh, communicate with them, write to them, tell them. Do it in a language they understand as opposed to some language only communication professionals understand… Tell them the stuff that matters before they read it in the paper. 

At the BBC we got into making films - now that’s quite expensive. But we got into making films about the best things that have happened there in the past, so that everyone felt a proud of what was going on. I remember we had a couple of guys who helped John Simpson liberate Kabul who got there by bolting the dishes, who got there by basically packing them on top of mules and walking there for two days. We made a film about them, showed it around the place. There are all sorts of heroes in organisations, people who do wonderful things. You’ve got to celebrate that. 

Secondly, do little things that show you care. 

AK: What mistakes do you think you’ve made in terms of leadership, Greg? 

GD: I’ve never been very good at working upwards. 

Philippa: This is a theme Jeff Grout picked up when he interviewed Greg on the stage at the CIPD’s HRD conference. 

JG: You’ve always had a healthy disrespect for rules, haven’t you? 

GD: For rules? 

JG: Yeah. 

GD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It didn’t help me in the end though did it? I remember going to one of these management sessions years and years ago and some-, who was it, somebody who said ‘nobody ever succeeded at an organisation by following the rules.’ And there’s some truth to that. What you want is people who are going to challenge it. People used to come up to me and challenge it, and say, ‘if only we could do this,’ and I used to say ‘well, why don’t you?’ ‘We haven’t got any money,’ and I used to say ‘steal it.’ Well, I didn’t mean steal it. What I meant was they worked in organisations with enormous budgets. 

Philippa: Greg also shared another personal weakness with Adam. 

GD: At times, impatience really. One of the great dangers of any change programme is, I think, that the management get bored with it just about the time it’s getting through. And they move on to something else. Therefore the people down there say ‘oh well, why should I listen to this because I listened to the last one, or the one before.’ So if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to see it through. 

AK: So, if I was to give you 10 seconds, just to give one great, big tip to somebody listening to this podcast and wanting to do better as a senior HR person, or as senior manager, or as a leader in an organisation, what would that one big tip be? 

GD: Go learn how to communicate. Go learn how to, both in a written way, in a verbal way, go learn about communication. The biggest complaint of staff in any organisation is that they don’t know, they’re not kept informed. And it’s not that they’re not kept informed, it’s that the communication is usually awful. Don’t write gobbledygook. Take it home, see if your kids understand it and the rest of it. Communicate properly, and secondly, just be you. 

AK: Greg Dyke, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure. Thank you for talking to us. 

GD: Thank you 

Philippa: You can hear more from Greg Dyke at the CIPD annual conference in September. Jeremy Paxman will be interviewing Greg, alongside another renowned business leader, Sir Jerry Robinson. For more information about the event, visit 

In the next CIPD podcast we’ll be looking at the latest developments in employment law. Remember you can subscribe to receive CIPD podcasts and find out more about other editions by 

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