In today’s extraordinary corporate environment there are an enormous number of aspirational leadership models. Whether it be the Level 5, Authentic, Servant, Transformational, or current favourites, Resilient or Agile leader, endless lists of positive attributes are ascribed to each style. In fact, a cursory review of the world of corporate leadership literature would suggest we are in a very good place. However, there is another type of leader who frequently thrives in the business world, but who, all too often is left out of wider leadership discussions. I am referring to what I describe as the Squeezer leader.
The Squeezer is typically, very smart; possessing an amazing understanding of all aspects of their business. They excel at the numbers and possess an awesome ability to see patterns and connections in spread sheets, P&Ls and Balance Sheets that evade others. Armed with these deep insights, the Squeezer is able, through their own force of intellect and often personality, to leverage all aspects of an organisation’s performance to deliver maximum value. The Squeezer is often able to move effortlessly from one business or industry to another; possessing an innate ability to reduce any business to a set of numerical ratios or algorithms, regardless of any physical work being undertaken. So far so good. It can be argued that such leadership brings clarity, focus and decisiveness and has often been the saviour of failing businesses.
With Covid 19’s wanton destruction of entire industries and businesses there is much evidence to suggest that the current crisis is providing lots of opportunities for the Squeezer leader to thrive. Recent corporate examples across Europe suggest that some leaders are taking advantage of the crisis to implement structural and cost changes that previously they could only have dreamt of. Whether this proves to be an opportunistic short-term strategy or part of a coherent plan to produce a prosperous and viable long-term future, only time will tell.
Due to the almost existential nature of the Covid crisis there is much discussion as to whether or not it will provoke a fundamental change in the way that businesses are measured and run. Some commentators have argued that the crisis will be swiftly followed by a return to business as usual. Others forward the view, that along with climate change, society is in crisis and that the virus will prompt demand for a new form of stakeholder capitalism that values environmental custodianship, social contribution and quality governance as well as profit. Of course, there were very similar discussions following the 2007/8 global financial crisis. Many will argue that similarly loud appeals for radical change resulted in little difference to the prevailing wisdom and business model.
Certainly, the unprecedented disruption and dislocation created by the crisis is proving to be a real test as to which leadership model will prevail in the new world of business and work. With other disruptors such as big data, artificial intelligence and robotics fast emerging, the challenges for leaders are ever increasing. Couple this with an accelerating climate crisis and the progress and success of the Squeezer leader will be a real barometer of how the new world of business and work will function.
Unfortunately, the Squeezer all too often combines their enormous analytical intellect and skills with an unbridled sense of self-orientation and a laser like focus on the bottom line. More often than not, they are incentivised by the prospect of achieving independent wealth via a highly leveraged executive compensation scheme or the prospect of an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or some equally attractive private equity deal. Such is the size of the financial prize they are driven to bend the organisation’s will to their own agenda.
At best, Squeezers can be engaging and charming. At worst they can be described as cold, distant and calculating. The Squeezer’s leadership style is to push people to the maximum. Their corporate culture is one of pressure and more pressure! Metrics and results are their only reality. Consequently, budgets and resources are stretched to the absolute limit in the pursuit of generating the best possible set of numbers. Longer term sustainable organisational capabilities such as quality, building a credible IT infrastructure or talent and people management are generally sacrificed on a bonfire of short-term necessity. Unless the investment or action directly correlates to the numerical and financial outcome it is deemed frivolous and therefore a waste of resources. Of course, a minimum level of lip service is paid to such activities but people who work in these areas or functions know that their potential to add real value will always be contained and never fully realised.
As an employee, working in a Squeezer culture can be extremely tough. You are there to serve and manage exclusively the leader’s agenda. Your time is their time; so, you can expect to be seriously messed around. Long scheduled meetings can be delayed or cancelled at very short notice. Previously agreed plans and targets can be changed in an instant if the numbers are not moving in the right direction. The Squeezer’s laser like focus on the ultimate goal dictates and determines the course of all corporate actions regardless of the impact on the work or agenda of others. Dissent from the goal is neither accepted nor tolerated.
Aging plant and equipment are continually “band-aided” to keep working, thus reducing the need for any new capital expenditure and maintaining focus on the short-term goals. Information technology investments are either postponed or shelved as they are deemed to be too expensive, risky or long term focused. Much of the day to day business operations are conducted on complex work arounds and excel spread sheets. Staff salaries are frozen despite targets become ever more demanding and tougher. Workers become stressed by the relentless mantra of “more and more with less and less!” Of course, such a strategy is high risk as much depends on the Squeezer’s ability to skilfully balance all these factors in order to deliver their optimal exit strategy.
Sooner or later the Squeezer moves on in life. Their work done and stimulated by a bigger challenge or greater financial incentive, they eventually seek new opportunities. Their legacy is often a company that appears financially profitable, but which has been starved of investment. So lean that it will be in need of urgent attention if it is to remain viable and sustainable. Any new leader arriving will invariably point out that the business has indeed been starved of capital and that much work needs to be done to re-energise the business.
Given the pressures and constraints now impacting on entire industries and businesses it is easy to see how the current Covid crisis provides an excellent opportunity for the Squeezer to thrive. Yet at what cost? So often the consequences of the Squeezer approach is a loss of corporate expertise and broken customer and supplier relationships. The real challenge for leaders is “to do what has to be done” but to do it in a way that is constructive rather than destructive. To take actions that address immediate needs but while also ensuring that future capacities are developed so as to prosper in a post crisis world. It is difficult to see how the short-term financial actions of the Squeezer will do much to prepare a business for a surprising and discontinuous future. A future that will require extraordinary new levels of staff engagement and the ignition of their natural curiosity to create new value added offers.
A key leadership test moving forward is to do what is fair and reasonable. During the crisis we have seen some great examples of leadership from Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey’s statement that staff can work from home “forever” to the efforts of Lego’s #LetsBuildTogether, initiative aimed at helping school kids around the globe. With a strong focus on the future, major car insurance company Admiral went as far as to return policy monies to customers on the basis their cars have been so under-utilised during the crisis. Such practices will no doubt do much to strengthen both customer and staff relationships. Providing a sense of purpose beyond the mere bottom line profit motive of the Squeezer.
The highly innovative and successful global brewing company BrewDog recently revealed they operate a salary cap that means that no-one can join their business for a salary that is more than 7x their lowest salary that is currently £18,700. This is then capped at a maximum of 14x, increasing by one for each year of service. Contrast this approach to the average current difference between the highest and lowest paid roles in the USA which is 361. Similarly, BrewDog were one of the first companies to announce that they were switching some of their production facilities to produce hand sanitisers during the height of the crisis.
On a much smaller scale, Barnes Coaches used their small fleet of school minibuses to ferry around food and medical prescriptions for vulnerable and isolating people up to 60 kms away. There was the example of the small canal boat firm, Norbury Wharf, that offered its un-utilised boats to exhausted doctors and nurses for a short weekend rest breaks. Such examples give hope that alternative approaches to the Squeezer’s narrow perspective can prevail in the new world of business and work. Time will tell.