Chief executives and reputations: two contrasting stories

I was interviewed for a Sunday Times article on a leader’s role in customer service recently, and it reminded me of two very different experiences I’ve had with chief executives; one very good and one very bad. Both are highly unusual and memorable, and serve as good case studies for anyone interested in chief executives and reputations.

The good one was the totally disarming personal call I received from Sir Moir Lockhead one day as I navigated my way around a supermarket. At the time, Lockhead was chief executive of First Group, the £6 billion transport operator best known in the UK for its rail and bus services.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a strong dislike of bad service; it’s been said that I complain like an American. Having had a truly awful journey on an overcrowded, poorly managed First Group train, I’d written to its chief executive to tell him about it. I fully expected to receive the usual platitudes from customer services in response.

So when the chief executive called me, offered a genuine, heartfelt apology, said it wasn’t good enough and promised to personally deal with the matter, you can imagine how disarming that was. He was good to his word and sent some vouchers for a free rail trip by way of recompense.

Shortly after Lockhead retired from the business in March 2011 I was talking to one of First Group’s current senior managers and asked him what he thought of his former boss. “Hard but fair; and you’d do well not to underestimate his interest in even the smallest details,” was the response. Another anonymous colleague in this Guardian profile piece has this to say: “He’s not Mother Theresa and he doesn’t have a future at Relate.”

While the world is awash with fearsome, sometimes gruff chief executives, how many are there who manage to balance those character traits with an ability to get down into the fine details of the business and actually care about one customer amongst millions? It’s hardly surprising that First Group is what it is today with a leader like that in charge for a couple of decades.

My second story is about Jamie Buchan the erstwhile chief executive of Southern Cross, which until it imploded last year was the UK’s largest operator of care homes for the elderly. Trying to find out how to reach Buchan I eventually found his personal email address on the company website, along with an invitation to contact him in the event of any problems. My particular problem was serious: I had cause for concern about the safety of a close relative in one of its homes and wanted to quickly ensure the matter got dealt with.

But after writing to him by email, several days later I’d not received any response or even an acknowledgement. So I called his PA, who called me back the following day because she couldn’t find my email. Where, she asked, had I sent it?  After forwarding it she openly admitted that the chief executive’s email I’d written to was, in fact, a spoof, and that all correspondence to this address went to the Southern Cross marketing department, where she’d found it languishing unopened with many others. How stupid is that?

The downfall of Southern Cross was clearly the result of many different factors. To be fair, many of them were inherited by Jamie Buchan. But my particular experience did nothing to allay fears that he was a leader with his finger firmly off the button.

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