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CEOs undermine their credibility when they use over-the-top language to crow about their employees. (GEORGE DOYLE/GEORGE DOYLE)
CEOs undermine their credibility when they use over-the-top language to crow about their employees. (GEORGE DOYLE/GEORGE DOYLE)

Outstanding? Exceptional? How CEOs shoot their credibility in the foot with lavish praise Add to ...

Last Monday, after writing a column about a ludicrous ethical statement printed on the back of a menu in the UBS client dining room, I got a message from a reader complaining that it is too easy to mock such hyperbole and disingenuity from bankers. Why didn’t I ever write an article analyzing a great piece of communication instead?

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I wrote back assuring him there was no problem on the demand side. I would be only too happy to write about a banker talking well. The difficulty was a matter of supply. Senior bankers, when speaking about their business in public, find it impossible to do something that most people on a fraction of their pay manage without difficulty: string a normal sentence together.

Within 24 hours I was proved wrong. Step forward, Stephen Hester. Step forward, the man I used to look down on because he was the year below me at college. Here was the chief executive officer of the Royal Bank of Scotland writing to staff in a way that was more or less straight – and more or less motivational.

The internal e-mail Mr. Hester sent last week has already attracted a certain amount of approval, but I haven’t seen anyone put their finger on quite why it worked so well. The clue lies in one word. That word is “good.”

“RBS is full of good people, doing their best …,” he wrote.

It is impossible to understand how remarkable this phrase is unless you have spent a decade or two consuming a diet of motivational CEO drivel. Mr. Hester didn’t say his underlings were extraordinary. Or outstanding. Or exceptional or world-class. Or phenomenal or best-of-breed. Or even excellent. He simply said they were good.

Why this little word is so effective – apart from being delightfully unfashionable – is that one is rather inclined to believe it. It makes me think: Yes, maybe RBS does employ a lot of good people.

Even better, Mr. Hester didn’t say they were all good, as of course they won’t be. At RBS there will be some total dogs, just as there are in any organization. Any CEO who pretends that everyone is good, let alone extraordinary and so on, loses the battle of credibility in an instant.

Better still, he calls people “people”. He doesn’t call them “talent”, which, as every halfway sensible person knows, is one of the most pernicious terms in management. If you look up “talent” in a dictionary, you’ll find it means a “special natural ability”; so, by definition, most people don’t have it.

Yet the bit of the message that I liked best of all was where he said what he expected from everybody from now on: “To be purposeful, calm and do our jobs to the best of our ability.”

I like this so much I feel like making it into a plaque and sticking it above my desk. It applies surely not just to a bank that has a time bomb in its balance sheet. It applies to all of us.

To be purposeful is far better than to be its alliterative cousin: passionate. Purpose suggests that we know what it is we are meant to be doing and that we are trying to do it. This is surely the key to success in any job I can think of.

In most organizations, passion has long been required for even the most mundane job, but now the stakes are being upped even further. KPMG, which makes the claim “We have 138,000 outstanding professionals, working together,” put out a press release last week saying that its risk consulting team had just got more passionate still.

It boasted about their passion and “extraordinary talent” outside the office as athletes, beekeepers, lifeboatmen, musicians … and even a trapeze artist. In other words, being passionate about work is no longer enough: a model employee needs to be passionate about hobbies too.

Yet on planet hyperbole, even this is modest. Indeed, passion is getting a bit old-hat: the new big thing is fanaticism. Increasingly, companies claim to be fanatical about customer service, fanatical about feedback, fanatical about flavour, fanatical about film, even fanatical about hot and cold baguettes.

Against this, to be merely purposeful – subject, of course, to the limits of one’s ability (or lack of it) – is the most wonderful, welcome, intelligent, workable goal.

Yet I must stay calm, and remind myself that Mr. Hester is not perfect as a communicator. On the radio last Tuesday, he said “going forward” at least three times as well as “at the end of the day” at least once.

Instead, he is merely good. He is purposeful. He is certainly calm. And he seems to be doing his job to the best of his ability. And for all that, I reckon, at least under normal circumstances, he would merit a bonus.

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