Inspiration comes in many ways and sometimes it is just one meeting that can inspire and change all following behaviour. So it was after my one and only meeting with Richard Sawyer.

It is very unlikely that you will know Richard Sawyer. He was someone I met on a project while working at Mars Electronics in the 1980s. My job was to develop a set of performance indicators in line with the culture and he was as senior manager and just one of the many people I met.

Mars Electronics was part of the global Mars Group (yes, Mars Bars and all that) with a culture driven by its family roots. At the time I was there the Mars family were still heavily involved and I think they had just introduced globally their ‘5 Principles’ but if not, there was something very equivalent in place.

My first task was to try and understand the culture.

I was talking to Richard who told me that everyone’s bonus, which was driven by personal as much as corporate performance, made up a very significant part of the total remuneration. Also, up to a third of the bonus was determined by feedback from colleagues. It was taking 360-degree reviews further than most have even ventured today.

‘Surely, it’s a cosy cabal,’ I said. ‘If money is involved then you will all rate each other highly to make sure you all get paid?

‘No,’ he said.

‘Have you ever had a poor review?’

‘Yes, and it cost about 15% of my total salary that year, but I learnt from it.’

Richard went on to tell me that he had been running a significant project on behalf of a local Board member. In turn that Board member was leading the project and reporting up the chain to Head Office in the USA. It was high visibility.

Together, Richard and his boss, had agreed the budget and a three-month development and implementation plan. Everything was going fine, Richard said, although it got very tight at the end. The budget was good but his final project sign-off was touch and go. He said that he had used up all his contingency and signed off the project with his team 48 hours before the deadline and sent a notification to his boss.

‘A big cost overrun?’ I asked.

‘Nope.’

‘It sounds almost perfect,’ I said. ‘Bang on budget and the time planning was good. So, where was the problem?’ I watched as Richard relived the moment when he lost a lot of salary. It was a long minute of silence.

‘I learnt that communication is every bit as important as all the technical skills,’ he said.

He continued. ‘I knew that my boss was responsible to higher authorities and while I knew that the project was tight but on target I just forget to tell him. We had a really good relationship and I thought he would know it was on time because I hadn’t told him it was late. I thought we had that kind of relationship. He knew that if I had a problem I would tell him, and I would have told him of any problems.’

So, what went wrong?’ I asked.

‘At the end he was with his bosses in the USA and I just didn’t want to bother him with a message that said everything was good. Why bother him with no news? But he had been phoned by his boss, who had been phoned by his boss and they both wanted assurances that the project would be delivered on time.’

I was starting to understand.

‘In Mars we are always honest with each other and he had to say to his boss that he thought all was good, but he didn’t really know,’ Richard said. ‘That is why I didn’t get my full bonus because as far as my boss was concerned the project was a failure. Technically it was good but on communication it failed.’

‘An expensive mistake, if it was even a mistake,’ I said. ‘Could you appeal?’

‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but it was a mistake and I didn’t even think of that. I will never make that mistake again.’

It was a lesson I have never forgotten, and that was the day as a young manager I learnt that my bosses can always handle delays and problems if I tell them. What is more, if my communication is good often they can help in the solution.

It may seem to be very macho to take away a problem and come back two months later with a solution, but it is not good project management and that is why you might find you lose your bonus or even a promotion.

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