A management meeting

Bernie Bulkin: 'Crash Course'

What do you do when you've been promoted to the management team but are too busy to learn how to lead? Take a crash course, says author and former chief scientist at BP, Bernie Bulkin.

One of the most common mistakes in any form of business is that we routinely promote brilliant people into management positions despite their having no management experience at all. Such people are called 'accidental managers' and it happens all the time. For an insight into how catastrophic this can be, look no further than the world of international cricket, especially English cricket, where the search for a new captain rarely involves anything more sophisticated than bumping up the nearest and most introverted opening batsman (whose career statistics then fall apart). The only thing odd about any of this is that we keep doing it.

Bernie Bulkin, former chief scientist at BP, has written a book that needs to be put in the hands of anybody finding themselves being parachuted into the role of accidental manager. 'Crash Course', as its name suggests, is a book based on the idea that there is a solution to this daunting scenario, but one that needs to be learnt quickly. Given that you can spend years doing degrees in management, the question is: "What can be learnt in a year from a book while trying to learn the ropes of a new job?"

"High-quality leadership is not one big thing, it is a lot of small things," says Bulkin, who explains that one of the outcomes of his book is that it will leave the reader able to "speak more persuasively and have a bigger impact on both your board and your team". He says that hierarchical management systems are "so last century - this is the age of flat organisations and people who work by influence". But the most important thing, says Bulkin, is the book breaks leadership down into manageable fragments that are easy to learn and put into practice.

A quick scan of Bulkin's biography reveals that apart from his time at BP, he has also served as chair of the UK Office of Renewable Energy and on numerous corporate boards, holds university posts, does his bit for charity and even has time to sit on the editorial advisory board of an environmental journal. But, despite his schooling in the finest universities in the world, we also find that his improvised education on the back streets of New York is just as important.

"'Crash Course' isn't at all academic in its approach. It's about how I learnt and you can learn too by telling stories and being observant. You don't need pages and pages on each topic, but short, no-nonsense hints about how you can do things better." Although there are times when the reader will certainly feel that Bulkin's home-spun, hard-won commonsense is something that we already know, there is a case to be made for having it all presented in quick-fire format in one volume.

Adaptable qualities

The main qualities required to lead a technology company in the 21st-century, according to Bulkin, differ depending on "whether you are in a mature industry or a fast paced start-up".

In the case of the former he recommends operational excellence coupled with the ability to identify and then implement small improvements. At the same time, he says "there is a commodity aspect to the mature businesses, and the great leader will find ways to 'decommoditise'".

On the other hand, when it comes to newer companies in the technology space, "the leader must have the confidence to charge ahead at full steam, even though you can see the point where you will run out of cash, because unless you can move with speed you will certainly lose".

Bulkin maintains that today there is only one sustainable way to make profit, and that is to be an ethical leader. This doesn't mean that you lose your business focus: he says that you can be an ethical leader while being a tough competitor and a hard-nosed negotiator. "Some years ago I became chairman of the company that was six months away from failure, and the first thing I said to the CEO and the CFO was that we all understood where our ethical standards were, and no matter what pressure was on us we wouldn't cross them." For Bulkin the beauty of this position is that even if you fail you can emerge with your ethical reputation intact.

But above all, and this is one of the aspects of 'Crash Course' that really separates it from the herd, the author is capable of maintaining his sense of humour. "Leadership is fun. I love coming to work every day, being challenged, sometimes working in an incredible pace because there is so much to do, and in other jobs having to think through tough strategic problems.

"Great teams, whether they sit together or are dispersed throughout the globe in a big company, enjoy each other's company and know how to have fun together while achieving beyond what any individual thought possible." He doesn't think that the fun has gone out of business, but he does see fun as having evolved slightly from Friday afternoons down the park drinking with the boys to something that he considers "more appropriate for the 21st century".

Inclusive management

Great business leaders are the ones who can think on several different time scales at once, says Bulkin. "They are focused on this month's sales and results, this quarter, the annual targets - sure. But they are also watching and learning and thinking about what is happening and what can affect the company in 15 years, yet requires action today."

Bulkin expresses this rather neatly as the leader being the person playing the game rather than the person being played. "The ability to be astute is one of the differences between being simply skilled and being truly competent."

If we were to do three things today that could make us better managers, no matter what technology we work with, no matter what shape and size businesses, these are Bulkin's recommendations. First, no more PowerPoint presentations. Second, learn something about your colleagues that you didn't know before. Third, identify something that you're doing today that plays no role in the future, and then stop doing it.

You could also pick up a copy of 'Crash Course' because it's absolutely packed with insight and advice.

'Crash Course' by Bernie Bulkin is now out in paperback from Whitefox, £14.99

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