Lord Browne: "accept imperfection"

29 January 2015 -


Former BP boss says that government will never be perfect – but can be better by changing its attitude to talent management

Ben Walker

For a man who is associated with excellence, you might not expect esteemed former BP boss Lord Browne to urge managers and leaders to accept imperfection. But that’s exactly what he did this week while making his valedictory speech to the Institute for Government (IfG) – the charity devoted to improving government effectiveness.

Browne – bravely taking the stage with his leg far from perfect (he sustained an injury over the New Year and hobbled to the stage in a splint) – was at the IfG to discuss so-called Neds (non-executive directors): largely, businesspeople who are invited to sit on boards of government departments in an attempt to inject them with private sector ideas and improve their performance.

He himself was hired as “chief Ned” by the incoming Coalition government in June 2010. But when he was asked in 2012 by the Public Administration Select Committee about the progress of the Neds, he gave it a rating of just two out of 10. When the Select Committee asked again last year, Browne could bring himself to rank them at only six out of 10. “When I took on my role I aspired to get perfection,” he told delegates, “but I now realise that that was quite unrealistic. The work of government is far more raggy than the work of business. You’ll never reach a ‘Perfect 10’. I think the limit is probably seven. So six out of 10 isn’t bad.”


The key to reaching this “Imperfect Seven”, he added, is managing talent better. Indeed, Browne thinks that the Civil Service still has quite a long way to go. “It will require a change in attitude from leaders of departments,” he said. The Service, he stressed, is afflicted by the same dissonance between what chief executives say they want, and what they actually do. “Many CEOs say that people are their most important asset – which means that they should be spending their most important time assessing and developing those people,” he added. “In my experience, very few CEOs actually do that – the Civil Service is no different. Senior leaders must spend more and better quality time on nurturing and encouraging talent in their departments. It’s critical that the Civil Service gets this right at the very top. And it must be an important part of the criteria used to evaluate the effectiveness of senior civil servants.”

After his speech, I asked Browne whether, if CEOs and senior civil servants really believed that people were their most important asset, why they behaved in a way that suggested otherwise. Guess what? It came down to time management.

“I have not come across a chief executive that doesn’t genuinely believe that people are their most important asset,” Browne replied. “The question is how much time you are spending on things you say you are doing, so the words ‘people are most important asset’ mean ‘I am going to spend most of my important time doing that’, which usually means most of it or half of it – or at least the time at the beginning of the day rather than just before I leave the office in the evening, tired and exhausted.”

Of course, that’s not the reality, so Browne urged leaders to perform an audit… on themselves.

“Very few people really speak to that,” he said, “because there are plenty of things they are required to do and they haven’t been able to shift those to other people. But I think time allocation is the most important thing in any position of authority needs to work on.

“How much time do they spend? What do they do? It’s usually a big surprise when they do it.”

For further thoughts on talent management, check out our coverage of the latest report from the CMI-backed Valuing your Talent (VyT) initiative.

Lord Browne is shortlisted in the Commuter's Read category of CMI's Management Book of the Year awards, which will be announced on 9 February. Find out more here.

Images of Lord Browne courtesy of the Institute for Government.

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