An interview and discussion with Dave Senay, President and CEO of FleishmanHillard
Dave Senay is President and CEO of FleishmanHillard, one of the world's oldest and best known public relations and communications agencies. PRWeek named the firm the 2014 Global Agency of the Year award and Dave the PR Professional of the Year. When I first met him over a decade ago, he had begun to transform FleishmanHillard from a traditional public relations firm into a far broader communications company. He began by ignoring the conventional rules that PR agencies typically followed. For instance, rather than simply compile news feeds for his clients, he wanted to apply competitive intelligence to help his clients better anticipate competitive threats and opportunities. He wanted FleishmanHillard to serve his clients by informing them ahead of the market, not just reacting to events.
Knowing that Dave enjoyed the role of iconoclast, I asked him this time around – over a decade later – what strategic rules need challenging? He immediately attacked strategy models and consulting dogma.
"I have a library full of management books that people have given me," he began, "but I can count on one hand how many of those books I've even opened. There is so much bloviating – better known as hot air – out there. At the same time, I hate to come across as Luddite."
Business school professors and consultants with the latest business self-help books just do not excite him. In fact, he laces into what he sees as jargon or old ideas repackaged. "Take Michael Porter," he says of the creator of modern day competitive strategy. "He talks about value creation. As I understand it, value creation is creating a product that is close to your core and fulfills a societal need. Why is creating a product that meets a societal need considered a breakthrough? In fact the one example Porter still uses is a 20 year-old case around needle sticks, HIV, and AIDS prevention. I'm wary of people wrapping a new ribbon around the obvious. I'm very suspicious of academics bearing gifts."
In his view, avoiding success formulas and embracing common sense supported by experience is a much better way to run a company.
"I've always felt that the mark of a good company and leadership is that you see clearly," he says. "Poor companies obscure the brutal truth and therefore never deal with it. Anything that gets in the way of clarity is the enemy. If I'm caught up in some management dogma, without a clear understanding of how it truly helps, then I'm wary."
He says that the poster child for dogma in his industry is NPS – Net Promoter Score. NPS is a scale that purports to measure customer loyalty. This tool, he says, designed for one purpose, has now taken on a much larger role than he believes it should, giving birth to an entire mini-consulting and product industry.
"Suddenly," Dave says, "you have entire organizations incentivized by NPS. Even the books around NPS, will tell you not to build your entire organization's incentives around NPS. Doing so closes the door on other options, other tools and approaches. It also ignores other areas of the organization that have no connection with NPS, such as quality. Even if quality is a primary driver for your company, it may not affect your job directly and is therefore meaningless. For example, if a chef produces a terrible dish, what is the waiter supposed to do?"
Dave does cite a few books he likes. Not surprisingly, one of them is called First, Break All The Rules Among the lessons this book taught him: don't waste any time playing to your weaknesses when it is tough enough to make the most of your strengths.
He also mentions a few other favorites on communications, government and politics and even anthropology, including, The Strategy of Desire, Ernest Dichter's 1960 work that explores ways to solve larger societal problems by influencing change. Always the pragmatist and always the opponent of dogma, Dave sees Dichter's book as a thought-provoking work of anthropology.
"I see what we do as applied anthropology," he muses. "What drives people's behavior is central to what we do."
Dave's advice suggests a number of questions:
- How many times have you bought the latest "hot" self-help business book, only to realize that some of the advice rang false, or proved misleading months or years later? (Remember how many of the companies cited in the classic best-seller, In Search of Excellence, lost their luster less than a half-dozen years after publication?)
- How readily do you believe executives latch onto the latest management theory and incorporate it into company operations or company strategy only to discover some months or years later that it failed?
- Why do certain somewhat flimsy management concepts take hold in your company, when other more substantial, but perhaps "boring," ones, such as Total Quality Management (a 1980s-1990s movement), eventually fall by the wayside? Is it possibly the concept's integration cost and investment that drives failure?