ICI’s Troubleshooter Sir John Harvey-Jones

Lessons in leadership from the man who turned around the fortunes of ICI


When Sir John Harvey-Jones died earlier this year, the UK lost one of its greats. Renowned as the ‘King of the turnaround’, he made his name as chairman of chemicals giant ICI. He joined the business as a junior manager after leaving the navy in 1956, and by 1982 had become its chairman.

However, by then the once formidable business had fallen into decline, with its share value slipping. A year later, it was back in profit and its share price had doubled. It was successes such as this and Harvey-Jones’ considerable charisma that led him to front his own TV programme, The Troubleshooter , a forerunner of many of today’s reality shows.

Harvey-Jones said that when he visited a failing company, his approach was always the same: first talk to the boss and then go straight to the people on the shop floor and ask what they thought the problems were. He said he always got totally different answers, but could gauge from those conversations what the real issues were.

Harvey-Jones also believed in streamlining the decision-making processes. At ICI he found there were too many people stopping him from making decisions and getting things done. He slashed the workforce, removed the non-profit elements and focused on ICI’s core offering.

Despite having a reputation as a strategist, there was little of the cold-blooded planner about him, and he believed that people were key to the success of an organisation. Possibly, it was his wartime experience that brought him close to the ‘troops’, although he seldom spoke of it. He was also open to the point of being painfully honest, which caused him to be loved by the media, but unpopular with many.

Factfile: Born: April 16 1924 Died: January 9 2008 Achievements: Turned chemical giant ICI around, became chairman of The Economist, was voted Industrialist of the Year three times consecutively, won a BAFTA for The Troubleshooter   Tell me something I didn’t know: He abhorred Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact that he received a knighthood from her

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