You're hired! ... interview with researcher Alan Walker

Watching desperate hopefuls battling in the boardroom each week on The Apprentice has been compulsive TV for millions of viewers.  Sir Alan Sugar’s cry of “You’re Fired!” may not quite reflect the reality of businesses across the country but it makes great entertainment.

There is, however, no doubt that while Sir Alan’s cut-throat approach to choosing the right candidate may be purely for the camera, behind the scenes he is still a tough operator.

It’s clear many successful business people will share similar personality traits and different leadership styles have a major impact on company outcomes.

Now, a new study by University of Wolverhampton PhD student Alan Walker, a Chief Executive with extensive business experience, is set to examine this area further and discover how different personalities can lead to success or failure.

Alan has 40 years’ experience working in industry in the UK and abroad and has held senior positions on the boards of a numberof international listed companies, including a presidential role with a US-based global pharmaceutical business. He is Chairman of a hi-tech company and Chief Executive Officer of an emerging pharmaceutical business and a Chartered Director.

His research, The Effects of Personality Diversity of UK Public Company Directors on Board Processes and Task Performance, will be carried out over the next year. He has come up with a ‘Jigsaw Model’ for personality traits and is now looking for companies to participate.

Alan has created an innovative approach to collecting research findings by setting up a business consultancy, WalkerGlobal. This  will give companies free analysis, which will then be used as part of his research. He will keep the details of participants  anonymous.

“The board is like a jigsaw with different directors who fit or don’t fit,” he says. “I will be looking at different processes and personalities, measured against the output of what the board actually does.”

He will be offering psychometric tests and reporting back to the board on its group personality jigsaw and key areas of:

  • Strategy
  • Service
  • Control
  • Leadership

“The board will get an in-depth service and hopefully I will receive some useful findings for my research,” he says. “There is a consensus that you can’t measure the board by company performance; you also have to consider the management and staff.

“However, the board controls the Top Management Team (TMT). While the final performance of a company depends on more than the directors, the board have the most influence on outcomes because they either approve or set the strategy and are ultimately responsible.

If the board isn’t functioning correctly, the rest of the company won’t function correctly either.”

Alan believes personality traits are very influential on company outcomes. He cites the most high-profile recent example of Sir Fred Goodwin, who presided over the loss of £24.1 billion during his disastrous stewardship of Royal Bank of Scotland - the biggest loss in British corporate history.

The bank was effectively nationalised in a government-backed bailout and the former  chief executive then infuriated customers when he walked away with a £700,000 annual pension.

“Clearly in the Royal Bank of Scotland the non-executive directors failed to do their job. I want to find out more about these types of roles and their value.”

Alan believes the strong personality of Sir Fred would have had a big role to play and he would have relished the opportunity to use him for his research.

“Much as I would like to analyse his personality traits, I somehow can’t imagine him putting himself forward as a volunteer.”

He expects directors and chief executives to naturally be more serious than average, as well as socially bold, group orientated, self-disciplined and ruthless, and is looking forward to discovering more.

Alan is being supervised by Dr Silke Machold, Reader in Governance and Ethics and part of the University’s Management Research Centre, who has been very encouraging and enthusiastic. He says the support from the University of Wolverhampton Business School has been invaluable.

He initially studied an MSc in Corporate Direction at the University, despite being based just outside Edinburgh in Scotland.

"It may not be very convenient in terms of location but I stayed with Wolverhampton because I developed a very high regard for the University’s Business School", he says.

“Silke encouraged me to undertake a PhD and we are both excited about the potential for the research, which will be the first of its kind.

“It’s very useful for me to have a business background in my approach to this as it gives me more understanding and enables me  to relate to the people I need to engage with.”

Alan has undergone psychometric testing himself and is aware of his own strengths and weaknesses.

“It may not be easy to accept your weaknesses but if you’re aware of them you can try to do something about them.

“I don’t think you can change your personality traits but being aware of them is helpful. I do, however, think you can change your emotional intelligence and that can make a real difference.”

He believes the research could encourage businesses to look at diversity in a different way.

"Many companies suffer from ‘isomorphism’, which is where they have lots of directors with similar personality types. They may see diversity in terms of gender or ethnicity but the ultimate diversity to aim for is diversity of personality."

“It is important to have different personalities who will have different approaches and complement each other.

“I would be looking to produce guidelines about what a company should be looking for and that should be someone who will fit their jigsaw. If they are low on a certain ‘factor’ then they should be looking for someone who has that and find someone who adds to existing strengths.”

This new area of research could prove very beneficial to businesses in the future and provide some very interesting insights.

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