BP: A Disaster for the Gulf and a Painful Lesson on Corporate Leadership

As a British import to the US its very sad to see a company based in my former homeland horribly pollute the waters and land of my adopted one. Even worse is to see the ineptitude with which BP is dealing with this crisis. Is this the best that the UK can do in terms of leadership of its biggest companies? If I worked there I would have been squirming daily as CEO Tony Hayward put his foot in his mouth over and over again then finally was pushed from day to day crisis management and showed up….on a yacht. He “got his life back” all right, sailing on the pristine waters off the Isle of Wight, such a contrast to those he left behind him in the Gulf of Mexico. Even BP seems to have sensed that something was very wrong with Hayward’s performance, so they trotted out their Swedish Chairman for a meeting with President Obama. Sure enough, he also screwed up by talking about the “little people” who were affected, right there outside the White House…I mean this might sound fine in Swedish, but please, if you are on the world stage, run what you plan to say past an English speaker!! Could Hollywood cast better characters and create such situations, dripping with irony like Hayward’s sailing trip? With great difficulty.

My morale as a BP employee right now would be rock bottom. I would be wondering, first of all, how did BP fool us all into thinking it had been re-born into an environmentally friendly company, when they are reported to have spent less on alternative energy than they spent on changing their logo to reflect that new direction? I would be thinking, secondly, how do such people as Tony Hayward, with almost zero emotional presence, with no apparent ability to actually listen to people who have been affected by their company’s recklessness, get to be CEO of such a large and formerly prestigious company? Is this the Peter Principle, where someone is promoted to their level of incompetence? Yes but only partly; I think Hayward is the recipient of that classic promotion mistake: take someome smart and successful in the core competency in which the company operates (geology), add some special relationship with the former CEO, and promote him to the top job. A formula for disaster. Hayward talks with such low affect, I am surprised someone on the Board doesn’t demand that he be tested for a pulse. I mean even by British standards, he shows little emotion and one could hardly feel him caring at all, as he waited to “get his life back” as soon as possible.

The spill is much bigger than anyone thought: a “worst case” of 100,000 bbl a day, (yes that is an astonishing 4.2 MILLION gallons a day); of course we dont yet know if that is what has happened, we have no idea. What we do know is that BP looks like they have rushed the last part of this drilling job because they were over time and over budget. Now we have to pay the price in lost jobs and an environmental catastrophe. BP’s image, meanwhile, is in tatters, but that seems trivial compared to the jobs lost, the lives upended, the loss of life, the horrible mess on beautiful beaches, and so on.

What I am left with is this image of Hayward day after day on TV, pitifully unprepared for this calamity, and shockingly bad as the front person for this global giant. Will we ever learn that it’s not enough to be the best geologist, engineer, accountant…whatever? That doesn’t qualify you to run an organization. Ford learned that lesson: their super-successful CEO, Alan Mulally, never had anything to do with autos before running that company, except driving one to work in his previous jobs. You don’t need to know all the technical details, that’s what the technical people are for! You need to know about…and have the built-in talent for…leadership.

It may be too late for BP to learn this lesson. They have gone from Beyond Petroleum to…Battered Property.

(photo BP British Petroleum Co., Ltd., 1922; public domain)

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