What are the golden rules of business? What makes a good manager? Oh, and what’s in store for Northern Ireland post-Brexit?

These are just some of the questions BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Business presenter Dr Wendy Austin MBE asked Sir Gerry Robinson at his Donegal home, in a thought-provoking interview broadcast last week.

Sir Robinson left Dunfanaghy as a young boy, moving to east London. His career’s achievements include turning Granada from a £100 million loss into £700 million profit, making a fortune from floating Compass catering, chairing Arts Council England, BSkyB and ITN, and trying to fix the NHS.

Here are some of the para-phrased questions and answers, providing plenty of lessons on business and leadership. Here’s a link to the full interview.


Can all businesses achieve success from following certain golden rules?

For me, the single biggest thing is clarity; knowing what it is you’re trying to do.

You’d be surprised at the number of businesses that get into trouble because they lose sight of what it is they’re trying to achieve.

Secondly, the quality of management is important. If you get the right person, problems get solved. If you appoint the wrong person, they never get solved.


What makes a good manager?

Leadership. That’s working with people that you want to do things for. It’s important to make people feel good about being a part of something; forging commonality, communality.

If you’re a manager, people like to know where they are with you; that you’re not going to behave in different ways with others. They like to know what’s asked of them, to know they’re going to get fair treatment.

Consistency is vital. There are good days and bad days; you need someone who runs through the middle of all that. Life is a serious thing – business is serious – and having something consistent through that is appealing.

If you have very good people, try not to manage them so much that they don’t have much room for manoeuvre themselves. Give people the space to do things the way that they want to do them; they often pick better ways of doing things than you.

Judge the outcome, not in terms of “do I like Charlie, or not like Charlie.” What’s important is that they have the capacity to do the job, and do it well.


If you enter an organisation and see poor ways of management, what do you do?

A troubled company will by its own nature have problems. I love the ‘sort out’ part. It’s seems very simple and very clear, and it’s very pleasing when it works.

I’m flexible enough to say “that was the answer”, then admit it clearly wasn’t. You’re often wrong; you make a judgement and realise you didn’t have all the information, maybe you had misconceptions. You need to be able to move on.


There must be times when you’ve realised that everyone else hates you…

You have to take difficult decisions. That’s what’s wrong with many government things: people are afraid to take tough decisions.

You mustn’t be afraid to “put on the helmet” over the first year or so. I’ve always got on with people after that. You have to be a bit detached when decisions are taken.

Sometimes it’s easy to make money by doing the wrong things. Doing the right things are nearly always the things that are right for the majority of employees.


How did you reach your business philosophy?

I think it’s partly accidental; the view was whatever job you took on, you completed it. Then you start to be recognised as someone who can do things. As time went on, I found it wasn’t more difficult at the top, it was easier; you made the decisions.

I’m suspicious of people who say: “I’ll do 2 years of this, and 5 after that”. Life is a bit of a lottery, and when an opportunity presents itself you take it, whatever it is.

It’s a self-fulfilling thing: you get more and more opportunities. I suspect the reverse is true too: get things wrong and options will close down.

If you get a good run, your chances in hiring are much higher.


Have you benefited from having mentors?

Bob Tanner at Matchbox Toys was very clear, good at making you think for yourself, giving you a go at doing things, and he appreciated the effort.

Alan Costen had an ordered way of approaching things. He’d never forget tasks he set you, so you did them. That doggedness, that consistency and follow-up was important.

I have a simple follow-up system. I keep record of every meeting, I put things in files, I meet every month – without fail – with people who report directly to me, and I keep track of everything I said we’d look at. I run through all the things I agreed we’d look at.


What about comic, daft ‘The Office’ tv show style scenarios?

Yes, sometimes you do see that ridiculous things have been asked of people, and realise they’re non-sensical.

I don’t think you can keep people in a role if they’re being managed by terror. It won’t produce the thing that matters, which is sustainable and long-term value.

You have to deal with those kinds of managers; getting that person out of that role, maybe through them leaving the company or finding them a different role that works for them; sideways or gently downwards.

People are often happy if they give up a role that they’re failing in, and are often content to do something that they do well.


What about Brexit?

It’s perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made in the last 100 years, economically. We’ve decided to come out of the biggest, richest market in the world.

We’ve been at peace with our neighbours in Europe, but it isn’t that long ago since we were killing each other. I would never have wanted Brexit to happen, but “we’re there with it”.

We’ve probably had the biggest impact hit us already, with the stark difference in currency [between the pound sterling and Euro).

I’m optimistic, I hope we end up with a soft border. I’m fearful about the consequences that could follow if that doesn’t happen; that it could give another line for people to get behind, to cause trouble again.

We must find the right way forward. Ireland is a small country, a tiny part of the European economy.


And on Northern Ireland’s political stalemate… Does this signal a perfect storm?

I get so depressed about Northern Irish politics. It’s the size of Birmingham, can’t we have some sense?

Also published on Medium.