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Stay hungry, stay foolish; the secrets of successful leadership.

Stay hungry, stay foolish; the secrets of successful leadership

Good leadership may be hard to define, but it is easy to recognize. Think no further than the late Steve Jobs, chief executive at Apple, or Sir Terry Leahy, former Tesco chief executive.

In the April 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, best-selling author Walter Isaacson, who wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, acknowledges that there were 'rough edges' to Jobs's personality, but that these were part and parcel of the way he did his job.

The real lessons, says Walter Isaacson, come from what Jobs accomplished in building the world's most valuable company, while at the same time helping to transform industries including personal computing, animated films, music, telephones, tablet computing, retail stores and digital publishing.

The author describes the imperatives behind Jobs's approach: focus; simplify; take responsibility end to end; when behind, leapfrog; put products before profits; do not be a slave to focus groups; bend reality; impute; push for perfection; know both the big picture and the details; tolerate only 'A' players; engage face-to-face; combine the humanities with the sciences; and 'stay hungry, stay foolish'.

Both Steve Jobs and Sir Terry Leahy focused on putting their companies' needs before their own. Both 'grew into' their jobs, with their performance steadily increasing as their status rose.

Leahy, for example, determined that Tesco should stop following a catch-up strategy with Marks & Spencer, which was then the UK's most profitable retailer, and Sainsbury's, the most profitable food retailer. He wanted his company to lead through market knowledge - a strategy that gave rise to the highly successful Tesco Clubcard loyalty programme, which monitors shopping habits in return for periodic rewards to the customer.

Leahy was not the first to recognize the value of companies tracking customer behaviour through a loyalty card, but he was among the first to make it work. Since the introduction of the Clubcard, in 1995, many other companies have followed suit, in a wide range of industries. And other firms have striven to get to know more about their customers by other means.

For example, in volume 19 issue 1 of Journal of Database Marketing and Consumer Strategy Management, Debra Zahay [za-HAY], James Peltier and Anjala S. Krishen analyze the types of information that financial-services organizations can collect to learn about their customers for use in customer-relationship management. They conclude that capturing the results of personalized communications and detailed transactions of customer interactions brings the best results and ought to be the organization's focus.

However, in volume 18, issue 3 of Business Process Management Journal, Bang Nguyen [GUY-en] and Dilip S. Mutum warn against a possible backlash from gathering too much customer information.

The authors state: 'The risks of depleting customer trust as they perceive themselves as being exploited by firms' customer-relationship-management offerings pose a significant threat if overly used and misused. Advances in CRM must consider issues of social media, fairness and trust…Relationship-building in social media is taken to a new level - more personal and intimate. A stronger emphasis must therefore be put into ensuring fairness.'

During initial development of the Tesco Clubcard in the mid-1990s, the company's then chairman, Lord MacLaurin, said to the researchers responsible: 'What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.'

So far, customers have been surprisingly willing to surrender information about their regular purchases in return for money-off coupons. But with the arrival of social media, vastly more information on individual consumers could find its way into retailers' databases. That is when the backlash may occur.