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United we stand

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For Debbie Meech, Freeserves director of talent management, to be able to tell CEO John Pluthero what hes doing wrong takes a special kind of relationship. Steve Smethurst talks to them separately about how it works

John Pluthero, CEO, Freeserve


Are we a double act? I think we probably are. But its too easy to simplify it that way. Theres a reliance certainly. Debbies a very low-maintenance, no-surprises manager of her own function. I cant think of any instance where Ive had to get involved in the everyday HR activity.


When Freeserve was set up, I was desperately keen to get her along. Id met her when I was running Mastercare the Dixons service and distribution business and she was the part-time HR director. Id been impressed by how unfussy she was, and we thought very similarly about company cultures.


There are real issues involved in that here too. The average age at Freeserve is still only 27 and these are people who want the same things out of work as they get out of their social lives. They want challenge and respect. They can smell bullshit a mile off and they need substance. That probably applies to me and Debbie too as we cling to our youth.


Clearly a large part of our relationship has always been about how were getting on with the recruitment, retention and development. But theres a more personal side to the relationship a kind of personal coach/mentor thing.


She is the only person who holds a mirror up to me, who can sit me down and say, Look, John, I think youre going too far in this direction, and youre not doing this or doing that. I trust her absolutely, and its one of her most important roles as far as Im concerned. Its never affected our relationship when she tells me things I dont like shes hugely skilled at it for a start. And I get the feeling that other people probably go to Debbie and get her to tell me things too.


Would I change anything about her? Well, her psychometric profile is fairly heavily skewed to being creative. So shes always full of new initiatives there are times when people will say to me, What is the Freethinker campaign? She does come up with a lot of branded campaigns, which, occasionally, we have trouble keeping track of. But if I were to try to count the number of times in a week when Im sitting down with one of my guys and I say, Why dont you go and have a chat with Debbie?, it would be impossible. She is a perfect, non-political, realistic, sensible sounding board.


There have been times when for speed, for ease, for comfort, Ive been tempted to default to a different management approach. We have a young, relatively inexperienced population. Some of them come from workplaces where it was acceptable to kick the hell out of people if they under-performed. And, in tight spots, I wouldnt have pulled them up on that. But Debbie always will. She will take people to one side and say, Look, you can come down hard on their performance targets, theres nothing inconsistent between that and our values, but where it strays into bullying...


I really do place a great deal of reliance on her. When I think about what Id do if she left, a small shiver runs down my spine what would I do? Perhaps Id look for another role myself.


Debbie Meech, director of talent management, Freeserve


My first impressions of John still hold. I had my own HR consultancy business and was working part-time for Dixons. Thats how we first met but we were dealing with each other at arms length back then. What I liked about his approach was that he was very visionary and charismatic. He had the same attitude to people that I do he agreed with the approach of developing values and leading an organisation through that.


So, when Freeserve came along and he offered me a job, I gave up my consultancy. A lot of it was about working for him because I thought we could build something that met our vision for the culture. We get on well together too. John likes clarity of thought, people taking responsibility and those who have a sense of the big picture, who are low-maintenance which I think I am, I dont bother him.


Hes very good at reading me, and I think Im reasonably good at reading him. Ill often say to a member of staff, I know John would be okay with that. People will even come to me to ask me what Johns reaction to something is likely to be. Its useful to someone like that, to be the eyes and ears of the organisation.


I do his evolution as well his appraisal. He has enough trust in me. He says that I effectively put up a mirror to him.


I did it for the whole top team recently we went away for a weekend and did psychometrics and other exercises. John doesnt actually agree with all the findings about him he only scored averagely on one section, not as well as the others, so he was a bit annoyed. Therefore the questionnaire was wrong which Ive teased him about since.


We learned a lot about each other. We did an exercise where we tried to find the things we value in each of us and the things wed like to see less of. For me, people valued the fact that I challenge, am calm, supportive, rational and am a sounding-board outside the executive. But they wanted me to hold back a bit before giving my first opinion, take more time over detail and be aware of initiative overload.


For John, it was words


like charismatic, authoritative, inspirational,


passionate and trusted the gist of it was that you never want to let John Pluthero down. But there were things he could do less of be less moody was one thats because of the way he can affect the mood of a board meeting. Sometimes he needs to control his body language, because he can be intimidating.


But would I change anything about him? Hes actually quite shy. People dont think he is, but hes a bit reluctant to just walk up to a member of staff and strike up a conversation. Its a shame, because the benefit people get just from him walking around and talking to them is really tremendous. I dont think he realises it, but there is actually a high number of people who work for him, rather than Freeserve. If he ever left, it would be very interesting.