To troubleshoot, first spot the trouble

Digby Jones Image Courtesy BBC

Digby Jones
Image Courtesy BBC

Digby Jones has re-emerged into the limelight via a new Troubleshooter series on BBC2. He has already had a high profile career including stints as Vice Chairman of Corporate Finance at KPMG, Director-General of the CBI and a spell as a Government Minister. However, one not so glorious period was his time at iSoft where he ended up a prosecution witness at a trial for fraud by the company accused of inflating its value through creative accounting.

Jones’s denial of culpability centred round his view that “non-executives do not have the same access to information as executives. If they are given assurances by the executives, what else can they do?” [1] This is in spite of his clear expertise in finance and a report that the company’s accountants were asked by the audit committee in Jones’s presence where its accounting treatment would lie on a scale of 1 to 10 – where 1 is ultra conservative and 10 is legal but aggressive. The answer was a 6 or 7[2], which was apparently never probed further.

This unhappy situation reinforces a major challenge for all leaders. Good leaders rely on other people and ensure they know what’s going on in their business. Such insight comes from observation and data analysis, but above all, talking to people. The answer to the challenge is that:

Great leaders ask great questions

Great questions come from listening; being alert to inconsistency, and spotting where risk lies. To be a troubleshooter, you have to be able to spot trouble; like the risk posed by aggressive accounting policies. Barefaced liars that could pass a lie detector test will never be easy to crack, but the majority of people can usually be opened up with good questions. The leadership issue is therefore:

How good are your questions?

On the back of the inflated share price resulting from inaccurate reporting, iSoft executives by coincidence sold £44 million of shares at considerable personal profit (and loss to pension funds etc. that bought the shares). Although it is accepted that fraud occurred, who was behind it has never been determined.

 [1] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2006/nov/02/news.business

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/2950183/Digby-Jones-I-did-what-I-could-at-iSoft.html

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