Twenty-four years ago today, on Saturday 29 February 1992, I spent several hours in a meeting with my colleagues on Drax Power Station’s Executive Team. We met in the pleasant surroundings of a country hotel in Escrick, some five miles south of York city centre.
The UK’s Electricity Supply Industry had been privatised in January 1991, with Drax becoming part of the largest of the CEGB’s three successor companies, National Power. As the country’s biggest and most modern coal-fired power station, its performance was very much in the spotlight. In meeting at Escrick, our aim was to take stock of the progress achieved in rising to the immediate challenges of privatisation, as well as identifying further steps needed to develop the business commercially.
Unlocking organizational talent
As Business Performance Manager, it had fallen to me to design and orchestrate the station’s change strategy, Transforming Drax. This brought together a diverse range of actions, aimed at moving the business away from its public-sector past to a position of successful, self-confident, and far-sighted leadership in the wider generation industry. Crucially, this “transformation” was couched in terms of broad themes rather than detailed projects and programmes.
At the meeting, one issue dominated our discussions. How could we unlock what we saw as a vast reservoir of untapped talent at the plant and make it productive? In Transforming Drax, this general theme was entitled “Contribution and Commitment”. We identified and explored a number of ideas on what this might look like and how we and other managers could help to bring about the desired changes in people’s activities, capabilities, and performance (including our own!).
We recognized that the new circumstances demanded a different response from that which had characterized past leadership practice. According to a later note of mine, this would be one which,
“… captures the hearts and minds of people; which provides vision and builds commitment throughout the organization. Its purpose is to enable people to maximize their time and talents, in support of the Company's goals; to harness their energy, enthusiasm, effort, excitement and expertise; to encourage initiative, ideas and innovation; and to help them to adapt effectively to the new demands. Above all, it sees people as the key to world class performance rather than as a barrier to its achievement; maintaining high expectations of their ability to contribute, and removing any blockages which prevent them doing so.”
The birth of Escrick Man
Over lunch that day, one of the managers suggested, half-jokingly, that we should call this view of the ideal Drax employee, “Escrick Man”. The name stuck (despite the gendered language). And so Escrick Man was born on leap day, 1992. Importantly, we agreed that the principles embodied in the idea would apply to everyone on site, “whether man or woman, messenger or manager.”
As suggested above, ‘s/he’ was born out of a belief that there was a wealth of talent within the business that previous management systems and practices had ignored - and often suppressed. A belief that:
- everyone had strengths which were under-utilized - and an untapped desire to apply them;
- the purpose of leadership was to unlock these talents and make them productive;
- nobody was perfect and each one of us had weaknesses to ‘complement’ our strengths; and
- the purpose of organization was not to try to avoid these individual weaknesses but to make them irrelevant to overall performance by providing complementary strengths elsewhere and emphasizing outward contribution as the common theme.
Most importantly, Escrick Man was not intended to be seen as a superman or superwoman. S/he would simply be an ordinary person who had been encouraged, assisted, and enabled to perform extra-ordinarily well.
In translating our general aspirations on the subject into a practical way forward, I put together a ‘pen picture’ of the ideal Drax employee. In it, each individual would be enabled to supplement their core strengths, by progressively acquiring and/or developing the attributes of self-sufficiency, self-direction, self-control, and collaboration.
This brought with it a necessary change in the nature of management/ supervisory practice. The emphasis shifted from one of seeking to control people’s actions, based on formal authority, to enabling them to perform at their best, in line with their developing capabilities.
Power in Trust
Escrick Man ‘left' Drax many years ago, of course, and is no doubt long forgotten. The power station was sold by National Power in 1999, in response to the plant divestment requirements imposed by the Electricity Regulator at that time(1) and other people-management practices ensued. In those early post-privatisation years, though, its incorporation into the day-to-day language and practice at Drax enabled many people to escape from the vicious circle of low expectations, tight control, and alienation which had disfigured the dominant approach to people management. Instead, it helped to foster a virtuous circle of high expectations, self-control, commitment, and contribution.
Escrick Man was about valuing people as individuals, enhancing their self-worth and maximizing their contribution to the Company's success. It began by identifying their core skills and building on these through training, accreditation, and increased information. It focused on enabling people to become more self-sufficient, take more responsibility for their actions, and exert more control over their own output, in terms of progress, quality, and quantity. It also spurred them to work much more closely with others, whilst still encouraging individual initiative. Above all, it reflected an approach to managing based on trust.
According to the age-old rhyme, "Saturday's child works hard for his living." Those who embraced the concept and ethos of Escrick Man certainly did that. Many, though, also enjoyed more challenge and excitement, justifiable pride in their skills and achievements, and a real sense of purpose in their work.
NOTE (1): After being owned for a time by The AES Corporation, and then subject to a number of refinancing initiatives, Drax Power Group plc was floated on the stock exchange in December 2005. Ten years on, the company’s managers and employees continue to operate the business successfully, despite the commercial and environmental challenges that they face. Today, Drax principally remains a power generation business; although it now has its own retail arm and an upstream biomass business in the US. The generating plant still delivers around 7-8% of the UK’s electricity demand. It remains, at 4000MW, the largest power station in the UK. Over recent years, what might be termed ‘Transforming Drax Mk 2’ has been dominated by efforts to convert the business into a predominantly biomass-fuelled generator. Long may it continue.