In Defence of Tony Hayward

It would be an exaggeration to say that there has been nearly as much newspaper ink used to criticise Tony Hayward, outgoing CEO of BP, as there has been oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s the kind of thing you’d expect ‘Wayward Hayward’ to say after all his recent gaffes.

He’s not had an easy time of it all, has Tony. He has had a thankless task trying to handle the response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. And indeed, there’s been little in the way of thanks.

He points out that while BP tries to do all it can to contain the leak and the spilt oil, and to clean things up, and to put in place a huge fund to compensate those whose livelihood is affected by the spill, actually the jury is out on who is actually responsible for the explosion – and he gets attacked mercilessly by those in the US who are trying to deflect blame away from those US companies who were also involved in this rig.

He tells the media what his experts are telling him about the extent of the leak and the likely damage, and then he gets blamed when it turns out they were giving him bad data. (Does anyone seriously think he was out there counting the leaking barrels himself? Or believe that he intentionally suppressed data to downplay the extent of the leak, knowing full well that the truth would soon come out anyway? Really? It’s not as if he’d have been able to sell any stock during such times so he wasn’t just trying to buy some time and prop up the share price. He’d already sold a third of his stock before the explosion anyway – which begs other questions, which I won’t go into here.)

He spends months away from his family in the US working on the response (in addition to his day-job – leading one of the world’s biggest companies isn’t exactly a picnic), yet on the one day he spends with his family back in the UK, he gets heavily criticised for taking his children to watch a regatta. He’d probably have been pilloried if he’d taken them to a playground, and the journos would probably have followed him wherever he went.

He tries to walk a very narrow tightrope in his appearance before Congress, where they want lots of detailed answers, yet his lawyers would have warned him to say as little as possible that could be used later as the basis for a legal case against BP; and of course he gets criticised for being evasive even where he doesn’t know the answers, in which case the only proper thing to do is to admit that and not invent answers.

He tries to express how important the clean-up effort is to him and how he has a great sense of urgency to get it all sorted out – and he’s lambasted for being selfish and thinking only of himself.

Now, you could say he’s brought this partly upon himself, not only by being leader of a company which is held responsible for such a huge catastrophe, but also by saying careless things like “I want my life back” when 11 people lost theirs, and by attending a public event with lots of journalists when he spent his day at home. Many people do take that point of view, and this whole situation has shown just how important it is for a leader to be great at public relations, speaking in public, influencing, and inspiring confidence. Tony Hayward may be a fine manager (I don’t know and it’s not my business, but I’m not going to assume he’s useless because an idiot doesn’t usually work his way up to the top of an organisation like BP), but he’s not a slick and reliable public face for any company.

So yes, he could and should have been coached better on what to say and what not to say. But after a 25-year career with BP, culminating with three years as CEO where his record was not heavily criticised until the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, is it really fair to dismiss him as a duffer for letting slip an unfortunate sentence and for taking his kids out for a day? Did everyone dismiss Steve Jobs as dumb when he said “Just don’t hold it that way”?

I often like taking the side of the underdog, and in this case there seem to be few voices springing to Hayward’s defence, so let mine be one of them. While I am sure I’d have handled things differently in his situation, and while I know nothing about his role prior to the disaster or decisions he may have made which might have led to it (so I’m not trying to talk about or defend something I don’t know about, and I am certainly not defending BP or anyone else who might have been responsible for this disaster), here are some of the good things he has achieved as part of this whole episode.

  • He has accepted that there needed to be a scapegoat, and as CEO it needed to be him, so he was always going to have to step down after this situation was brought under control. Therefore he didn’t hide behind the scenes to leave Bob Dudley to handle the media: he not only put himself in the line of fire, he also drew all the fire towards himself, so that merely by letting him go, BP could then make a fresh start under Dudley. Imagine how much different it might have been if he had let Dudley (who was head of the Americas so in fact far more likely to be directly involved in drilling in the Gulf of Mexico than Hayward, and who was leading the response) handle Congress and the media, and take all the flak. Hayward would probably have had to go anyway, but BP would not have been able to promote Dudley to take his place.
  • He put his life and family on hold to be in the US almost permanently to handle response-related matters. That’s a major sacrifice, even for a CEO who is used to frequent international travel. Contrast this with chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg who popped in once to see what was happening in the Gulf – on the way back from his family holiday in Thailand. One of these two guys took his responsibility seriously.
  • He has given a great example of why leaders in the modern 24-hour news and social media world need to be excellent communicators just as much as great leaders and managers.

At the end of the day (and discounting anything that happened before the disaster, as per my disclaimer above), I think Hayward was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Every media lapse was eagerly seized upon by journalists and politicians baying for blood. Congress wanted someone to blame, and they got him. He’s English, he looks very public-school English in fact (so easy for Americans to dislike just by looking at him), and he behaves like one. He might as well have had a bullseye on his furrowed forehead. Frankly there might be a PR advisor at BP who is now celebrating the success of their master plan – make Hayward universally disliked and pilloried, drawing all the fire, and then once things are under control, pension him off and replace him with Dudley the white (American) knight. Someone might even have fed him that line about getting his life back, and advised him to attend that regatta.

Maybe this was a time when it was better to have a poor communicator than a great one. Either of them would have had to go, but Hayward’s going alone – someone else might have taken his whole team down with him. He’s done a better job for BP shareholders than many of them currently realise. And it’s like manna from heaven for communication coaches like me, because no leader wants to be tarred with the Hayward brush from now on…

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