Getting Sh*t Done and Encouraging Conflict

Daryl Fielding

CEO of The Marketing Academy Foundation & former Director of Brand Marketing for Vodafone


Daryl went from New Labour’s advertising communications in the 1997 election to devising the famous Dove ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ – secretly enlisting the daughters of the all-male board. 


The campaign has become a case study of purpose branding. After leading global strategy for food brands with $9bn sales, she joined Vodafone with a mission to make the provider focus on people rather than product.


Leadership conversations these days generally focus on vision and purpose but there are two aspects that are just as critical, yet almost always overlooked: Getting shit done and encouraging constructive conflict.


The first is more politely termed operational leadership. It is vital in big organisations and big transformations. Every person in the organisation will need to be mobilised, given a clear plan and the resources needed to play their part. The vision bit is the easy part. Making it happen is a Herculean effort.


At Vodafone, we created a separate team to land our new brand strategy, which included presenting it face-to-face to stakeholders. We presented it almost daily, reaching over 9,000 people in a year. We also created offline and online training tools for customer-facing staff to help bring it to fruition. After eighteen months, we still weren’t done. Doing the doing takes planning, effort, dogged persistence and time. And folks who are good at leading this make all the difference. Yet the visionaries often cast aside their contribution.



My favourite story of Operational Leadership is the race to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott. If you recall, Amundsen got there a month before Scott. Scott got there, but he and 4 colleagues died, tragically close to their base camp. Both men had epic doses of vision and purpose, but Amundsen had a properly researched and detailed a plan and executed it meticulously. Scott’s expedition was a fiasco. One difference was in the choice of animals to haul the sleighs. Amundsen had learned from the Inuit and explorers and humbly followed their advice to “take dogs, dogs and more dogs”. They were suited to polar conditions and ate calorie-dense meat from the abundant penguins and seals found in Antarctica. Scott took no notice of any advice and chose mainly horses – and had to carry their hay. Oates, Scott’s fellow officer, refused to give them snowshoes as advised. Ponies perspire through their coat, whereas dogs sweat through their feet and by panting. The ponies’ hooves sank into the snow, their sweat froze on their bodies and they all died. This is just one example of the disastrous approach to the planning of Scott’s expedition. There are many more. Look it up. It will make you laugh … And cry.


There is a gender point here. I believe the operational capability is something women tend to be really good at. I have seen so many women dismissed with “She’s just a good do-er”. It’s high time people, especially women, owned and claimed “Getting Sh*t Done” as a senior leadership competence.


Leaders need do-ers in their teams and need to ensure their input is given as much respect and airtime as the visionaries. There will be conflict between the grand plan and the practical realities, which is a good thing and brings me on to my second unsung leadership strength: belief in dissent and constructive conflict. Belief in difference. Real difference.


If everyone is different, anyone can fit in.


Diversity is a popular leadership theme, but we need to understand what it really means. It means we are going to have teams where there are differences – of opinion, of thinking styles, of values, of experience. And where there are differences, there will be conflict. There is no point in having gender parity on a board or a creditable number of different coloured faces round the table if the individuals have identical experience and ways of thinking.


To slightly misquote Paddington Bear, “If everyone is different, anyone can fit in” and having different people that fit in is the essence of diversity and outstanding teamwork. Leaders must foster or even force constructive argument yet then be able to drive agreement and decisions to get the best results.


I saw diversity go into retrograde motion in the leadership team at Kraft Foods Europe. When I joined, we were a rich mix. Everyone was different and everyone fitted in. We had men and women from Kraft, from Cadbury, from other companies and almost as many nationalities as individuals. Meetings were lively and discursive.


Everyone was engaged and contributed. Good decisions were made. Our regional president encouraged debate, then stopped us “admiring the problem” and drove us to reach agreement. Outside the room, we all supported the decisions, because we had all been heard. This team’s business results were outstanding.



Over the next two years individuals left and, one by one, Kraft lifers took their place, mostly men, including our new President, a man who I liked and respected hugely. Yet, a year on, when I had decided to go home to the UK, there were just two of us that were not Kraft born and bred. Both of us happened to be women. I don’t think anyone did this deliberately… It was born more of the “homegrown is best” agenda. The nature of our meetings had changed fundamentally. They felt smooth and agreeable, with great reinforcement for “alignment”. A dissenting view resulted in a ferocious attack on its exponent. This stifled contribution and made “the outsiders” miserable. I don’t think the majority even noticed what was happening as they were in their element. The matter only came to a head when our bonuses were docked because we had not met our gender diversity targets!


Diversity is uncomfortable and if your meetings aren’t rambunctious, you are either not discussing anything meaningful or you have little diversity. You need to be vigilant that you really have enough differences to make a difference.


I worry that the focus on diversity will be cosmetic. I worry that the (often male) visionaries will drown out the (often female) doers. I worry that we will choose people like us, but who don’t look like us. Or we will select the different ones and then teach them to assimilate. Then the case for diversity in delivering better results will disappear. How tragically ironic that will be.


Daryl Fielding is CEO of The Marketing Academy Foundation & former Director of Brand Marketing for Vodafone