Drawing a detailed analogy between success in athletics and business, the former Asda chief executive and Royal Mail chairman told an audience of executives and entrepreneurs that they should identify the sprinters and marathon runners among their staff and assign them short and long-term tasks accordingly.
Along with making sure that their management teams have enough women on board, as they are “less neurotic and more confident” than men, this process should give companies a winning edge in a difficult economic environment.
Mr Leighton said: “Pace is very important in a business, but it’s not just about speed, it’s about endurance too.
“Therefore, looking at the skills of people that we have got and making sure those skills are lined up with the jobs we need to be done is something that we should all reappraise.
“That piece of reappraisal – if you do it the way I did it – is a real piece of opportunity.
“Although things are very tough, the businesses that invest in their business and their people and are absolutely focused on what needs to happen and at what timescale it needs to be done, will come out of this successfully.
“Yes, the economy is under a bit of pressure, but it’s still a pretty big economy, there is still a lot of consumption, there is still a lot of money being spent and the acid test of good businesses is can you do well in bad times, not can you do well in good times.
“The art of leadership is to do things that are hard to do, not to do things that are easy to do. Things that are hard to do are very hard to copy. People buy for uniqueness, they don’t buy for sameness and competitive edge – which is largely driven through people – has never been as important as it is today.”
Mr Leighton started his career as a trainee at Mars Confectionery. His current roles include president of Loblaw, the Canadian retail group, deputy chairman of Selfridges and non-executive director of BSkyB.
In his speech at this week’s Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, Mr Leighton said he examined the management teams overlooking his workforce of 300,000 and found 30 per cent of those teams were underperforming because he did not have the right people in the right place.
“The bulk of what we do is either a sprint or a marathon. Therefore get that right and stand a real chance of being able to make a breakthrough,” he said.
“It’s something I was taught at the very beginning, but it’s very easy to move away from. In a team, you have people who have to do different things and getting the right people with the right skills to do the right things is fundamental to how that business performs.
“When it’s as hard as it is today, that’s something we should all be thinking and doing something about.”
Developing the athletics analogy, he said: “Every one of us has 250 million bits of muscle fibre but we only control 450 and that makes me think about business because we all talk about the external factors that have an impact on us of which there are hundreds and thousands.
“But most of them are completely beyond our control. The really good sprinters and marathon runners don’t worry about the things they can’t control in their system. They focus on the 450 things they can control.
“That’s what good business should do. How good are we at the 450 things we can influence and is that where we are putting our time and attention or are we too busy worrying about things that we can’t have any impact on?”