Thursday, August 18, 2005

The best **** for the job?

In these PC days, that **** stands for a term applying equal gender preference and descriptive correctness to those about whom this blog is about.

At one of (long story) my universities, I had my first real taste of organisational politics. A very popular and respected professor died, and obviously a successor needed to be found. I had assumed that the gently grazed quadrangles of academe would simply move in concert to arrive, unhurried and in a civilised manner, at the most appropriate choice, and life would continue as it had, and always would.

What transpired was feeding time at Jurassic Park. The gloves were off and the claws were out. Every half-baked doctor, senior lecturer and visiting whatever had kicked off their tweeds and were in full combat mode, slashing and burning their way to the top, taking no prisoners and laying waste to peaceful hamlets of teenage (or in my case, early twenties) naiveté and belief in the goodness of man (or woman).

Once the cement dust had settled, the victor got their spoils, and spoiled they were. Camps had been set up and though a hierarchy had been re-established, it was one based on fear. Because the person who made it was not the best choice for the department, the students or the profession, but the guy who had sucked up, been seen to be doing (at the expense of doing) and devoted most time to their careers at the expense of their job.

And so it continued. My father, a hugely successful and popular sales director, found himself shafted and sidelined within months of the firm’s founder, and his friend and mentor, dying and the 'board' taking over. Anyone from the old guard had to be removed, no matter what. Even if, as it transpired, the sales crashed as a result. Back then I wondered what the shareholders thought of that, unless the link was not made clear to them by the guys in char.. oh.. well.

Golly, I could go on. Suffice to say that in my 'employed' ad-career, every time a memo hit my desk saying ‘I’m pleased to announce a new... [senior to me anyway], I dug out my CV. Within a month I knew I’d be mysteriously ‘no longer quite who we need in this position’, when their mate was.

So I read with interest, and a certain deja d’oh, new research that suggests 'ambition, authority and assertiveness are the main characteristics that shareholders look for in a business leader but they are, in fact, the most likely traits to hold a business back… while staff sought leaders that nurtured, supported and empowered them and were willing to delegate key tasks and share knowledge; and managers who are willing to listen to what they have to say and engage in open and honest dialogue.'

I once pinned up one of those inspirational do-dads that said something like 'Truly great leaders only employ those who are [more talented] than them'. As the owner of my company I could but agree, though felt the need to add 'so long as you’re at the top or own 51% of the company.'

I was then at the peak of my then profession, and dealt only with the same level of those with whom we engaged. On the whole, they were a pretty good bunch. Now I am at the bottom, and am again having to work, alongside colleagues, with too many petty folks who would do more for their organisations, and those they are supposed to serve, if they spent as much time actually doing their jobs as trying to jostle for status, title and short-term points.

Fortunately, there are those who make the effort we invest worthwhile. They’ll be the ones reading this blog. And I’m pretty safe, thinking about it, saying the others will not.

I can only hope their current and future leaders are smart enough to figure out which ones are which.