Tales from the Vault: Square pegs and round holes

I’ve spent my whole career trying not to get typecast and pigeonholed. I mean really, who on earth would want to be Ken Barlow? Successfully manoeuvring between streams has afforded me that ultimate luxury of variety throughout my career and life. And with variety you have more chance of staving off boredom. And by staving off boredom you have half a chance of actually enjoying what you do, and of getting on. I’ve been lucky – it’s led me to different roles in different functions in different companies and on different continents. And broadly I’ve been able to manage and juggle those roles to be effective. However that is not always the case. Getting people in the right roles is one of the most important tasks a successful leader has to achieve. Below is a brief tour through some of my favourite abject failures to do this and the resulting car crashes.

Probably the stand out example in my career was the ex HR head honcho – we shall call him the bumbling Mr Flint – who in the normal post Christmas shake up one year, was bizarrely rescued from his long overdue redundancy, and instead of being shown the door he was parachuted in to spearhead the planning and running of the brand new single most critical operation in the company. Operational credibility? Zero. Planning skills? Slightly lower. Even people skills were sadly lacking in a very real world where white boards and boardroom fluff were not the normal tools of the trade. This guy struggled with a capital Str. Everyone could see it. Everyone that is except him. I saw it very clearly as I was one of the poor saps in his lead team. We knew early on we were in trouble. He was personally spearheading pretty much every stream of work – despite, rather than by working with, the many experts he had in his team.

Most vividly I remember one particular “visioning” session, a few months from go live. We were shown a picture on the obligatory whiteboard. On the right was a paradise island, depicting the utopian operation we were all joyously heading for. On the left was normal land. A boat was on the water between the two. Mr Flint described his position. He was planted firmly on the bough of the boat, fist clenched and in the air, pointing the way to our new haven. We were asked to describe our position. We had a couple of rowers, someone on the beach preparing for our arrival, and my best mucker described himself as in the water by the boat grappling with the sharks. My turn, and not for the first time I decided to play the honesty card. If we are doing this seriously, I declared, then given where we are heading, I’m back on the normal land, in that small two up two down house by the quay, upstairs in a cupboard. And I’m not coming out.
Obviously in an ideal world this outburst would have brought the team to its senses and the leader would have reconsidered – or more likely got rid of me from the team. Sadly he did neither. We bumbled on and opened a confused, ill thought through operation that made little sense, and had a culture of part bedlam part poison. The site is closed now, due to poor productivity, and last I heard Mr Flint is selling gites in France. Not many of them I’m willing to bet.

Mr Flint was not a one off. There were others. The 20 plus year shopkeeper guy thrown in to run a huge warehouse. Messy, especially when shouting at people had a more violent counter reaction. The worst planner and forecaster in the world who randomly landed a sexy role globe trotting and buying whatever took his eye. Unsurprisingly they seemed to only catch his eye rather than that of our customers. Then there was the guy who loved buying the sexy stuff who suddenly found himself running the cafes. Strangely that didn’t work out either, although the salt and pepper pots were far nicer.

The Korean approach to career versatility was an interesting one. In effect their ethos was that anyone can do anything – as long as the sit in the right place in the hierarchy. Hence Sally, my erstwhile boss and adversary, being appointed as my boss with his extensive relevant background as head of the South Korean Presidential Guard. And of course being Korea, all of these appointments were made and recycled at a breakneck pace. In fact that was probably the key, they turned around in their roles so quickly that it was difficult for them to do too much ego driven damage. And to be fair, some of them worked out really well, proving that done well this versatility works.

At the final call, like everything in business, and indeed in life, it all comes down to people. The right “type” of person will be able to seamlessly traverse fundamentally different roles, as they will be the type of person who recognises that they do not – and do not need to – know everything about everything to prove how wonderful they are. They will also be the type that recognises that what is actually important is the people. Yes, you need to have and deploy different ways of winning and then working your people, but this is always where the right type of leader will be focussed. And as the future dawns, and the robotic futurists drone on about drones and robots taking over, which they will in time, yet it will still be skills with people that will continue to matter most.

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