From The TimesDecember 20, 2007

Forget Gordon and Fabio - just follow the brigadier Sandra Parsons

I don’t suppose it’s come as much of a surprise to anyone that an inquiry into the performance of the Treasury has concluded that, in his last years there, Gordon Brown “led from the top in splendid isolation”, as The Times put it crisply earlier this week.

The reviews, conducted by civil servants, public sector chiefs and external advisers, said that the Treasury failed to encourage teamwork, motivate staff or communicate with other departments, and suffered from poor leadership, a failure to inspire and a lack of humility.

It’s a damning list. Those in the know say that Brown is an autocratic manager who abhors criticism and is loath to accept another point of view, but in this he is not alone. Indeed, it seems that most people are pretty bad at management. Out of 1,500 managers who responded to a survey by the Chartered Management Institute recently, the vast majority said they experienced management as either bureaucratic, reactive or authoritarian, with only a minority experiencing it as innovative or trusting.

One of the hardest requirements of good management is good communication. Many of us struggle to criticise someone to their face in a manner that is constructive rather than rude, but it is always reassuring to learn that even the grandest and cleverest are rubbish at it, too.

There’s been an entertaining spat this week between the Government and the Bank of England. Basically the Governor of the Bank of England thinks that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have lost their nerve because of the credit crunch and Northern Rock. Instead of asking them over for a cup of tea and a friendly chat (“The whole thing’s a complete dog’s dinner but don’t you think we’d better introduce a few reforms to stop the rot now?”), Mervyn King has instead passed on his opinion via “senior City sources” to a newspaper.

So while communication may not be Gordon Brown’s strong suit I think we can say it’s not Mervyn King’s, either. We learnt at the weekend that Baroness Shephard of Northwold, a former Tory Cabinet Minister, told King two years ago that she was deeply concerned about Northern Rock and couldn’t understand how it was able to offer such cheap loans. King’s response, apparently, was to tell her that she didn’t understand banking and that there was nothing to worry about.

Lady Shephard, who had been so concerned that she had pursued King after a meeting he had attended at the House of Lords, retorted that as a director of a building society herself she still wanted to know where Northern Rock’s money was coming from.

What we have here is a classic case of command-control management, complicated further by the obvious but pertinent fact that King is a man and Lady Shephard, a woman. Women are often cited in surveys as being better managers than men. This is because they tend to be consensual, open to hearing others’ opinions, and good communicators. They can often deliver criticism more palatably and are generally more emotionally intelligent. (Not always. Some of them can be more aggressive, arrogant and insecure than any man.)

But, faced with a patronising putdown, most women will, like Lady Shephard, fight only so much before giving up. They perceive that they are never going to be taken seriously, and so they move on. A man in a similar situation gives up only for the moment, returning to make his point another day. He perceives the setback merely as a temporary mistake by his superior.

Whatever the reason, this sort of “command-control” management is, according to the Chartered Management Institute, on the rise – and this is bad for business, because it results in a cynical, disillusioned workforce which is unwilling to innovate.

With this in mind I have been fascinated to read of new England head coach Fabio Capello’s much-vaunted “authoritarian” management style. His dictatorial technique comes as no surprise when you learn about his upbringing. Capello’s mother told last week of how her husband, now dead, would take their young son and throw him into the sea from the top of high rocks: “I used to turn away. I couldn’t bear to watch. Fabio wasn’t even 10 years old,” she said, her horror still eloquent more than 50 years on. Meanwhile, the former Mayor of their home town recalled of Capello senior: “He was determined Fabio learn. It was: ‘You must, you must, you must.’ ” It will be interesting to see how our footballers react. Personally I prefer the example set by the Army, which at first glance appears to be the ultimate in top-down, command-control management nightmares.

And yet . . . It is not for nothing, one feels, that army officers are taught not only how to obey but how to lead and how to inspire. The best officers know that some rules are made to be broken, that soldiers will go the extra mile for you only if you have earned their respect, and that, while it’s possible you will win a battle through force alone, you will never win the war unless you have also won hearts and minds.

And so, in a week rife with examples of questionable management in the worlds of finance, politics and sport, let us turn for inspiration to the British Army and Brigadier Andrew Mackay, who, it was revealed on Monday, personally took part in the recapture of a Taleban-controlled town in Afghanistan.

Instead of issuing orders from his office miles from the front line, he flew by helicopter and then walked almost a mile across no man’s land to reach the town of Musa Qala. He then spent ten days directing operations from a hole in the ground 700 yards from the fighting. His bed was a rollout mat. The night before the attack began, he addressed his men, to the effect that the best people were those who were good at plan B, as plan A “never survives in the Army”. On this occasion however plan A (involving a pincer movement and a feint) did survive, as indeed did the brigadier and his men.

A question for Gordon, Mervyn, and the FA: what is your plan B? And a proposition for Brigadier Mackay: once you’ve finished with Afghanistan, how about coming back to sort a few things out here?

Christmas cheer

People are lamenting what they take to be newfangled Christmas behaviour, such as that a majority of Britons now tend to start Christmas day with a glass of champagne, have a starter of smoked salmon and mop up some of the alcohol mid-morning with a slice of stollen or panettone.

But what amazes me is how little our Christmas traditions have changed. We still have Christmas trees with fairy lights, we still fill stockings, and most of us will sit down to roast turkey with all the trimmings, having first pulled a cracker, donned a paper hat and read out a silly joke. That we are adding to this with champagne, fine wine, and the best Christmas delicacies is testament to the fact that nowadays we’re almost all middle class. Just as we now expect good coffee and good wine anywhere in Britain, so too are we embracing the good life in our own homes. And for that we should be very, very thankful.

I may be – are you?

Talking of being middle class, how sad to read that Diana, Princess of Wales, wanted to marry Hasnat Khan, her surgeon lover, and lead “a middle-class life”. As her friend Lucia Flecha de Lima, to whom she had confided this wish, had to explain to her, this was a forlorn hope as she was not a “middle-class princess”. This is not to say though that middle-class princesses do not exist. Natasha Kaplinsky and Fiona Phillips come to mind. I may even be one myself. Any more suggestions?

A fairytale wish

Re Fairytale of New York by the Pogues. Thank God the BBC censored the words “faggot” and “slut”, only to rescind their decision: all part of a cunning plan, I hope, to ensure that it gets to No 1 and that for once, a really, truly, fabulous song dominates the airwaves this Christmas.
Skynet said:
Re Fairytale of New York by the Pogues. Thank God the BBC censored the words “faggot” and “slut”, only to rescind their decision: all part of a cunning plan, I hope, to ensure that it gets to No 1 and that for once, a really, truly, fabulous song dominates the airwaves this Christmas.
Quality rant, Sky. My major concern is that all the fuss was about the potential for offending faggots - wot about us sluts, I ask you?

As for Kirstie - a sad loss. Tropical Brainstorm was her best to date and offered so much to come.
Couldn't agree more. One of the things that has long pissed me off about civvy street is the disease of ‘Managementitis’ that’s infected the public and private sectors – this idea that if you have qualifications in management you’re automatically the best person to make decisions on anything regardless of how little you actually know about the subject.

If you discuss this with one of the New Princes, they’ll tell you that it’s because they’re trained in sound decision-making practices, effective control measures and gathering of management information. If you then ask why they don’t then make way for Armed Forces personnel who’re trained in exactly the same thing from a far earlier stage, who exercise it under far more arduous conditions and for whom the consequences of making a mistake are far greater, they’ll like as not just look at you with pity and shake their heads in a ‘he just doesn’t get it’ kind of way.

But they can’t come up with an argument that doesn’t betray their own blind arrogance and complacency. A ‘Financial Manager’ can dance merrily from manufacturing to retail to financial services purely on the basis of good financial management credentials, without anyone stopping to ask if this is an appropriate type of experience for the level of authority being handed him. Someone who’s grown up with the business might know that a current downturn is temporary and will even out shortly: a ‘Financial Manager’, not knowing the trade, will most likely follow his accountant’s instincts and move to slash costs even at the long-term expense of capacity.

But hey! The inevitable grinding to a halt, that’s someone else’s problem ‘coz in two years or so he’ll have the tick on his CV he needs to move on to bigger and better things – doubtless on the back of his reputation for ‘tough decision-making’.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I don’t particularly approve of the management culture in the UK.
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