Alan Chambers tells the management lecture circuit how he led the first British unsupported walk to the geographical north pole from Canada. One of his lectures is called “Achieving the Unachievable: successful organisations overcome their challenges”. “What were the key factors that enabled us to achieve this goal and how can they be used in business?” he asks. “I researched our goal thoroughly. I identified who else had attempted it and why they failed or succeeded, what they wish they had done differently, what equipment they used and anything else that I could think of.” Very sensible, no doubt, but do you have to walk through ice for ten weeks, lose 45lb and almost freeze to death in order to learn it?
If you tune into the management lecture circuit, you’ll start believing that running a business is like walking over 100 miles of ice, or climbing to the top of a mountain, or swimming across the Atlantic, or going 15 rounds with Lennox Lewis. If you follow business books read by upwardly mobile business graduates, then about now you’ll be rushing out to buy the latest: Leadership, the Sven-Goran Eriksson Way by Julian Birkinshaw and Stuart Crainer.
I suspect few business leaders take this stuff seriously. But one man who does is the Prime Minister. On a visit to the Royal National Theatre a year or two back, Tony Blair was introduced to an actor who is the son of the management guru Charles Handy. Expecting a compliment on his performance, the young man was disappointed to be told: “I’ve read every one of your father’s books.”
This is bad news. Professor Handy is a kindly and brainy chap, but he is very much in the wealthiness-is-next-to-godliness school. In his latest book, The Elephant and the Flea, Handy pours scorn on the idea of having a safe job, and urges us all to become business entrepreneurs. He holds up John Birt as a shining example. For the first six months of Birt’s time as director-general, Handy points out, Birt was not employed directly by the BBC; instead, the BBC had a contract with Birt’s private company. Handy thinks this was visionary. Most people thought it was just greedy.
Perhaps it was Birt that Blair had in mind when in February this year he told Forbes magazine: “It’s about creating the right enterprise culture in Britain, which we still haven’t driven all the way down in our country, by any means at all. I want to see far more emphasis on entrepreneurship in schools, far closer links between universities and business, I want to see us develop a far greater entrepreneurial culture. We have only just gone beneath the surface of this so far.”
In practice, this means that dozens of schools are being blackmailed into becoming business and enterprise specialist colleges, knowing that it is the only way to unlock some desperately needed government cash. Universities are being forced to rely on business for much of their funding, which means that business moguls can dictate what research they do and what they teach. It means that everything that can be handed over to business to run is being handed over.
This is happening because we have a Labour prime minister who believes all the self-deluding rubbish that top business moguls say about themselves, and business professors say about them.
It does no great harm for business people to delude themselves. Let them take their students, and business executives, on their outward bound courses to learn “leadership” and “teamwork”. Let Manchester Business School teach its MBA students about horse whispering because it “involves communication and leadership concepts that can be learnt and applied to successful management of people”. Let Cranfield School of Management retain a football coach to teach MBA students about teamworking.
But we need a prime minister who understands that most of them are pampered corporate time-servers, with one eye on the clock and the other on their pensions and stock options.
So perhaps I can recommend to Blair a business book that will give him a more realistic handle on the business world than he will get from Handy. It’s called The Business School Survival Guide (Random House, 2002) and there’s a helpful chapter on how to behave when you get out into the corporate world.
When travelling anywhere with the boss, it says, “the wise associate will pack his pocket full of singles. He will be paying the cab driver, tipping the bellhop, and picking up Cokes from the soda machine.” Before travelling, take the boss’s assistant to one side and discreetly find out what the boss likes to drink, eat and do. When the boss calls you at home on a Saturday, “speak as if you were sitting at your desk. Do not mention that you’re taking something out of the oven or that the delivery guy is at the door”.
Behave like a worm. It’s a far cry from walking to the North Pole and fighting for survival against terrible odds, but it’s a lot more like the real world of business.