When organisations have their own life

“To be honest, I’m bored. I could do so much more, only petty politics, pointless bureaucracy, and tedious conversations with the Chief Executive just get in the way.” That was Adrian’s analysis of his situation after the first few minutes of our initial conversation.

We spent a bit more time reality checking some of the issues, and widened out the discussion to look at where his frustrations emanated from – in his case, it was probably a false impression created in part by him, and in part by the company, when he was recruited. We captured, in a couple of sentences, what he had expected and then where these specific expectations had come from.

There were then two avenues to explore immediately; could the situation be changed where he was and, in the longer term, what would satisfy him?

It became fairly clear that he needed to have a conversation with the CEO, to explore how he was feeling, and what the CEO’s perspective was. The question about the future could then be addressed once we knew the outcome of the discussion with the CEO.

When we looked at the source of his perceptions, the impression that the ‘company’ had created, it was intriguingly hard to pinpoint. The language used in their website, in their job description, the style of their premises, even the mode of dress of their interviewers, all added to this image although only partially and with hindsight. It was as though they had all colluded without intending to. It was, as if, the ‘company’ had its own mind.

The need for the CEO to offload and using Adrian to help him, reflected his own sense of being overwhelmed by the ‘company’. We tried to find threads within the conversations they’d had, but it was soon clear that they were almost as elusive too. Adrian drew a science fiction analogy – it was as though some alien energy had permeated the business and was controlling everything without anyone knowing what was going on!

At our second meeting, three weeks later, Adrian reported back on the CEO’s perception. It was not very surprising that the CEO was also frustrated – he wanted Adrian to take more authority in the organisation, to purge it of the bureaucracy, stop the petty squabbles among different functions (which were down to the dynamics between their respective heads of department), and to relieve the CEO of some of his burden. He had projected virtually all responsibility for eradicating this ‘alien’ force onto the ‘white knight’, Adrian.

Adrian decided to give it his best, and over the next year battled forwards. We set about developing a plan that achieved a transformation within the business. It was extremely bold – with a major relocation, the closure of a long-established and primary product line, and it’s replacement with a modern, internet based alternative. It called for far more transparency – engaging with the media and the public in a manner never before attempted. It was successful. Of the 450 employees that began this journey, Adrian managed to bring nearly 300 with him. The rest took voluntary redundancy or retired. A further 200 were recruited.

We met every fortnight throughout the first six months of this process. The analogy of the alien lasted for a while, and the transformation was even portrayed in a kind of Kubrick-style! My role, as Adrian often reflected back, was to act as an outsider – avoiding being drawn into the collusion and helping him to avoid it too. As the new enterprise rose up, so I could step back.

After 18 months, Adrian was appointed CEO when his former boss took retirement.

When a new person arrives in an organisation, like this, and immediately becomes the CEO’s personal counsellor, we soon discover that the rest of the organisation is pretty dysfunctional and needs ‘counselling’ too.

I don’t subscribe to the Companies Act definition that a company is an entity like a human being – in other words, actions that are taken in the name of a company can be treated as such in the eyes of the law. As far as I am concerned, it is an individual or a small number of individuals who have done those things and should be held accountable – though they may have done so with the best of intentions. In a sense this is in line with the relative new idea of corporate manslaughter.

However, this case study is based on the idea that an organisation can demonstrate some qualities that might otherwise be thought of as ‘human’ or, at least, as a life form! Thus it can have a shared culture that is dysfunctional. They can be depressed (you might even wonder if some company failures are a form of suicide). They can be aggressive (and not merely because the leaders are overly competitive). They can be discriminatory (not that this is an excuse). They can be highly defensive (to the point of appearing ‘above’ condemnation). And so on. I will write about all these in due course.

The abstract above illustrates typical situations that arise in the course of my work with leaders โ€“ it should go without saying that permission to quote has been given, names have been changed, and a few details tweaked to preserve confidentiality.

Best wishes

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