Straightforward ideas about HR: an interview with Peter Cook

In September 2009, we interviewed Peter Cook of the Academy of Rock and author of the book Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll. Peter has recently launched his own blog, The Rock’n'Roll Business Guru’s Blog, and suggested that we reprise the Q&A idea. We have done so, but with a twist: each of us has posed questions for the other to answer. Below, we present Peter’s answers to the questions I posed, along with responses from me. Later this month, Peter will be publishing my answers to the questions he compiled (we’ll add a link here in due course as an update).

Overtures and intros duly completed, let’s get on with the main event.

Q: Both of us have written about music as an analogy or metaphor for leadership, organisational design or culture, or teamwork. Why do you think we’ve chosen music as the metaphorical vehicle rather than any of the other arts? Theatre, film-making, even ballet might support being used as similar metaphors, but music seems to be the most powerful: are we missing some interesting lessons from other artistic forms?

Peter Cook: It’s true that different art forms present different perspectives for learning about business leadership and so on. Yet music is a good choice since it can create powerful imagery, much music has lyrical content thus it has a literary content and some music is connected with movement and dance. So, I would say that music is something of a boundary crossing art form, embracing other artforms. Yet it is true that metaphors are partial realities and focus us on certain aspects of the situation (and sometimes hide others). I think Gareth Morgan’s work on ‘Images of Organisation’ is most instructive here.

Dave Wakely: I think music is the most accessible metaphor: you don’t have to be able to sing or play an instrument to respond to it, sing along to the radio, dance round the living room, join in the terrace chants. We (nearly) all ‘get’ music, without needing to understand any of its mechanics or techniques. It’s a cliché to call it a universal language – some musics sound undeniably alien to a West European ear – but music probably touches more people than any other art form. And pop culture means we understand things like the relationships between band members too. (Nadine is jealous of Cheryl, Caleb and Nathan aren’t talking right now …).

Theatre plausibly works as well as a metaphor – there are writers, directors, set designers, actors, props managers and a whole heap of collaborating roles, as well as an audience to whom something must be conveyed. Unlike music, theatre is also less likely to be made ‘just for the hell of it’, although perhaps too many people will have pre-ordained it as ‘highbrow’ or ‘difficult’. In terms of portrayal of human lives and its attempts to convey them to us so that we can observe and respond (emotionally), theatre might be more relevant – although what theatre conveys is far more literal than music. (A play has verbal content, and dramatic structure: there’s a good chance it will use natural language.) But people don’t invent company plays, dramatic vignettes to perform before football matches, or practice being Paul Schofield in front of mirrors with tennis rackets. Or at least not many of them.

Q: Why do you think that in many ways – apart from music – so much writing and thinking about business (and especially business leadership) draws on business itself as a discipline? Economists and psychologists have made some headway in influencing the way we work and interrelate within organisations, but where are the sociologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists and god alone knows how many other disciplines, and why does the business world sometimes suggest it feels it has little to learn from them?

PC: What a great question, since it has caused me to think for a few hours for something lucid to say about this. Fundamentally, I’m not sure that I agree that business does not wish to learn from the ‘soft sciences’. Any serious marketer is interested in developments in sociology and the study of tribes – just look at Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell’s popularity. I’d be pretty sure that Google are interested in neuroscience re the design of their services and so on. The business leadership marketplace is full of parables about leadership such as ‘Who moved my cheese?’ and leadership personalities. My current book Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll offers wisdom from sociology and psychology on business relationships, motivation, leadership and high performance, so I’m not sure I see so much focus on business itself.

DW: The question was inspired by skim-reading another book that would stand being revised -John Mickelthwait and Arian Woolridge’s “The Witch Doctors”, a calm but sharp-eyed look at the history of management theory and the whole concept of the business guru – having read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. It’s possible that I’m just someone who is drawn to a multi-disciplinary approach (two heads are better than one, especially if the two heads know different things and can work together), although the story of MIT’s Building 20, for example, suggests that allowing different schools of thought to intermingle has definite advantages. I suspect, on reflection, that one downside I fear is that we praise business people for being successful and then adopt their approach as a model: I’m not sure we can use other people as blueprints, or that it’s healthy to assume their approach will work for us and will continue to work in the future. Another downside is that things are adopted where business can ‘shift them as units’: Gladwell in particular strikes me as interesting from neither a business or a sociological viewpoint. We reviewed Outliers when it was published, which struck me as a well-read man stating what could be too easily classified as ‘the bleeding obvious’ for rather more pages than it deserved. Anecdotes are fine in the place, but they’re not insights, and I didn’t feel he had so many of the latter to offer (except perhaps that the availability of opportunities and our willingness to grasp them is the real key to success, which isn’t quite in The Eureka League as insights go.)

Your answer makes me think business maybe isn’t so guilty of solipsism as I may have portrayed it, although I still fret about our collective models of leadership, which seem to be too in awe of the heroic (and interested in how heroic status is achieved) and too little interested in what the leader is attempting to achieve. Think of the number of situations in which someone will declare that ‘what we need now is strong leadership’, without giving any indication of either where or how we should be lead.

Q: How would you revamp The Apprentice, given that the BBC has – in audience-terms at least – a winning formula, but one that raises so many questions about how working life and routes to business success are portrayed?

PC: Given that there have to be go / no-go decisions in life and that The Apprentice is, after all, entertainment, I like the reality that there is ultimately a winner. That said, the adversarial style of the judges only serves to teach some young people that all business is a dog eat dog affair. It’s not my experience through many years of working on converting exploratory pharmaceutical R&D projects into reliable and profitable innovations, including the world’s first AIDS treatment. If we want our young people to think better of business and business leaders, then Lord Sugar and his accomplices need to model a more humanistic style, whilst still being intellectually tough. At the same time, the show needs to use a better balanced set of criteria for winning that do not advantage aggressive extroverts and the cult of personality. I think the BBC have realised this of late to some degree in that the winner of the last series was much more of a thoughtful innovator. Also, the pre-selection of the candidates appears to be somewhat skewed towards people who are simply interested in a media career. One only has to look at Cassette Boy’s brilliant mashup of The Bloody Apprentice:

I’d also like to see less of a focus on consumer goods in the programme and more on science, engineering and industry tasks, to show the general public that business is not all about selling pizzas and ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ gadgets.

DW: I loved the mash-up – thank you! I’ve already commented – actually, I think ranted is closer to the mark – about The Apprentice here (if anyone reading this missed the reviews, start with the final and work backwards), and would agree with all your points. Part of me thinks it’s a shame the BBC can only make such a successful show about business and work by turning it into mostly farce: is something that occupies so much of most people’s lives only palatable as a joke? That’s a sad thought for all of us. Part of me, as you seem to, just thinks it sets a shameful example: far too much is basic sales skills stuff dressed up unconvincingly as something else, while everyone plays to the cameras and the judges. The behaviours it encourages are ones most people should be counselled out of rather than manoeuvred into.

Part of me is left thinking that it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the BBC to devise a whole new version that does show business, and growing or evolving a business, intelligently, informatively and entertainingly. It’s a surprise that the BBC and Lord Sugar – neither of whom are presumably uninterested in developing the next generation of British business – haven’t tried harder to do so.

Q: In a recent post on his Aconventional blog, Nick Shackleton-Jones made the point that “The biggest single trend is that GenY+ are active participants entering a world largely structured around assumptions that they will be passive recipients.” What changes do you think we will see – and which you might hope to see, but might not – as the next generations enter the world of work?

Punk Rock People ManagementPC: HR people mouth the word ‘engagement’ at conferences more times per minute than Robert Plant used to sing the words ‘baby’ in the average Led Zeppelin song. Yet the reality of engagement has never been more important. The internet is making it possible to build and destroy a brand in weeks rather than years and anyone that runs a business needs to be sensitive to the notion of Wikibrands and to the wants, needs, whims and fantasies of Gen Y+.

I’ve set out my ideas about how people need to be managed in the Gen Y+ world in my forthcoming book ‘Punk Rock People Management – A no-nonsense guide to hiring, inspiring and firing staff’ – available FREE via http://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/Punk-Rock-HR

Some changes that I’d hope to see but might not include:

  1. A move back to a more humanistic rather than transactional society.
  2. An eventual move back towards balancing face to face relationships as much as those on social media.
  3. An appreciation of the value of delayed gratification rather than an ‘I want it all and I want it now’ culture.

DW: I’m going to answer here mostly from direct personal experience, as working in web development often means working with teams of Gen Y+. I think any talk of generational change has to acknowledge the viewpoint of the people speaking: at one level, the next generation are always disrespectful, ungrateful upstarts from the point of view the previous one. Youth is about impatience and energy and enthusiasm – and a degree of naivete. There wouldn’t be any rock’n’roll to use as an analogy if this hadn’t once been the case (although ‘rock music’ strikes me as either an ageless or ageing profession nowadays: the idea of ‘Dad rock’ would have been a lot more laughable 30 years ago).

Going back to your engagement point, I think age is a red herring: the skill lies in listening – and asking questions – closely enough to understand what engages and motivates people regardless of their demographic profile. I think that desire to have a voice in proceedings will be stronger: today’s youngest adults are both consumption-driven and participatory. My direct observations suggest that there’s hope for your second hope (a generation reared on social media doesn’t see it as new and alluring, but merely as an option), and possibly your first – possibly as a reaction to technology. The third strikes me as entirely laudable, but unlikely – especially as preceding generations have set such a poor example. Although pressure of living standards over the next years may yet make this an acquired skill for many of us.

Q: Another point that Nick makes in the same article, but that has different resonance: “GenY+ increasingly inhabit a world where organisations pay them by the day and they, in return, owe no debt of allegiance.” There’s a real opportunity for tension between factors that drive organisations to operate in this way (cost management accounting and highly competitive trading environments being just two) and the recognition that employee engagement genuinely matters, but to be ‘fully engaged’ requires incentives and a sense of reciprocity. How do you think we might see organisations attempt to square a potentially vicious circle?

PC: I don’t think it is as bleak as the picture he paints. Organisations that relate to the individuals they have under their temporary stewardship get back better performance than those that treat them like commodities. If your boss acts in accordance with the belief that s/he may only have you for as long as the company can provide engaging and rewarding work, they you are much more likely to stay. As companies become more corporate, the tendency is to dehumanise the relationship with their employees to their ultimate cost, but it does not have to be like that. This is a theme I develop in ‘Punk Rock People Management’.

DW: Not much to add, as I think you’ve hit the nail pretty much square on. I’ve worked in roles where the focus on cost – in a literal sense – has left people feeling like they have to constantly prove the business case for a job they applied for as the organisation had presumably calculated it needed to be performed. (These haven’t necessarily been large corporate enterprises: SMEs can be far worse.) I think the real question is how we encourage organisations not to dehumanise these relationships and not to reduce everything to cost management. That’s important, but it’s not the whole story, surely? (We could reduce staffing and services nationwide to a real skeleton and achieve incredible cost-efficiency if we could live with the social consequences.) There’s also the timescales angle to this: a short-term saving can be a longer term loss, but it won’t be perceived if all the measurement is against short-term yardsticks.

Q: To step away from the music, suggest half a dozen books for others to read that you think might provide fresh flavours in the ‘food for thought’ category, or fresh insights into how we live and work. (And feel free to add films or other art forms!)

PC: I’ve just read ‘Wikibrands’ and think this shines a light on some of the questions you raised about Gen Y+.

For a great insight into life, the universe and business, watch the spoof rock movie ‘This is Spinal Tap’.

How could I fail to mention my current book ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’, acclaimed by Tom Peters. The follow up ‘Punk Rock People Management’ is available free via the link http://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/Punk-Rock-HR

Looking back, I do think that Gareth Morgan’s work has great value for a complex world – see ‘Imaginization’ especially.

Musically, I must recommend anything by Bill Nelson, enigmatic musician and leader of the pop art band Be-Bop Deluxe – you can find out more at www.billnelson.com and Bill played a sell out concert as part of the ITV Legends series recently, available on Amazon.

Here’s the the master at work, performing a song he wrote for Stuart Adamson of Big Country and the Skids as a tribute at his funeral – “For Stuart (Triumph and Lament)”. Bill Nelson produced some of Stuart’s work and Adamson was a great admirer of Bill’s musicianship, which Bill incorporated as a series of ‘musical ornaments’ within the piece.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7LdJP0lE0g]

Finally, ‘The Little Big Things’ by Tom Peters is a marvellous treatment on how to succeed in a demanding world by looking after the details as well as the grand strategy.

DW: Having already taken Peter’s advice on the Bill Nelson DVD, I can vouch for his good taste! As far as book’s go, I’ve recommended Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman to people since it came out in paperback as one of the most inspiring and refreshing reads I’ve encountered in many a year. I’d heap similar praise on Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc., (hugely informative as well as refreshing), Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Matthew Syed’s Bounce (not that original, but wonderfully well argued book that uses sport to explain strategies for success, and – I think unintentionally – to teach us all about learning transfer). Douglas Coupland’s biography of Marshall McLuhan, You Know Nothing of My Work!, was fascinating, and Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to A Young Contrarian a beautifully-argued plea to encourage us to think for ourselves, and to think well.

Less applicable but hugely enjoyable was Simon Garfield’s Just My Type (a witty but very knowledgeable and approachable look at type design), while Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is strange and extraordinary, but one of the ultimate examples of being shown a familiar world from a totally unfamiliar angle (as it looked to Russians in the late 1950s, in this case).

Starting me on music would fill an entire blog, so I’ll restrict myself to three suggestions. Two are examples of someone bringing freshness to an underlying old form: Argentinian guitarist Gonzalo Bergara reinvents gypsy jazz on his Porteña Soledad CD, while Franco-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Lê does similar things to Western rock on Songs of Freedom (not the best of his CDs, but probably the easiest starting place for a newcomer). My third choice would be Pink Martini’s Splendour in the Grass: buy the deluxe edition to get the live DVD and see a band that is a very model of diversity, inclusiveness and warmth. (If you don’t do moving pictures, Hang On Little Tomato is a better CD.) I realise some people will find them the pinnacle of politically correct kitsch, but I’m going to be wholly inappropriate and refuse to apologise.

I could go on a long time on this theme, but I’ll sign off with a very outdated “rock’n’roll” imperative for people. Feed your head!

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